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Dambudzo Marechera – His Life and Work (In His Own Words)

Dambudzo

There’s an intimacy, a familiarity with writers and their readers unlike any other relationship. They allow us access to their lives. And not just their peripheral existences, but their deepest fears, their most uncomfortable memories, their subconscious motivations, their haven’t-yet-showered morning mirror reflections. They allow us to know them without us actually knowing them. They give us their lives. We give them our attention.

And, when a writer dies, they leave behind a dichotomous legacy that’s equal parts surreal and…tender. You mourn their death while appreciating the fact that their work — the thing that made them so vibrant, so kinetic, so alive — is immortal.

One of Zimbabwe’s and Africa’s greatest literary minds Dambudzo Marechera would have been 62 today. Dambudzo Marechera might have died years ago. But Dambudzo Marechera will always be here. He will continue to teach. He will continue to challenge. He will continue to inspire. He will continue to be. His legacy lives on.

Dambudzo Marechera, Cemetery of Mind. (In his own writing here.)

Dambudzo Marechera, Cemetery of Mind. (In his own writing here.)

 

According to information gathered from a series of audio interviews conducted in Marechera’s flat at 8 Sloane Court, Harare, Zimbabwe, by Alle Lansu in February 1986:

‘Dambudzo Marechera was born on June 4 1952 in Rusape, Zimbabwe and baptised Charles William Marechera. His father, Isaac, was a trucker and mortuary attendant, and his mother, Masvotwa Venezia was a nanny. However, Dambudzo won scholarships to St Augustine’s Secondary School, to the University of Zimbabwe and to New College, Oxford. He has the distinction of having been expelled from all three.

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 Heinemann publishing house in 1978. It was championed by well-known writers, and earned the Guardian newspaper’s prize for debut fiction the following year.

House of Hunger was followed by four other novels, ‘Black Sunlight’ (1980),’The Black Insider’ (1990) and ‘Mindblast’ (1884). His poetry, collected together in ‘Cemetery of Mind’, was published posthumously in 1992.

After his departure from Oxford, he lived and wrote in London until his return to Zimbabwe in 1982. Dambudzo died an untimely and tragic death on August 18 1987, in Harare.

Marechera’s work, his ideas and his defiance, live on in Zimbabwe, particularly amongst the youth, who find inspiration in his willingness to be the lone outsider, challenging conventional and authoritarian views.’

Dambudzo Marechera; His Life and Work an Interview by Alle Lansu

Childhood

Here he offers some insight into what it was like growing up in Vengere Township in Rusape , in the then Rhodesia ( now Zimbabwe). He talks about how he got his first books from a rubbish dump in the white part of town.

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Escaping the House of Hunger

‘Getting out of the House of Hunger is easy if you know that there is a way out. It’s about education and ignoring the poverty around you. It’s very selfish. Reading is what taught me that there was another world out there and I wanted to break into it’.

He goes on to speak on how he became the first black African student to score 20 points (Straight A’s) for his A’ Level exams and that is how he won a full scholarship to study any university in the world. He chose the University of Zimbabwe because he ‘wanted to experience what it was like going at our highest education institution. I wanted to become part of our national struggle’. He was expelled from the University of Zimbabwe in 1973 and went on to attend Oxford University in the UK.

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Oxford and London

He talks about his bookish knowledge of the UK which he had picked from the authors he read and how the reality of being on British soil was so disappointing. He points out that by being a scholar at Oxford he became a member of the aristocracy by default. He couldn’t drink with other black people because they considered him other and he didn’t really fit in the student pubs either. ‘All the time I was in Oxford I didn’t belong anywhere. So I just read and drank and listened to my classical music. This showed him the ‘irrelevancy of being part of Oxford University.’ He goes on to say this experience ‘radicalized my mind in an international way’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

Back In Zimbabwe 

 

Here discusses his homelessness and run ins with the authorities upon his return to his homeland after his return to Zimbabwe in 1982. He also discusses his relationship with a German expatriate teacher who taught in Mutoko who would feed him and book a hotel room for both them when she was in Harare for weekends. During the week he would sleep in the streets. This was the period in which he wrote Mindblast. In is own words ‘I was having a normal life by installments. Each Sunday morning I would wake up and we would know that she is going back to school to teach and I am going back to the streets.’

 

On the Future of Zimbabwean Literature

‘If every writer is actually helped to not only discover his vision and talent but also to fashion it out in such a way that he re-evaluates himself and at the same time achieves both national and international recognition then there is a tremendous future for Zimbabwean literature.’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

His Vision for African Literature

In this part of the interview he shares his thoughts on traditional and modern African Literature as well as his views on the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka , Ngugi wa Thiong’o etc as well as the concept of negritude. His speaks of Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the African writers who had the biggest influence on him as a writer. Ngugi wa Thiong’o ‘Weep Not Child’ was the first book by an African writer that he read. Up to this point he had never thought that blacks could be writers. In his own words he thought to himself ‘If another African can do it then I am going to do it.’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Let Me Write and Drink My Beer

‘There is a disconnection between my profession as a writer and the needs of a developing country like Zimbabwe. People considered my writing as an indulgence. There is no tradition in Zimbabwe of writing as a profession. People thought of me as unemployed and merely as a vagabond who refusing to do any constructive … Just live me alone to write and drink my beer.’

