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Interview 2 with John Eppel
October 13, 2011
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:
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.
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
advantages and/or disadvantages has your choice of publishers presented?
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, under funded 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.
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
aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?
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
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!
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.
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.
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),
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)
with Julius Chingono, 2011 (amaBooks, Bulawayo and UNO, New Orleans
and UKZN, Durban), poems and short stories.
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
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.
write every day?
I write during
school holidays and occasionally over the weekends.
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.
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