Out of Darkness, Petina Gappah's New Book Shines to The NAACP Image Awards
In her latest literary offering, Petina Gappah reimagines the death of Scottish explorer David Livingstone, focusing on his African servants, the names history forgot.
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Out of Darkness, Petina Gappah’s New Book Shines to The NAACP Image Awards

In her latest literary offering, Petina Gappah reimagines the death of Scottish explorer David Livingstone, focusing on his African servants, the names history forgot.

Zimbabwe’s national treasure, author and lawyer Petina Gappah‘s latest and second novel “Out of Darkness Shining Light” literally shone its way to one of the biggest Hollywood awards, the NAACP Image Awards, earning the quadragenarian writer a nom in the most coveted category of Outstanding Literary Work (Fiction).

Now, if your Majesty blackness (or a$$ rather?) is late to the woke party, the NAACP Image Awards are an annual awards ceremony presented by the U.S.-based National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) to celebrate black excellence by honouring outstanding artistic and creative achievements by people of colour in the fields of film, television, music and literature. Similar to other prestigious awards, such as the Oscars and the Grammys, the over 40 categories of the Image Awards are voted on by the award organisation’s members.

In laymen’s words, the NAACP members put a litmus test to see how radically and culturally black your work is, at least to the work that fell in their radar of course.

Speaking on the 51st NAACP Image Awards edition, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said that all the 2019 nominated works “conveyed a wide range of authentic stories and experiences that have resonated with many,” and it’s less of wonder to see Petina making the list.

Her nominated novel, Out of Darkness Shining Light, recounts the death of explorer David Livingstone after his failed attempt to find the source of the Nile. Set in Africa in 1873, it imagines the journey taken by Livingstone’s faithful sixty-nine servants as they carry his corpse across Africa for nine months. The funeral caravan seeks the port of Zanzibar so his remains can be returned to Britain for burial, but their journey is fraught with incident and betrayal, peril and death.

This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land,

so begins the novel as narrated by Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook and Jacob Wainwright, a rigidly pious freed slave.

Describing the book, the publisher said that it “is a novel about slavery, loyalty, organised religion, and superstitious belief, set just before the Europeans brutally carved up the continent. More than a century later, their story feels romantic, improbable, and ultimately misguided; it has the epic power of myth, yet feels utterly contemporary,”.

American-Ghanaian novelist and author of Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, lauded Out of Darkness Shining Light, as an incredible and important book by a masterful writer, adding that it is an “engrossing, beautiful, and deeply imaginative… novel that lends voice to those who appeared only as footnotes in history, yet whose final, brave act of loyalty and respect changed the course of it.” ​

“… it is those in the shadows of history – those who saved a white man’s bones; his dark companions; his faithful retinue on an epic funeral march – whose voices are resurrected with searing intensity,” wrote Allen and Unwin Publishers of Petina’s radical novel.

As “blacker” and radical as it screams, Out of Darkness Shining Light is nominated along with several other avant-gardes and heavyweight fictional books that “has profound meaning and unparalleled power to shape perceptions, influence culture, and galvanize communities,” as Derrick Johnson puts it across. Vying for the same award is Margaret Busby with “New Daughters of Africa”, Ta-Nehisi Coates with “The Water Dancer”, Margaret Sexton‘s “The Revisioners” and Jacqueline Woodson with “Red at the Bone”.

Writing on the microblogging site, Twitter, the multi-awarding Gappah, who in December last year told Trevor Ncube on the In Conversation With Trevor show that awards didn’t mean much to her, said that she was “bowled over” to have her book getting an NAACP Image Award nod.

Yeah, nice Moonwalk, Petina! I mean, what did you expect from a speed-reading bibliophile who almost got run over by a car at a young age for reading while walking, a habit she lived to regret because that got her banned from the Queen Victoria Library? Mind you, that still didn’t cockblock her nymph for reading because she could go into a secondhand bookshop run by an old white lady at Mabelreign Shops and sneak-read all her favourites in a couple of minutes. True book nerd, right!

A mother of one, Kushinga, Petina holds law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe. Her works have been published and translated in several languages and to her, that is the biggest accolade she ever received, although her debut story collection — An Elegy for Easterly — won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award and her first novel, The Book of Memory, was longlisted for the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

BTW, Petina is so pissed with the exorbitant price that folks at a Harare-based bookshop, Innov8, are selling Out of Darkness Shining Light at, that she called out the shop for overpricing her book and urged her readers not to waste their money on these uneconomical books in a series of tweets. She said there was no justification for pricing the NAACP Image Award-nominated book at USD$50, because “books are not luxury products and should not be priced as such”.

She lashed out in such a way that if she’d a face to face encounter with the folks, believe you me she’d like to hit them so hard that her fist will phase through their faces and come out the other side without them feeling a thing, and then they’ll go about their normal lives and one day die of cancer for unrelated reasons. You think this is petty!?

Get it how you want but Petina isn’t asking for a plate of gold in an unyielding desert. She just wants her work to be read in her country so much that in 2016, she inked a deal with Faber & Faber to make her books available in Zimbabwe at half the typical price. As Brittle Paper noted, it was an extension of artistic responsibility and commitment.

“…Gappah herself thought of it as an experiment that might hopefully become the springboard for a sustainable book distribution model,” wrote the online literary magazine.

But smart Petina got a plan though. She said readers must boycott that Harare shop and wait until February when the UK edition will be published as she will make arrangements with Faber & Faber to personally sell the book in her home country for no more than the ZWL equivalent of USD$20.

I wonder what the future would look like for those that are ripping off readers with her work. After all, as one good friend of mine noted, overpricing books stifle the author’s growth and what use is a creative talent that is not being read and critiqued?

The NAACP Image Awards will air live on BET Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, and for the complete list of nominees, head to naacpimageawards.net.

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Chris is a writer, storyteller, essayist, digital strategist, blogger and New Media Enthusiast who loves to captivate raw, authentic sights, moments, feelings and conversations. Follow him on Twitter @mcafrikazim

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