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John Eppel

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Three New Poems

April in Bulawayo

April is the coolest month breeding tooth-

picks out of the drying soil.  Pearly love

grass works a treat.  Odour of khaki weed

mingles, in the early chilly mornings,

with lantana, wood smoke, and smouldering

batteries.  The fruit of Lobengula’s

indaba tree is about to ripen.

 

Yellow flowers now give way to the red:

aloe arborescence, poinsettia,

the potted bougainvillea that Joe

tried to bonsai.  Nights are getting nippy,

time for an extra blanket, and bed socks,

but – O – the lightly toasted afternoons –

listen to that boubou shrike – are perfect.

 

 

 

Potato Bush

Boiled potatoes in their jackets is what

I think I smell.  Mom is in the kitchen,

cowboy book with a cracked spine in one hand,

testing fork in the other; cigarette –

Springbok – between her lips.  ‘What’s for supper,

Mom?’  ‘S and S,’ she says, narrowing her

eyes to avoid the smoke.  S and S – a

code we children could not crack, though we sensed

it meant ‘whatever’.

 

But I am wandering down a river bed

dry as wrinkles, a month before the rains;

a bed of carapaces and driftwood,

a long season from my mother’s kitchen;

and it’s evening, and I know it now:

aartappelbos.  It came to me once at

Punda Maria, once at Colleen Bawn,

once at West Nicholson.  And I linger,

briefly overcome.

 

 

 

September

Nature is an impressionist in my

part of town, especially now when light

choked with dust and pollen and garbage smoke

permeates cry after cry of lost bush

birds. Vesper bats stroke the palpitating

moon about to run is yolk, while crickets,

rain frogs, tune up for the Bulawayo

proms. It’s all sepia, tobacco, burnt

orange, sienna… restless is the word,

September restlessness; New Year babies

pushed from Virgo’s knock-kneed thighs.  Starry thighs

purpler than priests, than stains of inky wine.

Starry, starry impressionistic night –

take me to your bosom and hold me tight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fragments

Fragments

[a sestina]

Possum swopped muses for Moses, Pound said,

whiles he forsook them for the living dead:

‘active’ men like Ullysses, men who led

their people out of the suburbs, who bled,

questing – for what? – the great bass beyond bed-

time stories from Uncle Remus?  Ahead,

 

he cries, ahead!  Brer Rabbit had a head

for sculptors; an inclination, it’s said,

by you and collaborators, to bed,

like prophets and dictators, the undead

women enthralled by il poeta ; bled

hearts for him.  Meanwhile Mussolini led

 

Pound from delight to ‘wisdom’, disabled

the lyricist, the trickster; plunged him head-

long into the trough of jewsury, bled

all compassion from his veins.  Cocteau said,

a rower on the river of the dead

is he.  Yes indeedy, It ain’t no bed

 

of roses living with old Ezra the bed-

wetter (ask Olga); the fascist who led

his inmates astray, led them to the dead-

end of the Cantos, from the fountainhead

of petals on a wet … best left unsaid.

Hitler, economics, disenabled

 

Il miglior fabbro  Possum’s fabled

words are tactful rather than true.  No bed,

no belt, in the Pisan cage where they said

you would be shot or hanged.  You were misled,

turning the pentameter on it head.

Long live the poet; the poet is dead.

 

At San Michele, island of the dead

where words and song and dance, not bodies, bled

the blood of exiles, you will find a  head-

stone marking the American’s last bed,

with his ultimate lover who had led

him to silence  ten years before, you said.

 

Yes, that’s what you said; it’s still in my head –

Beatrice beds in the land of the dead,

where fragments are led, where poems are bled.

 

Efifi

EFIFI*

We have the world to ourselves,

waiting for the moment

when the setting sun meets the rising moon.

Their size is equal;

their radiance is equal.

The light of consciousness merges

with the darkness of instinct.

 

We sip our wine on the threshold

of time and eternity.

We are neither male nor female:

we are perfection.

Like salt dolls, in the words of Ramakrishna,

like salt dolls walking into the ocean,

we lose ourselves together with the world.

 

*a large granite dome in the Matobo hills

Kiewietjies

Kiewietjies

Our totem, our familiar, was the crowned

plover that populated the playing

fields of Milton.  They made a screeching cry

of alarm when we almost crushed their eggs

or worse, their chicks, in vulnerable nests:

slight scrapes in the ground.  In wintry July,

attired incongruously in blazers

and slops, carrying our two shillings worth,

once a week, Thursdays, of tuck shop goodies:

two tickey cools flavoured orange and green,

six pink marshmallow fish, six ‘apricots’,

and a peppermint crisp; rekkens round our

necks to pot at pied crows, and a rolled up

exercise book for playing open gates

or touch rugby:  we made our way to Top

Field where the flocks were largest, chikkering

away, foraging  –  run, stop, run, stop, run -

for termites or, after guti, earthworms.

 

What drove me to it I shall never know,

but I broke its leg with the catapult,

swivelling my aim from a raucous crow…

the First Team rugby posts began to tilt,

the lapwings faded into their own din.

We chased the wounded bird and brought it down.

My friends said I had yielded to a sin -

they touched its leg and stroked its candid crown;

tied it, feebly quarrelling, to  my chest.

I have to keep it there until it dies.

My adolescent heart became its nest.

It’s with me still.  Kiewiet, kiewiet, it cries.

 

 

The Stone Painter

The Stone Painter

His name is Farlow, and he paints the stones, dressed and raw, and the bricks, full and half, in the grounds of the police headquarters at the Drill Hall.  His uniform is a khaki shirt, khaki shorts, car tyre sandals, and a red, tasselled fez.  Farlow is a Muslim of Malawian extract.  He began work at the Drill Hall some time in the 1950s.  He was, by turns, tea boy, errand boy, and garden boy.  It was part of the last mentioned job to whitewash the bricks and the stones, some random, some encircling trees, some delineating roads and pathways and herbaceous borders, some marking out jealously guarded parking space for the more senior police officers.

His first employers were the British South Africa Police who kept law and order for a Chartered Company called Rhodesia.  His present employers are the Zimbabwe Republic Police who keep law and order for a Limited Company called ZANU PF.  His first employers gave him a black 28 inch bicycle.  For greater comfort, he inserted a tennis ball under the saddle.  The bicycle was commandeered by his present employers during Operation Murambatsvina when they were desperately short of transport to pursue prostitutes and street vendors.  Now he walks everywhere.

During the Chartered Company years he kept his eyes lowered in the course of duty and pretended not to notice the way constables barely out of their teens would insult suspected law breakers old enough to be their mothers and fathers.  He pretended not to hear the cries, the groans, the pleas for mercy.  How did that song go?  Those boys from the Support Unit used to sing it over their mugs of Tanganda tea, disregarding him on the floor among their boots, polishing, brush in one hand, cloth in the other, Cobra wax, in ever diminishing circles.  That smell; and that tune fixing itself in his memory like an ear-worm.  Those offensive words:

I came to a river

and couldn’t get across,

so I climbed on a nigger

‘cos I thought he was a hoss -

kooma-rai-ai-ai-yai-yai,

kooma-rai-kooma-rookie-kooma-kai.

In those days everything at the Drill Hall worked, from the petrol lawn mower to the electric kettle.  There were no smashed light fittings, no leaking taps, no cracked toilet bowls.  The ceilings hadn’t fallen through, the window panes weren’t plugged with newspaper, the fixed benches hadn’t been ripped out of the walls.  Above all, the Olivetti typewriters clacked away, with newly inked ribbons, and an endless supply of foolscap.  There were paper clips everywhere, and drawing pins, and rubber bands, and manila envelopes.  There were steel filing cabinets, brass hooks on the doors for the policemen to hang their caps, government-issue hand towels.  Farlow kept the rooms spotless, and he had unlimited access to soaps, polishes, and detergents to keep them that way.   And in the yard he dared the weeds to grow, manicured the lawn, pruned the shrubs, dead-headed the flowers, and painted the stones.

Now, in the Limited Company years, he no longer keeps his eyes down, and he no longer pretends not to listen to the cries, the groans, the pleas for mercy.  It passes the time, since there is nothing much to do.  Once the daily Chronicle has been read, re-read, and pored over by the entire unit (who have stopped typing reports on the one remaining typewriter, which is without ink for its ribbon and without paper for its battered keys), he uses it to plug holes.  In the rainy season he catches rainwater leaks with the three last remaining utensils: an Olivine oil tin, a two litre plastic Lions Dairy Maid ice cream container, and a Chibuku scud.  Mostly, however, and whitewash still seems to be available, he paints the stones; and while he paints, that tune comes back to him, and you can hear the cracked old voice going: “Kooma-rai-ai-ai-yai-yai…kooma-rai-kooma-rookie-kooma-kai,”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very short story.

THE REACTIONARY

 

He was not sorry when his wife left him (not at first).  Wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said that if you marry, you will regret it?  Yes, but he also said, if you don’t marry, you will regret it.  How’s that for an existential dilemma?  You have to resolve it, said his friend and colleague, Sipho Ncube, by taking risks.  All very well for Sipho – he’s got the looks, and the charm.  The women on our staff say that he is dangerous!

‘Sorry, Anele… you were saying?

‘No, I’m a bit confused, Sir.  How can she talk of Lucia’s “escape” when Lucia behaves like a whore?’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘I mean, how can prostitution be an escape?’

‘Listen, we’ve talked about the double bind of black women in Zimbabwe during colonial times.  Tanaka?’

‘They were oppressed not only by colonialism but by their own patriarchal cultures.’

‘Go on.’

‘Well, the system of roora or lobola ensures that the wife becomes and remains the property of the husband and the husband’s family.  She has no rights.’

‘Thank you.  One way, Anele, for a woman to escape this bind is not to marry.  Patriarchal societies, however, attach stigmas to unmarried women.  They are accused of being prostitutes, or worse, of being witches.’

‘But she sleeps around.’

‘Does that make her a whore?  Because she does what men boast about doing, why should she be stigmatised?  By choosing her partners she maintains control of her body, and this is one way she manages to escape entrapment.’

For a while they tried what is termed an ‘open’ marriage.  Nothing opened for him but she was soon spending nights and then weekends away from their cosy two-bedroom house in Malindela.  ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she had offered.

‘Spare me the details.’  He had some idea who the man was.  Not a local; a geologist with a Canadian firm whose own family lived somewhere in the Northern Cape: mole rat country.   It wasn’t too bad at first, probably because he expected, any moment, a similar situation, with a woman of his fantasies.  The longer that didn’t happen, the more his fantasies became poisoned with what his wife and her lover were doing to each other, while he lay in their nuptial bed with the cat on his chest and the crickets chirping outside the window. He imagined the geologist fingering her down there, gently circling her clitoris with his thumb before going down on her with a lapping tongue until she was sodden. Then she would open her legs wide for him to mount her… the slowly accelerating rhythmic thrusts perfectly in tune with her needs, as her breathing quickened into pants, gasps, moans, cries… and then the shuddering simultaneous orgasm.  He imagined her, after some moments of post coital bliss, making her way to the bathroom, his sperm trickling down the insides of her thighs, to rinse away possibilities of bladder infection, and pregnancy.

