An Interview with Peter Godwin
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun begins with Peter Godwin on assignment in Zululand for National Geographic, where he sits with Prince Galenja Biyela around a fire. The group is interrupted when one of Biyela’s acolytes screams “uMakhalekhukhwini,” which roughly translates from Zulu into “the screaming of the pocket,” referring to a cell phone. Within moments, Godwin’s mother reveals that his father has just had a heart attack and that he should head back to Zimbabwe immediately. It’s not long after when his mother tells him to gather aloe plants for his father’s burial, in reference to Rudyard Kipling’s hyenas.
Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe. In his new memoir, Godwin discovers that life with his father was not all it had originally seemed to be. Late in his life, Godwin’s father reveals that his name was not originally George Godwin -- he was once known as Kazio Goldfarb, a Polish Jew from Warsaw. His mother and sister disappeared during the Holocaust, and Kazio eventually changed his name and relocated to Zimbabwe after marrying a Wren in the British Royal Navy.
But Crocodile doesn’t focus exclusively on Godwin and his father. Much of the book is actually a piece of hardcore foreign reportage which zones in on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and the problem of the wovits, so-called “war vets,” who mercilessly beat and place white farmers under house arrest in hopes that they will meet a series of ludicrous demands. Living in New York, Godwin constantly finds ways to return to his ailing father through National Geographic’s latest interest in Africa.
I met with Godwin in his apartment on the Upper West Side. Having been his student at one point, we caught up a bit since the last we saw each other. As he frenetically scanned and e-mailed images from his clip book, he told me he was anxious about having to chaperone Archbishop Tutu to Washington D.C. in the coming days. After a long battle with technology, we sat down for tea to talk about his book while anxiously awaiting the inevitable: two small children running into the room to wreak havoc on a Bookslut.com feature. “I mean it in every sense of the term,” he told me, “when I say they’re real fuckers.”
There was one very interesting cultural point in your book in which you attribute the following idea to your father: "A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere -- on sufferance, watching warily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility."
I’ve been given a slight hard time by some critics on that who have immediately transposed it and treated it as though it’s my authorial point of view. It’s clearly what my father was saying, whether it’s right or not, that’s how he felt at the time. Given that he had had a Holocaust experience himself, I deferred to the way he feels. What I really tried to get at is that palpable sense of insecurity. I’m not trying to suggest that Robert Mugabe is sort of about to embark on the Holocaust, although frankly in other parts of Africa like Rwanda we have had killings and things that really are... well, Africa’s no stranger to genocide. It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Neither is Zimbabwe with the massacres of southern Matabeleland land in the early '80s. But really what I’m getting at there are the similarities -- and this is sort of on the personal level that my father was starting to feel, and to a lesser extent, me, one generation removed -- between white Africans living in Africa and Jews living in Europe. In both cases you had an ethnically and racially identifiable people, often better off than the average citizen in the country they inhabited, often doing well, often part of the upper-middle class, and often part of the elite. Essentially, in those situations, when there’s an economic downturn and the leader turns to populism or fascism, they look for groups like that and exploit the politics of envy, and perhaps even an incipient resentment, and they sort of exploit that. So you’re always vulnerable as a group -- that’s the kind of insecurity that you sense is there.
It’s not that it happens every year. These things can go underground for decades, for generations even if you look at Europe. But then, if you pull all the way back and look at it in an historical sweep, you will see it popping up as great polyps of destruction. They came through the pogroms in Russia. You see them coming up through the Holocaust, and you see them popping up again, and again, and again. You do see a pattern. So all I was saying is that to what extent will whites feel completely secure in Africa? To what extent will they retain that essential vulnerability? I think it’s a fair point -- it’s about insecurity. And that goes into a lot of the other themes in the book about home, belonging and identity.
