Zimbabwean literature segregated no more. More than 30 years after Independence, Textures, a poetry collaboration, blends history with the moment

As part of our African Literature as Creative Enterprise series, Brian Jones and Jane Morris of amaBooks talk to John Eppel.

Here is how the Bulawayo, Zimbabwe-based author explains his relationship with the amaBooks duo:

[They] would have been my first choice for all my books, but they seldom have the wherewithal to finance a publication; that is largely because they have the commitment (and courage) to promote new Zimbabwean writing, including poetry, which almost nobody buys. ..More people write poetry than read it

’amaBooks started in 2000 on an inner impulse to raise money for the Bulawayo branch of the charity Childline. It was John Eppel who donated a collection of his poems to be published to raise money.  A professor of mathematics — Brian Jones — and  Jane Morris, a clinical social worker — with a university background in literature — set themselves a goal of mastering the printing press.

Today’s subject of discussion? Their recent collaboration Textures, a poetry collection. [Add to cart]


You chose to come together with Togara Muzanenhamo to produce Textures. What are the advantages to you of combining your work with that of another poet in one anthology?

The singular advantage, I hope, is to Zimbabwean literature.  Why should it remain segregated, more than 30 years after Independence?

What is it about Togara poetry that encouraged you to publish together? Could you give a short example of his work in this anthology that you particularly appreciate, and why?

Togara is a gifted poet, a born poet.  Poetry comes as naturally to him as the leaves to a tree.  Keats makes this point in a letter to John Taylor, 27 Feb. 1818. That’s why I wanted to be published with him. I appreciate all his poems, so here is a random selection:

And he lets his mind roam the landscape

others had always owned on their breath –

the beauty of mist and light, the grandeur of silence.

On the sofa the two of them cuddled,

warm and snug –wine in their heads.

Effortlessly, time and again, he blends history with the moment.

Part Rhodesian Ridgeback, Ivan comes to terms with John's cat Fitzroy. In the earlier parts of its history, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has also been known as African Lion Dog—Simba Inja in Ndebele, Shumba Imbwa in Shona—because of its ability to keep a lion at bay while awaiting its master to make the kill. The original breed standard was drafted by F.R. Barnes, in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1922.
Part Rhodesian Ridgeback, Ivan comes to terms with John’s cat Fitzroy. In the earlier parts of its history, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has also been known as African Lion Dog—Simba Inja in Ndebele, Shumba Imbwa in Shona—because of its ability to keep a lion at bay while awaiting its master to make the kill. The original breed standard was drafted by F.R. Barnes, in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1922.
In the introduction to Textures, by Dr Drew Shaw, there is mention of the poetry here emphasising form as well as content. Why is form important?

Content is common to all genres; form distinguishes them.  Form and content become inseparable in the best poems: ‘I am soft sift in an hour glass’ [Gerard Manly Hopkins].

The reputation of many poets in Zimbabwe has been enhanced by their participation and success in 'performance' events. Both of you are primarily regarded as performance poets. Can you suggest ways in which your work could be brought to the attention of poetry lovers across Zimbabwe, and elsewhere?

‘Only the usual ways: wider distribution of the book, reviews by reputable academics and writers, interviews, readings, exposure on social media networks, book signings….  Easier said than done.’

Can you please choose a poem of your own from Textures, and briefly explain your motivation in writing the poem.

‘Looking for you’.  This is one of lyric poetry’s oldest themes – losing a loved one.

Where do you find the subject matter for your poems?

In the suburbs of Bulawayo.

Black roses in John's backyard
Black roses in John’s backyard

One of John’s novels spent more than seven months with Penguin South Africa before it was rejected on the grounds that the publishers did not think they could make a commercial success of it.

While publishers have to balance between pursuit of happiness — yes, publishers are human beings as well — and need to finance future projects, authors often lack time.