He was being consumed by jealousy, and there was nothing he could do about it. It seemed beyond reason, a hard-wired emotion unsusceptible to intellectual mitigation.  Only time – a long period of time – would resolve it into a feeling of something more resigned than the green-eyed monster – sadness, perhaps, ‘the still, sad music of humanity’.  Is that what Wordsworth meant, walking the beaches of Calais with his first love?

‘Sir.’

‘Yes, Ndaba.’

‘So is that what the title means, like, entrapment?’

‘“Nervous Conditions”? I don’t think so-’

‘No ways, man-’

‘Put your hand up, Tanaka!’

‘Sorry, Sir, but-’

‘Go on, then.  You two at the back – stop talking!  Where are your manners?  Go on, Tanaka.’

‘As I understand it, Sir, a ‘nervous condition’ describes the way colonialism deprived the blacks of an identity, of a sense of self-worth-’

‘Deracinated them.  Anybody know what that means?  No? It means to tear up by the roots; from the Latin, “radix.”  Remember The Pardoner’s Tale: “radix malorum est cupiditas”… Thomas?’

‘“Greed is the root of all evil”.’

‘Colonialism was motivated by greed.  But the point Sartre makes in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s definitive book, The Wretched of the Earth… the point he makes… Kizito, put your maths homework away!  What’s the matter with you?  The… er… point Sartre makes is that the colonised “native” found himself – I use the masculine gender because I believe it damaged the men more than the women – indeed many women, strangely, benefited from a slightly less patriarchal system.  Don’t you think Babamkuru’s “condition” is somewhat more “nervous” than, say, his wife’s and his daughter’s?’

‘His condition isn’t nervous, Sir; he’s a bully.  Look what he does to his daughter…’

‘Prince, turn to page 204, towards the bottom.  Read aloud from where Nyasha says “They’ve done it to me…”.  Can you find it?’

‘Er… yes, Sir.’

‘Go ahead then.’

‘“They’ve done it to me,” she accused, whispering still.  “Really they have.”  And then she became stern.  “It’s not their fault.  They did it to them too.  You know they did,” she whispered.  “To both of them, but especially to him.  They put him through it all.  But it’s not his fault, he’s good.” Her voice took on a Rhodesian accent.  “He’s a good boy, a good munt.  A bloody good k-” Sir, I can’t be saying that word.’

‘Leave it out, then.’

‘-she informed in sneering sarcastic tones.”  Shall I go on, Sir?’

‘Go on a little longer.’

‘“Then she was whispering again. “Why do they do it, Tambu,” she hissed bitterly, her voice contorting with rage, “to me and to you and to him?  Do you see what they’ve done?  They’ve taken us away.  Lucia.  Takesure.  All of us.  They’ve deprived you of you, him of him, ourselves of each other.  We’re grovelling.  Lucia for a job, Jeremiah for money.  Daddy grovels to them.  We-”’

‘Thank you, Prince; that will do.  See, it’s his daughter who perceives Babamkuru’s nervous condition, and she blames it squarely on colonialism.’

‘Sir?’

‘Yes, Thabo?’

‘He’s a coconut.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He acts white.’

‘Then we’re all coconuts at this school.’

‘What about you, Sir?’

‘What about me?’

‘Being white.  Living in Africa.  Being –’

‘I didn’t ask to be born in Africa.  I didn’t ask to be born white.  I didn’t ask to be born male…’

‘And you didn’t ask to be born left-handed.’

‘No, but nobody seems to mind about that anymore.’

When he finally swallowed his pride and asked her to come back, it was too late.  He bumped into her once, walking her new pet, a golden Labrador, at the Hillside Dams. She was wearing a man’s shirt and a pair of tight black jeans. They exchanged awkward greetings, and stalled together long enough for him to notice a number of bruises on her neck and shoulders.

‘Is he rough with you?’

‘A little, but I like it that way.’

‘Um… was I too gentle?’

‘You can never be too gentle, but…’

‘So…’

‘Can we not…’

‘Of course.  Bye.’

‘Bye.’

And that was that.  He watched her stride away from him, her dog tugging at its leash, lifting its leg against every second bush or tree.  With each stride a diamond-shaped blink of light, progressively fading, at the place where her thighs joined her buttocks, revealed itself to his straining eyes.

A siren signalled the end of the lesson. He released his class after giving them an assignment for homework: “To what extent can Nyasha be regarded as Tambudzai’s alter ego?’ He reminded them to refer closely to the text, supporting every point they made with a relevant quotation.  His next class was already gathering noisily outside his door.  He was going to teach them all about the comma splice.

 

 

A review of ‘Strange Fruit’ by Helen Moffett

Strange Fruit by Helen Moffet

Modjaji Books, 2009

Reviewed by John Eppel

Some of North America’s finest poets – Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell… were practitioners of the confessional style, a style, which has been vulgarised by reality television, like the Oprah Winfrey Show.   The ‘confessionals’ wrote openly about personal conflicts like alcoholism, divorce, suicide, and insanity.  This was partly a reaction to the sometimes disingenuous use of masks or personae by ‘modernists’ like T.S. Eliot, and the later W. B. Yeats.

Most of the poems in this collection are in the confessional style; the dominating theme is childlessness.  Helen Moffet points the reader to that in her Acknowledgements when she thanks Carol Thomas: ‘my gynaecologist, but sadly, not my obstetrician’.  This theme develops an interesting dynamic.  Being single and childless in a patriarchal society gives a woman a lot more socio-political freedom than her married mother counterparts.   As a result more and more educated women are choosing to remain single, if not, always, childless.  And you can feel this freedom in many of the poems; it flutters the pages like a fresh breeze:

especially you, poor forked thing, a man –

wombless, childless: you have nothing I want.

[‘Envy’]

The double Shakespearean allusion is witty and good-natured.  Here is another example of many (not always sexual):

 

The penis is an amphibious creature;

mostly it lives on dry land,

but given the chance, it slips

joyously back into a moister

environment, where it grows

gills of glee, glides in this

primordial clime….

[‘Amphibian’]

Notice how effectively she contrasts the alliterative plosives (the thrusting male effect) with all the wet sibilants.  The last word is a palimpsest, partly obscuring ‘slime’.    Helen Moffet uses the penis as a synecdoche for patriarchy, and the amusing outcome is female empowerment.  Here it is again:

Erections are the most extraordinary things;

especially to those of us who lack the mechanism.

One minute you pull me into an easy, affectionate hug –

the next, a third party has announced its presence.

[‘Homo Erectus’]

Positioned against this freedom, this breeziness, is the heart rending wail of a woman who desperately wants a child, which her body denies her.  You’d expect the resulting poetry to be full of self-pity, but it isn’t; instead it is full of anger and self-mockery, which, ironically, deepens the pathos:

Please, a moment of stillness:

I’m watching myself die.

Holding my own hand

as my gene-pool drains away.

[‘Vigil’]

I wish I was a toddler

so I could scream and scream

scream and scream and rage

and scream and rage and scream.

[‘At Thirty-six’]

Helen Moffet uses words like stitches in embroidery.  The effect is not only decorative but clear, clear in the paradoxical sense that the clearer a text, the more mysterious:

 

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,

The small rain down can rain?

Christ, if my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!

[Anonymous]

Here is an example from one of several nods to Shakespeare:

I wish my ribs were garlanded with

stars and flowers, their fronds

stroking in time to sea’s soft pulse;

with small fish flicking like paint

through the bowl of my pelvic girdle

gently rocking as a tropical tide

hushes back and forth, back and forth.

[‘Reply to Ariel’]

The fruits most associated, symbolically, with abundance, are apples, figs, and pomegranates.  The title of Helen Moffet’s  book, does not specify a fruit, but the designer, Natascha Mostert, has decorated the cover, beautifully, with pomegranates. With its abundance of seeds, this fruit is primarily associated with fertility – a stinging irony.  Christianity to the rescue!  Just as it transposed the ‘Song of Songs’, a celebration of sexual love, to an allegory of Christ’s love for the church, it transposed the fertility symbolism of the pomegranate to a spiritual plane.  More interesting is the way the fruit image plays with the dynamic, mentioned earlier, which energises this anthology.  Fruit is a female archetype with positive and negative connotations.  As a symbol of abundance it is largely positive, but as a symbol of temptation it is largely negative.  The Bible is unequivocal: the female fruit of Genesis is wicked; the male fruit – Christ on the cross (a stylised tree) – is good.  The ambiguity of Helen Moffet’s fruit, a metaphor not only of the poems but of the poet – a male metaphor! – is introduced by the epithet ‘strange’.  Remember Ariel’s song:

Nothing of [her] that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

[my emphasis]

Changing or, better still, metamorphosing, is a frequent technique in these poems. ‘Mined’ is a conceit worthy of the Metaphysicals.  It begins with typical humour: ‘Loving me must be like visiting the Balkans’.  The analogy grows into an extended metaphor, which transforms the poet, body and soul, into a moment of history.  Notice the embroidery effect of the words:

I’m told it’s lovely there; seen the pictures

of pastoral valleys, dappled woods,

secluded inlets of blue dispersing islands;

all dotted with bridges, quaint villages

and monasteries of antique masonry

speaking eloquently of culture and craft.

But a flak jacket and tin hat are advised;

over some innocent hill you’ll find

without warning, a site where violation

has soaked into the earth.

In ‘Geology Lesson’, a breast examination goes on to suggest that the earth is female: ‘my flesh congealing into stone’.  And in ‘Postscript’: ‘I grow green again’.

There are occasional epiphanies. In ‘Always’ there is the Proustian moment:

But every now and then,

on nights of summer rain,

I’ll open one of my trunks:

and grow immediately dizzy

with the fragrances swarming up;

carrying not just memories

but all that love fresh again.

‘In Cape Town’ celebrates a marriage, and in the last stanza:

This happens as the Imam

intones a passage

from the Qu’ran.

Most merciful,

most gracious

voice and view splice

and for a slice

of a second, I’m jolted

into unexpected joy.

Helen Moffet seldom uses rhyme, and never for the sake of conventional form; she uses it as she uses other aural effects like alliteration and assonance, for emphasis; like ‘splice’/’slice’ (above).  She uses it even more successfully in ‘After Sex’:

For at least a day or so

I cross my legs with care,

So as not to set the chime

thrumming through me again;

distracting when teaching

a class on rhythm and rhyme.

In her essay, ‘My name Is Darkness’, The poetry of Self-Definition, Sandra M. Gilbert uses the phrase ‘self-definition’ as a synonym of ‘confessional’.  She speculates that it is this genre which ‘with its persistent assertions of identity and its emphasis on a central mythology of the self, may be (at least in our own time) a distinctively female poetic mode’.  This essay was written in 1977 and feminism, in some parts of the world, has come a long way since then; but I find it still carries relevance.  Our archetypes stink of patriarchy: fruit, mountains, the moon: ‘All my life, I’ve been tugged along by the moon, / one barren trailing another’ [‘At Thirty-six’].  When she uses images that define herself, her personal self, Helen Moffet’s poetry becomes more affirmative, even its most desolate moments.  Her cat, for example:

a snuffling heap

at the foot of my bed;

a tortoise-shell sandbag

between me and the abyss.

