I went to Grahamstown for a week to visit my daughter, Ruth, who is completing her Masters on memoirs by white Zimbabwean women. I attended a colloquium where Masters and PhD students present aspects of their dissertations to supervisors and other interested lecturers. My daughter’s paper went well although one of the lecturers, a white woman with an excellent reputation as a teacher, queried the sincerity of Alexandra Fuller’s second book, Scribbling the Cat. I tended to agree with her and wondered aloud if it wasn’t the same with Peter Godwin, that his books had become progressively less sincere, seemingly written to order. I had inadvertently lit a fuse. She made academic mincemeat of Godwin, and climaxed with, ‘I’m sick of hearing about white boys in Africa!’ I got a distinct impression that she was including this old white boy. I felt like replying – since I’m not an academic and don’t need to be politically correct – I felt like replying, ‘Well, I’m sick of hearing about white girls in academia’… but I chickened out.
While I was in Grahamstown, Dan Wylie launched his new poetry collection, Sailor, Poems for my Father. Using Homer’s Odyssey as a frame, it sets out upon a son’s quest for his father. Every poem is a gem. It was Dan who drew my attention to David Hughes’ disparaging comment about me in his influential book, Whiteness in Zimbabwe. Race, Landscape and the Problem of Belonging. I’d like to reply to David Hughes in this blog. Here is what he says on page 10 of his book:-
In “I and the Black Poet” John Eppel contrasts himself – savouring “a memory of crocus bulbs” – and his counterpart: “He focuses on Sharpeville and Soweto”. That poem first appeared in the 1970s. By 2007 Eppel had written a handful of novels centering on political and economic corruption in Bulawayo (e.g. 2002 and 2006), but his poetry still fetishized crocuses, the Matobo hills, and so on. The choice of subject was deliberate. Eppel was, as he explained to a literary magazine, trying “to find a voice which merges British form (prosody) with African content (mostly nature)”. Blacks – evidently capable of killing whites and being killed by them – still did not seem to rank as publishable “content”.
I try to teach my school pupils about the often dangerous power of rhetoric – selectivity, generalisation, emotional manipulation… as a satirist I use it myself. Politicians use it, priests use it, moms and dads use it; but one doesn’t expect trained academics to use it. Hughes deliberately – he can’t be stupid – misreads my poem. In fact it is a confirmation of his attitude to white Zimbabweans (which is how I felt in the 70s, more than 30 years ago). The tone of the poem is not assertive, it is apologetic, self-mocking. Here it is:-
I and the Black Poet
I have my subject in focus,
now I must focus my poem.
It’s a memory of crocus
bulbs. The memory is dim
but on page ninety-seven
of What Flower is That?
there’s a picture of a pink one.
The petals are opened – not flat
like a daisy, or just,
like a protea, but halfway
like me. Now, with care, I must
arrange my words so that the ‘gay
little flowers…pop right out
of the ground in earliest spring.’
Shall they be white, or violet
or yellow or blue? And shining?
Shall they shining? Not bright
like stars, or dullish like paper,
but halfway like spoons. O the light
in the pink of this picture
is lovely. It half opens
me to the sky. Like silver-striped
leaves my arms follow seasons
never cold enough for a typed
memory of crocuses.
Too hot, this earth, for words to grow
Into my bulbs. He focuses
on Sharpeville and Soweto.