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John Eppel
November 27, 2008

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I begin my presentation on satire with reference to my application, earlier this year, for a grant as African guest writer for three months at the Nordic Africa Institute. In previous years, my applications for writers- grants were simply ignored, but this time I was put on a shortlist and then placed third out of a list of three reserves for the position.

The grant was awarded to a young Nigerian writer called Tolu Ogunlesi. The first reserve was a young Kenyan writer called Shailja Patel; the second reserve was a young Zimbabwean writer called Brian Chikwava; and the final reserve was an old Zimbabwean writer called John Eppel.

The four judges submitted a report and this is what they said about me, quote: "...a writer and teacher in Zimbabwe who has published poetry and fiction since 1982 [the late 60s, actually] but as a white and irreverent satirical writer, has not received the recognition he deserves," unquote. I applaud the judges for their honesty.

The key phrase here is "irreverent satirical writer"; but the other objection, that I am white, is not without relevance to this topic. For example, in my first novel, D G G Berry-s The Great North Road, which focuses its satire exclusively on white settlers, I use the Ndebele word, umdidi, meaning arsehole. It is the name I give to the village inhabited by the white settlers of the novel. I use the backside as a metaphor of whites, my people, behaving badly; and since the novel is partly autobiographical (the hapless protagonist, Duiker, is my alter ego), I include myself in the vicious attack. This novel won the M-Net prize in South Africa, and the administrators immediately sent press releases to the Herald and the Chronicle who ignored them. Consequently very few Zimbabweans have even heard of it, let alone read it. But one journalist who did read it (he borrowed my copy) was the late Godfrey Moyo. Godfrey dismissed the novel as racist: why? Because I used the Ndebele word, umdidi.

And this brings me to a misgiving expressed by some that although satire can play a significant role in society, ridiculing the corrupt and the complacent and the self-righteous, it can easily be misunderstood, since it is a form of irony, by less sophisticated readers as threatening to them. I-m not sure about this. There was certainly nothing unsophisticated about Godfrey Moyo and others, even fellow poets, who have chosen to misinterpret my writing by dismissing it as racist. There is indeed a long and popular tradition of satire in Africa-s oral culture. You-ll find it in songs, stories, drama, even in praise poetry. It-s probably a lot more good-natured than the Europeans, beginning with Juvenal and running through Chaucer, Rabelais, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Jane Austen, Hogarth, Monty Python, and Private Eye, but it is nevertheless there. I suspect that those who feel threatened by satire, even if they aren-t in obvious positions of power, deserve to be. Let him who is without hypocrisy toss the first cabbage! (That is a challenge I have failed many times). In any case, it wasn-t the ordinary people of Zimbabwe who suppressed for years other satirical writers like Dambudzo Marechera, Julius Chingono, and Cont Mhlanga; it was the establishment - the literary establishment in cahoots with government organs, before and after Independence. Is it not a breath of fresh air then that some of our most promising young writers: Petina Gappah, Christopher Malalazi, Brian Chikwava, to name a few, are satirists, the "born frees" who will not be blocked as the older generation was blocked by the establishment.

But the fact that even a progressive organization like the Nordic Africa Institute can be troubled by satire, to call it irreverent is tautological, is interesting to say the least. Perhaps this would be a good time to look at the genre itself, and then return to its problematic role in African cultural studies. This is how the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms defines satire: A mode of writing that exposes the failings of individuals, institutions, or societies to ridicule and scorn. Satire is often an incidental element in literary works that may not be wholly satirical, especially in comedy. Its tone may vary from tolerant amusement, as in the verse satires of the Roman poet, Horace, to bitter indignation, as in the verse of Juvenal or the prose of Jonathan Swift.

The definition goes on to make an interesting point: that the 17th and 18th centuries were the greatest period of satire in Europe because, quote: "writers could appeal to a shared sense of normal conduct from which vice and folly were seen to stray," unquote. Is there a shared sense of normal conduct in Zimbabwe? And if not, is this a possible reason why the genre of satire in the postcolonial period seems problematic?

What the definition does not point out is that, in order to succeed, satire must be funny. But not everybody finds Monty Python or "The Rape of the Lock" or "Borat" funny! Many good people find them silly or offensive. Incidentally, the direction of our laughter is a good way to distinguish between satire and comedy: in the former we laugh at the characters; in the latter we laugh with the characters. In the best tragi-comedy, like Waiting for Godot, for example, the two prepositions merge, and that can sometimes result in sadness. As the poet, Byron, said: "And if I laugh at any mortal thing, 'tis that I may not weep". Byron-s mock epic, Don Juan, is one of the great English satires.

The satirist-s stock defence is that he attacks the type and not the individual; in Jonathan Swift-s words: "No individual should resent / Where thousands equally were meant"; or Jaques in Shakespeare-s comedy As You Like It, using the sin of pride as an example:

Why, who cries out on pride,
That can therein tax any private party?
Doth it not flow as hugely as the sea...?