[‘Pushkin’]

Or her ‘daughter’, ‘who would be thirteen now’ [‘My Daughter’]; or her ovaries: ‘two lumped and lunar fists’ [‘The Ultrasound’]; or younger men who have not ‘caught / the fatal habit: the tendency to patronise’ [‘In praise of younger men’].

She looks to a fellow female poet to help her understand her own technique:

After the initial burst, words cascading down,

the hard work beginning:

stoking the refining fire,

scouring every line.

I had no idea that one day

I would also wrestle, endlessly

pick at a knot of words, strain to make

language go where I wanted.

[‘To Christina Rossetti’]

This is a compelling anthology.  I read it in one sitting, and afterwards felt wrung out. It is a poetry of glittering surfaces, which makes it no less profound than the more sub-conscious poetry of, say, Sylvia Plath.  As I said before, it conveys the mysteriousness of clarity.  The poem I want to present in full is the one I like best.  It is one of the poet’s loving tributes to her parents.

Libra Rising

The last time I visited the farm,

you shook me awake at some witching hour,

excited as a child before Christmas;

chivvied me into a dressing-gown

and Wellington boots, waving a torch:

‘I want to show you something,’ you said.

Muffled, muddled with dreams, yet trusting,

I tromped out after you, crunching across

the frosted garden decked in silence and silver;

down through the gate, towards the dam,

the longer grass now swishing.

 

The moon had set,

leaving the constellations holding court

in a sky molten with pouring stars.

‘Look,’ you said, pointing towards the ridge

beneath the dense swirl of the Milky Way,

‘You can see Libra rising.’

And there it was: perfect.

Like those swooping

V-shapes that signify seagulls

in old-fashioned illustrations.

 

Back in the house, the kitchen

warmth a delicious reminder

of how cold we’d been outside;

you heated milk with vanilla,

enough for my father as well,

when he trundled in, fogged with sleep,

to ask what we womenfolk were up to;

married to you long enough to

grunt in understanding, find it normal

that you’d get up and go out on

a winter’s night, just to look at the stars –

and want to share them with your daughter.

 

Most of Helen Moffet’s poems remind me of embroideries, the words, colourful stitches.  However, there is one dropped stitch: the word ‘unpeel’ in the eponymous poem.  I guess only Allah is perfect!

 

 

Three New Poems

Brown-Hooded Kingfisher

Your hyperbolic beak has mesmerised

you – you glaze past poems, past the abyss

of waters.  You have been immobilized

by instinct, by a chronic state of bliss.

 

You once fished in waters above the sky,

in the firmament of death and desire.

There is a witness, who can testify,

a priest; he observed you catching  fire

 

like a church window at sunrise -  Della

Robbia blue; Blessed Virgin Mary,

Mother of God, of the Word, of Stella

and her baby boy – right now, unwary

 

of my savage cat.  Impossible beak,

orange legs, reddish feet glued to a tree;

Dickensian eyebrows, unnerving shriek

shadowed by a gentling, ‘pity for me’.

 

Tortoise

You’ve been called a meat pie with a hard crust;

you learnt that life was not always unfair

when, against all odds, you vanquished the hare;

but you must endeavour to curb your lust.

 

Your shell’s bestowed its name on feline dames;

your age, well that is anybody’s guess:

much older than the pyramids but less

durable than plectrums, spectacle frames,

 

and old ladies’ combs.

 

An appetizer

for neo-colonialists, they plunge

you, live, into boiling water, expunge

your role as bearer of the earth, as the

 

symbol of involution, a return

to immateriality, music

of the spheres resonating, buzzing, click-

click clicking… not a word … helped Kurma churn

 

the Sea of Milk, helped Kung Kung deposit

the celestial pillar, helped secure

the isles of the immortals, helped ensure,

‘with odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ’,

 

That those who commemorate sight and sound,

poets, composers, and picture-makers,

will complete the work of undertakers,

and begin the work of he, ’who with his finger wrote on the ground’.

 

Bronze Mannikins

I feel my atoms expanding,

not like bubble wrap

or dumplings

or inner tubes,

but like tiny birds,

tiny twittering birds

with purplish heads,

iridescent green

shoulder patches,

and long black tails.

There’s a fluttering in my heart.

 

I feel my atoms contracting,

not like wet shirt sleeves

or English sausages

or popped balloons,

but like tiny birds,

tiny twittering birds

dropping like leaves,

cuddling up close,

squeezing into communal nests,

smothering the bird table.

There’s a quivering in my heart.

 

 

 

 

 

