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by Bamber Gascoigne

Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987)


Controversial Zimbabwean novelist, poet, dramatist, and short-story writer. Dambudzo Marechera's works are highly autobiographical, dealing with rootless characters struggling against poverty, abuse, and oppression. The author died at the age of thirty-five, and left behind a large number of unpublished literary works. Turning his back to the traditions of realism, Marechera sought to express subjective visions with fragmented language, without linear or chronological order. In Zimbabwe, his style was labelled as "alien to Africa".

The Bar-Stool Edible Worm

I am against everything
Against war and those against
War. Against whatever diminishes
Th'individuals blind impulse.
Shake the peaches down from
The summer poem, Rake in ripe
Luminosity; dust, taste. Lunchtime
News – pass the Castor Oil, Alice.
(Cemetery of Mind, 1992)

Dambudzo Marechera was born in Vengere Township ghetto, near Rusape, into a troubled family. When Marechera was thirteen his father, Isaac, who was a trucker, died after being struck by a passing military car. This accident influenced had a profound impact on Marechera. For several days he refused to speak and invented the story that his father had been killed by "the Rhodesian Light Infantry". His mother, Masvotwa Venezia Marechera, was a domestic, who turned to prostitution to earn money for the family. Some years later Marechera, his mother, and his siblings were evicted from their home. "What did it mean that father was dead? What did it mean not to have a home?" Marechera recalled later on. "It was the beginning of my physical and mental insecurity – I began to stammer horribly. It was terrible. Even speech, language, was deserting me." (Against Normalization: Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa by Anthony O'Brien, 2001, p. 246) Marachera's brother, Michael, told in an interview that their mother carried a family curse, and when she was forced to pass the curse on to one of her children, she chose Dambudzo.

From an early age, Marechera was fascinated by books. His first book, The Children's Encyclopedia by Arthur Mee, he got from the local dump. A brilliant student, he received a scholarship to attend a mission boarding school. However, due to his independent character, Marechera had difficulties with his teachers but he had a strong respect for eduction. In 1972 Marechera entered in the University of Rhodesia where he studied English literature and published two small volumes of poetry.

While at the university he also lost his virginity and contracted gonorrhea. In 1973 he was expelled with some 150 other students as a result of protesting against racial discrimination on the campus. Marechera had also conducted a solo protest march against the government of Ian Smith. Marechera fled to Botswana, and then to England where he gained political asylum.

Although Marechera's grades had been rather poor, his professors at the University recommended his a scholarship to Oxford. He studied from 1974 through 1976 at the New College, where he found out, that education was not much respected. In reaction to the indifference of his tutors, he tried to burn down the college. Because of his anti-social behavior, Marechera was given the option of either submitting to voluntary psychiatric treatment or being expelled. He chose to withdraw, and face the life which led to poverty and several charges for petty crimes.

Marechera's early experiences in the ghetto, the struggle to survive, gangs, and the abuse of white schoolboys, established the nihilistic basis for his fiction. While at Oxford, Marechera began to work on his first book of short stories, The House of Hunger, which he finished during a brief stay as a writer-in-residence at the University of Sheffield. It was published by Heinemann in 1978 in the African Writers Series (AWS), after Marechera had spent two rootless years in London, hanging out with Rastafarians, occasionally living on the streets, and writing articles, stories, and reviews. For some of these he receievd grants from the Arts Council. Wherever he went, Marechera dragged his typewriter with him.

Marechera narrowly escaped deportation with the help of James Currey, editor in charge of the AWS. Marechera had been charged with theft and jailed for three months for illegal possession of marijuana. "Yes, I am in a mess and need friends quickly," he said to Currey. "And perhaps tobacco and a more competent solicitor." Possibly also his interest in the German the German Baader-Meinhof Group contributed to his being regarded as a suspicious person. "THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS! Not to you! Not to me! But to himself!" wrote Currey in a letter to a publisher, who asked whether he could communicate direct with Marechera. (From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe via Oxford and London. A Study of the Career of Dambudzo Marechera by David Pattison, doctoral thesis, 1998, p. 52) When he went together with Currey but without travel documents to West Berlin, to attend a cultural festival, he was given standing ovations by the audience.

The House of Hunger, a collection of stories set in pre-independence Rhodesia, focused primarily on a black township. In the title piece the protagonist tries hopelessly avoid oncoming destruction. 'The Slow Sound of His Feet' was a dreamlike exploration of stuttering and incest. Despite the unpolished feel, the book was awarded the Guardian fiction prize in 1979. At the award ceremony at the Theatre Royal Marechera displayed his gratitude by tossing saucers at the chandeliers and a chair across the room, apparently aimed at the literary editor of the newspaper.