For example, the Jews in Germany -- no other group contributed as significantly to German high culture, to music, to literature, to psychoanalysis... And when Hitler arrives, suddenly they’re Jews. At another point in the book my father says that he didn’t so much see himself as a Polish Jew as he saw himself as a Jewish Pole. And in America, where everybody’s derived from so many peoples, almost everybody, except for Native Americans, has kind of an aspect of otherness where they’re Italian Americans or African Americans or Jewish Americans, where it’s not such a big deal. But where there’s a primary indigenous population, even in England with the English, the Scots and the Welsh, where they see themselves as the aboriginal peoples, then other people come in and kind of have to fit around that sensibility. Although actually, England is not a great example, because before America was invented, it played the role of America. It was the place you ran away to if you were a Huguenot or a Jew or a Protestant or whatever. England was actually historically an immigrant society.
The idea of being white in Africa is sort of a paradox, especially in terms of the United States. Have you found, in retelling your experience, that people have not taken it as seriously as they should? In other words, has anyone ever said to you, “Big whoop, you’re white in Africa.”
I think a lot of this book is about what happens to black Africans. Having said that, I want to be quite careful. I’m not presenting this book as though I am a spokesperson for black Africa. I feel that’s patronizing, and there are lots of black African writers who are writing about their experiences directly and don’t need me as some sort of interlocutor or translator.
There’s a lot about what’s going on about blacks. In fact one of the big points is that this is not just about a few white farmers being beaten up or murdered. It’s a much bigger tragedy than that in Zimbabwe’s case. And it’s the retelling of my family’s story obviously, and that’s very personal. I mean, hello, it’s a memoir. I’m not trying to write the definitive history of Zimbabwe. A lot is set in Zimbabwe, but it’s really about much more universal themes, the things I was alluding to: identity, home, belonging, family secrets, fathers and sons, all those kinds of things which cannot be set anywhere.
I’m always slightly rueful about the way things have happened, especially in a country like South Africa, where you have more than 100 years of institutional racism and a majority of the people, blacks, are oppressed. And then we say we’ve oppressed you, but now we’re going to send a lot of our best writers, the Athol Fugards and the Nadine Gordimers and in Zimbabwe’s case the Doris Lessings, who will now write about what it’s like to be you, to be black and oppressed. I’ve always been a little anxious about doing that. You can understand it earlier on at a time when there weren’t that many black writers, certainly not writing in English and certainly not accessible to white readers. But now we’re getting more and more black writers who are crossing over in quite a mainstream way and can write directly about what it’s like to be them. Though, in fiction, you can obviously do anything you like, but in nonfiction I think it’s slightly more... you have to be a little bit careful.
But you still have to be careful in fiction...
Yeah, you still do. But I think that the burden is higher in nonfiction. The main problem about being a white African in a sense is if you are not a white South African. I think Americans are kind of used to the idea of there being white South Africans, but if you say you are from Africa, they’ll go, “Oh, South Africa,” and I say, “Actually, no...”
It’s true that there is a relatively low level of knowledge about Africa in the States, and, being an African, I feel it strongly. Brits for example know far more about Africa because of their colonial experience there. I think there’s also another point, and this is a really tricky one to make insofar as I wouldn’t want to be misinterpreted. I think that there’s the white liberal Americans, and I mean “liberal” in a race way rather than just people who believe in civil rights and that kind of thing. I think they feel a bit nervous about jumping in and having opinions about the African continent without having cleared it first with an African American constituency. It’s almost like African Americans should be the main portal to our American contact with Africa. This certainly happened with Mugabe. There was a big time lag after Mugabe where he was very good at spin, and he used to come over here and talk to big groups of mostly African American audiences who lapped him up. It took a long time to realize that actually he was a person oppressing his own people. It didn’t matter whether or not he was oppressing white people -- the fact was that he was oppressing his people. And there’s that weird interface where, and I’m not suggesting that foreign aid is money going from the poor of one country to the rich of another country or whatever... If you have someone like Mugabe who is not democratically elected and is a leader of a country, I don’t think you have any particular obligation. He’s not a spokesman for his people, in other words, and I don’t see why we should [send him aid]. You can morally go straight over his head to the people of Zimbabwe because he’s the spokesperson for nobody, really. He’s not elected by a majority, not in a free and fair election. But I do think there’s that added wrinkle in America where there is a big, significant, culturally vibrant, politically aware African American population. And yet, at the same time, it has to be said that a lot of African Americans aren’t that necessarily interested in the continent of Africa. A lot are, but a lot aren’t. And it gets more and more complicated as we now get more and more African immigrants in America who come from all sorts of different countries in Africa and have their own view about politics, disagreeing and agreeing with each other, etc.
