Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

John Eppel

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

A conversation with Drew Shaw

This article was downloaded by: [Drew Shaw]
On: 11 October 2012, At: 06:54
Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office:
Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
Scrutiny2: Issues in English Studies in
Southern Africa
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription

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
To link to this article:
Full terms and conditions of use:
This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial
or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or
distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.
The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the
contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae,
and drug doses should be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not
be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings, demand, or costs or damages whatsoever or
howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this
Narrating the Zimbabwean nation: a
conversation with John Eppel
Drew Shaw
National University of Science and Technology
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
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).
scrutiny2 17(1) 2012
issues in english studies in southern africa
ISSN: Print 1812-5441/Online 1753-5409
DOI: 10.1080/18125441.2012.706082
© Unisa Press pp 100–111
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
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
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
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
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
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.
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
– 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
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?
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
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
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.
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
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,
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
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
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
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.
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.
Downloaded by [Drew Shaw] at 06:54 11 October 2012
3 Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was originally “owned”
and run by the British South Africa Chartered
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.
Chirere, Memory. 2010. Review. State of the nation:
African writing Online Issue 8. 2010/5/24 (http://
Eppel, John. 2004. The Caruso of Colleen Bawn and
other short stories. Bulawayo: ‘amaBooks: back
____ 2006. Hatchings. Bulawayo: ‘amaBooks.
____ 2007a. White man crawling. Bulawayo:
____. 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.
Downloaded by

Please register or log in to comment