Interview [1] _ John Eppel

In addition to writing short stories, John Eppel is also an award-winning poet and novelist.

His list of achievements is impressive. His first novel, D.G.G. Berry’s The Great North Road (1992), won the M-Net Prize in South Africa. His second novel, Hatchings (1993), was short-listed for the M-Net Prize and his third novel, The Giraffe Man (1994), has been translated into French.

His first poetry collection, Spoils of War (1989), won the Ingrid Jonker Prize. Other poems have been featured in anthologies that include The Heart in Exile South African Poetry in English 1990-1995 (1996) while his short stories have appeared in anthologies that include Writing Now: More Stories from Zimbabwe (2005).

In a recent email interview, John Eppel spoke about his writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

About age 12. Around that time I stopped believing in God, I became consciously aware of my mortality, I began to feel uneasy about my privileged status as a white boy, and I fell in love with a girl who barely noticed me. So even at that age, it was a sense of loss combined with a flair for rhyme, which made me want to become a writer. Perhaps because I’m left-handed, I think metaphorically, which is the way lyric poets apprehend the world.

Who would you say has influenced you the most?

British writers and, marginally, North American and European writers. In my formative years I had no access to literature in English which was coming out of Africa and other colonised parts of the world. Our teachers in primary school were expats from England, Wales and Scotland, and they were very patriotic about the homes they had abandoned. Our little heads were stuffed with characters like Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Billy Goats Gruff.

Two writers who have had quite a strong influence on me are Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy (the poet, not the novelist); Dickens for his humour, his characterisation and his concern for the marginalised people of his world; Hardy for his exquisite sense of loss, not just personal loss but the loss that is felt by an entire people in times of dramatic socio-political change. I’ve also been influenced by the great satirist poets, in particular Chaucer and Pope.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern in my poetry is to find a voice, which merges British form (prosody) with African content (mostly nature) so that, if not in my life, in my art, I can find an identity which is not binary, not black/white, African/European colonizer/colonized. My main concern in my prose is to ridicule greed, cruelty, self-righteousness and related vices like racism, sexism, jingoism, and homophobia. Of course I am under no illusion that my satires will make the slightest bit of difference, but nobody, not even those who are ashamed of nothing, likes to be laughed at. I am also acutely aware that satirists are themselves prone to self-righteousness and I keep before me the words of Jesus: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

As a younger person, in the 70s and 80s I was quite preoccupied with guilt and self-loathing, a crisis of identity -- all the baggage of apartheid. But now, after a quarter of a century in independent Zimbabwe, things have balanced out a bit. In the last seven years especially, the now tiny settler community (the few filthy rich wheeler-dealers notwithstanding) seems to have paid (and continues to pay) its dues. The government controlled media, aping the ZANU PF hierarchy spews out virulent anti-white propaganda reminiscent of Rwanda just before the genocide. We are called scum, insects, Blair’s kith and kin. The once neutral Ndebele word for a white person, Makiwa, now has pejorative connotations equivalent to mabhunu (boer) or even kaffir.

I am beginning to see bad behaviour more in terms of class than race. Blacks with political connections, who have been catapulted into shocking wealth, the so-called middle class (in a country where 80% of the people live in abject poverty) behave just as badly as their white counterparts behave. They are Rhodies too; their desire for ostentation, parading their Pajeros (the women at 40 km per hour!) and their Mercedes Benzes, acquiring not one suburban home but a dozen; not one farm but a dozen; not one overseas trip per year but a dozen, makes me sick at heart.

Something else which deeply concerns me is the place, the “soil”, the people where I grew up and where I still live: Matabeleland. But here a dark cloud hovers above me. I grew up speaking, not Ndebele but fanakalo, a kind of 'lingua franca', which originated in the gold mines of South Africa where migrant workers speaking many different languages were employed. It is a language of oppression which I have not been able to unlearn and which interferes with my attempts to speak proper Ndebele. I am always afraid of accidentally saying something offensive; consequently I keep quiet or speak in English. Most Africans, even those with little formal education, speak several languages.

The spirit of Matabeleland is to be experienced most potently in the Matobo hills, which were inhabited thousands of years ago by the aboriginal people of this region. They left a legacy of awesome rock paintings. It is also the location of a sacred shrine (at Njelele) revered by Ndebele and Shona alike; it is a retreat for Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus and poets. It is epiphanic!

How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

A lot, of course. I was four years old when my parents emigrated to Rhodesia from South Africa. My father was a miner; my mother was a housewife. They never owned one square inch of this land. When my parents left Zimbabwe shortly after Independence they took with them an old Volvo station-wagon stuffed with their worldly goods, and a meagre pension. So when I get lumped by the new colonisers, the NGOs (shortly to be replaced by the Chinese), with tobacco barons, safari operators, and mining magnates, it is a personal experience I resent, and it nourishes the satirist in me.

The experience of fatherhood, on the other hand, and being a school teacher, and, yes, a lover, have enriched me beyond words. That’s the bitter logic of lyric poetry: expressing the inexpressible.