A conversation with Drew Shaw

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Narrating the Zimbabwean nation: a
conversation with John Eppel
Drew Shaw a
a National University of Science and Technology, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Version of record first published: 11 Oct 2012.
To cite this article: Drew Shaw (2012): Narrating the Zimbabwean nation: a conversation with John Eppel,
Scrutiny2: Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa, 17:1, 100-111
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100
Narrating the Zimbabwean nation: a
conversation with John Eppel
Drew Shaw
drew.shaw@nust.ac.zw
National University of Science and Technology
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Abstract
In this interview, John Eppel, a veteran of Zimbabwean writing, confirms his reputation as an
“angry jester”, determined to expose what he describes as “humbug”, wherever he sees it.
With his satires, Eppel has stirred the national literature with subversive laughter, ridiculing both
Rhodesian society under Ian Smith and post-independence society under Robert Mugabe. With
his poetry, he innovatively marries European forms with southern African content. During the crisis
of the 2000s he refused exile and has been consistently critical of political and social corruption
and injustice from within Zimbabwe’s borders.
xplored here are Eppel’s
relationship to the Zimbabwean
nation, multiculturalism versus
Mugabeism, the political crisis
of the past decade, the plight
of the poor, and the challenges facing a white
writer in Zimbabwe. Eppel’s use of satire and
sonnets, his literary mentors, the actual process
of writing, and his novel Absent: the English
teacher are addressed in further detail. Also
discussed are his views on the role of NGOs,
expatriates and academics, his opinions on
poetry, and his belief that craft, more than
content, ought to be the measure of quality in
postcolonial writing.
John Eppel, born in 1947, is one of the most
prolific of Zimbabwean authors; and he has
been writing poetry and prose since the 1960s.
He lives in Bulawayo where he is an English
teacher at the Christian Brothers College. His
poetry collection Spoils of war won the Ingrid
Jonker Prize in 1989 and his novel DGG Berry’s
The great North road won the M-Net Prize
in 1992. His second novel Hatchings (1993)
was selected by Anthony Chennells, for the
Times literary supplement (2001), as the most
significant book to have come out of Africa.
Another novel, The giraffe man, followed in
1994, then Sonata for Matabeleland in 1995
and Selected poems 1965-1995 in 2001. Then
came two more novels, The curse of the ripe
tomato (2001) and The holy innocents (2002).
These were followed by The Caruso of Colleen
Bawn and other short writings (2004), Songs
my country taught me (2005) and White man
crawling (2007), a miscellany of prose and
poetry. His latest novel is a tragi-comic satire
titled Absent: the English teacher (2009).
Most recently, he has published a collection of
short stories and poems with Julius Chingono,
titled Together (2011).
E
scrutiny2 17(1) 2012
issues in english studies in southern africa
ISSN: Print 1812-5441/Online 1753-5409
DOI: 10.1080/18125441.2012.706082
INTERVIEW
© Unisa Press pp 100–111
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101INTERVIEW
Steeped in English literary tradition, yet also
in touch with everyday Zimbabwean realities,
John Eppel writes from a post-colonial, crosscultural
nexus often at the heart of regional
concerns. Common critiques of other white
Zimbabwean writers (of imposing “whiteness”
as normative, of appropriating African realities
and landscapes) fail to account for Eppel, one
begins to appreciate, because he writes selfcritically
and takes another approach. That said,
it is impossible, one quickly discovers, to deter
Eppel from speaking his mind, from courting
controversy. There were several disagreements
during the course of this interview but it was
an illuminating discussion, which I hope sheds
light on Eppel’s significance for literary and
cultural issues of the region. The following
conversation is the result of a telephone call
and several email exchanges in 2010, all done
before the publication of Together, his recent
collaboration with fellow author and friend,
Julius Chingono.
DS: Thanks for taking the time to do
this interview. I’ll start by quoting other
commentary about your work. Khombe
Mangwanda (2006: vi) has said your
“work exudes a deep love for [your]
country” and he applauds your refreshing
“representation of Zimbabwe as a space
wherein the various cultures of the nation
interact with one another ... undermining
difference”. Anthony Chennells (2004)
has heralded your close identification with
the Matabeleland landscape, yet your
ability also to distance yourself “satirically
from white claims to an uncomplicated
Zimbabwean identity” and your willingness
to confront “the official corruption and
misgovernance that has marked the last
twenty years”. Veteran journalist Grace
Mutandwa also commends your focus on
“today’s Zimbabwe where those in power
abuse it and those without struggle to
make things right” (Eppel 2004). Kizito
Muchemwa says you have “the sharp
observation of a naturalist,” and “Not
many Zimbabwean poets are able to evoke
in a poem the particularity of the physical
environment like he does” (Eppel 2004).
Dan Wylie declares you are “a craftsman of
high order, a poet and a novelist who savages
complacency with deft ironies” (Eppel
2004). And you’ve had more favourable
reviews of your most recent novel. Also
your poem “Jasmine” featured in the
Guardian newspaper in the UK as “Poem
of the Week”, where its cross-culturalism
was highlighted (Rumens 2010). These are
all great accolades. Nevertheless, you have
yet to win a literary prize in your homeland
Zimbabwe, and I think you’re not as wellknown
as one might expect in discussions
of southern African literature. You also
struggled, I believe, in the early days to
find a publisher in Zimbabwe. On the other
hand recognition, in the form of literary
prizes, has come from neighbouring South
Africa. Am I correct in surmising it’s been
a struggle for you to achieve acclaim – more
so in Zimbabwe than in South Africa?
JE: It has been a long, hard struggle to
achieve, not acclaim, but some recognition in
Zimbabwe ... As for South Africa, that’s an
interesting story. Nearly all my recognition
came before Independence. My first three
novels and my first two poetry anthologies were
all published, by small presses, in Apartheid
South Africa. Since then, political correctness
(I think) has more or less counted me out. As
you know, I satirize humbug whatever the
colour or creed ... But I don’t write satire only.
I regard myself primarily as a poet, and most
of my poems are not primarily satirical.
DS: Probably your poetry, on the whole,
has a more serious tone to it than your
prose ... Some years ago, you won the Ingrid
Jonker Prize for it. For you, what is poetry?
JE: I think poetry for me should be
committed and beautiful. Definitions by
Theodor Adorno and Anne Stevenson speak
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102INTERVIEW
on my behalf. First Adorno: “A work of art
[a poem] that is committed, strips the magic
from a work of art that is content to be a
fetish, an idle pastime for those who would
like to sleep through the deluge that threatens
them, in an apoliticism that is in fact deeply
political.” ... Now Stevenson: “Great poetry –
happens when sound, rhythm and image bring
about a mysterious feeling of wholeness that
somehow draws mind, body and spirit together
into what both Yeats and Eliot envisioned as a
unified dance.” ... A poem is a box (the form)
full of memorabilia (the content). My box is
European, my memorabilia are African. This
isn’t a new idea; George Herbert defined a
poem as “A box where sweets compacted lie.”
DS: What are the challenges for you in
crafting a poem about landscape, nature
and the elements?
JE: There were no real challenges beyond
the creative process until I got the message
from academics that settlers wrote about
the land, or painted it, or photographed it
in order to appropriate it, a kind of artistic
version of commercial farming. They were
right, of course, and from then on my poems
about nature became more challenging, more
ironical.
DS: There is now a large output of
“white-writing” from southern Africa, and
I wonder if you could comment on it – how
you situate yourself within it. I’m thinking
of Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller and
others. Can you state some of the ways
you are similar to and different from other
contemporary white Zimbabwean writers?
JE: For one thing, I still live in Zimbabwe.
For another, I do not use the genre of memoir
so favoured by the new wave of white writers
... Thirdly, I see my primary readership as
African; they seem to see theirs as Western.
Those are the differences. The similarities, of
which I am not proud: nostalgia, self-pity ...
DS: In your poetry, your speaker often
tries to identify with the unemployed and
dispossessed versus those abusing power.
Would you say this is an important concern
for you? For example:
Sonnet with one unstated line
See the shambling gait of the unemployed,
the vacant stare of the dispossessed;
the plastic bags by breezes buoyed
or, when evening settles, at rest.
Hear the cry of hornbills lost in yards
of rubble and rags, to split the ears
of those who stand and watch; and the
guards
unguarded, hammering, hammering.
Smell the blood and mucous, ashes damp;
breath of birds turned children clamouring,
children clamouring. A tyrant’s stamp:
a boot, a fist, a fourteen pounder:
come and witness our city flounder.
(Eppel 2007: 14)
DS: Could we say your sympathies lie in
some sense with “the proletariat”?
JE: A very important concern. My
sympathies do lie with the proletariat, but
there is this irony, which complicates things.
When the poor get given the same advantages
as the middle class, they very quickly begin to
behave like the middle class. This is a theme
in Absent: the English teacher. So what do you
do? Romanticize poverty? Ugh!
DS: Are you trying to highlight something
fundamentally wrong with the whole
system, then? ... Could we say this comes
from a materialist/Marxist class-based
perspective?
JE: I’m not sure what perspective but I
disagree with Jesus that the poor will always
be with us. Poverty, unlike religion or vulgar
capitalism, is a virus that will be eradicated,
as it almost has been in a few countries. What
angers me is that it is taking so long. And it
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103INTERVIEW
is because of the shocking greed of people in
power, corporate as well as political.
DS: I notice that national concerns are
often at the core of your poetry, which is
politically challenging in many respects.
But is it hard to balance the personal voice
in your poetry with a political voice? Do
you think poetry loses something when it
becomes too focussed on politics, when there
is too strong an emphasis on conveying a
political message? ... In fact, do you think
you could be accused of being a little “too
political” at times, to the detriment of your
poetry?
JE: I don’t live in Finland or New Zealand; I
live in strife-torn Zimbabwe. I am surrounded
by unnecessary suffering; unnecessary because
Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth alone, if fairly
distributed, would be sufficient to transform
us into a sub-tropical Finland or a landlocked
New Zealand. The cruelty and greed of those
who were in power and those who are in
power makes me very angry, compels me to
be political (in the narrow sense of the word).
However, if you took an inventory of my
poems, and I regard myself primarily as a
poet, you might be surprised to find a number
that are not even implicitly political.
DS: You seem particularly at home with
the sonnet form. What is it about tried
and tested forms that you find appealing
to combine with local themes and a
Zimbabwean context?
JE: After all, I am an African European!
My primary school teachers in the 50s were
all British expatriates. My own roots stretch
as far east as Lithuania. My head was stuffed
with images of Peter Pan and Wendy while my
feet withstood the paper thorns of the African
bush. The sonnet, as you know, originated in
Italy and was made famous by Petrarch in the
14th century. Its theme was unrequited love.
When, in the 16th century, it was imported
by other European countries, it was adapted
to other themes like religion (John Donne),
politics (John Milton), and nature (William
Wordsworth). One of my favourite poets is
John Keats, and he wrote marvellous sonnets
like “To sleep” and “Bright star”. I learned
to write sonnets by reading these great
practitioners of the form, none greater than
Shakespeare ... To use an analogy from the
visual arts, the sonnet form is the frame of my
canvas upon which I paint words. I am very
much at home with the iambic pentameter line.
It holds in suspension shorter lines, which may
tumble into verse, and longer lines, which may
drag into prose. As for rhyme, what did Proust
say … something about a further refinement of
thought “… as great poets do when the tyranny
of rhyme forces them into the discovery of
their finest lines.”
DS: You are increasingly recognized for
what you bring to the conversation about
form and craft in Zimbabwean literature.
What is literary craftsmanship in your
view? And how important is it to the art
and the act of writing?
JE: Here I can speak only for myself.
Paradoxically, constraints like those imposed
by a sonnet – a certain metre, a certain rhyme
scheme, a certain number of lines … release
me into creativity. Craftsmanship for me is
nearly everything. Without it you have prose
that looks like a poem. My poems never begin
with ideas; they begin with images or a cluster
of words that assert themselves rhythmically.
A good poet is like a cabinet maker: he doesn’t
use nails to secure joints, he uses tenor and
mortise. It’s prosody, I believe, which makes
a poem beautiful regardless of its content.
But I take it further than that. As I have said
somewhere else, there is an ironic element to
my craft; I use it as a tool of self-mockery,
a tool to accuse the culture that produced it.
Many of my poems verge on parody.
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104INTERVIEW
DS: Could you talk about the process of
writing for you? Is it relaxed or disciplined?
Would you say you are a rapid or a slow
writer? Do you write a little every day or do
you have intermittent “bursts”? How long
does it usually take you to write a poem, a
short story or a novel?
JE: My writing is controlled by the fact that
I have to work to earn a living; and school
teaching is quite exhausting. Consequently I
rely on school holidays to do my writing - in
between preparing new “O” and “A” level set
works. In any given year, apart from language,
I teach a minimum of 14 texts. This year, for
example, I have taught The tempest, Twelfth
night, Richard the third, A view from the bridge,
Death and the king’s horseman, Nervous
conditions, The nun’s priest’s tale, Journey’s
end, All my sons, The homecoming, Songs of
ourselves, Selected poems of Wordsworth, The
great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, and others
in the lower forms. This is one reason why I
write novellas rather than full-blown novels,
and why I write them quickly. Absent: the
English teacher, for example, took less than
three months to write.
My writing is relaxed AND disciplined, not in
any paradoxical way. It is relaxed now because
I have disciplined it over more than forty years
of practice. It entails very little conscious
editing; most of that happens in my sleep. I
rely strongly on my sub-conscious. Most
important, most of my writing grows out of
loss, personal or social or universal. Without
a sense of loss I have very little inclination to
write anything. As for my poems: some take
minutes to write, others, years.
DS: Do you keep abreast with other
Zimbabwean writing and can you comment
on what you have in common with other
Zimbabwean writers?
JE: I do keep abreast with other
Zimbabwean writing, and it fills me with joy
to read poems and stories by the so-called
born frees who have broken away from the
shackles of Mugabeism (for want of an uglier
word), and are asserting themselves as satirists
and sun-drenched lyricists. A young poet
who has impressed me very much is Togara
Muzanenhamo because his form equals his
content. He is a craftsman ... Right now I am
teaching Dangarembga’s Nervous conditions
to my A-level students, and in the recent past I
have taught Mungoshi’s Some kinds of wounds,
and poetry by Zimunya and Hove, among
others. I admire these older writers, Mungoshi
in particular. I have been sometimes compared
to Marechera (the writer, Thabisani Ndlovu
(2009), calls us “angry jesters”) but I hope
that’s where the similarity ends. I find much
of Marechera’s poetic diction quaint, and I am
made a little uncomfortable by his narcissism.
I did, however, thoroughly enjoy The house
of hunger. As for Yvonne Vera, I’m sorry
to say I don’t agree with the academic hype
about her. I find her turgid, barely readable.
But I am proud of the recent achievements of
Brian Chikwava and Petina Gappah. I think I
have a lot in common with other Zimbabwean
writers with regard to treatment of issues like
corruption, abuse of power, and poverty; but
in terms of form and style, I think I am quite
different, especially in my poetry. Although I
write some free verse, most of my poetry is
steeped in prosody. I do this both as a form of
self-mockery and a challenge to my craft.
DS: You obviously disagree with many
about Yvonne Vera. Although you both
hail from Bulawayo, of course you are very
different writers. You write with satire and
irony while her writing has an earnest,
somewhat sombre tone to it. And evidence
of classic literary craft seems to be your
measure for good writing, which you’ve
said you don’t perceive in her work. It’s a
controversial point because of course many
appreciate what they see as Vera’s attempt
to pioneer new forms and to break with
masculinist, Western traditions in literature
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105INTERVIEW
– even though she may not necessarily excel
in what you consider carefully-crafted
literature. Also, I beg to differ with you
about Marechera. I think perhaps the two
of you have more in common than you
concede – both being “angry jesters” as
Thabs Ndlovu (2009) points out, both having
an ambivalent (can we say love/hate?)
relationship to the Zimbabwean nation,
both using grotesque realism to depict an
abnormal society. I know Marechera is
often criticized for his narcissism but isn’t
there something refreshing about the level
of honesty that goes with it? Aren’t those
intense self-reflections, those uncensored
explorations of personal identity more
broadly relevant if you think about it? ...
JE: Your points about Marechera are entirely
relevant. I think it’s a matter of personal taste
... The contrast you make between me and
Yvonne Vera, that I write “with satire and
irony” while she has a “somewhat serious
tone”, overlooks the fact that there is nothing
more serious in literature than satire. T.S. Eliot
described Alexander Pope as a poet of hatred. I
hope there is no hatred in my satires, but there
is plenty of rage.
DS: The question of who belongs to the
Zimbabwean nation has been extremely
politicised in the last decade or more. Do you
ever feel disqualified or are you made to feel
disqualified from writing and representing
the Zimbabwean nation because of your
ethnic origins (that is the fact that you are
white, not black)?
JE: Until very recently, yes. But two
renowned black academic Zimbabweans have
positively reviewed my most recent published
novel, Absent: the English teacher. I am
referring to Kizito Muchemwa and Robert
Muponde ... To get back to your question
about belonging, the last decade has been
tough for the relatively few remaining white
Zimbabweans who haven’t climbed into bed
with ZANU PF ministers. The racial hatred
issued forth by government mouthpieces like
the daily newspapers, The Herald and The
Chronicle, and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting
Corporation, has amounted to verbal genocide.
DS: Though this is not widely recognized,
I think you are one of the most patriotic
of Zimbabwean writers - as Khombe
Mangwanda also notes in his introduction
to your novel Hatchings. Would you agree?
... By this I mean you’ve chosen to stay and
write in Zimbabwe despite the hardships
– and you refuse to censor yourself, which
takes considerable courage. Also, your
focus is strikingly local and particular
to Zimbabwe, especially Matabeleland –
down to the birdlife, wildlife, the bush,
the droughts, the flora and fauna, and the
sights, smells and sounds of your hometown
Bulawayo. On the one hand I think you
try to catch a certain beauty that is the
Zimbabwean nation; on the other hand
... all along, you also draw attention to its
flaws and fault lines, to the catastrophe of
corruption on a national scale, to ongoing
struggles for social justice.
JE: In this country patriotism has come