Life happens to African writers the same as to the rest of us. John Eppel writes during school holidays and occasionally over the weekends. Which meant he wasn’t able to squeeze in some more creative time to answer a bunch of other questions we still have for him.

Dear Reader, if you manage to get a hold of John Eppel at a cultural event around Southern Africa or happen into his backyard garden to chat by the black roses, Rhodesian Ridgeback at your feet, please ask John one of the following and drop us a line on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com:

One on Inequality
With inequality being a major issue in future society scenario discussions around the world, what is more urgent: wealth inequality, income inequality or inequality of opportunity?
One on the Middle Kingdom
With the Asia Pivot policy officially drummed up in Zimbabwe, when can we expect the next big collaboration between Chinese and Zimbabwean authors? Will poetry anthologies come before the collections of prose?
One on Cervantes across the Med

In our first interview for the 2015 amaBooks x Steppes in Sync series on African Literature,Tendai Huchu names John Eppel’s George J. George as a quinessential quixotic character in African literature. Any other Don Quixotes that should catch our eyes in African literary corpus?

First Month of Winter. Somewhere south of Bulawayo
First Month of Winter. Somewhere south of Bulawayo
One on Transportation
Before Major Charles Duly brought the first Ford Model T’s to what is now Zimbabwe, an ox-wagon would have taken anything from 13 to 20 weeks from Johannesburg to Bulawayo. The white Ford Escort is mistaken for the moon in John’s Absent: The English Teacher. There’s a 1978 Datsun in his The Big Five. Along with ‘a snow white Toyota Fortrunner 3.0TD 4×4.’ Including airbags and an MP3 player! Featured in another short story published by amaBooks is a North Korean truck. At one point in his life, John worked as an assistant on a cargo ship. Born in in Lusaka, Zambia and having studied as far north as Paris and The Hague, Togara has obviously been on many Airbuses and in 4×4 vehicles himself.
What is your favorite Means of Transportation as Protagonist in African fiction?
One on Technology in Creativity
What should be front and centre for young Zimbabwean authors: searching deep inside themselves for inspiration or getting out there to reach out to the international reader? Do 1) Facebook/Twitter, 2) e-books/audiobooks, 3) YouTube interviews play any role in your development as a writer? Do you think your audience wants to hear more from you through various online platforms/media? What is the major hurdle to beefing up this direct interaction with the reader/viewer?
One on Literary Tourism
Traveling is a way to fill up on new perspectives, reimagine your home community/ies or sometimes nip and tuck a thing or two in your own identity. Being physically out there is also a great promo tool for the published work of any auteur. Late Julius Chingono — your dear collaborator on previous work published by amaBooks — visited places like Holland and Israel to present his poetic work. Do you feel you are under- or over-travelled as far as creative events on the African continent are concerned?
One on Tobacco Growing
Is tobacco industry revival in Zimbabwe a good or a bad thing for locally sourced stories in Zimbabwe? What about mining? And tourism with the recently rolled out Univisa for Zimbabwe and Zambia?
One on Planetary Exploration
When will Zimbabweans set foot on the Moon? How are Zimbabwean sci-fi writers doing their part to near the moment?
One on Funding
With the growing number of culture funds open to Zimbabwean authors, is generating quality creative writing still an issue of money? Resilient creativity is not necessarily a function of monetary investment but still how can we get more Southern African perspectives out there into the international literary scene? And is there future for white African writers, however poor they themselves might be?
One on Urban Development
From Yvonne Vera’s  Makokoba township in Bulawayo to Tendai Huchu’s Harare when can we expect literary walks around the cities of Zimbabwe?
One on Solution Fiction
In journalism, there is a growing field of writers who hope to pursue solutions-oriented stories far and wide. Exposés don’t suffice, they argue. Can you think of two tectonic-shift solutions that were first brought to light by your colleagues around Africa? Two pieces of creative writing that miraculously brought long-awaited peace to communities, resolved long-lasting tensions?

You can order here your copy of Textures by John Eppel and Togara Muzanenhamo.


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