Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eppel’s acid satire finds new purchase in Zim

from South Africa’s Mail&Guardian, 5 April 2013

Dismissed as a 'settler' in the early decades in Zimbabwe’s independence, the Bulawayo-based writer has started to resonate with young Zimbabweans.

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 plant 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 the 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 fetishising “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 persona 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 counterattack that can only come of much practice.
Scrolling back through the reviews that his 13 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 judgment handed down on his second book of poems, Sonata for Matabeleland (1995), by the 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, DGG Berry’s The Great North Road, also received the 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 full-time 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.”
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 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 ridicule savagely 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 sociopolitical 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 in 1976, is his searing apologia. It is the fragmented biography/autobiography of a seriously maladjusted 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 such as “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. That could explain why, together with a print run of just 500 copies published only in South Africa, 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, 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, called “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 20 000 Ndebeles by North Korea-trained Zimbab-wean soldiers — had been exposed by brave activists, among them Eppel’s ex-wife Shari (maiden name deliberately withheld), and the new black middle class had proved to be 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 United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Asked recently by the Zimbabwean academic Drew Shaw why he is drawn to 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.”
But, when the new millennium dawned, Eppel was still roaming Zimbabwe’s literary wilds, co-founding amaBooks in 2000 with his friends Brian Jones and Jane Morris with a view to publishing two of his own novels. But Zimbabwe 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 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, whom 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 such as 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 antiestablishmentarianism 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 with in 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 sociopolitical 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: The English Teacher morphs, near its end, into a tragicomedy — “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 chèvril 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 because 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 the 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.

John Eppel's publications with 'amaBooks include the novels The Curse of the Ripe Tomato, The Holy Innocents and Hatchings, the collections of stories and poems The Caruso of Colleen Bawn and White Man Crawling, the poetry collection Selected Poems 1965-1995, and, his most recent publication, the collection of stories and poems with Julius Chingono, Together.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bookshy Meets ... Bryony Rheam

bookshy: an African book lover
Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Meet ... Bryony Rheam

The 'Meet' Series will be a chance for me to interview anyone I would love to meet that is involved with African literature.

So I absolutely love Zimbabwean literature, and I really, really loved this novel when I read it a few months ago. So I am extremely happy to announce the next person in the series is Bryony Rheam author of This September Sun, published by amaBooks in Zimbabwe and Parthian in the UK. Enjoy!!! 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself (where you’re from, what you do, interests and hobbies, any fun details)
I was born in Kadoma in Zimbabwe and spent my early years moving around the country quite a bit.  My dad was in mining and in 1982 we moved to a mine near Bulawayo.  I went to school in Bulawayo until I left Zimbabwe in 1993, after completing my A levels.  After that I spent some time travelling and working in the UK and then went back to study there in 1994.  When I finally finished university, I worked for a year in Singapore and then returned to Zimbabwe where I worked for the next seven years.  My partner and I moved to Zambia in 2008, which is where I currently live. 

I have two children who take up most of my time (in a good way!) but of course I enjoy getting some time to myself.  I have always loved reading and my idea of a perfect day is to spend it absorbed in a book. 

I love anything to do with the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  I enjoy collecting old bits of furniture from this period and things like crockery and books.  I was certainly born in the wrong age and often wish I could escape into the past, where I believe I live my parallel existence!  For exercise, I do yoga which I thoroughly enjoy.

What was the first piece you ever wrote?
If by ‘ever’ you include my childhood, it was probably a story about fairies.  I have always wanted to be an author so I used to write quite a bit as a child.  When I was about eleven, I wrote a book of short stories about a mischievous dog called Merlin.  My first published piece was a children’s story in The Chronicle – a Bulawayo based newspaper when I was about 13. It was about a Warthog named Winston.  My first published story as an adult was ‘The Queue’ in Short Writings From Bulawayo in 2003.

What draws you to writing?
I really don’t think I can answer that question!  I’ve always been a very shy person and found a way of expressing myself through my writing.  People are often surprised that I am the author behind my work.  When you are quiet, people often underestimate you.

What do you do when you are not writing?
I am an English teacher, for my sins.  I’d love to be a full-time writer.

On Publishing, Being an Author, and African Literature

Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
I must say I think I was quite lucky in this regard.  I knew Jane Morris and Brian Jones of ‘amaBooks because they had published various short stories of mine.  They were quite interested in reading the manuscript of This September Sun and thought it had potential.  Finding the finance to publish the book was a consideration though and I am indebted to The Culture Fund of Zimbabwe and the Beit Trust for their assistance. 

I have, however, not found it so easy to find a publisher outside of Zimbabwe.  South African publishers, in particular, have shown little interest as they seem to want a particular story from Zimbabwe. 

