Interview: Eppel John by Sean Hunter Christie

A profile of John Eppel by Sean Hunter Christie

First published in the Mail and Guardian 4-12 April, 2013

Dismissed as “settler” writing in the first three decades of Zimbabwe’s independence, Bulawayo-based writer John Eppel’s poetry and fiction has started to resonate with a younger generation of Zimbabweans, the so-called “born frees”, writes Sean Christie

Given the exotic flowers in his oeuvre, especially in the poems, it is surprising to find John Eppel’s garden in the crackle-dry suburb of Hillside, Bulawayo, dominated by the indigenous Portulaca Hereroensis. This fast-growing fleshy herb has all but devoured the property’s steel strand perimeter fence, and seems bent on taking Eppel’s ramshackle (his word) home too.

That’s a mild exaggeration. The effect of the Portulaca is more insulation than threat; protection from the outside world. And one soon learns not to make light of botanical matters in Eppel’s company. The 65-year-old writer was in his kitchen breaking a chocolate bar into a bowl when I brought up a controversial new book on white identity in Zimbabwe by American anthropologist David Hughes.

“Yes I’ve read it,” Eppel said, then waved that claim away with “Well, no, I didn’t get through it, but a friend sent me the section where he refers to my poetry.” The reference isn’t a happy one. Hughes accuses Eppel of fetishizing “Crocuses, the Matopos hills and so on” to the exclusion of black Zimbabweans, and in doing so folds the Bulawayo-based writer in with the Bulawayo-based Rhodesians Evelyn Waugh encountered on a visit in 1960. They, wrote Waugh, “come [to the Matopos] to picnic, fish, catch butterflies, and photograph the game,” and seemed to him to be “morbidly incurious about native customs and beliefs.” It is a charge Eppel dismisses.

“Hughes made those comments particularly in relation to a poem I wrote called I and the Black Poet, in which my personae identifies with crocuses but discovers that they don’t grow well in Africa. It’s clearly self-mockery and Hughes deliberately – he can’t be stupid, can he? – misreads it, construes its apologetic tone for an assertive one,” says Eppel, displaying a flair for the counter-attack that can only come of much practice.

Scrolling back through the reviews that his 12 books, making Eppel Zimbabwe’s most prolific author, have attracted, it becomes clear that Eppel has fought the same battle over and over . Take, for example, the judgement handed to his second book of poems, Sonata for Matabeleland (1995), by Zimbabwean poet and academic Musaemura Zimunya, in a review that was tellingly titled Zimbabwean poet reviews Rhodesian poets: “John Eppel’s Sonata for Matabeleland promises a lot in its title ... Inevitably, though, the vision remains ethnically – white – one hesitates to say ‘settler’ for fear of perpetuating the emotive.”

Eppel’s first novel, D.G.G. Berry’s ‘The Great North Road’, received an even deadlier kiss of death when an influential Zimbabwean critic labelled it racist.

“That particular academic’s sense of satire was so undeveloped,” says Eppel, “that he objected to the fact that I called my fictional village Umdidi, which means arsehole in Ndebele. So I’m a racist because I used a rude word? And the big joke, of course, is that the book is a satire against white people in the first place.”

The acid comments don’t seem to square with Eppel’s beseeching blue eyes, the bowl-cut silver-grey hair. Eppel is a fulltime English teacher at a private Bulawayo high school, and looks the part. One wonders: which came first, Eppel’s acerbic attitude, or the rubbishing of his work? And are these dismissals as unjustified as Eppel believes, and if the evidence he brings to his defence is compelling, where should one position Eppel today?

There is no doubting that Eppel was the product of a ”settler” culture. He is the first to admit it.

“When I was very young my parents emigrated from South Africa to the Zimbabwean mining town of Colleen Bawn, an extremely conservative place,” says Eppel. His lifelong friend Fred Simpson described in an email how Eppel “loved opera, Jack London, flowers, animals (especially chickens) and classical music,” but insisted such refined tastes did not make him an outsider. “On the contrary, his outrageous sense of humour, as well his considerable talent in sport ensured that he always had a following,” wrote Simpson.