It’s like The New Yorker story about the Somali refugee families living in Lewiston, Maine.
Yes, and nobody understood that you were getting these two classes coming in, essentially one being the slaves of the other. And people generalize that in a way that you would never generalize about Europe. There’s more genetic diversity in one Tanzanian town than there is in the whole of, I don’t know, Scandinavia.
Going back to the idea of needing an African American portal into the continent, I can definitely see why you included the scene at the restaurant, where at the next table there were American tourists that obviously, deep down, had no idea what was really going on in Zimbabwe.
Yeah, and staying at the Sheraton and coming in a limo at this great restaurant. The Brits have a phrase, and it’s called “being duchessed.” It’s when you quickly show someone the best of somewhere and hide the rest. At that particular dinner, that’s who was at the next table, but it could have been equally any foreign dignitaries. I just found it all the more poignant that these foreign dignitaries happened to be African Americans.
Towards the end of the book you mention that the great irony over Robert Mugabe is that he brought in a racial unity through his drive to oppress one group over the other. It’s best illustrated in the scene where you and your parents are driving home, and the neighborhood watch, a multiracial group, steps in to make sure you get home safe.
After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, and even in the last few years of the war that preceded that, I think a lot of the whites who saw black rule coming, and by then it was completely inevitable, and who were allergic to it, left and went to South Africa, if nowhere else. Not everyone who went to South Africa was a racist, but the fact was it was under Apartheid until 1992 or 1993. So you had 13 years where Zimbabwe was independent and black-ruled and South Africa was still white-ruled and under Apartheid.
I think that most of the whites who stayed in Zimbabwe were on some level okay with black rule. You had to be, that was the reality. I, for example, I mean somebody at my age, went to a church school, and the private school sector in Zimbabwe was very big. Nearly all of it was multiracial. Although Rhodesia, as it was then, certainly and absolutely had institutional racism, it somehow wasn’t as hermetically applied as South Africa, and it wasn’t quite as brutalizing insofar as it’s just a much smaller country. I don’t think it was quite as damaging. Its legacy wasn’t quite as long lasting as the South African Apartheid has shown itself to be. And after the war, it’s amazing how quickly people just got on with their lives. There wasn’t this great burning demand for retribution or war crimes or anything, people just got on with it. But then, later, as Mugabe imposed the one-party state, as the opposition heated up again in the very late '90s and 2000, then he managed to unify people because they were all unified in their opposition to him, and ultimately their hatred of him. You had no protection as a white, and everyone was just in it together. It was just an amazing thing to see. There was a real bonding, the kind of bonding that happens when you’re in the foxhole.
That was tremendously heartening to see, and I thought it was also supremely ironic that it happened just at the moment when the country was really about to be effectively destroyed. You got this glimpse of a real post-racial society. It was sort of tantalizing and sort of sad because all those people were leaving, and most of them had now left: the black upper-middle class and most whites were gone. Most of the whites who are left there are over 70, and nearly all of the black upper-middle class is gone.
Is your mother still there?
Our mother is at the moment in London, but she’s kind of constantly threatening to go back. She’s been in London for a series of medical things, but she’s always going back and we’re trying to dissuade her. I’m not quite sure what will happen. It’s sort of a sensitive subject at the moment.
Can you describe the difference in experience between writing your first memoir, Mukiwa, and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun?
