Who was Dambudzo Marechera, and was he, in a true sense, an African writer? My interest in this African writer has a personal root and cause, for which I am not altogether sorry. I, myself, grew up in the same place as he did, within a decade and a half of Marechera’s generation, in the Rhodesia that became Zimbabwe, I was on the other side of the fence no doubt, as a white, and relatively privileged in the context of my upbringing. Yet earlier privilege is not a defence against violent forces of upheaval, hence those historical forces which tugged and tormented Marechera are not unlike the ones I, too, have felt.
To understand a writer of the idiosyncratic nature and style of a Marechera, it helps to have had similar experiences to those he had. I was born into a privileged context as a white colonial, yet this “privilege” was hardly privilege at all except in a relative sense. From a material perspective, I had more than Marechera was ever to receive within his minor village of Lesapi. I was given three square meals a day and the aspects of violence visited upon me by parental authority were rare and inevitably sporadic. I had no knowledge – or very little – of the affairs of the world: In effect, I grew up within a protected bubble of social good will, cushioned by a good measure of what I now suspect to be the effects of Victorian moral strictures designed to protect women and children. There was also the effect of media sanctions against the kind of reportage which would undermine morale in the Rhodesian fighting forces, so the aspect of life in general appeared rosy to me, during my first sixteen years of life, all the way up until migration to Australia in 1984. Apart from that, I and my family lived a relatively Spartan existence – a family sized coke on the weekend was a rare treat, and was not guaranteed for every Saturday’s barbecue, in any case. Compared to Marechera’s life, which started sixteen years before mine, my condition was a life of luxury. Marechera was born in 1952, in his small African village, facing rural impoverishment and the realities of politics and social struggle. I was born into the suburbs, which I was free to roam without danger or threat of reprise: I was protected from the sorts of situations which might have done me harm; yet I was allowed to roam freely – very freely indeed. Victorian morality might have reigned supreme as my external limits, yet directly I was given very little guidance about life or good behaviour: All in all, it appears that I was expected to learn these on my own.
My life and Marechera’s resonate on quite a number of levels, yet all that I have written thus far will have served to give the opposite impression. Marechera, it must be said, was born in 1952. His first book was House of Hunger and all of his subsequent writings – bar Black Sunlight – were published posthumously. Marechera died in 1987 as a result of an AIDS related illness. He was but 35. His earliest novel and selection of short stories, House of Hunger, was well received and Marechera earned himself a joint Guardian literature prize. Perhaps ironically, the income he attracted from this book was very minimal, and did not allow Marechera to live on the proceeds, in a way which would have given him economic reprieve. What followed after publishing and European (particulary German) cultural acclaim of this book, was a decline back into relative – and at times extreme – poverty. Marechera continually stuck to his guns, and refused to try to make a living by any other means than writing – even when he was homeless and living in office buildings at night, or more literally on the streets. This “no compromise” stance is understandable to me, although I fear that critical appraisals now emerging will not always be able to make sense of it.
I understand Marechera’s position as one of alienation – and in this, he has mirrored my own cultural exile. I believe the metaphorical concept which best encompasses the experiences of “the lost generation” of Zimbabweans is “a clash of tectonic plates”. Marechera has said (mindblast) that the nature of his problematic situation as human being and homeless writer, “writing away his life” on a Harare bench, has more to do with the differeneces between his original culture and “the West”  . The nature of the historical disruptions which afflicted him are perhaps rarely experienced so cataclysmically – after all, the third world has less weight of traditional force to anchor it, unlike the older cultures of the world. Alienation is the result of too much change, too quickly. Historically compelled cultural disruptions can tear apart the web of one’s being – leaving one to depend on only that little which one still manages to have faith in – In Marechera’s case, his writing.