to mean love of government, so it’s a word
I steer clear of. But I do love my country; I
love Matabeleland; I love my ramshackle
house in Bulawayo where my three children
grew up; I love my job at Christian Brothers
College where I am steeped in a multicultural
microcosm.
DS: This love is evident in your writing
but there are also those who have accused
you of being a bit overzealous in your
support for Matabeleland. Memory Chirere
(2010), from the University of Zimbabwe,
for example, has said in your writing you
are “decidedly anti-Shona ... Everywhere
Eppel’s Shonas are senselessly clobbering
and haranguing either a white man or a
hapless Ndebele.” What’s your response?
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106INTERVIEW
JE: Of course I am not anti-Shona; I am
anti people in power who abuse it, and at this
time in our history, most of those happen to be
Shona. In colonial times it was Europeans, in
the 1870s it was Ndebeles. In the future it may
be the Chinese.
DS: Readers are invited to laugh at
anecdotes that are frequently hilarious. And
yet I also sense a deep sadness underlies the
humour (I find this especially true in your
later work, especially Absent: the English
teacher). Although you show great affection
for your country, I sense this is tinged with
doubt that this will ever be reciprocated.
Am I right?
JE: Like many clowns, I am a melancholic
at heart. Maybe that’s why I became a poet
instead of a chartered accountant. As another
poet/satirist, Byron, said: “And if I laugh at
any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep”.
I suspect that this would have been the same
had I grown up anywhere else in the world.
If my love for Zimbabwe is ever officially
reciprocated it will be long after I am safely
dead.
DS: You’re about to publish a collection
of short stories and poems, titled Together,
with another Zimbabwean author, Julius
Chingono. This has been a project to
symbolically link a black writer and a white
writer in one volume. Could you tell us how
you met, what you have in common, and
how the collaboration came about?
JE: I met Julius at the Intwasa Festival in
Bulawayo – I can’t remember when. I found
him to be a warm-hearted man with a mind like
a razor blade ... What can I say? He’s a poet
of transcendence. We are both old men. He
is a blaster; my father was a blaster ... I can’t
recall how the idea for a collaboration came
about. I think it was quite spontaneous, and the
publishers at ‘amaBooks went on to facilitate
it. The Culture Fund very generously donated
funds, which made the project possible.
DS: Would you say your writing
challenges the idea of a homogeneous,
monocultural Zimbabwean nation and
tries to explore and create space instead for
multicultural dialogues and realities?
JE: At Independence, the government
purported to be Marxist-Leninist with a touch
of Mao and a nudge of Stalin, and its academics
used that framework, blended with Nationalism
(shall we call the mixture Mugabeism?)
to create a homogeneous, monocultural
Zimbabwean nation. Consequently it excluded
“angry jesters” like Marechera, and only
whites who were abject confessors, like Bruce
Moore-King (who wrote White man black
war), were paid marginal attention. You had
to be a son (preferably not a daughter) of
the soil. So in that context, yes, I do agree
that my writing endorses multiculturalism;
and so does the writing of Yvonne Vera and
Tsitsi Dangarembga, and any number of the
up and coming young Zimbabwean writers.
Mugabeism is slowly crumbling, and the
singers, actors, visual artists, and writers of
Zimbabwe have made, and are making, their
contribution.
DS: What draws you to the genre of satire
and what do you try to achieve by it?
JE: How else could I write about a chartered
company called Rhodesia? And, more recently,
a Limited Company called ZANU PF? Where’s
the romance? Where’s the mythology? It’s
all to do with money, this unholy alliance of
multinationalism and corrupt governance.
Satire gives power to the powerless to ridicule
the empowered. As Alexander Pope said:
“Those who are ashamed of nothing else are
so of being ridiculous.” When you combine
humour with moral outrage you get … well
… me.
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107INTERVIEW
DS: Zimbabwe’s predicaments appear
to be fruitful pickings for international
career-minded academics; but you don’t
seem convinced they are doing anything in
the least bit helpful. In Hatchings a Scottish
social scientist, for example – let me quote
from it – is doing her PhD on “the role of
nostrils in the transition from puberty to
adulthood in left-handed Zimbabweans”
and an Australian psychologist is doing his
PhD on “the correlation between intelligence
and penis size in bilharzia-infected men
who live within a ten kilometre radius of
the Mzingwane Dam” (Eppel 2006: 73).
Then there is the sketch, in the White man
crawling collection, about Doctor, Doctor
Lisbet Schwartzenshaeger, who does no
less than three PhD theses following the
phenomenal success of “The dog motif in
racist Rhodesia” (Eppel 2007a: 53-55). Do I
detect a touch of cynicism about academics
and academia?
JE: More than a touch. I worry about new
fashions in literary criticism especially and I
think there’s a real problem with postcolonial/
feminist/poststructuralist literary critics who
are always quoting Mikhail Bakhtin, Homi
Bhabha, Julia Kristeva, and Henri Lefebvre,
and sprinkling their critiques with words like
“subaltern” and “troping”, and “chronotope”. I
find they’re not so interested in a writer’s craft
as they are in his or her context, a context that
provides them with a space to exercise theory.
If the author mixes his or her metaphors
and misuses punctuation, they’ll see it as
either a deliberate or a sub-conscious form
of subversion against colonial hegemony,
penile hegemony, etc., etc. There is something
parasitic in all this ... rebranding an author with
the new tools of the literary trade and parading
them in the Emperor’s new clothes.
DS: Your characterizations of academics
and critics are too generalized I find, but
you nevertheless voice valid criticisms ...
To return to your writing, in fact no-one
comes off lightly in your satires. Earnest
NGOs, trying to “make a difference” in
Zimbabwe, are also parodied; and they join
a range of other expatriates in your books
depicted as a misguided lot. Is this because
you think they are part of the problem, not
the solution to Zimbabwe’s woes?
JE: When NGOs began flooding into
Zimbabwe after independence most of them
were extremely hostile to white Zimbabweans.
We were all tarred with the same brush. I
can remember on more than one occasion,
at some social gathering, NGOs engaging
in conversation with me and my ex-wife (an
extremely courageous human rights activist),
and after a while, asking us whether we
were from Australia or New Zealand. When
we replied that we were Zimbabweans, they
would simply walk away. It was hurtful to say
the least.
I think there have been quite a few studies
done on the contribution by NGOs to African
welfare, and the general consensus seems
to be that 70% of all aid money goes into
expenses incurred by the NGOs themselves.
Toyota 4X4 double-cabs are not cheap; neither
are futile workshops. What upsets me about
many NGOs is the damage they unwittingly
do to the fabric of Zimbabwean society. The
story I wrote, called “Ashes” (Eppel 2007b) is
based on fact. I won’t deny that some NGOs
like Oxfam have done very good work in
Zimbabwe but, on the whole, I’d say they are
part of the problem, not the solution.
DS: More daringly, you have also turned
your satirical sights on the controversial
land revolution in Zimbabwe – for example
“The very high ranking soldier’s wife” (in
The Caruso of Colleen Bawn and other short
writings) who seizes a farm from an old
white couple, beating them so severely that
they are hospitalized for two weeks. And in
“An act of terror” (in White man crawling)
for example, it is the ZANU PF Women’s
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108INTERVIEW
League, the ridiculously obese wives of the
Minister of Spare Parts and the Deputy
Minister of Workshops, Conferences, and
Heroesplushes whom we laugh at. While
your characters, I think, have a cartoonish
appeal they nevertheless represent a class
or set of persons instantly recognizable to
Zimbabweans. But whom do you write for?
And aren’t you ever afraid of reprisals?
JE: I am afraid of reprisals. I have put things
in print that other people have been severely
punished for. I know I am being watched. Who
isn’t in a police state? But what did Yeats say:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
/ Are full of passionate intensity.” I’m not
brave like the members of WOZA [Women
of Zimbabwe Arise] who seem to spend more
time in jail than out of it. I don’t go into the
streets with banner unfurled; I don’t write and
perform subversive plays. I sit in the relative
security of my home and tap out words. But I
do have conviction – that I should treat people
the way I would like to be treated, that I should
not turn a blind eye to the wickedness of those
who have too much power, that I should value
the future on a timescale longer than my own.
I write for a national and an international
readership but nobody seems to read me.
That’s probably why I haven’t had my thumbs
broken!
DS: Indeed ... that could be one advantage
to not being widely-read! Sorry to make light
of it. But as Stanley Nyamfukudza (2005:
23) famously said, also despairing about
the lack of a reading culture in Zimbabwe,
“one of the best ways to hide information
in Zimbabwe is to publish it in a book.”
That said, I think your latest novel has
been well-received and is reaching a wider
readership. I’d like to talk about Absent:
the English teacher. Here your protagonist
George Jorge George, the errant English
teacher, is wrongly blamed for putting up
a portrait of Ian Smith instead of Robert
Mugabe in the metalwork room at Girls and
Boys Come Out to Play Secondary School
when a government official comes to visit.
Sacked and jailed for this misdemeanour,
then later kidnapped by the Chief Inspector
of the police and forced to give free private
lessons on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and
on Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A grain of wheat
because he is trying to get his A-Level in
English Literature, we go from the sublime
to the ridiculous. And the role of the teacher
in society, in this case the English teacher,
comes into focus. It is in this respect I find
the novel most interesting. Chinua Achebe
famously argued the African writer is also
a teacher (of history, culture, social mores,
etc.) and, by implication, should be respected
as such. Part of the sadness about George’s
downfall is that he is downtrodden, taken
for granted, not afforded the respect he
deserves. You yourself are both a writer and
an English teacher ... To what extent do you
agree with Achebe that the writer’s role, in
Africa at least, is as much as a teacher as
an artist?
JE: My favourite writer is Charles Dickens
and any perceptive reader of my prose writing
will detect his influence on me. I read Oliver
Twist when I was ten years old, and I’ve been
reading and re-reading his books ever since.
Dickens taught me how to satirize, to parody,
to caricature. He also taught me about man’s
inhumanity to man (something which was
going on in front of my very eyes in Rhodesia,
and continues in Zimbabwe). So, without
being didactic, by showing rather than telling,
I think the writer’s role is to teach through
his art. That certainly is the case with Achebe
whom I admire.
DS: And yet you choose quite a different
form and style to Achebe: not traditional
realism but perhaps we could call it a type
of Menippean satire, “a carnival sense of
the world” in Bakhtinian terms, a sort
of grotesque realism, where roles are
reversed, there is much eating, drinking,
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109INTERVIEW
and fornicating - and the very high are
brought very low. This you do with great
humour but also sad irony. George is the
unwitting victim of an absurd form of
racial revenge. Not only is he punished
for supposedly proclaiming Ian Smith
instead of Robert Mugabe; he also has the
misfortune of bashing into Ms Beauticious
Nyamayakanuna (mistress to the Minister
of Child Welfare, Sweets and Biscuits) who
relishes the opportunity of subordinating
him, taking his house and turning him into
her domestic servant. What motivated you
to highlight the issue of reverse racism in
this manner? And can you comment on
belonging to Zimbabwe’s white minority
(often vilified for its colonialist past) - the
challenge this presents to you as a writer?
JE: When Mugabe played his trump card,
the race card, after he lost the referendum
in 2000, reverse racism began in earnest
in Zimbabwe. Twenty years of gradual but
largely sincere reconciliation was wiped out.
The multicultural classroom is a good place
to monitor these developments. Goodness
knows what those children in the Border Gezi
institutions [which have been likened to Hitler
Youth camps] were taught but you can be sure
that demonizing white people was high on the
agenda. Colonial history was rewritten by the
nationalists, and nationalist history has been
rewritten by the so-called patriots, the Border
Gezis and the Eliot Manyikas, reified by the
likes of Chenjerai [Hitler] Hunzvi and Joseph
Chinotimba. ... The most insidious aspect of this
is that many black Zimbabweans, especially
the nouveau riche, justify shameless behaviour
on the grounds that they aren’t to blame. The
government never takes the blame for anything
that goes wrong. And this attitude, this attitude
of “no shame, plenty blame” has filtered down
to the community at large ... This has hurt
me. I spent many years, in my writing and in
my life, trying to make up for our collective
guilt – the generations of colonial oppression.
My first satire, DGG Berry’s The great North
road, the bulk of which was written in 1976,
is directed exclusively against myself and
my own people. The bumbling protagonist,
Duiker Berry, is my alter ego quite as much
as the elderly George J George in Absent: the
English teacher. There’s also a lot of guilt in
my early poetry. But I am now 62. I have spent
more than half my life as a Zimbabwean being
in many ways disadvantaged as a white man
... I used to feel that being neither African nor
European was a handicap for me, that I had
slipped through the crack; but now I see it, not
as a crack or a flaw, but as a threshold with all
the paradoxical richness of thresholds.
DS: Are you aware others take a
somewhat different view? Another
Zimbabwean author, Chenjerai Hove, said
in an interview, “the white Zimbabwean
community was not trying to partake of the
total national programme; .... they had a
lifestyle which was outside everybody else’s
and Mugabe exploited that” (Primorac
2008: 139). In fact he suggests the white
community has only itself to blame for
setting itself up as a target. And he alleges
whites even helped precipitate the crisis of
2000 by being filmed signing cheques to the
MDC thereby creating a propaganda tool
and playing into Mugabe’s hands. All this
appears to contradict your view that there
was twenty years of gradual but sincere
reconciliation prior to the crisis of 2000.
How do you respond to Hove’s view?
JE: I agree to a large extent with what Hove
says, but it is a generalization.
DS: Yes, quite a problematic
generalization. But did you yourself
challenge that sense of white detachment
that Hove identifies?
JE: Not all whites buried their heads in the
sand. More than anything else, in the 80s, I
wanted to be part of the Zimbabwean writing
scene. I joined the Writers’ Union, I supported
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110INTERVIEW
and helped promote Amakosi [Bulawayo’s
grassroots theatre company]. I helped organize
poetry readings, I sent my manuscripts, without
success, to all the Zimbabwean publishers.
At the risk of sounding plaintive, my feeling
was that the Zimbabwean writing community
rejected me, not the other way round. When my
first novel, DGG Berry’s The great North road
won the M-Net prize (in 1993), press releases
were immediately sent to The Herald and The
Chronicle. Neither newspaper mentioned it.
DS: You’ve made it clear you yourself
tried to integrate but felt marginalized.
What about the white community at large
though?
JE: Twenty years of gradual but sincere
reconciliation was certainly my experience in
Bulawayo. Sceptics are welcome to say that I
was deluding myself.
DS: Education and schools are a focal
point in much of your writing and significant
to your commentary on the nation. And yet,
from DGG Berry’s The great North road
through to Absent: the English teacher and
in your short stories as well, schools have
ridiculous names (Prince Charming High,
Black Rhino High, Apricot High, Pawpaw
High, Grapefruit High, Girls and Boys
Come Out to Play High, etc.). What’s the
reason for this?
JE: I became a teacher by default: it was
the only way (because of the government
grant) that my parents could afford to send
me to university. I didn’t think I’d stick it out
but here I am, forty years on, still teaching –
happily. And yet I disliked both primary and
high school. Things I dislike, that make me
miserable, often become focal points for my
satire; and, after all, my mentor, Dickens,
slung a stone or two at British schools.
The schools you mention, with ridiculous
names, are microcosms of Rhodesian culture.
Especially after independence, the dwindling
white community held on to their way of
life through sports clubs, churches, and
private schools. There is something pathetic
but also something heroic in this. If I ever
write another “school” satire, based on my
experiences at Christian Brothers College,
which has an elderly white headmaster and a
90% black enrolment, it will be motivated by
affection. Most of the government schools, on
the other hand, have become focal points for
mismanagement and corruption, microcosms
of the ruling party.
DS: Finally – another question about
where you think you belong. Several
southern African authors, amongst them
Doris Lessing and JM Coetzee (both Nobel
prize winners in fact) have felt it necessary
to leave Africa at some stage in their lives
– despite having their sensibilities shaped
indelibly by the continent. Can you imagine
yourself ever leaving Africa and writing
elsewhere?
JE: All the trees I have planted - in my
garden and the school where I teach - I want
to watch them grow; and if I’m lucky enough
to die on my bed, I’ll be able to see, before
my eyes close for good, the canopy of a
Commifera mollis (which I once nicknamed
the Elbow Tree) and a crested barbet tugging
at its fruit … so, no (how I love rhymes), I
can’t imagine myself ever leaving Africa and
living elsewhere.
DS: Thanks for sharing your thoughts
and opinions.
Notes
1 Poems to compare in this regard are “Matabele
dry” (1960s) with “Our last hotspell” (1990s) in
John Eppel’s Songs my country taught me.
2 Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front,
Robert Mugabe’s ruling party since independence
in 1980.
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111INTERVIEW
3 Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was originally “owned”
and run by the British South Africa Chartered
Company.
4 These are or were ruling party politicians and/or
war veterans in the forefront of the so-called “Third
Chimurenga”, the controversial land revolution.
5 Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition
party formed in 1999.
Works cited
Chennells, Anthony. 2004. John Eppel: an appreciation.
Poetry International. 2004/7/1 (http://zimbabwe.
poetryinternationalweb.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_
module/index.php?obj_id=5731).
Chirere, Memory. 2010. Review. State of the nation:
African writing Online Issue 8. 2010/5/24 (http://
kalamu.posterous.com/review-bookstate-of-thenation-
by-memory-chir).
Eppel, John. 2004. The Caruso of Colleen Bawn and
other short stories. Bulawayo: ‘amaBooks: back
cover.
____ 2006. Hatchings. Bulawayo: ‘amaBooks.
____ 2007a. White man crawling. Bulawayo:
‘amaBooks.
____. 2007b. Ashes. In: Irene Staunton (ed). Laughing
now. Harare: Weaver: 43-46.
Mangwanda, Khombe. 2006. Introduction. In: Eppel,
John. Hatchings. Bulawayo: ‘amaBooks.
Ndlovu, Thabisani. 2009. A view of postcolonial
Zimbabwe through the eyes of two angry
jesters: Dambudzo Marechera and John
Eppel. Unpublished paper. Unpaginated.
Nyamfukudza, Stanley. 2005. To skin a skunk:
some observations on Zimbabwe’s intellectual
development. In: Mai Palmberg and Ranka
Primorac (eds). Skinning the skunk - facing
Zimbabwean futures, Discussion Papers 30
(December 13). Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.
Primorac, Ranka. 2008. “Dictatorships are transient”:
Chenjerai Hove interviewed by Ranka Primorac.
The Journal of commonwealth literature 43: 135.
Rumens, Carol. 2010. Guardian. Poem of the Week:
Jasmine by John Eppel. 2010/7/12 (http://www.
guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jul/12/
jasmine-john-eppel-poetry).
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Triptych