As an author, what’s the toughest criticism and best compliment you have received?
I think the worst criticism I have had so far of This September Sun is that it is ‘insular’, focusing on a white, middle class world, instead of mentioning politics in every two sentences.  The best compliment came from a woman who came to see me after I had given a talk about the novel in which I had said it wasn’t a true story.  She said that for her it would always be a true story and that’s the way she’d like to think of it.  I’ve found numerous people very disappointed when they’ve found out it isn’t true!

As a white Zimbabwean author, are there any obstacles or challenges you particularly face in writing about Zimbabwe, or even Africa?
If you are white in Africa, it will always be assumed that you had a privileged upbringing, and because of that, somehow you have no right to write about it.  If you write anything that isn’t to do with poverty, AIDS, corruption or racial issues then somehow it is ‘lacking’ and this can only be attributed to the fact that you are white and haven’t suffered enough!

I also think that a certain type of writing is expected from white writers.  It used to be the ‘anti-apartheid’ novel, usually featuring a white character who gets drawn to a ‘black world’ and realises how insular their life has been.  At the moment it’s the ‘African memoir’ – my days growing up in Africa and how it made me the person I am.  They’re perfectly acceptable; I enjoy reading them myself.   The key, however, is that the writer does not live here anymore.  
I don’t know why, but the Western publishing world doesn’t seem to like white writers who still live in Africa or who consider it their home.

I am a great lover of African literature, could you suggest a book, new or old, that people should read?
'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe.  I remember when I first read this and when I put it down, I was completely in awe of this writer who had captured a specific turning point in history so well.  He revealed how insidious the process of colonisation was and how, for it to work, it must also bring benefits.

On This September Sun

How would you describe your debut novel This September Sun?
I’m not quite sure!  It’s not quite a romance or a mystery.  Drama?

What inspired you to write This September Sun?

I did my Masters in Postcolonial Writing, a course which I enjoyed very much, but one that also frustrated me.  I read a lot of what is termed ‘colonial’ writing – Out of Africa and A Passage to India – and lots of postcolonial stuff, but I never saw ‘myself’ in any of it.  White characters were often polarised into ‘good’ (the idealist) or ‘bad’ (the racist/colonial administrator).  No one was ‘real’.  I began to think about writing a novel and I had already got a few bits and pieces that I had written before I did my Masters.  However, I did NOT write the novel to prove a point or anything along those lines.  The most important thing to me is a story, not a message!

This September Sun felt so real. I related so much with Ellie’s character, and even Evelyn seemed like she was a real character. Did personal experiences or people you may know inspire the characters in your novel?
I did my Masters in Postcolonial Writing, a course which I enjoyed very much, but one that also frustrated me.  I read a lot of what is termed ‘colonial’ writing – Out of Africa and A Passage to India – and lots of postcolonial stuff, but I never saw ‘myself’ in any of it.  White characters were often polarised into ‘good’ (the idealist) or ‘bad’ (the racist/colonial administrator).  No one was ‘real’.  I began to think about writing a novel and I had already got a few bits and pieces that I had written before I did my Masters.  However, I did NOT write the novel to prove a point or anything along those lines.  The most important thing to me is a story, not a message!

This September Sun also has a very strong historical element, and it gives a great sense of what life in Rhodesia in the 1940s and 50s would have been like. What was it like researching it?
I really enjoyed it!  Basically, most people love having someone to talk to, especially about the past.  I spoke to a number of elderly people, who were always very willing to chat.  Doing that gave me more of a feel for the past than just researching facts.  I think most of us have a conventional idea of a time such as the 1940s, and would be quite surprised to hear some of the stories of what went on.  Affairs, especially during the War, were very common and many men came home to find that they had children they couldn’t possibly have fathered, but they generally seemed to accept it.

Writing about the past is difficult though.  You have to make sure you get all your facts correct, including minor details such as expressions people used that they might not do now and vice versa.

What was your favourite chapter (or part) to write and why?
I really enjoyed writing about Ellie’s time in London, probably because it was so real to me.

On Being a Booklover (Questions I’ve always wanted to ask authors)

What are you reading right now?
Agatha Christie’s autobiography.  I’m quite a fan of hers. 
Is there any particular author (living or dead) or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult - and why?
I love The Great Gatsby.  I love the way it is narrated.  I like books where the story is told by one of the characters.  I also like Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, again because of the narrative technique and because it is so beautifully written. 

Which, novel or character in a novel do you wish you had written?
The Great Gatsby.

Have you ever judged a book by its cover (i.e. bought a book based on its looks)? Which?
I can’t really think of a particular occasion.  I tend to know something about the author or the novel before buying it.
Hard copy or e-book? Bookstore or Amazon?
I’m old-fashioned and can quite honestly say that I have never read an e-book.  I have used Amazon, but I’d much prefer to be able to walk into a bookstore.