The desire to write registered when Eppel was 12, and was bound up with his “feeling uneasy about white privilege”, but given that his teachers hailed from England, Eppel learned about the form and craft of poetry from Keats, Hardy, de la Mare and Shakespeare, and how to savagely ridicule the things he did not like from Dickens, Swift, Chaucer and Pope. Like many a Euro-African poet suckled on the western canon his first poems fixed on the natural rather than the socio-political world, and given the close proximity of the beautiful Matopos hills there was plenty to work on.

When Eppel did eventually become politically conscious—“it happens late or never in a rugby and braai culture”— the identity crisis that ensued was compounded by his participation in the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, or Rhodesian Bush War, on the side of the internationally maligned Rhodesian Security Forces. “It left me quite preoccupied with guilt and self-loathing,” Eppel confesses. Great North Road, written while the country was at war in1976, is his searing apologia. It is the fragmented biography/autobiography of a seriously unadjusted white Rhodesian male called Duiker Berry, whose major life achievement is the invention of an ointment that freshens farts. The satire is intensely focused on racist white Rhodesian (“Rhodie”) culture; on men like “Mr Reg Bench, narrow of hip, brow and outlook”. The book is not racist, it caricatures racist people, but given that its author grew up among the subject group the humour is frequently in-house, which could explain, alongside the fact that just 500 copies were published, and only in South Africa, why it failed to make a splash in Zimbabwe.

Eppel’s poems from the same years are less flagellatory, more a probing for meaning than a damning of what he describes in Our Last night in Colleen Bawn as “a time that never quite got started // and, clearly, will not have the grace to die.” Published under the title Spoils of War by the tiny and now defunct South African press, Carrefour, Eppel’s poems impressed several high profile South African poets and academics, who lauded the poet for transcending his historical anxiety (Guy Butler); for being “faithful to the complexities of his rootedness” (Dan Wylie); and for having “nothing to do with white nostalgia for the colonial period” (Stephen Watson). The debut collection was awarded the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the debut novel the M-Net fiction prize, accolades in South Africa that evidently carried little weight across the border.

In the introduction to Songs My Country Taught Me, a collection of three decades of his poems, Eppel recalls how his “love of the sound of poetry before its sense” put him in opposition to those poets “who consider sound (linked to form) subordinate to sense (linked to content).” It was during this time, he writes, that he decided that form and content should merge, “not as a compromise but as a kind of golden mean” and that the form of his poetry would be “thoroughly European”, the content “thoroughly African.” To help the merging process along Eppel began increasingly to parody the European forms he had learned to love at school. He has long maintained that his critics have missed that his use of form “is a deliberate form of self-mockery, an accusation of the culture that produced it.”

Through satirical novels Eppel continued to channel his outrage at what his favourite author, Dickens, referred to as “humbug”, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s there was much in addition to colonial arrogance to be angry about. The Gukurahundi —the massacre of approximately 20000 Ndebeles by North Korea-trained Zimbabwean soldiers—had been exposed by brave activists, amongst them Eppel’s ex-wife Shari (maiden name deliberately withheld), and the new black middle class had proven as corrupt and gluttonous as its colonial antecedent. “We learned quickly that the Davids of this world are merely Goliaths in waiting,” says Eppel. In his novels Hatchings, The Giraffe Man, The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, The Holy Innocents and Absent: the English Teacher, the newly powerful are often found literally and figuratively in bed with the colonials, who fade from prominence at a rate roughly commensurate with the waves of post-independence emigration of Zimbabwean whites to South Africa, the UK and elsewhere. Asked recently by Zimbabwean academic Drew Shaw why he is drawn to the genre of satire, Eppel answered with questions of his own: “How else could I write about a chartered company called Rhodesia? And, more recently, a Limited Company called ZANU PF? Where’s the romance? Where’s the mythology? It’s all to do with money, this unholy alliance of multinationalism and corrupt governance.”