Last year, www.zimachievers.com announced a new short story competition to promote Zimbabwean writers.  There was to be a $1 000 prize for the winner.  Five writers were shortlisted.  I was one of them.  Months later I heard, indirectl,y that I had won.   Nothing happened, however.  In the immortal words of Roy Orbison, ‘It’s over’.  At least I got my story back, so I can share it with you (singular?).

 

TRIPTYCH

 

1

 

The heat was intense.  It came hurtling down from the sun.  It bounced off the barren sub-soil.  It turned the air into breath.   He paused to rinse his parched mouth.  The water from his bottle was above blood temperature.  In the distance he could make out the rocky hill where he would set up an observation post.  Patrolling was unpopular with most of the troopers; it was arduous, walking for days on end, lugging up to 50 kilograms of equipment.  There was seldom any action, not like Fireforce.  The day before, his stick had accounted for two Charlie Tangos, somewhere in the Mtoko area.  Now he was close to Mozambican territory, alone, with a radio, an FN rifle, 100 rounds, and three grenades. Their safety levers had been taped down.  He carried water and rations for three days.

 

This was Cornwallis’ first solo mission, and he relished it.  No mocking jibes from the other ouens every time he took an interest in an insect or a bird or a wild flower.  He fingered the cob of marijuana deep in the pocket of his camo-jacket, which he had looted from the body of one of the gooks they had slotted the day before.  He was looking forward to the brew up and the smoke he would indulge in after making camp.

 

His OP overlooked a village and a known crossing point for ZANLA operatives.  His first task, once he’d reached the hill, would be to search it for caves or overhangs, which might be harbouring the enemy.   How did his mother, with her incessant quotes, put it – cave-keeping evils that obscurely sleep.  Something like that. He recalled stories of how dangerous caves had been to the imperial forces and the settler volunteers during the 1896 rebellions.  The Shona chiefs built their kraals on or close to rocky hills where caves, some of them extremely deep, provided places to hide, places to store goods, places for rituals, and places to ambush the enemy, as was the case with Lieutenant William E. Barnes during a raid on Gatsi’s kraal.  He poked his nose into the opening of a cave and was shot, point-blank, in the chest.  The weapon was a so-called “family gun”, a relic of the Napoleonic wars, which could be loaded with anything from bottle tops to telegraph wires.

 

A stink of formic acid rose up from the parched earth as predatory Matabele ants ran in all directions looking for beetles and chongololos to terminate with extreme prejudice.  From a distance came the anxious call of a Jacobin cuckoo in search of a bulbul’s nest.  It was well into November but no sign of rain.  Cornwallis returned his water bottle to its place on his belt, adjusted his Bergen, looked cautiously around for any sign of human life, and proceeded on his way.

