*Fascinating note: John Eppel is the author of Hatchings (2006), White Man Crawling (2007), Absent: The English Teacher (2009), and other works. He is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and teacher. He resides in his beloved homeland Zimbabwe. The latest contribution of Eppel to the literary scene is a joint endeavor, Together, with his deceased kinsman Julius Chingono. John Eppel presents a work that permits the reader to gain a glimpse into the unique, political, literary artistry of two famed writers.
Question: What is the symbolic meaning behind the title of your latest work Together (2011)?
Answer: It is unusual to think of an abstract word as a symbol, but when it becomes the title of a joint collection of poems and stories by a black person and a white person who spent half their lives in colonial Rhodesia and half their lives in Independent Zimbabwe, it becomes clear. Our country has been, and still is, defined by race. It’s the trump card in the game of politics. It gave rise to the word, apartheid, the opposite of which is togetherness.
Question: What brought you together with your kinsman Julius Chingono? After all, Chingono was a Black Zimbabwean and you are a White Zimbabwean, is that not so?
Answer: Neither of us was part of the mainstream, Nationalism, which dominated Zimbabwean writing in the first twenty years of Independence. I for obvious reasons, and Chingono because, as the late Lionel Abrahams put it in his postscript to Chingono’s poetry collection, Flag of Rags:
For all his special power of compassionate empathy with other people, his altruism, Chingono is his own man. In contrast to much protest and political poetry, his art does not spring out of a collective Cause or big Idea. Everything he writes rings of personal knowledge and experience, his own individual thought. He never trots out the fashionable formula, the convenient stereotype, the party line.
The fact that we were both marginalized for so many years was one reason for bringing us together. Another, I believe, is that, long before we met, I wrote a positive review of his poetry (in the defunct Southern African Review), which he appreciated. A third and most important reason is that neither of us judge[d] people by the colour of their skin but by their behaviour.
Question: Does your vocation as an English teacher trespass… or overlap upon your vocation as a writer?
Answer: Both. It trespasses in the sense that it leaves me little time to write; it overlaps in the sense that it provides me with much of my material, especially in my prose writing.
Question: As a writer, you are a member of an aesthetic community, why trespass into a political arena in your work?
Answer: Consciously apolitical writers are just as political as consciously political writers. The decision not to vote in an election is a political act. I like what Theodor Adorno says about this: “A work of art that is committed, strips the magic from a work of art that is content to be a fetish, an idle pastime for those who would like to sleep through the deluge that threatens them in an apoliticism that is in fact deeply political.”
I also believe that writing, especially poetry, should be beautiful, crafted. That’s where form comes in.
Question: How were you called to write…poetry…short stories….novels?
Answer: This is a difficult one. In my case, I think it might be a substitute for religion. The aesthetic experience, what James Joyce called an “epiphany”, seems to be a secular version of the religious experience. It’s got a lot to do with mortality.
Question: What does Together (2011) unfold to the reader that your previous works have not?
Answer: It is much more overtly political; there is less white guilt… that’s about all.
Question: Sick at Heart is a very emotional poem that defies nationality. How did you come to write it?
Answer: The year 2008 was Zimbabwe’s annus horribilis. The economy collapsed totally. People’s pensions and life savings were reduced to nothing. A mass exodus took place, mainly to South Africa. School teachers like me were earning less than a dollar (US) a day. It was also an election year, which resulted in the brutal deaths of over 200 opposition supporters. My story, “Of the Fist”, which records one of these deaths, was edited out of Together because the publishers found it too shocking. “Sick at Heart” was allowed to remain because it is metaphorical. The title (and the last words of the poem) comes from Hamlet. To this hour there is something rotten in the state of Zimbabwe. Not one of the perpetrators of those rapes, tortures and murders has been brought to book.
Question: Can you provide us with some ‘insider’ details about your selection entitled English Sonnet in Broken Metre?
Answer: As I have said elsewhere, I don’t write sonnets, I write parodies of sonnets. My seeming fixation on prosody is a deliberate form of self-mockery, an accusation of the culture that produced it. This poem is an angry response to the way some western governments baled out obscenely rich brokers with public money. One of the paradoxes of capitalism is the richer you get the cheaper living becomes. In Zimbabwe, as the final couplet suggests, it’s not brokers but very senior government officials who regard public funds as pocket money for themselves.
Question: What is the dramatic and political irony of your short story Who Will Guard the Guards?
Answer: One of the ironies here is that there is a strong perception in Zimbabwe that whites are fair game when it comes to the “redistribution of wealth”. The reasoning is that the whites, historically, took everything from the blacks, so why shouldn’t the blacks, now, take everything from the whites? If you go far enough back in history, say 2 000 years, you find that that the Shona peoples were also settlers in this part of the world, and they would have been the first to displace the aboriginal San peoples. I guess the distance you go back in history is determined by political expediency.
Our so-called guards – the police, the army, the CIO – are partisan, and that is a very scary situation for anybody who is not a paid-up member of ZANU-PF.
Question: Your short story The Debate sheds light on international, political hypocrisy. How did you come to write this powerful treatise?
Answer: The cartoonist in me.
Question: The death of the legendary Julius Chingono calls upon us all to think of our legacies. What will your legacy be?
Answer: A rickety old house (if it doesn’t get redistributed), a 1978 Ford Escort, the complete recordings of Enrico Caruso, and a fistful of poems.