An ungovernable mind

Frustrated by most of his contemporaries, but supported by like-minded friends, Zimbabwean author Dambudzo Marechera forever changed our notion of what African literature is.

Lewis Nkosi and Dambudzo Marechera in Harare. © Dambudzo Marechera Trust.

Dambudzo Marechera was an ungovernable character. His friendships were fickle, and his relationship with family was non-existent. He cut ties with his mother. Her decision to let a family spirit torment him was unforgivable. “I have no time for that bitch,” he is alleged to have said when someone told him his mother was looking for him. Mother and son never reconciled.

The most documented relationship for Marechera, according to Flora Veit-Wild, was with herself. Perhaps only for as long as their fling lasted. Before they had ever met, Marechera already had active friendships that sustained him, which are the scaffolding of the scholarship that has emerged around his work and life. Marechera had a network of friends and acquaintances, from his school days at St Augustine’s to university, in exile, and when he returned back to Zimbabwe for good.

After his return from exile in 1982 after almost a decade, he was quickly embraced by a small circle of friends—Musaemura Zimunya, Charles Mungoshi, Wilson Katiyo, Stanley Nyamfukudza, Greenwell Matsika, Chenjerai Hove, Vernon Mwamuka, and Olly Maruma. The others had already settled in the new Zimbabwe, living in suburban Harare and occupying important positions in the civil service, at the university, or as executives in the publishing and film sectors. Marechera scorned them for selling out:

What’s happening to us? We are all becoming bureaucrats. Points of principle cannot be given up just because one has got to eat. Writers have always put their creative instincts first before any sense of conformity to whatever system is going on.

They grew impatient with him and ignored or avoided him as much as possible. Some of them shunned him because he made them socially uncomfortable and was a political liability who threatened the security of their jobs. So he existed in the margins, but if he could compromise like them he could also live comfortably.

In many literary cultures, the concept of “bromance” is nothing new or rare and Marechera wrote himself into many bromances. He was fascinated with the Beat writers (a literary and cultural movement that emerged in the US in the 1950s), or the network of Russian novelists. For Marechera, however, if there was any figure for whom he had a brotherly affection it was the eminent South African writer, Lewis Nkosi. But their friendship was contingent on and incidental to geography. It was on and off. It was a burst of fireworks whenever they were together. Long nights, loud and drunk conversations about books, women, and everything else. Nkosi himself regarded him as a young brother, once remarking, “in my life, I have had two younger brothers, Nat Nakasa and Dambudzo Marechera.”

Marachera and Nkosi first met in West Berlin in 1979 where Marechera’s international reputation was instantly forged at the Horizonte Festival for African Writers. Everyone was there: Chinua Achebe, Taban Lo Liyong, Nuruddin Farah, Camara Laye, Dennis Brutus, Vernie February, Édouard Maunick, Ngugi, Meja Mwangi, Amadou Kourouma, Mongo Beti, Bessie Head, Wole Soyinka. Marechera was only 27 years old and a newly published author in the African Writers Series, and under the protective wings of his publisher James Currey who was chaperoning him. His dazzling book, The House of Hunger, was barely five months old. At this gathering, no one had heard of him before.

In an interview with Kirsten Petersen-Holst, Marechera fondly remembered:

In Berlin, West Berlin. I lived there for 12 months. I was invited to a conference of black writers there, and that was the first time I met all the black writers I had been reading before: Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Mongo Beti, Lewis Nkosi was also there, Lewis, of course, my God, they were all there. I was the youngest there and looked like a student who intruded on the proceedings. That conference was my introduction to those writers conferences. They are usually of no use, if the writers have adopted a particular program and then simply stick to it, but this was very exciting because there was a total division between the Francophone and the Anglophone writers. It amazed me that all those writers I had been reading and admiring were so divided, simply by which colonial power had eaten them? Well, you see I got there without a passport. I bluffed my way at Heathrow where I had to sign an indemnity form.

Marechera had traveled to West Berlin without a passport. Inevitably, as in many other versions, Marechera’s place in African literature begins with the legend of a risk-taker. Upon arrival, he was detained at the airport, but a group of writer-activists fought for his release to join the festival. As soon as he was free, Marechera utilized a press conference organized to explain his circumstances ,and to announce himself to the world of African letters. The Dambudzo Marechera legend was born at that moment. Marechera’s connection with Berlin does not begin with his meeting Flora Veit-Wild who migrated his archives to the city where he also infamously became an international writer.

Berlin catapulted Marechera to the summit of African Literature as a young, unusual talent. With plaudits from Doris Lessing and Angela Carter, his career was seriously taking off. It was hard to ignore his exuberance and youth.