 

As he approached the hill he slipped his rifle off his shoulder, released the safety catch, and brought it into firing position. He was startled by a family of dassies scurrying down from a cabbage tree, newly in leaf.  The late afternoon sun was beginning to dip behind the highest point of the hill, a split granite boulder, which resembled a still-life of a loaf of bread.  With a practised eye, the eighteen year old trooper searched for a cave, or a crevice wide enough to accommodate an emaciated floppy and his AK 47.  He made his way around the entire perimeter of the hill, looking also for an easy ascent.  His heart began to thump when he discovered a disguised pathway.  He was no tracker but he soon discerned barefoot prints, and he followed these, higher and higher up the hill until, just below the precipice, he found a cave.  Clusters of sumach beans, now covered in tiny yellowish flowers and the woody threads of last year’s pods, would have concealed the entrance from below.

 

A dilemma presented itself to Cornwallis.  The safest way to clear a cave would be to toss in a grenade, but that would alert the village to his presence.  If he looked into the opening, he might end up like poor Lieutenant Barnes, with a hole through his chest.  He decided to move as close to the side of the cave as possible, then wait and listen.  He picked his way through the curious vegetation of granite: lichens in four colours, silver clubmoss, ferns, vellozia, and the dead-alive resurrection plant.  At the lip of the cave, he squatted, listening for the slightest indication of life in that dark recess.  He had about two more hours of daylight at his disposal.

 

When a flock of redwing starlings started making noisy preparations for bed, Cornwallis decided to investigate the cave.  He removed his camo-jacket and hung it on the barrel-end of his rifle.   He was going to test the waters, so to speak.  He pushed it, at shoulder height, round the edge of the cave.  Nothing happened.  He jiggled it.  Nothing.  He shook it off the barrel, took a deep breath, and swung into the cave.  It reeked of dassie urine.  When his eyes got used to the gloom, Cornwallis noticed an alien object halfway in to the recess.  It was pink and tiny – a knitted baby’s booty.  His mind went back to the footprints on the pathway – small, bare feet.  A young mother, perhaps, or a sibling tasked with playing mommy for the day.  The cave was about six metres deep, with a roof that sloped down from bending height at the entrance to crawling height at the gloomy back, where the trooper noticed a large clay pot.  He needed to investigate this, but what if it was a booby trap?  What if the cave extended beyond the limit of his vision, a sudden left turn, say, where death might be huddling?

 

He checked his safety catch, pointed his rifle at the pot, and advanced.  It was full of fresh water.  There were no booby traps, no extensions to the cave, but the water pot was very suspicious.   Cornwallis decided then and there to set up his OP, not overlooking the village and the ZANLA crossing point, but the pathway which led to the cave.  He returned to the entrance, looked carefully around, picked up the croaking call of a purple-crested lourie, and the more distant clonk of a goat bell, and then broke off some twigs of resurrection plant in order to sweep away boot prints in the soft sift of the cave floor.  “Soft sift” – didn’t his mother have something to say about that?

 

By the time he had located a suitable OP – between slices of the granite loaf, the sun had set, but there was enough light to make camp.  From his Bergen he dug out a little gas stove, a cigarette lighter, an aluminium pot and a rat pack.  With the remaining water in his bottle, he started the sacred process of a brew up.  While he waited for the water to boil he set about rolling himself a joint.  This was the life.  His site was reasonably flat, and there was enough organic matter lying around to make a not too uncomfortable bed upon the rock.

 

While he dined on a tin of Vienna sausages in baked beans, the moon rose bathing all the world in a lemon yellow light.  Why did his mother persist in calling it a ghostly galleon?  He wondered what his family were doing at that moment.  Without a doubt his sister, Ladybird, would be swotting for her O-levels; indeed, she was in the middle of writing her finals.  His mother would be talking to her kitchen utensils while preparing an impossible pie or a pudding delicious.  And his father?  Probably setting up claymores around isolated farm houses.  Wearing his dark blue police reserve uniform.  He had been proud of Cornwallis for joining the RLI – “they have the faces of boys but they fight like lions” – instead of the Territorial forces like most of the other school leavers.  He kept urging his son to join the Selous Scouts or the SAS, but Cornwallis knew his limitations.  The RLI had taken him on only because, in 1978, they were becoming so short of manpower.  Still he hadn’t let them down, and his Commander had hinted at promotion to lance corporal if he continued to prove himself during Fireforce operations.  With his radio and his rifle close at hand, Cornwallis slid fully clothed into his light sleeping bag, turned onto his side, and quickly fell into a profound sleep.

 

He was awoken by a dawn chorus of warblers and chats and babblers.  He used a handful of precious water to rinse his eyes, dug out his binoculars, and began his observation.  The sun hadn’t yet risen but the early light aided him sufficiently.  The direct approach to the cave was thick with bush, so “visitors” would probably skirt the hill.  In that case he wouldn’t be able to see them till they had begun their ascent.  He didn’t expect any activity until much later in the day.  Time for breakfast.  He made himself a pot of tea and opened a can of pilchards in chilli sauce.  He scooped out the mess with hard biscuits, and crunched happily away.  A rustling sound momentarily startled him.  It was an indignant leguaan whose territory he had invaded.  There was a gathering of clouds on the reddening horizon, a faint promise of rain later in the day.

 

After draining his tea, he got up to relieve himself as far away from his camp as possible.  This happened to be the place where he should have set up his OP.  He was in mid spray when his keen eyes picked out three antlike figures moving slowly out of the village towards the hill.  He finished his business and went to fetch his binoculars.  He made himself as inconspicuous as possible, prone, raised slightly on his elbows, like a leguaan, and focussed his lenses.  The ants metamorphosed into ravens, then baboons, then… his heart began to thump… terrorists.  They were walking in single file, slowly, because the one at the back seemed to be wounded.  He was dragging a leg.  The other two were heavily armed.  The leader had a rocket launcher over his left shoulder and a rifle in his right hand.  Number two was lugging a machine gun, an RPG-2, and – Cornwallis made out – even at such a distance, two or three Chinese manufactured stick grenades dangling from his waist.

 

What he should have done was radio his commander and request backup, but Cornwallis saw an opportunity to become a hero, earn the Bronze Cross, perhaps.  How proud Blossom would be!  He leopard-crawled to his camp site, and prepared himself for battle.  He put on his webbing, checked his magazines, removed the tape from the safety levers on his grenades, and pulled some two-by-four through the barrel of his FN.  He returned to his binoculars and trained them on the approaching trio.  The wounded man was now lagging quite far behind.  Were they headed for the cave?

 

The sun was quite high and burning the back of the trooper’s neck when the two armed men moved beyond the angle of his vision.  The wounded man was close enough for Cornwallis to see that he was completely unarmed.  His face was twisted in agony and he was using both  hands to drag the useless limb.  It looked like a thigh wound – the entire trouser leg was soaked in dark blood.  Cornwallis hurried to the other side of the hill top but there was no sight, not yet, of the other two.  He felt a slight panic in his bowels.  He scanned every inch of ground within his vision.  Nothing.  He decided to return to the village side to see if he could follow the progress of the wounded man, but he was nowhere to be seen.  He ordered himself not to panic, and was about to return to the cave side when he noticed an antlike figure emerging from one of the village huts.  He re-focussed his binoculars: the ant metamorphosed into a raven, then a monkey, then… a girl, a young woman, bearing two loads, one on her head and one on her back.

 

He scuttled over to the cave side.  If they were heading there he should be able to see them without the aid of binoculars.  Soon he should be able to hear them.  Eyes peeled, ears intent, rifle poised… he waited.  Nothing.  Perhaps the two armed men were already in the cave, waiting for their wounded comrade.  Why didn’t they help him?  The bastards.  Better check on the nanny….  She was on the same track as the terrorists, heading towards the hill.  The load on her head was an aluminium pot; the load on her back was a baby.  The bitch was going to feed them!  In the cave.

 

He returned to his OP and was just in time to see the wounded man crawling towards the cave.  So, the other two were already inside.  His mild panic was restored to mounting excitement.  He would wait until the arrival of the girl, give them a bit of time to tuck into their sadza and relish – that would relax their vigilance – and then obliterate them.  An image of the coveted Bronze Cross swam into his ken; then one of his father, holding him in a tight embrace… son, you did me proud!  He slipped the high explosive grenade into the right pocket of his camo-jacket, and the white phosphorus into the left pocket.  Then he waited for the girl to enter his angle of vision.

 

She was wearing a dress so ragged, it wouldn’t survive another wash.  Around her neck dangled a string of lucky beans – a flash of red to enhance the mosaic of lichens under her feet.  She was lugging the pot up the gentle incline, while her baby slept against her back.  She looked very young.  Cornwallis felt an incongruous surge of desire.  She entered the cave.  He waited for about five minutes and then, ever so stealthily, making no more noise than a monitor lizard, proceeded to move.

 

Near the lip of the cave, grenade at the ready, he sat on his haunches and listened.  The baby was gurgling, and the girl was humming an ancient tune.  The men were silent.  Cornwallis regretted that an innocent victim would have to be sacrificed but this was war.  How did his mother put it… when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger.  Something like that.  Using his teeth, he removed the pin of the high explosive grenade, counted the required seconds, lobbed it into the cave, and dived for cover.

 

The explosion was deafening.  Even more deafening was the silence that followed.  Trooper Swinburne waited for the smoke to clear, then, FN at the ready, swung into the cave.  The water pot was smashed.  Lumps of stiff porridge were strewn all over the place.  The wounded soldier was mangled.  The girl was barely alive.  Along with its pink booty, the baby had now lost the top of its head to shrapnel.  Of the two heavily armed soldiers there was no sign.  They would be well on their way to the Mozambican border.

 

She was staring at him, eyes like saucers.  Gay maroon patterns, spreading, put some life into the fadedness of her dress.  While she feebly groped for her baby, Cornwallis dropped his trousers and, after some difficulty, found what he wanted to find, well lubricated with seeping blood, and as he moved in and out of her gradually cooling body, he blubbered, “I’m sorry… I’m sorry… so sorry… so sorry….”

 

2

 

The madam was having her friends to tea.  She had just rung the bell for more hot water, talking, talking, nineteen to the dozen.  Nobuhle could hear every word from the kitchen.

“I can picture them now, those little tykes, arguing about whose turn it was for Blossom’s leftovers.  They used to wait by the gate… goodness, I’m a poet and yet I didn’t know it… not the main gate… isn’t that an example of assonance? But the little ‘wicked wicket’ gate… who can guess where I’m quoting from? Olga?  You’re the literary type.  Come on, it’s easy… no? Edwin Muir… or was it Blunden?  Anyway… this shortbread is delicious, Mabel, thank you for bringing it… anyway, it was the one near the servant’s quarters, and Blossom always came home through that gate… you see it was a short cut to his work… mind you the ticks on that path… remind me to ask you for the recipe… you use butter, don’t you?  But butter… ‘but butter’… I like that… it’s so expensive…when you can get it… anyway, those kids of mine… thank you, Nobby, please fuga lapa lo ma pot… basop… haikona enza lo ma spilling… I can just picture them… but fancy fighting over Blossom’s leftovers… half a cup of tepid tea… alliteration… still in his thermos flask, and maybe a stale egg sandwich… I mean… you could have knocked me down with a feather.”

