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Narrating the Zimbabwean nation: A conversation with John Eppel
Drew Shaw
October 2012

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The full text of this interview first appeared as "Narrating the Zimbabwean Nation: a conversation with John Eppel" in Scrutiny2: Issues in English Studies in Southern Africa, 17:1, 100-111 [published October, 2012], available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/18125441.2012.706082

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.

Explored 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).

Steeped in English literary tradition yet also in touch with everyday Zimbabwean realities, John Eppel writes from a post-colonial, cross-cultural 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 self-critically 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 to 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.

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