Yet there is more to him than this – as there is always more to find out about a lucid writer of autobiographical fiction. Education was the key for betterment to many a black peasant, forced to eek out a living on the land. Ideologically, it was sold as such, by well meaning colonial arbiters of power. Marechera’s fortune turned when he was discovered to be unusually gifted, academically. He chose not to turn back from the sphere of learning, but to advance himself in his own way, no matter what hit him. This determination persisted even despite the “soul rupture” caused by shifting ideological frames. The Western ideological frames are not that of Zimbabwe or colonial Rhodesia. One may be gifted – even unto earning a scholarship at Oxford, as Marechera did – but this not only doesn’t make one automatically accepted; one does not feel that one communicates within a context not of one’s own deep mental-warp – an effect of cultural conditioning.
The Western warp of culture isn’t that of those born and ingrained with differing cultural controls and attitudes. The Western warp – despite its rationalist appearances – is still a warp. One is culturally conditioned by it, just the same as those of African origin are conditioned by their own experiences. Thus, to experience one’s sudden emergence into the West is to experience something akin to natural disaster for one whose skin is already quite raw from doing cultural battle. To experience the cultural shift of historical tectonic plates through one’s immersion in a foreign culture – even such a one as Oxford University culture – is to experience ontological shudders of an earthquake raging against human systems of ideas; tearing them asunder.
Marechera and I – he was closer to the fault-zone than I – have both experienced the effect or the aftershocks of cultural disordering through having to learn our historical lessons too fast. The metaphor of boxing now becomes more appropriate. Indeed the mixture of metaphors for the sake of this unusual depiction of context should not be deemed as negligent: As we have both been hit by Left and Right, we have resorted to the notion that “the personal is the political” as one of the remaining truths which we would be unwilling to readily give up. I was hit by the Right then the Left then the Right. (I almost remained standing.) Marechera was (closer to the fault zone) hit by first the Right then the Left then the Right then the Left. (He fell.)
Marechera grew up in a kind of “ghetto”. I grew up in relative luxury (though not, perhaps, the sort of “luxury” one brought up in the West would find desirable. I stood, only because the shock effects on me were actually diminished as compared to those experienced by Marechera. His poverty was due in part to pre-industrial traditions of living off the land, as well as not having a means to by which to advance oneself – unless one was very lucky, or was gifted, and, even in those cases, a clear escape was hardly guaranteed. Right wing colonial strictures had limited Marechera’s prospects, too, making education the only golden opportunity which might lead to improvement of one’s lot. (The class system, largely based upon race, only made concessions for a golden few.) Marechera did what all the odds would have made seem impossible: he made good his escape to Britain only to find that his treatment there was not entirely objective, but more along the lines of the warp of Western culture – he felt he was treated as a token black person, an “Uncle Tom”. He returned to Zimbabwe in due course. There’ he found his book, Black Sunlight, had been banned for blasphemy and elements indicative of corruption. Although he remained in Zimbabwe for a time, he finally decided to leave – at which point he found that his avenue for departure had been blocked, and that he had no choice but to remain within Zimbabwe. Here he lived the life of a bohemian tramp until he died. He was a victim of a “fault-zone” of too great proportion for human survival. He died in that which had probably by 1987 become a cistern of disease, due to a governmental failure to maintain facilities – Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital, 1987.
In 2006, I first read Marechera’s writings. They seemed immensely vitalized and full of insight. I, too, had been hit by the left and the right, but the punches had been relatively feeble. In 1997, I had been harassed out of my job, due to my Zimbabwean origins. A year or so later, my father, mustering up all of his religiosity in order to exhibit his “tough love” had told me, “See! You cannot be an intellectual because you cannot even speak properly!” – He’d taken the effects of the left-wing abuse as a sign that I was intellectually out of my depth in normative society. I had, by this time, a humanities degree, whereas his was only a high school certificate. Having experienced similar shockwaves to those experience by Marechera, I have firm recourse to the belief in education: If this doesn’t save humanity – nothing will! Just as Marechera’s views have derived from experiences of violence and extremity, I have also been a participant within the selfsame lost generation. From such a position, I am able to fully respond to, recognize and applaud his efforts.