 

Nobuhle returned to the kitchen and hovered.  That bell always put her into a nervous state.  She had never got used to it.  It reminded her of the bell in the Shu-Shine bus that took her to Kezi, the one the passengers rang when they needed to relieve themselves, or  be dropped off.  And that reminded her of the day she was brutally raped and left for dead, dangling from that marula tree.  The smell of the fruit still made her nauseous, and the madam insisted on making her collect it by the basketful, in order to make her prize-winning jelly.

 

Maye, but that was a terrible time, right from the first road block just outside Bulawayo.  Every few kilometres they had been stopped and searched, not by police but by soldiers.  Anyone carrying food was accused of supporting dissidents.  Their food was confiscated and they were clapped – even elderly women – by the soldiers.  Luckily for Nobuhle and one or two others, their bags of mealie meal had been stashed on the roof of the bus underneath some corrugated iron sheets, and they went unnoticed. By the time they got to Kezi there was not a single young man left on the bus.

At her family home in Donkwe Donkwe village there was mayhem.  All the men including her father and her fifteen year old son had been shot dead, accused of concealing firearms.   The remaining women and children were on the point of starvation, so Nobuhle’s bag of mealie meal was most welcome.  But it did not do Nobuhle any good.

 

On her second day home, while she was cooking a communal meal in a large, battered enamel pot, some drunken soldiers wearing red berets arrived and accused her of feeding dissidents.  They ordered her to strip naked, tied her wrists with electric cable, and hoisted her so that she dangled from a tree branch, her big toes just touching the rotting fruit on the ground below.  The soldiers had great fun spinning her like a top and then raping her – sometimes from the front, sometimes from the back – over and over again.  There must have been about ten or twelve of them.  The other women and children had fled into the bush, and this angered the soldiers so much that they set fire to all the huts.  They lost interest in Nobuhle when she lost consciousness, and left her hanging there.

 

When the villagers returned, they brought her down from the tree, washed her and helped her get dressed.  When the life returned to her fingers and she was strong enough to walk, she made her way to St Joseph’s Mission in Matobo South, and there she was cared for, and there she remained until she felt strong enough to return, on foot, through the bush, to Bulawayo.  The madam took her back without much complaining.

 

The bell rang.  “Nobby, buya tata lo ma things but yega lo ma shortbread ka lo Missis Mabel, iswili?”

 

“Yes, Madam.”  Nobuhle came in with a tray and cleared the table of everything but the plate of shortbread.  She was dressed in a floral patterned maid’s uniform with matching apron and doek.  She returned to the kitchen and hovered.

 

“I simply don’t know where I… where Blossom and I went wrong with those children – one’s an alcoholic, the other’s a lesbian.  I mean, can you credit it… ‘credit it’… I like that.”  The others had heard it all before.  They were patient with Mimi.  Fortunately she started a choking fit, from a crumb of shortbread, which had gone down the wrong way, and this gave them the opportunity to get down to the real business of the gathering, which was to read Ethel’s play – a doggerel adaptation of one of Kipling’s “Just So Stories”.

 

“Kipling’s out of favour, you know,” remarked Olga.

 

Mimi had recovered from her fit: “Which white male writer isn’t?  Ask my daughter, if she’ll bother to talk to you.  Even Shakespeare… bardicide… well I’m a bardolater and proud of it… I don’t know… I really have no idea where we went wrong.  We were always there for our children… the cakes I made for their birthdays!  One year it was a steam engine for Cornwallis and a sunflower for Ladybird; another year it was a motor car for Cornwallis and a Heidi doll for Ladybird….”  Mimi lowered her head and examined the bunion on her left thumb.  Her friends gave sympathetic murmurs – they all had stories to tell.  “You could have knocked me down with a feather when she told me she never wanted to speak to me again.  Once a year she comes home and stays with the girl in the servant’s quarters… brings her all sorts of gifts from Sweden… she still doesn’t realise how much Nobby hates those sweets that taste like Scrubbs Ammonia… and those pickled herrings, which I would give my back teeth… well, dentures…. As for that no-good son of mine… how old is he? – 48 and still living at home. All those wasted years at university.  He does nothing… sits in his room all day and smokes and drinks and listens to opera…”

 

“But Mimi, he got badly damaged in the war.”

 

“It was his decision to join the R.L.I.”

 

“He would have been called up, anyway.”

 

“What about his garden?  Doesn’t he love gardening?”

 

“Yes… there is that… but-”

 

Listen, let’s change the subject, shall we?  Ethel, let’s read.”

 

“Yes, no… I was thinking of Cornwallis’s little garden.  He does make an effort in that regard… he has these beautiful little plants… such a fresh shade of green… that remind me of miniature cabbage trees… did you know that dassies browse on their leaves… you should see the jars upon jars of rolled mops, which she forces down that poor girl’s throat… did you ever try Sapphics, Olga?  Maybe we should-”

 

“Mimi!  Please!”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry….”

 

3

 

Dr L.T. “Bug” Swinburne, was lying on her Gogo’s creaky iron bed, its four legs propped on concrete breeze bricks (a tried and tested defence against tokoloshes), its uneven mattress prickly with coir.  She was reading through her paper, due be published in the journal of African Cultural Studies, and entitled “Troping the Trope: Vaginis-music in Yvonne Vera’s The Stone Virgins”.  She was still simmering with anger at her brother’s cynical dismissal of her analysis of the beautifully horrific scene where Sibaso, the Ndebele dissident, after beheading Tenjiwe and then dancing with her body, turns to her sister, Nonceba, and spends an entire chapter raping and mutilating her in a choreography that would have made Nijinski’s knees buckle.

 

“You know what Primo Levi would have called that,” he had said.

 

“What?”

 

“‘Aesthetic affectation’.”

 

“He would.  He is a man.”

 

“Was.  He committed suicide.”

 

“Why don’t you take his cue, Cornwallis?”

 

“I’m already dead.”

 

“You reek of self-pity.”

 

“And you reek of sanctimony.”

 

“Fuck you!”

 

“Jesus, why vaginas?  Why not something less in-your-face like cracks or slits or seams…”

 

“They’ve all been taken.”

 

“By your fellow academics?”

 

“Look, it’s not just vaginas; it’s a combination of ‘vaginismus’, which is a painful spasmodic contraction, and ‘music’, which is one of Vera’s privileged tropes.”

 

“Oh gawd!”

 

This recall of the altercation kept imposing itself between her cutting-edge persona and the 3 000 word paper.

 

Once a year she returned to the country of her birth, Zimbabwe, to visit the woman who had reared her and her pathetic older brother.  Gogo’s real name was Nobuhle Xaba and she had worked for the Swinburne family since 1960, the year Cornwallis was born.  She came from the Donkwe Donkwe area near Kezi.  She used to go home fairly regularly, until the troubles began in the 80s.  In April, 1984, she responded to a distress call from a family member (Miss Ladybird had just returned to her university in South Africa) and quickly boarded a bus for Kezi.  A month later she had not returned, and the Swinburnes thought she had abandoned them.  Another month passed, and another; then, one day, she turned up at their gate looking ill and miserable enough for Mimi not to berate her.  Gogo wouldn’t go into details but, clearly, she’d been seriously traumatized.  She was put on light chores and fed huge helpings of Mimi’s famous puddings, until she became strong enough to resume her normal duties.  She never went back to Donkwe Donkwe.

 

It was at the University of Natal, studying for a BA in English and History, that Bug (she hated her given names, Ladybird Titania) became politicised.  The shock of realising that she had grown up in a sub-culture that regarded black people as inferior to white people, and treated them as such, turned her overnight against her own people, her family in particular.  She began a series of love affairs designed to cut her parents to the quick – with black men, with known communists, with what her father called dykes; and she became promiscuous.  She cut off all her hair and she pierced her nostrils with a sliver of bone.  She ceased to keep herself clean and began to stink, according to her brother, like rotting butternut.  She read Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Marylin French… and it dawned on her that women were probably just as oppressed as black men, though not in the same league as black women, who suffered the double bind of racial as well as gender oppression – hence her obsessive interest, two decades later, in writers like Yvonne Vera.  Her sick-in-the-head brother insisted on calling the great novelist a Canadian.

 

“She wasn’t a Canadian, you fuckwit, she was Zimbabwean.”

 

“She had Canadian citizenship.”

 

“So?”

 

“So, Zimbabweans aren’t allowed dual citizenship.  It’s a jailable offence.”

 

They saw each other only for a few days a year; and they spent it quarrelling.  But at least Bug talked to her brother.  She completely ignored poor Mimi, and spent most of her time with Gogo in the servant’s quarters.  Friends of the family were convinced that it was Bug’s behaviour which sent her father, Blossom, to an early grave.

 

Bug was simultaneously re-reading her analysis of the rape scene and smarting at her brother’s comments.  While she saw it as balletic, Terpsichorean, he called it hokey-cokey: “You put your left knee in, you take your left knee out, you put your left knee in and you wiggle it about…”

 

“The trouble with you bigoted white men is that you can conceive of history only in linear time.  From head to toe you are hierarchical, and you place yourselves firmly on the top.  Well, my friend, your days are numbered….  Can’t you see that Yvonne Vera subverts those notions?”

 

Can’t you see that Yvonne Vera’s so-called novels are typological?  She herself was an academic steeped in the same theories as the incestuous band of PhDs she wrote for. She knew exactly what postmodernist feminists thrive on: aporias, tropes, subalternity, liminality…fucksake!”

 

Nobuhle arrived, tired out after a day’s housekeeping, and Bug slid off her bed.  “Gogo, come and lie down for a while.  I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.”

 

Nobuhle knew not to argue with the Picanin Missis.  She gave her a smile, climbed onto the bed – she knew what was coming next – and made her tackies available for Bug to untie and gently remove.  “Shall I give your feet a rub?”

 

“Thank you, Bugi.  The Madam is cross today.”

 

“What now?”

 

“She says the other Madams tease her.  She…” Nobuhle broke off to stifle a giggle… “she says they say her face is like other madams’ bums.”

 

“What?”  Bug beamed as she pressed her thumbs into the soles of her Gogo’s worn out feet.  “Because she talks shit.”

 

Nobuhle winced as Bug’s thumbs suddenly behaved as if they were at her mother’s throat.  “Sorry, Gogo.  Let me put some camphor cream on your heels.”

 

“I only have Vaseline.  There, by the window ledge.”

 

“That should work.”  She fetched the jar of Vaseline, opened it, scooped some grease with her left index finger, closed the jar, returned it to the window ledge, and returned to her Gogo’s feet.  “My people,” she sighed; “and the governing episteme is almost as bad.  Why?  Because African nationalism is patriarchal.”

 

“I do not understand.”

 

“Men, Gogo, amadoda!”

 

“Oh!  By the way!” She laughed.

 

“It’s not funny, you know.”  Then she thought, I must work on this Manichaean tendency of mine, learn like Yvonne Vera to insinuate the alterity of the voiceless into hegemonic space.  Gogo’s pads were as hard and as rough as Brazil nut shells.  “Men, obsessed with virginity and rape.  Contradictory bastards.  Now, let’s have some tea and some of that nice pickled herring I brought you from-”

 

“Tsss, Bugi, it is hurting!”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, Gogo, so sorry….”