‘The President Always Dies in January’ by Petina Gappah

Fortune Mpande is a political refugee living and unable to return home as it would disqualify his status. He works at a care home in Luton in the UK, where he is much appreciated by his colleagues and the patients. In his free time, his “attention moves between four screens: an iPad, a 40-inch Philips TV screen playing a football match, a Sony Vimeo laptop and Samsung Galaxy phone”. His favourite hobby, though, is to troll online forums, where he has several alter egos, who have very little in common apart from their shared hate for the Zimbabwean president. One of them has in fact become so famous that he has created a blog for her in which “she” describes her sexual exploits. So, when the president makes “caustic comments about how all people who had fled Zimbabwe were nothing but British Bottom Cleaners”, Fortune uses his forum aliases to start off an online rumour that the president has died, a rumour that rapidly gains international attention. 

This collection’s format makes it difficult to pick just one story and discuss it separately from the others that surround it. After the success of her unlinked debut collection, An Elegy for Easterly (2010), Petina Gappah returned to the short story form in 2016 with Rotten Row, a collection of interlinked stories with recurring characters, in which all the stories relate to the criminal courts found in Rotten Row, a road in Harare that was given its name by the Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. The name of the street is a homage to an avenue in London called Rotten Row, itself a corruption of “Route du Roi” (King’s road), and established to provide access to Kensington Palace. Drawing on her own background in law, the stories are concerned with justice and law, and some, like ‘In the Matter Between Goto and Goto’ and ‘In Sad Cypress’ are written in legal forms. The polyphony of voices and stories makes for a bustling collection, and some stories such as ‘The President Always Dies in January’ are both bittersweet and very funny.  

First published in Rotten Row, Faber & Faber Limited, 2016

‘The News of Her Death’ by Petina Gappah

Before she leaves Harare to return home to north London, Pepukai visits a hairdressing salon – one that makes her normal place in Finsbury Park look like “the Aveda in Covent Garden”. Her hairdresser, she is told, is late; but it quickly emerges that “late” here means dead. She has been shot the previous evening, and what follows is a multi-voiced, roiling narrative, with speakers continually popping in to join in the drama and share information about Kindness’s death. For Pepukai – already laughed at by the staff for the old-fashioned “Shabba Ranks” braids she’s asked for – it’s an education in the realities, hierarchies and gossip of Zimbabwean inner-city life whose impact we can only wonder at as she boards the flight back to Britain.

(Collected in Rotten Row, from Faber. Shortlisted for the 2016 Sunday Times Short Story Award, where you can read it online)