But in the character of Jaques, Shakespeare satirises the satirist who is disingenuous, who pretends to stand on the high moral ground but is only interested in vindictively attacking, speaking daggers at, people against whom he might have a personal grudge. And it has been suggested that Shakespeare himself, in the character of Jaques, is having a personal dig at his near contemporary, the satirist, Ben Jonson who boasted:

With an armed and resolved hand
I-ll strip the ragged follies of the time
Naked as their birth.

There is no doubt that much satirical energy is expended in personal vendettas. Here is Alexander Pope besmirching Lord Hervey:

Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings-
This painted child of dirt, that stinks and stings.

Here is Charles Dickens taking it out on Leigh Hunt, caricaturing him as the social parasite Harold Skimpole, in his novel Bleak House:

... for he must confess to two of the oldest infirmities in the world: one was, that he had no idea of time; the other, that he had no idea of money.... All he asked of society, was to let him live. That wasn-t much. His wants were few. Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-board, and a little claret, and he asked no more. He was a mere child in the world, but he didn-t cry for the moon. He said to the world, "Go your several ways in peace...go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only - let Harold Skimpole live!"

We recall the old proverb of the pot calling the kettle black. We recall the revenge of the weak - the sickly, stunted hunchback Alexander Pope, England-s greatest satirist, hurling philippics against the Beau Monde.

By way of ending this paper, I-d like to return to its beginning, and look again at the Nordic Africa Institute-s singling out my irreverence and the colour of my skin as factors which have penalised me as a writer. I don-t think they have a problem with satire itself as a genre; or whiteness itself as a condition of the skin; I think it-s the combination that worries them. I am reminded of those dreadful American comics I grew up on, cowboys and Indians, and the stock, yet pertinent, accusation: "Paleface speak with um forked tongue"; and with its history of colonisation, doesn-t Africa have every justification to distrust the ambiguous voice of the colonizer? Africa-s most famous satirist is Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka (there-s not a troubling combination); Africa-s most famous Confessional prose writer is Nobel Prize winner, J.M. Coetzee (there-s not a troubling combination.) But people smell mischief when a white settler chooses, not good-natured comedy or abject apology, but scatological, scurrilous, malicious, vicious, capricious satire. Why, then do I choose it?

I-ll tell you why. It is because I am an angry old man who has spent half his life as a Rhodesian and half his life as a Zimbabwean. In fascist Rhodesia I turned to satire because, how else could I record, in retrospect, my relatively happy childhood as 'piccanin baas John-? In totalitarian Zimbabwe I turned to satire because, how else could I record my relatively happy adulthood as 'iwe, makiwa!-? Before I became politically aware, and it happens late or never if you grew up in Colleen Bawn, I wrote poetry exclusively, and very little of it was satirical. I wrote about the usual stuff poets write about: mortality, loss, love, birds, the weather. There is, however, one aspect of my poetry that has become, over the years, satirical, and that is prosody. More and more I use it ironically, self-consciously, as a tool of self-criticism, as a tool to accuse the culture that produced it. I don-t write sonnets, I write parodies of sonnets, and parody only succeeds if it is as skilful as the object it parodies.

What inspired me most, I believe, was a sense of being rooted in the soil, and this, certainly with historical justification, but also with a good deal of political correctness, has been denied me. The historical view of the Land is that the whites looked upon it as property to exploit for material gain and the blacks looked upon it as a source of spirituality. In his interview with Ranka Primorac, Chenjerai Hove speaks for all white settlers (peaking at approximately 270 000) when he says, "For white people it was just a place where you put seeds, grow crops and sell them and make big money and go to holidays in Portugal or London or South Africa." The worst thing he can say about black people who were given farms forcibly taken from white commercial farmers is that they are behaving like whites: "People who now have land don-t know the spiritual meaning of land. They are trying to behave as if they were settlers. To just go in there and grab a piece of land...." The idea that white settlers are, by definition, greedy exploiters of the land, ripples into literature where white poets who express in words a love for the land of their birth are sometimes called insincere or morally questionable.

I should have given up writing altogether, but I couldn-t. It-s like an addiction with me. However, being denied a place in the soil, which gave birth to me and which will, in time, take me back, made me become more ironical, more ambiguous, more and more satirical. Still, the number one victim of my cabbage tossing is a certain ageing left-handed white male school teacher from Matabeleland; after that, those in power who abuse power; then come the bigots, the smug, the sanctimonious, the self-righteous - virtual synonyms. I do not mock the poor, the sick, the homeless, little children - the disempowered.

A final thought: have some of the world-s current power mongers made satire redundant? George Bush, Kim Jong Il, Robert Gabriel Mugabe - who can caricature a caricature? Even so, nobody likes to be laughed at - those who see themselves as big daddies, least of all.

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