In Black Sunlight (1980) Marechera looked at the independence process in a satirical light through the actions of a revolutionary guerrilla organization (Black Sunlight). The novel was initially banned in Zimbabwe for obscenity and blasphemy, but the ban was lifted after an appeal. This surrealistic, unstructured, nihilistic book drew parallels between the political transformation in Zimbabwe and the transformation of the self. The New Statesman critic James Lasdun wrote that the work "falls between fiction and chaos." ('Marachera, Dambudzo,' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby, 1991, p. 587) Explaining once the absence of chronological order in his works, Marechera said that history is rather "a psychological condition in which our senses are constantly bombarded by unresolved or provisional images." ('Transgressing Traditional Narrative Form' by Drew Shaw, in Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera, edited by A. J. Chennells and Flora Veit-Wild, 1999, p. 6)

"For a black writer, the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-rising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do..." ('Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987)' by Brian Evenson, in Postcolonial African Writers, edited by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne, 1998 p. 301)

Marechera returned to the newly-liberated Zimbabwe in 1982, after eight years in exile, but he become soon disgusted with the condition of the country. In the long poem, 'Throne of Bayonets', written shortly after his return, Machera embraced his outsiderness and his role as a social outcast, the only Bohemian fulltime writer in the capital city: "Wandering thro' the chartered streets of Harare / Deaf to the prostitute's pitiful shrieks / Blind to malnutrition's glazed look; / Finding in the blackrain no shelter / but plain dull resignation: / "A process / of positive / Affirmation."" Machera helped Christ Austin's filming of The House of Hunger, but left the project; before doing it he insulted a member of the crew who was a former liberation fighter.

During the first Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1983 Marechera was beaten up, apparently by some bodyguards of a government minister. Mindblast; or, The Definitive Buddy (1984), a collection plays, two stories, some poetry, and a memoir of the author's attempt to get together another book, was the last to be published in Marechera's lifetime. The work expressed his disillusionment with Mugabe's government. As he wrote in 'Throne of Bayonets:' "From all around I hear dark: / Dread: You think you are a poet / You are black and buggered". Marechera was arrested the very day his book appeared by the Central Intelligence Organization and held in a police cell until the second Zimbabwe Book Fair in August 1984 was over.

His final years Marechera spent with friends, often dead drunk, sleeping on their floors, and wandering on the streets. An army colonel attacked him in a men's toilet. Considerable periods of time he camped out in Harare's Cecil Square. In 1982 he was invited to a writer's festival in Berlin, and was jailed for nine hours because he did not have a passport. He was fired from a teaching job at People's College and his published turned down his next novel, "The Depths of Diamonds".

Marechera died of an AIDS-related pulmonary disorder on August 18, 1987. The Black Insider, which had themes similar to Black Sunlight, was published posthumously in 1990. Cemetery of Mind, the first comprehensive collection of Marechera's poems, appeared in 1994. Of Marechera's position in Zimbabwean literature, the first Minister of Education and Culture after independence, Dzingai Mutumbuka, summarized: "His work gives illuminating insights into the struggle for sanity in a situation full of contradictions, where there was a severe dislocation of moral and social norms which, for the young academic, resulted in the fragmentation of family and community life and of ideals and visions, or to quote T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, "A heap of broken images."" ('Modernist Trends and Arrested Development in Dambudzo Marechera's Drama' by Owen Seda, in Mapping Africa in the English Speaking World: Issues in Language and Literature, edited by Kemmonye Collete Monaka, Owen S Seda,  Sibonile Edith Ellece and John McAllister, 2010, p. 97)

For further reading: The Minoritarian and Black Reason: a Philosophico-literary Investigation by D. Nandi Odhiambo (2021); Some Kinds of Childhood: Images of History and Resistance in Zimbabwean Literature by Robert Muponde (2015); Reading Marechera, edited by Grant Hamilton (2013); Moving Spirit: the Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in the 21st Century, edited by Julie Cairnie, Dobrota Pucherova (2012); Marechera and the Colonel: A Zimbabwean Writer and the Claims of the State by David Caute (2009); No Room for Cowardice: a View of the Life and Times of Dambudzo Marechera by David Pattison (2001); Achebe, Head, Marechera: on power and change in Africa by Annie Gagiano (2000); Emerging Perspectives on Dambudzo Marechera by A.J. Chennells and Flora Veit-Wild (1999); 'Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987)' by Brian Evenson, in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Dambudzo Marechera: A Sourcebook on His Life and Work by F. Veit-Wild (1992); 'Marachera, Dambudzo,' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby (1991); Damdudzo Marechera, 4 June - 18 August 1987, eds. Flora Veit-Wild and Ernst Schade (1988); The Espionage of Saints: Two Essays on Silence and the State by D. Caute (1986)

Selected works:

  • The House of Hunger, 1978
  • Black Sunlight, 1980
  • Mindblast; or, The Definitive Buddy, 1984
  • The Black Insider, 1990 (compiled and edited by Flora Veit-Wild)
  • Cemetery of Mind: Collected Poems of Dambudzo Marechera, 1992 (compiled and edited by Flora Veit-Wild)
  • Scrapiron Blues, 1994 (compiled and edited by Flora Veit-Wild)

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