Final Question – I promise
What’s next after This September Sun?
I’ve started writing another novel, but at the moment I have put it on hold in order to finish some short stories which have been bothering me!  I need to get them down and finished so that I can carry on with other things.

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I really appreciate it. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ebooks on phones, from

This Simple App Could Put E-Books On Millions Of Phones In The Third World

It sounds counterintuitive, but in certain developing nations it’s easier to get hold of a cell phone than a good book.
More than one in three adults cannot read in sub-Saharan Africa, yet almost every home there has access to at least one mobile phone, according to USAID. Developing nations are among the fastest growing mobile markets in the world, but literacy is still a big problem.
David Risher, a former executive at Amazon and c0-founder of non-profit organization Worldreader, thinks there’s an obvious answer here: offer free books through all those cell phones.
On Wednesday Worldreader Mobile comes out of “beta” mode. About a year ago it partnered  with biNu, a mobile app platform for feature phones in developing countries, so that its Worldreader Mobile app would appear on the home screen.
Richer says that in the last year, 10% of biNu’s 5 million-user base have accessed the Worldreader Mobile app. That’s about 500,000 people. Risher hopes to get that number to 1 million by the end of 2014.
Worldreader’s biggest readers are in India (nearly 107,000 users), with 60,800 in Nigeria and 33,100 in Ethiopia.

A screenshot of one of the titles on offer through Worldreader Mobile

Most of them are using low-end, pre-pay Nokia phones with physical buttons, that cost about $50. They will typically spend about $2-3 a month on their data plans. Out of the 6.4 billion active mobile phones in the world today, 5.4 billion are so-called features phones like these, according to Worldreader statistics sourced from Analysys Mason.
The books they’re reading are short, typically taking up 150 screenshots. Though men are early adopters, women are the “power readers,” Worldreader says, reading an average 17 books a month.
The most popular books are romance novels. Among the top five most popular books in the last month, the No. 1 was a children’s book about school, the second an basic algebra book, and No.’s 3 and 4 were entitled My Guy and Can Love Happen Twice?
Risher says it’s not unnatural in sub-Saharan African culture to see people hunched over reading their cell phones for long periods at a time. So pervasive have mobile device become that some elementary schools in Ghana have even started banning them, he notes.
Most of the books on Worldreader Mobile are in English, with a few in local languages like Swahili, French and Spanish, though the number of books overall is increasing. Currently there are 1,200 titles available, donated by local and English-language publishers.
“I think the single biggest thing that will get more people reading is putting more book on there,” says Risher. “Everything form the Bible and Koran, to romance novels.” Books on mobile phones are another way to get health information to people in rural communities, who often have access to pharmacies and relatively cheap, generic drugs, but encounter pharmacists with little sound medical knowledge.
While accessing a book is free, it might cost users 5-10 cents from their data tariff to read. With the program, users don’t download entire books but download a single page at a time, largely to save the cost of data and because low-end phones don’t have much memory to begin with.
“The books are highly compressed,” says Risher, adding that the biNu platform is designed to be thrifty with data consumption.
Readers need a constant 2G data connection to get through a book, but Risher says that basic cell phone coverage is pretty good across Africa. He sees a strong use case for spreading books and literacy through mobile phones, not least because his own service has been picked up so quickly.
“It’s this classic case where the free market isn’t going to solve this problem on its own. Books don’t cost much, they’re heavy, they go out of date,” he says. “I’ve gone to Ghana and on the shelf of a school there I’ll see the a book on the history of Utah. It’s not only easier to get a cell phone, the books that do arrive are often completely irrelevant.”
Risher founded Worldreader with his colleague Colin McElwee, in 2010, after Fisher spent time volunteering in an Ecuadorian orphanage. Initially Worldreader donated Amazon Kindles to schools in sub-Saharan Africa, giving 3,000 children access to digital books. Part of the challenge of that program now is training teachers and children to use the e-readers.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Conversation with Bryony Rheam


After a heated discussion about Bryony Rheam’s This September Sun at the Spanish Embassy book club in Harare, Panorama Magazine decided to extend the conversation by talking to the author.
This September Sun has been published in Wales (Parthian Books) and Zimbabwe (amaBooks) to critical acclaim. It is currently chosen by the Zimbabwe Examination Council (ZIMSEC) as one of the “A” Level English Literature set texts. Bryony Rheam currently lives in Zambia with her family.
Firstly, what is This September Sun all about?
It is about a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe and her relationship with her grandmother.  The relationship changes over time, but Ellie only moves towards a fuller understanding of Evelyn after the latter’s death.

What amount of research went into the writing of this novel? For instance, I am curious to know what new things you learnt in the process that you were not aware of before you embarked on this project.

