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Whiteness and African writing
with Writers interviews John Eppel
December 03, 2008
with John Eppel
with Writers: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Eppel: 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
with Writers: Who would you say has influenced you the
Eppel: 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.
with Writers: What are your main concerns as a writer?
Eppel: 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.
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 fanagalo, 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
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!
with Writers: How have your personal experiences influenced
the direction of your writing?
Eppel: 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.
with Writers: What would you say are the biggest challenges
that you face?
Eppel: 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.
with Writers: How do you deal with these challenges?
Eppel: 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.
with Writers: How many books have you written so far?
Eppel: 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.
with Writers: How much time do you spend on your writing?
Eppel: 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.
* This interview
appears courtesy of Conversations with Writers. If you are a writer
interested in participating, please contact Ambrose Musiyiwa at
this email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* John Eppel
is an award-winning poet and novelist. 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
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