When I was in my early twenties, the girl I was hoping to marry, was killed in a car accident. In my late twenties I spent two years in the Rhodesian army. I lived for several years in England working variously as a steam cleaner, picker, packer, furniture remover, nightwatchman, assistant on a cargo ship. As a Rhodesian I was labelled a fascist; as a Zimbabwean I was labelled (at least in the early years of Independence) as a Marxist-Leninist. These are all personal experiences, which have influenced my direction as a writer. Of course there are many others, not least being the ageing process, and the prospect of having to work until I drop dead.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

The same challenges that most Zimbabweans face, linked to the economic collapse of the country: how to pay the bills, how to put food on the table; how to stay alive as long as possible because it’s too expensive to get sick and die. There is no social welfare left in this country, the extended family system has collapsed; pension funds and other savings have been looted by people with huge bellies and wallets of flesh on the backs of their necks. And then there is AIDS.

Zimbabwe is, de facto, a police state. It is routine now for people to be beaten up in prison, whether or not they have been charged. People live in fear as well as hunger and illness. People are depressed. Those who can’t get out, turn their faces to the wall. There is no culture of maintenance, there is no accountability, there will always be someone else to blame. Like the Jews in history, the whites, and to a lesser extent, the Indians, have become scapegoats. When these marginalized groups have gone, it will be the turn of the Ndebeles. Then, God help this country. You ask me why all this is happening. It’s simple. It’s because of a megalomaniac who refuses to relinquish power.

How do you deal with these challenges?

I write, I work hard, I cherish the company of my children and my few friends; I drink more than I should; I fall in love! In between I read and listen to the BBC World Service. I used to watch videos but my machine broke down and I can’t afford to have it repaired. The same goes for my washing machine, my music centre, my electric frying pan, my jaffle machine and my toaster. You see, I was once quite rich for a schoolteacher.

Maybe I should get more politically involved, but it’s difficult if you are white. You tend to become a liability to the party if it’s in opposition to this government.

How many books have you written so far?

About eleven. My first book of poems, Spoils of War, was published in 1989 by a small press in Cape Town called Carrefour (now defunct). It took me twelve years to get it published. Baobab Books in Harare rejected it. It won the Ingrid Jonker prize.

My first novel, D. G. G. Berry’s The Great North Road took me fifteen years to find a publisher. No Zimbabwean publisher, including Baobab Books, was interested in it. It won the M-Net prize. Only five hundred copies were printed. My second novel, Hatchings, was shortlisted for the M-net prize. In the same year I wrote a third novel, The Giraffe Man. Both were published in South Africa.

When my second book of poems, Sonata for Matabeleland, came out in in 1995, Baobab Books, for the first time, reluctantly put their logo on its cover. It was published by Snailpress in Cape Town, and Baobab’s commitment was to undertake to sell 100 of the 1000 copies printed. As it turned out I sold seventy of those at my launch in Bulawayo. Most of the remaining 30 were sold through the Bulawayo Art Gallery.

My next two novels, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato and The Holy Innocents, were provisionally accepted by Baobab Books, on the recommendation of Anthony Chennells. Nothing was done about them for several years and then Baobab Books collapsed. Then I and some friends created ‘amaBooks publishers for the initial purpose of getting those two novels into print. We got started thanks to a generous donation by an ex-pupil of mine called Ilan Elkaim. International donors like HIVOS and SIDA and the British Council will not support white Zimbabwean writers, no matter how poor they may be. These novels were published in 2001 and 20002. In 2004 ‘amaBooks brought out The Caruso of Colleen Bawn and other Short Writings and they may, finances permitting, bring out my most recent book, White Man Crawling and other Short Writings, next year.

Incidentally, I submitted the last named book to Kwela Books in South Africa. It was rejected on the basis of this reader’s report -- I quote the final paragraph: “While the author has a pleasant conversational writing style and some stories are fairly well written, it is doubtful whether this collection is publishable as it stands. Even if the African setting of some stories might have suited Kwela’s publishing philosophy, this is not a truly original African voice, let alone an original South African voice.”

In 2001 Childline published my Selected Poems 1965-1995, and in 2005, Weaver Press published eighty of my poems in a collection called Songs My Country Taught Me. Last year Hatchings, with an introduction by Dr K. M. Mangwanda was re-published by ‘amaBooks.

How much time do you spend on your writing?

Very little. Like most serious writers I earn almost nothing from my books. I teach full time at Christian Brothers College. In between I give private lessons, and I also teach Creative Writing modules (which I wrote) for UNISA. I am also a single parent so I have untold household chores to perform. I reserve school holidays to catch up on my reading and writing. That is why I now find very short stories an appropriate form.

Photo credit: Ben Williams, Books LIVE

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Anonymous said…
This is a fabuluos interview. John is an amazing writer. I have read his books and identified with his feelings, most of the time, because he is a sad man with a warm soul.
Love you John!
Anonymous said…
Great job John, keep on walking, keep on writing, keep on living!
Zayd Minty said…
i will always remember John as Mr Eppel my english teacher for a year. he made an immense impact on me as a young man and the only teacher who i remember. As a result of his influence, I developed an interest in literary and later cultural studies, which resulted in me becoming a cultural producer and, more recently, an academic. Thanks John
Unknown said…
Mr john I am Gertrude from South Africa. I have read one your books Spoils Of War.I think that book has thought me a lot and am kooking forward to your next book

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