The sad tale of Dambudzo Marechera, the only African Guardian Fiction Prize winner

Theodora Aidoo June 23, 2020
Zimbabwean novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet Dambudzo Marechera - Pic Credit: Ernst Schade

Dambudzo Marechera, a Zimbabwean novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet won critical acclaim for his collection of stories entitled “The House of Hunger“. He was the first and only African to have won the Guardian Fiction Prize in its 33 years’ history.

“The House of Hunger,” a powerful account of life in his country under white rule published in 1978, was number 207 in Heinemann’s African Writers Series and was awarded the 1979 Guardian Fiction prize.

Born on June 4, 1952, in Vhengere Township, Rusape, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to Isaac Marechera, a mortuary attendant, and Masvotwa Venenzia Marechera, a maid, Marechera has been described as a writer who considered fiction a ‘form of combat’, his work is complex, challenging and uniquely potent.

He went on to the University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe), where he was expelled during student unrest. He obtained a scholarship to New College, Oxford where his unsociable behaviour and academic delinquency led to another expulsion.

Marechera was a “wild and ill-disciplined, albeit brilliant student”. He was expelled in 1977 for trying to set fire to the college building. It was while living in London that he wrote “The House of Hunger”.

He had a self-destructive nature and he constantly caused outrage. He threw tantrum at the buffet dinner for the award of the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize to him for House of Hunger. Marechera launched plates at a chandelier.

Nevertheless, Leeds University offered him a position as writer-in-residence but because of his behaviour, he was regularly thrown out of the Africa Centre, the cultural meeting-place in London’s Covent Garden for African and Afrocentric scholars and students.

He lived on the streets in dire poverty, mostly drunk, sleeping in friends’ sitting-rooms and writing various fictional and poetic pieces on park benches and regularly getting caught by the police for vagrancy. He caused many troubles and generally ended up in police custody.

According to his biography, despite the recognition his book brought him, Marechera remained disruptive and confrontational. He published his second novel “Black Sunlight” in 1980 – an account of a photojournalist’s involvement with a revolutionary organization.

His writings were unconventional and that drew attacks from African critics. “Life”, as he puts it in The House of Hunger, is like “a series of hunger-scoured hovels stretching endlessly towards the horizon”.

Juliet Okonkwo writing in 1981 said that his “excessive interest in sex activity, his tireless attempt to rake up filth, is alien to Africa – a continent of hope and realizable dreams”. Marechera’s position? “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then f**k you.”

According to the Guardian, Marechera described his writing as a form of “literary shock treatment”, and the majority of his works are written in a sometimes difficult stream–of–consciousness style that owes a significant debt to European modernism.

Dambudzo Marechera reading in First Street Mall, Harare, during International Book Fair Harare August 1983.
Marechera reading in First Street Mall, Harare, during International Book Fair Harare in Aug. 1983 – Pic Credit: Tessa Colvin

Marechera returned to Zimbabwe in 1981 to assist in shooting the film of House of Hunger. But, he fell out with the director and remained behind in Zimbabwe when the crew left, becoming homeless.

Marechera said of himself: “I think I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met.”

According to reports, at the time his mental and physical condition deteriorated while he remained homeless in Harare. Marechera’s health deteriorated, and soon died from an AIDS-related pulmonary disorder when he was only 35.

Posthumous publications of Marechera works, compiled by Flora Veit-Wild, include The Black Insider (1990); Cemetery of Mind (1992), a powerful collection of his poetry; and Scrapiron Blues (1994), a collection of stories, plays, and a novella.

Mindblast, or the Definitive Buddy (1984), the last collection published during his lifetime, includes four plays, a prose narrative, poetry, and a section of his Harare journal. A novel, entitled “The Depths of Diamonds,” was rejected for publication reportedly because of its obscenity.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: June 23, 2020


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