You can listen to this part of the interview below

 

Thank you Dambduzo. For the words. And the inspiration.

 
 

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The Inspiration (Can We Get Much Higher?)

“Can we get much higher?.”

That part of the chorus from Kanye West’s song Dark Fantasy resonated with me in a way it had never done in the thousands of times I had listened to it prior to my much protracted return from the writing wilderness. That line summed up my state of mind in the first few hours after I had completed my first blog. I had  underestimated the euphoria that would soon envelope me. Not only just that, the process of writing again had also proved to be quite therapeutic. For the first time in a long time, my brain was entirely focused on one thing (vs desperately seeking a moment to drift off). I was on a high and it was thrilling and intoxicating. The time that had elapsed since that defining moment of praise from my English teacher had served to numb the memory of the associated high. I reacted physically as well. The sheer joy I felt was such an adrenaline rush. Absolute  bliss. Addicting.

Soon enough anarchy became the order of the day as writing became all I could think about, when to find the time to write again, and every idea I got I jotted  down obsessively. The writer was writing! In every free moment I was writing down story arcs and ideas. It was chaotic, but I was thoroughly enjoying it. I was inspired.

What was even more significant and encouraging than this high was the feedback that I got. It ranged from, “Look what you started …”. Something a close friend said to me a few hours after I had sent them my blog, which had inspired them to start their own. Other reactions included surprise that I was actually capable of writing a coherent sentence, as well as being called out for supposedly wasting my talent. The most ingenious comment was the simple but yet eloquent reference to yours truly as “Mr Incognito”, an allusion  to my coming out of the closet as a writer.

I realised then that in my small way with that single post I had inspired. As if the euphoria I had experienced from writing alone hadn’t been enough motivation. That I had inspired only served to consolidate the conviction I had that writing again was something I needed to do. I must point out that I did get some criticism, most of it constructive which was just the tonic I needed to keep myself grounded. This criticism also had the consequence of being sobering, a necessary evil considering the high that I was on.

As I set about to manipulate the free flow of natural endorphins that my high equipped with my ideas jostled with each other for space on the blank page. I wanted to write about anything and everything. In the few days since I had shared my story I was struck the most by the fact that I had inspired. Sharing the experience of my creative dilemma of being a writer who didn’t write had the unexpected effect of helping some of my readers confront head on whatever demons where shacking their creativity or passions. By looking to my own  metaphorical backyard I had found the subject material the result of which was a story. A story that inspired, resonated and reverberates.

It was with this in mind that I began reflecting on my inspirations. I have always believed in the power of the story. The story matters. This is best exemplified by one of may favourite quotes from Chinua Achebe on the impact of a story “It is only the story…that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No,neither do we the story;rather, it is the story that owns us.”

I believe the story whatever it is and whoever it may belong to is an integral ingredient in that delectable delicacy that can be inspiration.  Inspiration is the story, and it never belongs to the writer but to the inspired. At least that’s how I interpreted that quote .

As a child I was introduced to the worlds that lay within The Famous Five, Secret Seven, The Hardy Boys and others. These books where the early cultivator’s of my imagination and when I began to write, I  too wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. This is something Chimamanda Adichie refers to in her TED talk when she says “… What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children …” A strong case can then be made that the stories we read in a way are pivotal to how the inspiration we get from them manifests itself. Whether we are inspired by the writers, the doctors or the sports stars story , it drives us closer to whatever our life’s calling is. We become what we read.

Prior to reading the works of Achebe and other African writers, I had become convinced that books by their very nature could only have their setting in far far away places. Something that is the subject of one of my favourite TED talks The Danger of A Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie. 

The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify. Instead of embracing diversity,that it’s this or maybe that ,you have just one large statement; it is this – Chimamanda Adichie ( The Danger Of A Single Story)

In my case my early reading of books by European  and American writers  had created a singular story which blinkered my world view and narrowed the pool from which I drew my inspiration. This all changed in my teen years were my literature classes were to juxtaposition the works of William Shakespeare and the Chinua Achebe. This enabled me to appreciate the power of different stories by affording me the opportunity to appreciate a writer from a different era in English in Shakespeare and the “Father of African literature” Chinua Achebe. Achebe’s masterpiece  Things Fall Apart  however was more defining. A writer who the great Nelson Mandela himself said this of “He is the writer in whose company the prison walls came down”. Because of Chinua Achebe  and other African writers I went through a mental shift in my perception of writing  and was confronted with a new and more relevant inspiration. In started to write about things I recognised. It was the inspiration I needed to find my own voice and write my own story .

It is important to point out that every journey is not without its setbacks and most stories include failure. As with any story with a happy ending how the characters deal with adversity is key. Based on this I believe that inspiration is the Florence Nightangle of our ambitions. Selflessly nursing our ambition when its been battered by with failure until such a point when we fully recover and finally realise our dreams. So never give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, you cannot go wrong. Above all Inspiration is free but sometimes you just have to go and get it. Let inspiration be the nurse to your ambition.

I hope I have managed to make you think about which story inspires you and whether or not you have a story that will inspire.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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