Petina Gappah: 'Last book to make me laugh? The cheese chapter in Three Men in a Boat'

Petina Gappah
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The book I am currently reading
Belonging, the second part of Simon Schama’s magisterial series The Story of the Jews.

The books that changed my life
Peter Schaffer’s plays Equus and Amadeus. Reading them as scripts inspired me to become a playwright.

The books I wish I’d written
A better version of every book I’ve written. I also wish I had written the magnificent battle scene in Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, some of Teju Cole and Zadie Smith’s essays and the Dunkirk scenes in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind. This is the book that helped me reconcile my relationship with my mother tongue and understand my condition as a product of a colonial education. I read it at least once a year.

The books that are most underrated
I worry that the circumstances of the last few months mean that some wonderful books will get swallowed into oblivion. Trapped by the Zimbabwean novelist Valerie Tagwira who is also a medical doctor in Harare is a powerful, illuminating portrayal of lives unravelling against the collapse of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system. Charlotte by Helen Moffett is a lyrical meditation on grief, and has the added pleasure of being set in the Pride and Prejudice universe. I would also recommend Elaine Chiew’s The Heartsick Diaspora, a short story collection set among Singaporeans and Malaysian Chinese, and infused with humour and a penetrating intelligence.

The book that changed my mind
It’s from my other world, that of international trade law. It’s by Professor John Jackson, and is called The World Trading System: Law and Policy of International Economic Relations. Until I read it, I had unexamined Marxist-Leninist prejudices against global capital, and believed the rules were too rigged against developing countries to change. Jackson helped me to understand that the smaller countries need strong trade rules more than the powerful nations do.

The last book that made me cry
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It didn’t help that I read it in my own year of grief, which reverberated endlessly in this year of universal grief, so it was both a solace and what in Shona we call kudzimbirwa, or a rewounding.

The last book that made me laugh
Earlier in the year I came across Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat in a charity shop in Harare. I flipped through to the cheese chapter and it made me laugh loudly enough to have people ask me what on earth I was reading.

The book I couldn’t finish
I love to read books where they are set, so it was only natural to take Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick on a sea voyage aboard a container ship across the Atlantic last year. I got through the endless whaling glossary fine enough, but when I got to the aboriginal Queequeg, I lost the will to go on. I will try it again, but life may just be too short for Moby-Dick.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
I thought it would be Out of Darkness, Shining Light, but I think it will be the Rhodesia epic novel I have been obsessing over.

My earliest reading memory
I had no books until I went to school. So my earliest memory is of a Tsuro naGudo (Hare and Baboon) Shona folktale book that I won for coming second out of the Grade 1 classes at my township school in Rhodesia at the age of seven. I read it once before it was snatched from me, and I was beaten up by other children for having won it.

My comfort read
Poetry, most recently Collective Amnesia, the searing collection by South African poet Koleka Putuma. I have a friend to whom I am introducing poetry, so every day or so, I send him a new poem.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah is published by Faber (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.