By Stephen Scott Whitaker
In Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s Reincarnating Marechera: Notes on a Speculative Archive, one of Zimbabwe’s literary heroes, Dambudzo Marechera, is explored in this enlightening pamphlet form Ugly Duckling Presse’s new series, clocking in at just under fifty pages. A combination of biography, analysis, and tributes, author Mushakavanhu shines a light on a contemporary provocateur that resonates with current socio-political unrest in the United States. The pamphlet also serves to wrestle Marechera’s legacy from The Dambudzo Marechera Foundations’s Flora Veit-Weld, a German scholar who championed Marechera’s work, and is also a beneficiary of Marechera’s literary and historical artifacts, a fact that does not escape Marechaera’s countrymen, who idolize and idealize the fiery personality but also understand that Marechera edited his own life, something Flora Viet-Weld discounts in her scholarly work, largely based on the writer’s older brother’s narratives. “The real Marechera is missing,” Mushakavanhu writes, and then sets out, like a literary detective, to find the enigmatic writer among the archives collected by Veit-Weld and other Marechera acolytes.
Dambudzo Marechera, a gender-fluid artist, a lover of debate and drink, a lover of liberty and personal expression, is an artist that inspires book thievery, rebellion, imitation, and reverence among writers in Zimbabwe. A student activist in his youth, Marechera’s writing is energetic and disruptive, reminiscent of French Symbolists and the Beat generation, seeking to “shock” the brain into new thinking and revelation. Known primarily for House of Hunger, written after his expulsion for disruptive behavior from The New College at Oxford, Marechera is also the author of poems, plays, and novels, and was a critic of Zimbabwe state violence and oppression. Known for his self-awareness and detailed writing, Marechera refused to live up to anyone’s expectations but his own, reinventing himself as necessary. Mushakavanhu gives us a full-bodied Marechera, gleaned from school documents, interviews, poems, xeroxes, seeking the poet and provocateur in archives spread out across the globe. Marechera died on August 18, 1987, of possible bronchopneumonia and HIV. The uncertainty of his death among his readers and his community is in harmony with the uncertainty most felt about the poet, who was regarded as "mentally ill". Rejected in life, Marechera became both a hero and enemy, depending on which side of the state one fell on. After winning the Guardian Award for House of Hunger, Marechera famously threw dinner plates at a chandelier. Yet, at the same time, he was known to sit quietly on a park bench writing for hours, or spending his own money consulting his fellow writers for ZImbabwe in his makeshift book “agency”, an artist comfortable criticizing the gate-keepers while helping others climb the same proverbial gates.
Throughout the pamphlet, Mushakavanhu pierces together what is believed, what is known, and what is speculated about the writer. From discussions with other writers, Mushakavanhu learns of The Shona culture’s knowledge systems in relation to spiritual knowledge, as well as learns of Marechera’s final years hosting intellectual debates and gatherings at No. 8 Sloane Court, which contradict the myth of Marechera as a homeless “street father,” and explores the artist’s relationship with the community.
Mushakavanhu includes special report findings, photographs, mimeographs of early poems, as well as details of Marechera’s early life in “family crisis”. Towards the end, Mushakavanhu includes extracts from letters and tributes stating the importance of Dambudzo Marechera and his passion for art, challenging the status quo, and rejecting toxic materialism and modern expectations. Mushakavanhu also delves into the cultural implications of German scholar Veit-Weld’s influence upon Marechera and Marechera’s trust noting that there is much to be admired about Veit-Weld’s work as one of the trustees of the Dambudzo Marechera Trust, which among other things launched a series of workshops creating a vibrant literary community in Zimbabwe, one of Marechera’s unrealized dreams. Veit-Weld, who had close relations with the writer, chose not to write a complete biography of Marechera, noting that her life intersected too much with his over an 18 month period, choosing instead to let “diverse voices speak” for the writer and remains to this day, the manager of the Marechera estate housed at Humboldt University and online, a fact that many find troubling because Marechera is seen as belonging to Zimbabwe, not under the control of an international estate.
Fascinating, inspiring, and provocative, Reincarnating Marechera: Notes on a Speculative Archive delivers a complex look at Zimbabwe’s most complex literary figure.