Marechera, Dambudzo 1952–1987
Dambudzo Marechera 1952–1987
Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera left behind just a few acclaimed works before his death from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1987. Marechera had a turbulent personal life for many years, with his early literary promise thwarted by mental illness and alcoholism. His first novel, The House of Hunger, was heralded as an exciting new example of postcolonial African writing, and remains his best known work. “With Dambudzo Marechera’s death,” noted World Literature Today critic Tanure Ojaide, “African literature lost a young star whose meteoric appearance has left an illuminating rail.”
Marechera was born in 1952 and grew up in Vengere Township, when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, one of the last holdouts of white colonial rule on the African continent. The third of nine children, his original birth name, “Tambudzai,” meant “the one who brings trouble.” Trouble came to the family in other forms, however: when he was 13, his father was struck by a car and killed, which plunged the household into poverty. The first book Marechera ever owned was a children’s encyclopedia from the Victorian era that he had discovered in the town garbage dump. They were evicted and lived in a squatters’ settlement for a time, and Marechera’s mother was forced to support the children by working as a prostitute. Such traumas caused Marechera to develop a stutter, which made him the target of schoolyard taunts.
From 1965 on Rhodesia was under an official state of emergency, and violence was common as black nationalists battled with a racist white government to gain some measure of political representation. The troubled atmosphere brought further unease to Marechera’s life. Though he was a solid student, he began to suffer from hallucinations and a marked paranoia. He wrote about this time in The House of Hunger, particularly about the two worlds that his two languages, Shona and English, represented. “I was being severed from my own voice. English is my second language, Shona my first. When I talked it was in the form of an interminable argument, one side of which was always expressed in English and the other side always in Shona. At the same time I would be aware of myself as something indistinct but separate from both cultures.”
In 1972 Marechera won a scholarship to the University of Rhodesia, but he was expelled the following year for taking part in campus protests against the Rhodesian government. His professors then recommended him for a scholarship at Oxford University in England, and Marechera began at New College in 1974. His time in England was troubled, however, for he drank heavily and was often disruptive on campus. An American summer school at New College even threatened to pull out of Oxford because of his behavior, and a scholarship program for African students was cancelled altogether because of him. He was finally ejected in March of 1976, after he set a fire on college property; there
At a Glance…
Born Tambudzai Marechera on June 4, 1952, in Vengere Township, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe); baptized Charles William Marechera, 1965; died on August 18,1987, in Harare, Zimbabwe; son of Isaac (a trucker and mortuary attendant) and Masvotwa (a nanny; maiden name Venezia) Marechera. Education: Attended the University of Rhodesia, 1972-73, and New College, Oxford University, Oxford, England, 1974-76.
Career: Fiction writer, poet, and playwright. Contributed poems to literary magazines and participated in student creative writing club, early 1970s.
Awards: Alfred Beit Scholarship, University of Rhodesia; scholarship to Oxford; co-winner, Guardian Fiction Prize, for The House of Hunger, 1979; two grants from the Arts Council of Great Britain; special commendation from Noma Award committee, for The Black Insider, 1991.
was no real damage, but he was given the choice of voluntary psychiatric treatment or expulsion, and chose the latter. He later wrote about being an African in Britain in a work published posthumously, The Black Insider, recalling a visit to the Africa Centre in London: “I looked around, at the bar where a few blacks in national costume were standing, at the dining tables where the smart black faces were eating impeccably African food recommended by the Guardian, and at the side seats where little groups of black and white faces sat talking and drinking in an unmistakably non-racial way. Here then was the womb into which one could retreat to nibble at the warm fluids of an Africa that would never be anything other than artificial. A test-tube Africa in a brave new world of Bob Marley anguish, Motown soul, reggae disco cool, and the added incentive of reconceiving oneself in a friendly womb.”
After his expulsion from Oxford, Marechera hitchhiked to London, and claimed to have lived in a riverside tent there while he wrote The House of Hunger, a novella and some short stories. With a theme that questioned what had happened to his generation—that of the first politically conscious, educated Africans—the book caused a literary stir and won several impressive reviews when it was published by the esteemed Heine-mann publishing house in 1978. It was championed by well-known writers, and earned the Guardian newspaper’s prize for debut fiction the following year. The title reflected the spiritual and physical nourishment its troubled author seemed unable to find for himself in the world, and the title piece, noted the pre-eminent scholar of Marechera’s work, Flora Veit-Wild, “depicts the experiences of his youth: the deprived and turbulent township life; mental alienation through mission education; violent confrontations between blacks and whites on campus; and the brutality of the Rhodesian police state and the corruption of black student informers,” she wrote in an essay for Dictionary of Literary Biography. “Despair is pervasive; the fervent search for freedom is paralyzed by an all-embracing moral disintegration and decay.”
