Interview: Eppel John by Dr. Rosetta Codling

The John Eppel Interview

Rosetta Codling

Atlanta Books Examiner

* March 14th, 2011 9:40 am ET

John Eppel is the author of Absent: The English Teacher

*Fascinating note: This is an inspiring interview for our Atlanta teachers. Education and teachers are vital to our pupils 'within and without' the walls of your classrooms.

1. Question: You are a master of creating complex characters, how complex is John Eppel, the man?

Eppel: Not so complex as Hamlet, and not so simple as Polonius. I try to live my life according to three precepts: treat others the way you would like to be treated; make a stand against oppression in all its forms; value the future on a time scale longer than your own. One way, for me, of abiding by the third precept is to plant trees in my yard and all over our fairly extensive school grounds.

2. Question: Which comes first (in your life)… the teacher, the novelist, or the poet?

Eppel: The parent followed by the teacher, followed by the poet, followed by the novelist and short-story writer.

3. Question: What is the role of political satire within the characterization of George. J. George from Absent: The English Teacher (2009)?

Eppel: To succeed, satire should be seriously funny (an oxymoron). The novel is satirical up to the point where George abandons Bulawayo, abandons everything that has made him what he is – everything that goes with being part of a white settler culture in Africa, not least being its clinging to the western canon of literature. Once George walks away with the little orphan girl (his angel of death), the genre changes from political satire to tragi-comedy.

4. Question: Why/how are the novel’s antagonists (the interrogators, the students, and Beauticious) humorous and frightening at the same time?

Eppel: Again, that is satire at work. I wrote this novel in 2008, Zimbabwe’s annus horribilis. As I write, it looks as if 2011 might turn out even worse!  The erstwhile white oppressors of colonial Rhodesia have been replaced by a shockingly greedy few who thrive on cronyism and patronage. The interrogators are those who help maintain this status quo; characters like Beauticious are beneficiaries thereof; and the students… well… students are students, and it doesn’t help if their role models in positions of authority are cruel, greedy, and corrupt.

5. Question: Can you explain the role of Zimbabwean and South African politics in your works?

Eppel: I was born in South Africa, as were my parents, grandparents, and two great grandparents, but I grew up in Zimbabwe where I still live, so I like to think of myself as a Southern African. These two countries have had similar histories, ancient and modern. When I became aware, rather late, I’m afraid, of the injustices of colonialism, apartheid in particular (in Rhodesia they called it ‘separate development’), I dealt with my guilt and my anger by writing satire. My early novels  (I have written seven, one yet to be published), focused almost entirely on ridiculing the white settler community – my people. But over the years following Independence in 1980, it became clear that our new leaders and their followers were just as oppressive as the regime they replaced. No doubt about it – power corrupts. South Africa got its Independence more than a decade later. Under Mbeki and then Zuma, Nelson Mandela’s evanescent ‘rainbow nation’ reverted to the Mugabe model: patronage and cronyism, which enriches the few at the expense of the many. All the hype about Nationalism and Patriotism has blurred the real issue in this part of the world: abject poverty. When it suits them, these governments play the Race card (a certain trump in Africa), but it’s more than race or gender, or xenophobia – it’s Class – as it always has been throughout the world. Zimbabwe has enough mineral wealth alone to provide every one of its 12 000 000 citizens with adequate food, shelter, health and education; yet 80% of Zimbabweans live in abject poverty. The life expectancy of a Zimbabwean woman is 33.5 years – the lowest in the world!  The men and women who run this country, and that includes a number of soldiers, are fabulously rich. So now, my political satire is targeted at anybody who behaves badly – black, brown, white.

6. Question: Is the protagonist George J. George modeled after any particular individual? 

Eppel: He must be one of my alter egos though, as a teacher, I don’t have the discipline problems he encountered.

7. Question: Why devise a methodology of implementing postcolonial role reversal to stress a point in your novel?

Eppel: Well, it’s incongruous, and the incongruity is the basis of all humour. It’s also a domestic echo of what happened (and is still happening) on the commercial farms in Zimbabwe. It might be prophetic. As I write, so-called war veterans and ZANU-PF youths are forcibly occupying businesses and buildings owned by whites and Indians. Why not private houses next? One might have expected this sort of thing to go on shortly after Independence but, for goodness’ sake, that was more than thirty years ago!

8. Question: How symbolic was the fate of the antihero George in the novel?

Eppel: Deeply symbolic. George is a kind of synecdoche, a microcosm, of a subculture that is dying, albeit with much kicking.

9. Question: What is your latest satirical project?

Eppel: You might be interested to know that the University of New Orleans, in collaboration with ‘amaBooks, Zimbabwe, has just published, in their engaged writers series, a book of poems and short stories called Together, which features the late Shona writer, Julius Chingono, and me. That is my latest satirical project. Incidentally, I don’t just write satire. Many of my poems speak with an entirely different voice.

10. Question: Which ‘narrative voice’ have you chosen for your next work and why?

Eppel: Right now I don’t have a “next work”. I am a full-time secondary school teacher and that gives me very little time for self-indulgence. I am also a single parent. This is one reason my novels and stories are all so short – I have to squeeze the writing into the school holidays. When the time comes, though, I’d like to move from satire into tragic-comedy, as I began to do in Absent: The English Teacher.

* Atlanta Books Examiner

Dr. Rosetta Codling is a literary scholar and critic. As a literary critic, her critiques of African and African-American literature have appeared...