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Q&A: The Desire To Be An Outsider

Moses Magadza interviews MEMORY CHIRERE about the legacy of writer Dambudzo Marechera

WINDHOEK, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - “The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh… And the same thing is happening to my generation.” – Dambudzo Marechera, House of Hunger

Dambudzo Marechera: 'Insist upon your right to go off on a tangent. Your right to put the spanner in the works.' Credit:  Ernst Schade

Dambudzo Marechera: 'Insist upon your right to go off on a tangent. Your right to put the spanner in the works.' Credit: Ernst Schade

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 sober 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.

IPS: Twenty-two years on, what work of Marechera is most read and which is least read and why?

From House of Hunger

"The older generation too was learning. It still believed that if one did not beat up one's wife it meant that one did not love her at all. These beatings (not entirely one-sided, because the man next door tried it and was smashed into the Africans-only hospital by his up to then submissive wife) were always salted and peppered... The most lively of them ended with the husband actually fucking – raping his wife right there in the thick of the excited crowd. He was cursing all women to hell as he did so. And he seemed to screw her forever – he went on and on and on and on until she looked like death."

MEMORY CHIRERE: 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.

IPS: Is literature by Marechera difficult to comprehend? If so, how so and where?

MC: 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.

IPS: Would you say that Marechera is better understood now than ever before?

MC: 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.

IPS: Why is Marechera getting attention even beyond his grave?

MC: 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.

IPS: When you teach House of Hunger, what is your focus? 

MC: 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.

IPS: What influence does Marechera have among young writers and ordinary young people in Zimbabwe? 

MC: 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.

Unfortunately some of them begin to be anti-social; not meeting deadlines, not coming to class on time, and not taking down notes when I teach. You find that they are doing this so that they keep within the Marechera tradition. You begin to think that each one of them think they are little Marecheras.

Interesting as he is, Marechera can be very destructive. He has destroyed so many people. Some people have failed to earn their degrees in imitation of the Marechera tradition.

IPS: Does Marechera’s work have the same influence on female students? 

MC: 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.

IPS: If Marechera was alive, what do you think he would say or write about Zimbabwe in its current state? 

MC: 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.

IPS: Did Marechera REALLY try to burn down Oxford? 

MC: At Oxford this is now put down as part of the Marechera myth. Fraser says when Marechera was called in by the authorities for a caution or warning, (Fraser) and Ben Okri (Nigerian author of the Booker Prize-winning Famished Road) went with Marechera.

When they got into the office the three of them were holding their cigarettes because they were still smoking. They were told that Marechera was being “sent down” (expelled) and in a fit of rage Marechera threw his cigarette on a very expensive carpet and stamping it out shouted: “Burn this place!”

That’s how the myth that he wanted to burn Oxford began. He was simply condemning the place, its structures and attitude towards people like him.

IPS: Do you think enough is being done for the Marechera heritage?

MC: Yes. I think Marechera occupies a privileged position in Zimbabwean literature.

First, he is widely studied in Zimbabwe. Secondly, stories about him are everywhere becoming part of folklore of Zimbabwe. Third, there is a section of the archives in the country dedicated to Marechera where you can find his original manuscripts and letters that he wrote and those he received in the 1970s.

Although dead, he is one of the most remembered writers in the country and abroad.

IPS: Talking about militancy in Marechera, as he approached the sunset of his short life, what discernible changes occurred in his lifestyle and convictions?

MC: I think he was becoming more mature and mellow. In one interview towards the end of his life he says he is coming to terms with himself and even says: “I want money now”.

These are the days when he tried to get a teaching job at one of the private colleges in Harare. There is a rare picture of him writing on the chalkboard in front of students. He even went back to UZ and spoke to his former classmate Musaemara Zimunya who tried to arrange for him to offer tutorials.

This did not work because suddenly he became Marechera again. He did not find time to go back. He even wanted to finish his degree and it is there in some of the interviews he gave.

IPS: What can you say about the availability of Marechera’s books and the fact that they are often stolen from those who buy them? 

MC: Marechera has become a cult figure in Zimbabwe. Even relatives steal Marechera’s books from each other. Reading Marechera is considered a sign of being extremely learned or a rite of passage of sorts. Being able to read Marechera or to be seen carrying any one of his books is a point of prestige.

IPS: The myth that Marechera was mad is very widespread. What may he have done to create this impression? 

MC: 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 behavior. 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.

You get the impression that he was an exhibitionist and was bent at showing that he was extremely well read. And he was well read. A picture shows him receiving the Guardian Prize holding a very big (volume of) Ezra Pound in his hand!

IPS: Why did he live and write in the open in Harare? 

Memory Chirere: This is something that our African world has not seen in an artist: the desire to be an outsider.

Marechera believed that for one to produce rich art, one must stay at the fringes of society and never be tied to love, family or bureaucratic links. He was consciously married to his art.

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