And yet when the new millennium dawned Eppel was still roaming Zimbabwe’s literary wilds, co-founding amaBooks in 2000 with friends Brian Jones and Jane Morris with a view to publishing two of his own novels. Zimbabwe, however, was on the brink of economic collapse, a calamity for most Zimbabweans, including the whites, though one in which Eppel was able to perceive a silver lining.

“I have noted - not being a farmer // or a businessman – noted with relief,” he records in his poem Whites Only: a decasyllabic, “the rapid falling away, like cutis // from an unregenerative limb, of // privileges: access to publication, // scholarships, promotion in the public // service, parcels from Mrs Jellyby...

By 2008 Eppel’s teacher’s salary had been rendered worthless by inflation. Supported by a friend from overseas he took a year off to write and in three months produced the novel Absent: The English Teacher, the story of Bulawayo-based English teacher George J. George’s fall from grace, indentured servitude (under the mistress of The Minister of Child Welfare, Sweets and Biscuits) and eventual death. Mr. George is very similar to the principal characters in Eppel’s other novels, who Eppel describes as “obsolete white male losers, trapped in the dialectic of Europe and Africa.” But unlike the previous novels Absent was a hit, both outside Zimbabwe and at home, where it attracted glowing reviews from senior academics like Kizito Muchemwa and Robert Muponde.

Perhaps most satisfying  was the response of younger Zimbabwean writers. The poet Tinashe Mushakavanhu, for example, explained in an email that “John Eppel's virulent anti-establishmentarianism resonates with a lot of young people, especially his cynicism, his disillusionment with authority and the prevailing system. He dares to speak on issues other writers (both black and white) gossip about in get-togethers but never really engage within their fiction.” Eppel wasted no time in recycling these sentiments. “The ‘born frees’,” he proclaimed in an ill-tempered 2010 essay, Writing in Times of Crisis, “don’t seem to have a problem with my socio-political liabilities.”

But what had changed? Was it Eppel’s writing, or had the hardships stemming from the so-called “Zimbabwean Crisis” fomented a taste for Eppel’s acid satire? A bit of both, it seems. Ten years before the inversion of colonial roles at the heart of Absent (Eppel’s white teacher becomes a “houseboy”) would have been an absurd and possibly unacceptable joke but by 2009 Muchemwa could write that, “If there is a whiff of improbability (to Absent), it must be remembered that...the so-called real world has recently been shaped by what most people would understand as the incredible and unimaginable.” The dilution of white privilege was so advanced by this time it had almost made them credible objects of sympathy. Additionally, the targets of Eppel’s satire—Zimbabwe’s rapacious ruling elite—had become such living grotesques that Eppel’s caricatures could not have failed to resonate widely.

And where Eppel’s previous novels were unremittingly dirty (“scurrilous” is the word critics have used) Absent morphs, near its end, into a tragi-comedy—“more palatable for most readers,” Eppel believes. Eppel also turns Mr George’s lessons into a clear-eyed meditation on the place of English literature studies in Africa. It is probably this that prompted Muchemwa when he applauded Absent, for “an openly ethical approach to literature (which) occurs when the writer takes off the chev’ril gloves, a new development that brings him closer to other African writers of commitment.”

It is, however, as Shaw pointed out in his introduction to their interview, “impossible...to deter Eppel from speaking his mind, from courting controversy,” and his period of acceptance may be temporary, especially since Eppel has begun to question, in interviews and in unpublished manuscripts, the achievements of Dambudzo Marechera and Yvonne Vera, respectively the authors of the The House of Hunger (1978) and Butterfly Burning (2000), and the darlings of post-colonial Zimbabwean literature. The establishment will not be pleased.

But then again the wilds are where Eppel is happiest, at least in the physical sense, and he remains at his best as a writer when limning the landscapes around Bulawayo. There were still some hours of daylight left when we finished our conversation and when I asked Eppel how he would use them his answer was casually poetic. “You must visit the Matopos, of course. It is better to go later, and to come back at twilight, because you might see, if you are lucky, a leopard. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a leopard. When sun has gone down, the crepuscular animals come out.”

I visited the Matopos as suggested and they are, to use two words that recur again and again in Eppel’s writing and speech, ineffable, epiphanic