Nkosi’s arrival at the same Berlin event differed greatly from Marechera’s dramatic entrance. After receiving an invitation to the Horizonte Festival, he did not respond and the organizers assumed he was not attending until he just showed up. The organizers had not booked a room for him, and he ended up sleeping on a couch at the home of Peter Ripken, one of the local organizers. After the festival, Marechera took over the couch in Ripken’s flat until his return to London a few weeks later.

From their first encounter, Nkosi understood the young Marechera and took him under his wing. They would meet again, several times. In London, they frequently met at the Africa Centre where Marechera said, “we were always the last ones to be thrown out when the bar was closing.” On the news of Augustino Neto’s death in September 1979, Marechera, Stewart Crehan, and Lewis Nkosi hastily organized a poetry reading in his memory at the Africa Centre. And in Harare, they linked up in their post-exile lives. In each of these encounters, there was always drink and they were in the company of other literary types. Each meeting would always link to the last meeting so they started from where they left off. With the passage of time and these intermittent social meetings, they formed a strong bond.

In his visits to Harare, Nkosi would meet Marechera and occasionally joined him at his flat. In private they sat in Marechera’s bedsit at Sloane Court in the jacaranda tree-lined Avenues neighborhood, where they drank, talked, and laughed. But in public, Nkosi always had to come to the defense of his young friend who was petulant, provocative, and always in danger of being beaten or arrested. Nardine Gordimer remembers one such event at the inaugural Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1983 when Marechera fought with the organizers because they were embarrassed with his heckling of politicians:

Then the next day I think it was, he arrived either drunk or drugged or both and he started that terrible row downstairs and the next thing we heard chairs breaking …  Then he came into the conference room and I was struck because it was Lewis Nkosi who, when he was Marechera’s age, was also pretty wild, but now he had changed, become the dignified professor, and he was the one who really took charge and calmed him and prevented the police from arresting him. So I couldn’t help thinking, well, maybe Marechera will become less exhibitionistic, turn more to his work and forget about presenting himself as a sort of Baudlairian character. But, alas, of course, he did not live long enough to do what Lewis has done, to transform himself.

Marechera was always frustrated by Harare’s lack of interest in writing as an intellectual project, and found political writing boring and predictable. He did not wish to be in the army of new Zimbabwe’s propaganda machinery. His attempt to lead the Zimbabwe Writer’s Union failed after he lost the vote for the position of Secretary General to Musaemura Zimunya, and from this official rejection emerged a rift so deep he never reconciled with the literary establishment. It was partly in this spirit that he organized a series of public lectures, for which Harare has not been able to replicate since. The lectures allowed Marechera to gesture his connections to a wider international literary network. His friend, Lewis Nkosi, attended the inaugural lecture now commonly known as, “The African Writers Experience of European Literature,” which Marechera had originally titled, “The uselessness of talking about African or European reality or From Snakes to Soyinka: The black writer’s experience of European Literature.” Nkosi introduced his friend:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is a great privilege for me to be with you tonight and to be in town on an occasion when a writer like Dambudzo Marechera is going to address you. He has been a good friend of mine from the London days. I share some of his preoccupations in literature and I know he is one of the most treasured writers, sometimes not in the right circles but certainly the most treasured young writer. We keep saying young writer, maybe he is not young anymore [Marechera chuckles in the background]. He is a man I think who represents true integrity in the production of literature. And when I am talking about true integrity I am talking about a writer who does not simply try to represent what we so obliquely call reality but someone who also produces reality. In other words, I’m saying Dambudzo Marechera is a writer who is very interested in production rather than reproduction. There are a lot of writers who simply want to reproduce reality in the streets in the hope that they’re going to say something important. He has written a number of works that I am quite sure you all know about, I don’t need to repeat. He is coming to talk to you tonight about what he just whispered into my ear under the title, “The uselessness of talking about African or European reality,” and I am quite sure by the time you leave this hall, this evening, you’ll be enthralled by what Dambudzo Marechera has to say.

Beyond the influence of spontaneous bop prosody, Marechera’s formidable voice and intellect—by turns sweet, angry, outrageous, and prophetic—has informed a critical and counter-culture discourse in Zimbabwe and beyond. His 1978 novella House of Hunger is a scathing jeremiad against the destruction of “the best minds of [his] generation” who continue presiding over Zimbabwe’s ruins. Marechera forever changed our notion of what African literature is.

Further Reading

Art in dark times

Interview with historian Dan Magaziner about his new book, The Art of Life in South Africa, about one of the few art schools training black art teachers under Apartheid.