Despite his newfound literary acclaim, Marechera continued to behave erratically. At the Guardian prize ceremony, he excoriated the participants for what he claimed was their hypocrisy, and threw china at the chandeliers at one point. His personal life remained chaotic, and he lived in friends’ apartments for some time or even in squats, subsisting on advances from his publishers or small financial grants from arts organizations. He sent a total of four manuscripts to Heine-mann, but only one was accepted for publication, plunging him into deeper despondency. Of those other three, The Black Insider was published after his death, but the other two, “A Bowl for Shadows” and “The Black Heretic,” have since disappeared.
The second manuscript Heinemann chose was a novel, Black Sunlight, which was published in 1980. Its story revolves around a photographer from Zimbabwe who travels across his war-ravaged country and discovers a warren of caves that a guerrilla army is using as its base. This second opus was not as well received as his debut work, and Veit-Wild, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, explained that its primary fault was one of narrative structure: “Without a coherent plot, the narration moves from reality to surreality; the narrator is confronted with the most incomprehensible and fantastic events and objects until he drowns in a world of surrealistic visions.”
Not surprisingly, Black Sunlight, was banned in Zimbabwe as blasphemous and obscene, though the country finally achieved independence that same year. In a celebration of the political milestone at the Africa Centre, Marechera needled his assembled fellow expatriates by appearing in traditional English hunting regalia. In 1982 he returned to Zimbabwe with a television crew that was filming The House of Hunger for British television, but Marechera argued with the director and was banished from the set. He decided to stay in Zimbabwe, but spent the remaining five years of his life in an alcoholic stupor. He wandered the streets of the capital, Harare, and slept at times in doorways or in the city’s Cecil Square, often with his typewriter on his lap. He produced one more work that was published during his lifetime, the experimental literary project Mind-blast; or, The Definitive Buddy, a collection including a diary from his park-bench days, three plays, several poems, and a prose narrative. He wrote in it about his life in a newly independent black nation: “Here in Harare the things held against me would have been totally invisible to a Londoner. My unconventional dress and my dread locks would not have raised an eyebrow, my ‘iconoclastic’ statements about ‘everything’ would have been drummed on deaf ears—no one would give a damn how I lived as long as I was bearably legal. Here in Harare, it was different. Expectations were crudely materialistic, less to do with the spirit but more with the price of the matter.”
Mindblast, published by the College Press in Harare, gave Marechera a fresh generation of admirers, “mainly high-school and university students,” noted Veit-Wild’s Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. “Children of a new era, they identified with his antiau-thoritarian behavior and biting social satire.” In 1984, the year Mindblast was published, he settled in his own Harare apartment but continued to run afoul of authorities, both academic and otherwise. He was arrested at the Zimbabwe Book Fair and held for several days, and publishers in Harare rejected two novellas he submitted as well as his poetry. In January of 1987 he was diagnosed with AIDS, and died of pneumonia the following August. His death elevated his reputation among Zimbabweans of all ages, and a trust was established the following year to promote his work and lend support to new emerging writers in the country.
Some of Marechera’s works appeared in the years following his death. Cemetery of Mind is a 1992 collection of 140 poems and an interview with him conducted by Veit-Wild. In some of its verse, he wrote about the sudden onset of his illness, and World Literature Today’s Ojaide found that here Marechera “remains shocking and defiant of society in the final poems, one of the most moving of which, ‘I Used to Like Tomatoes,’ describes his sickness in highly imag-istic and exhilarating language despite the gloom.” Ojaide asserted that though Marechera was known for his prose, his talents as a poet were also commendable. “He is highly imagistic, fresh, shocking, and delightful,” the World Literature Today essay noted, “despite the pervading angry and sad mood in his poems.”
The House of Hunger (short stories), Heinemann (London), 1978, published as The House of Hunger: A Novella & Short Stories, Pantheon (New York City), 1979.
Black Sunlight (novel), Heinemann (London), 1980. Mindblast; or, The Definitive Buddy (plays, prose narrative, poems, and park diary), College Press (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1984.
Dambudzo Marechera, 4 June 1952-18 August 1987: Pictures, Poems, Prose, Tributes, edited by Flora Veit-Wild and Ernst Schade, Baobab Books (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1988.
The Black Insider, edited by Veit-Wild, Baobab Books (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1990, Lawrence & Wishart (London), 1992.
Cemetery of Mind: Collected Poems of Dambudzo Marechera, edited by Veit-Wild, Baobab Books (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1992.
Scrapiron Blues (prose narrative, drama, short stories, children’s stories, novella, novel fragment, and poem), edited by Veit-Wild, Baobab Books (Harare, Zimbabwe), 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 157: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Gale, 1996, pp. 181-191.
Research in African Literatures, Summer 1997, p. 118.
World Literature Today, Spring 1994, p. 417.
“Dambudzo Marechera,” Contemporary Authors Online, http://galenet.galegroup.com/ (February 27, 2003).
“Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987),” www.kirjasto.sci.fi/marec.htm (February 27, 2003).
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