Dambudzo Marechera died in 1987 at the age of just 35, but the handful of slender novels, short stories and poems he left behind continue to hold the imaginations of readers all over Africa.
A controversial figure, winner of the Guardian Prize for Fiction with his first novel, House of Hunger, Marechera and the explosive, rude stream-of-consciousness of his writing stood in sharp contrast to the sobre realistic novels of his contemporaries.
As he wrote, he lived. His personality disturbed the way his literature was read, says Memory Chirere, himself a writer and a lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.
“I am beginning to think that people are now more comfortable with Marechera’s literature in his absence.”
Indeed — Marechera may be on the school syllabus today, but when he returned to liberated Zimbabwe in 1982, his book Black Sunlight was on a banned list.
He spent most of the last five years of his life living in the streets, writing furiously but publishing just one more book, Mindblasts.
In this interview, Chirere reflects on the domestication of one of Africa’s most feral minds.
Twenty-two years on, what work of Marechera is most read and which is least read and why?
We could debate between the collection of short stories called The House of Hunger and his collection of short stories, poems and journals called Mindblast.
Students who go up to university in Zimbabwe tend to prefer the House of Hunger maybe necessarily because it is part of their syllabus.
People who don’t go very far with their education tend to prefer Mindblast, maybe because in Zimbabwe the book is locally available.
Some people read Mindblast for the sheer novelty of its title and for the wide variety that it offers the reader in the sense that you find short stories, poems, plays and journalese in it. Is literature by Marechera difficult to comprehend? If so, how so and where?
If you look at the sheer intensity of language, the use of intense imagery, the fearlessness and openness in texts like House of Hunger and Black Sunlight you might say Marechera is difficult.
However, when you are patient with Marechera and read him in the context of Rhodesia in House of Hunger, open windows into what Rhodesia was.
Having said that, I want to say that Marechera’s Black Sunlight is probably the most obscure of all his literature in that, unlike House of Hunger and Mindblast, it does not pay attention to a specific setting, personality and sensibility.
He was trying to write an international book that does not identify with a specific sensibility... Scrapiron Blues is less militant, if not mellow.
Would you say that Marechera is better understood now than ever before?
People who like Marechera now can do so with freedom knowing that he is not around.
There is Marechera the man and Marechera the literature and these tended to come together.
Musaemara Zimunya (Marechera’s contemporary at the then-University of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe’s most anthologised poet) once said that Marechera “wrote as he lived and lived as he wrote”.
People seem to agree that they are more comfortable with his work without his “troublesome” presence.
Why is Marechera getting attention even beyond his grave?
Simply because of the sheer intensity of his work, the beauty of his language, the complexity of his imagery and also what his personality represented: the desire to be independent from the self and society.
The stubbornness in Marechera keeps coming back again and again.
When you teach House of Hunger, what is your focus?
I am concerned with history and how the book captures the turmoil of Rhodesia of the 1970s, when it was conceived and written.
The book demonstrates the viciousness of the police state of Rhodesia and the resultant poverty of the times.
I take a thematic approach.
What influence does Marechera have among young writers and ordinary young people in Zimbabwe?
Marechera has reached a cult figure status in Zimbabwe, especially among the young writers.
For instance, when I read all the other books on the Zimbabwean literary scene with university students, they are calm.
As soon as I introduce Marechera and go into his background and read some of the scenes in the House of Hunger, especially that scene where a man starts by beating up his wife in front of the township crowds and ends up raping her in front of the same crowds, students become crazy.
All of a sudden, some of them begin to grow dreadlocks.
They start drinking and smoking and interestingly some of them begin to write their own poems and short stories for the first time.
Does Marechera’s work have the same influence on female students?
It’s usually the male students who prefer Marechera.
A certain section of the female students think that his literature is macho and difficult and sometimes they find him a bit insulting, especially the violent sex in his work.
Female students tend to frown at Marechera literature.
If Marechera was alive, what do you think he would say or write about Zimbabwe in its current state?
I think that is a political question and it came up at the Marechera Celebration seminar (held in Oxford in May 2009).
The house was divided into two.
There were people who felt that if Marechera was alive he would have protested against the establishment the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) way.
The other part of the house, which included people who knew him when he was alive said it’s not predictable that Marechera would have been oppositional in the sense that if you look at his literature and if you read some of the interviews he gave in the 1970s, sometimes he came out clearly nationalist.
In one interview he said his support was with (Zimbabwean President) Robert Mugabe and the guerillas.
Much later in House of Hunger he says there won’t be any cabinet in independent Zimbabwe because when people come back after the war, the cabinet they will get into would be a coffin...
He had friends in Mugabe’s cabinet and it’s not predictable what he would have said about Zimbabwe today.
The myth that Marechera was mad is very widespread. What may he have done to create this impression?
Maybe his personality and his literature have given some people the impression that he was mad.
He had very outstanding results at “A” level while at St Augustine’s Mission in Mutare.
The way in which House of Hunger was written is another factor.
It is a pathfinder text in Zimbabwean literature in its seemingly disjointed narrative and also in the intensity of the descriptions.
Some people may think he was mad because of his flamboyant behaviour.
He was very outspoken and always picking a quarrel even with people who would have helped him.
He worked extremely hard.
In his work there are references and allusions to Russian, Greek, Roman, American literature and so on, on every page.