I did a fair amount of research into the era of the 1940s.  More than anything, I had to find out what the social norms were – what was acceptable and what was not.  What did people do for entertainment, that sort of thing.  One thing that always amazes me about the past is how efficient some aspects of life seemingly were. 
Now we think we are clever because we can email and send text messages, yet there was a system of doing things then that was in some ways far more efficient – probably because it didn’t depend on electricity or computers!  The post, for example, was highly efficient, sometimes delivering twice a day and many shops would deliver – you could order over the telephone.  Nowadays, with all our technology, we are more than often told “Sorry, I didn’t get your message”.

Your book reads more like a memoir than a work of narrative led fiction. In other words, first novels are often seen as thinly veiled autobiography. How much do your personal experiences come into your fiction?

This is quite a difficult question to answer.  None of the events in the novel are “true” in the sense that they did actually happen exactly as they do in the storyline.  However, there is a lot of myself in the book, in many of the feelings and emotions. 
There are black readers who feel hard done by the fact that black characters in your book are marginal types – maids and gardeners, etc. Are those who read racial connotations in these skewed relations wrong?

I’ll begin to address this question by posing a similar question to those readers:  Would the same be asked of a black writer who either didn’t include white characters or kept them as marginal characters – white farmers, district commissioners and the like?  If a non-white writer set a novel in the UK or the US and didn’t make mention of white characters, would this be seen as racist, or would we say something like: “Oh, well, this novel obviously concerns the main character, who is black and their immediate family who live in an area of the UK with a high non-white population.”

This September Sun does not have a huge cast of characters and the main story revolves around the relationship between a young girl and her grandmother.  It’s not a story about black and white.  Yes, there is the political backdrop of a Zimbabwe going through much change, but at the heart of the story is a very personal relationship.  Why should I need to include x amount of black characters?  That would be political correctness gone mad!

Another point to consider is that at the time that Evelyn is a young woman, she wouldn’t have had much contact with black people except as servants.  It amazes me that no one has picked up on the significance of Samson.  Yes, he may be a cook, but he is an important character in the novel.  Evelyn identifies with him on a personal level.
Mr Patel is another character whom she identifies with.  I think it would have been totally unrealistic of me to have created a friendship between Evelyn and a black character that did not take into account the time she was living in.

I strongly believe Zimbabwean literature is a literature of two halves: black and white. I find that there is a serious disconnect. Black writers write mainly about the black experience. White writers write mainly about the white experience. Can it ever be one or the lines are just blurred and as readers we cannot just see it?

I think that you naturally write about things that are of interest to you and to which you can relate.  I don’t think there should be any pressure for any writer to write to meet some need; writing should be a natural process.  I also think that the strength of a story should be in its ability to appeal to a reader regardless of “the experience” that created it. 
Many people love Charles Dickens although they have never been to England or lived in the Victorian age.  I’ve read about people from all walks of life who absolutely love Enid Blyton and yet one of the criticisms leveled at her is that her work is too parochial: 1930s white middle class.  Do children pick up on this?  No, probably not. 
Surely as readers we identify with a character, whatever their colour or background, otherwise our reading scope would be incredibly limited?
There is now a large output of “white-writing” from Zimbabwe. Could comment on how you situate yourself within it?  I’m thinking of Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller and others. 

I really don’t like this term “white writer”.  Why can’t I just be a writer?  I wrote a book and that book is quite different from Peter Godwin’s work as he is a journalist; Alexandra Fuller is too.  I don’t see my work as trying to fit in or be different.  

The question of who belongs to the Zimbabwean nation has been extremely politicised in the last decade or more.  Do you ever feel disqualified or are you made to feel disqualified from writing and representing the Zimbabwean nation because of your ethnic origins (that is the fact that you are white, not black)?

I think the fact that I am asked this question in just about every interview I do shows that the colour of my skin is still an issue – but probably only to academics and interviewers!  I think the average reader probably doesn’t give a toss as long as they have enjoyed what they have read.  I’m sure the colour of my skin does count against me sometimes and I tempted to write something under a pseudonym to see if I get the same questions asked to me if people thought I was black!

Is there any significance to the opening of the book – April 18 is a day that carries a lot of emotional history for most Zimbabweans. What change does it signal?

I suppose this is an example of the influence of the political and private on our lives.  April 18 may have been the day that Zimbabwe got its independence from Britain, but it is also Ellie’s birthday.  As a six-year-old, that is her main concern, yet she is aware of these other changes going on around her, although she does not fully understand their significance.

Your book has since been adopted as an “A” Level text in the Zimbabwean education system. What do you hope these young readers will learn from This September Sun?
I don’t necessarily want anyone to learn anything.  I’d like them to enjoy it.

Do you keep abreast with other Zimbabwean writing and what do you have in common with other Zimbabwean writers?

Ironically, it isn’t always that easy to get hold of African novels in Africa!  I read what comes my way, and I think there is a move to write about things other than war, famine, AIDS, etc. 

- By Tinashe Mushakavanhu.  © Panorama Magazine 2013.