[Interview_2] John Eppel

John Eppel is a teacher, an award-winning poet, short story writer and novelist.

His books include the poetry collections, Spoils of War (The Carrefour Press, 1989) and Songs My Country Taught Me (Weaver Press, 2005) as well as the novels, Hatchings (amaBooks, 2006) and Absent: The English Teacher (Weaver Press, 2009).

In this interview, John Eppel talks about Together (amaBooks, 2011), his latest book:

How would you describe Together?

My latest book, Together, is a joint affair, combining poems and short stories by Julius Chingono and me; so it’s our latest book – a poignant phrase since Julius did not live to see it in print.

I wrote my portion of the book in 2008. Since I was earning almost nothing as a teacher, I applied for a year’s leave, and wrote three books: a novel, Absent: the English Teacher, a collection of short stories, White Man Walking, and a collection of poems, Landlocked. I sent them to Weaver Press who accepted the novel but rejected the poems and short stories. It was from these rejected items that my contribution to Together was made.

I sent Landlocked to three other publishers, Snailpress (Cape Town), Bloodaxe (UK), Carcanet Press (UK), all of whom rejected it.

Then Julius and I met with Brian Jones and Jane Morris of amaBooks, and we decided to bring out a joint volume. The title was suggested by Brian, and the project was generously supported by the Zimbabwe Culture Fund Trust. Dr Drew Shaw of Midlands State University agreed to write an introduction, and it wasn’t long before the University of New Orleans Press and the University of Kwazulu-Natal Press agreed to co-publish.

What advantages and/or disadvantages has your choice of publishers presented?

amaBooks of Bulawayo would have been my first choice for all my books, but they seldom have the wherewithal to finance a publication; that is largely because they have the commitment (and courage) to promote new Zimbabwean writing, including poetry, which almost nobody buys. Indeed, more people write poetry than read it!

An obvious disadvantage with a small, underfunded publisher like amaBooks, is distribution; and the sort of promotion you get with big publishers, like book-signings at major retail outlets, appearances on radio and television etc.

A huge advantage for a writer like me, who has a tiny readership, is that small publishers, who are more committed to promoting literature than to profiteering, will accept my books. My most recent, still unpublished novel, The Boy Who Loved Camping, spent more than seven months with Penguin South Africa before it was rejected on the grounds that the publishers did not think they could make a commercial success of it.

One significant way amaBooks has dealt with these problems, in the case of Together, has been to persuade publishers from two other countries to co-publish. That can only benefit the distribution and the promotion of the book.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

I didn’t find anything difficult. The publishers, on the other hand, were particularly disturbed by one of my stories, “Of the Fist”, set during the run-up to the 2008 Presidential elections, which they asked me to omit. It’s a very violent story about political rape and murder, based on a real incident. Come to think of it, most of my stories and poems in this anthology are based on real incidents. We replaced “Of the Fist” with a harmless satirical sketch called “The CWM”.

For most of my writing life, I have thought of my predicament as someone who is neither African nor European to be a disadvantage; as if, somehow, I had slipped through a crack; but now that my years as a Zimbabwean have caught up with my years as a Rhodesian, the crack has metamorphosed into a threshold, a magical place where opposites merge, where contradictions become paradoxes. Now I don’t have the bitter thought that I am neither African nor European; I have the sweet sensation that I am African and European. And it is this aspect of my work that I have enjoyed most. I can imagine cutting-edge experts in postcolonial literature snorting at these sentiments, but I’m too old now to care.

What sets Together apart from other things you've written?

The potent symbolism of two elderly Zimbabweans from different cultures, races, regions… coming together and sealing a fissure. It’s a pity one of us isn’t a woman!

In what way is it similar to the others?

It is steeped in irony, which can so easily be misread.

It is frequently funny in the way that a cartoon is funny. When Ranka Primorac said, in an essay entitled “Poised for Literature’s Last Laugh”, that “There is remarkably little laughter resonating across the history of Zimbabwean literature”, she swept Julius Chingono and me under the carpet.

How many books have you written so far?
  • Spoils of War, 1989 (The Carrefour Press, Cape town), poetry.
  • DGG Berry’s The Great North Road, 1992 (The Carrefour Press, Cape Town and Hippogriff, Johannesburg), novel.
  • Hatchings, 1993 (The Carrefour Press, Cape Town), novel. [re-published by amaBooks in 2006]
  • The Giraffe Man, 1994 (Queillerie, Pretoria), novel
  • Sonata for Matabeleland, 1995 (Snailpress, Cape Town and Baobab, Harare), poetry.
  • Selected Poems 1965-1995, 2001 (Childline).
  • The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, 2001 (amaBooks, Bulawayo), novel.
  • The Holy Innocents, 2002 (amaBooks, Bulawayo), novel
  • The Caruso of Colleen Bawn, 2004 (amaBooks, Bulawayo), poems and short stories.
  • Songs My Country Taught Me, 2005 (Weaver Press, Harare), poetry.
  • White Man Crawling, 2007 (amaBooks, Bulawayo), poems and short stories.
  • The Boy Who Loved Camping, 2008 [awaiting a publisher], novel.
  • Absent: The English Teacher, 2009 (Weaver Press, Harare and Jacana, Johannesburg) novel.
  • Together, with Julius Chingono, 2011 (amaBooks, Bulawayo and UNO, New Orleans and UKZN, Durban), poems and short stories.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I think, the way I have learned to fuse, mainly through parody, prosody with socio-political commentary.

In my poems in Together, you will find examples of the Blues, the sestina, the haiku, the ballad, the sonnet, the Sapphic, vers libre, dramatic monologue, pure lyric... I even invented a new form, which I (no longer secretly) call duodecadina. It is called “Yet another Flower Poem” and it consists of two ten-line stanzas. Each line consists of fifteen syllables, and the end words of the first stanza are repeated exactly in the end words of the second stanza. If you don’t notice all these details when you read it (with enjoyment!) it succeeds. It is an attempt at the art which conceals art. Of course, a lot of this has to do with healthy self-mockery.

Do you write every day?

I write during school holidays and occasionally over the weekends.

With poetry I get an image or a rhythmic cluster of words, almost never an idea. The moment of inspiration is passive, like a flower awaiting pollination. With prose (most of the time), it’s the other way round, a bee looking for a flower to pollinate.

In a sense, my writing never ends - it stops.

Photo credit: Ben Williams, Books LIVE

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