Mukiwa was much more of a childhood memoir, kind of a coming-of-age memoir. There was much more of that grappling with one’s own memory, that trying to go back and reconstruct things, and it’s a very interesting process. It can be quite traumatic in its own way, but also kind of liberating. You literally sit with a blank screen and remember one thing, and then another, and then nothing. But I was remembering things that were much longer ago. In that sense, the act of memory was different than to this new book, which is happening in much more recent years. Also, I was trying to reconstruct things in Mukiwa from when I was a kid that I hadn’t kept notes on. I can remember sort of the way conversations went and the way people spoke, but it’s reconstructed from memory, it’s not at all like I was a five year old running around with a notebook.
In When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, you know I was a working journalist and a writer, and I had notes on a lot of the stuff, but the farmers stuff and other things were from when I was often on assignment. Technically, the way the writing went was slightly different in that respect. But in both books I’ve used novelistic techniques. I tried to kind of write it, and I’ve taken a lot of arrows from the quiver of fiction in the storytelling. Mukiwa essentially proceeds chronologically, and so the structure didn’t present any great challenges. Although, being a memoir that goes over a number of years, almost 35, it is episodic. With Crocodile there have been more structural challenges because I’m weaving together various different stories in various different locations and from different time frames. And that’s why a lot more of it is schematic and metaphorical. There are these different stories which are both mirroring and paralleling each other to some extent. I think I was more consciously aware of the use of symbolism and metaphor in the telling of this story, and to some extent I was also trying to get more at relationships within the family, which in Mukiwa I was away all the time at boarding school, and then the army and university and things like that.
If you read When a Crocodile Eats the Sun after Mukiwa you start to understand things in Mukiwa better. The two can be read separately, and Crocodile is a free-standing book, but for me, certainly, one of the main bonuses of my father finally telling me all about his background is that I finally started to understand him and understand why he behaved the way he did and why he was an emotionally remote, truculent sort of guy. Because kids are always very solipsistic, you throw up on your pants and of course it’s your fault, and it’s actually got nothing to do with you. So if your father’s like that you think, oh I’ve pissed him off in some regard, or I’m disappointing, when it’s actually much more complicated. It’s not about you at all -- it’s about other issues that he’s got, in this case the very strange and traumatic life that he had led.
What is the farmers’ situation now as opposed to the end of the book, in 2004?
It’s got worse. There are very, very few left. In fact just about everything in the country has gotten worse. Inflation’s far worse, the outward flow of refugees is far higher, AIDS continues, hardly anyone’s getting ARVs, the health system has broken down, education has completely collapsed... The opposition is now split, it’s fragmented. Even the ruling party has split, and there are various rivals and successors to Mugabe. So now we have a situation where everybody is thinking about when the old man goes, that once Mugabe goes we can finally rebuild the country. But now even when he dies or earlier than that, in the short immediate term, the country might face even greater instability and the possibility of a kind of civil war or conflict between different groups vying for power.
So in that sense it’s got even more complex, but it really has spiraled down into this vortex that’s failed statehood, and it’s very difficult for people to survive. You’ve had this thing called Operation Murambatsvina, where they cleared out all the shanty towns in the so-called “informal sector” and just moved them all out and dumped them in the countryside, in places and sites that weren’t prepared properly. A lot of people died in that. The cycle of oppression has just gotten worse and worse. And the farming --commercial agriculture is at a very low level right now. The country is subsisting on massive international food and aid.
Have you been back since?
I’ve been back since the end of the book. Those trucks lined up there [he points to the other end of the room] are all that I have left from the house in Africa. I went back and packed things up there, my last stuff, and that arrived just a few weeks ago. It’s kind of sad that that’s all we have left from half a century or more of being in Africa. But I haven’t been back to Zimbabwe since the book’s publication.You know, I’m not looking to pop back anytime soon. I think that I would be very vulnerable, and I don’t really want to say too much about it except for the fact that there is on the statute book a law which says that if you go in there as a journalist without getting a proper journalist visa, which they essentially won’t give people, then you can be thrown in prison for two years. Trust me; you don’t want to be in a Zimbabwe prison for two years, or for any amount of time. Right now, I’m not planning another trip. We’ll put it that way. But I live and hope that conditions will change.