I first read (and reviewed) Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger a few years ago, and fell in love with this strange, indefinable, and incandescent piece of work. His observations on language – and the use of English by outsiders (master’s tools/master’s house) to serve their purpose – were acute and brilliant, and there was something iconoclastic about the way he took on legendary figures such as Ngugi in his claim that “if you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”
Over the years, in my foray into literature from the African continent, Marechera’s name cropped up repeatedly, a long shadow (even though the man himself died young – in the 1980s – of AIDS). So when I heard about the existence of “They Called You Dambudzo”, a memoir by Flora Veit-Wild, I picked it up immediately, and ended up reading it in an extended twenty-four hour sitting. It reminded me of some of the other great literary biographies and memoirs in the field: Obi Nwakanma’s “Thirsting for Sunlight” (about Christopher Okigbo, who also died young), and Binyavanga Wainaina’s “One Day I Will Write About This Place.“
Flora Veit-Wild is a German professor of African literature, the editor and executor of Marechera’s “literary estate” (so to say), and also – as it turns out – was romantically involved with Marechera while living in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. This gives the memoir a particularly unique flavour: Flora Veit-Wild plays the roles of biographer, critic, and lover – all at once – while also negotiating the whole range of issues that come with being a White person writing about a Black writer. For the most part, she walks the line very well.
In the first part of the memoir, we get a snapshot of Veit-Wild’s childhood and youth in post-war West Germany, her revolutionary activities during the 1968 student uprisings, the black-listing of her and her husband from academic jobs because of their association with militant student radicalism, and their final departure to a newly-independent Zimbabwe to – in a sense – rebuild their lives. This part of the memoir may not be all that interesting to those focused on Marechera, but I found it a fascinating window into what it meant to be a left-wing radical student in post-war Europe, and the price that was paid by those who were genuinely committed to the political cause (or, a range of causes – from being anti-Vietnam war to campaigning for the Zimbabwean freedom struggle).
The first part of the memoir also informs the rest of it: Veit-Wild’s intense engagement with – and ultimately estrangement from – revolutionary politics creates an “elective affinity” between her and Marechera, who was one of those few Zimbabwean writers who didn’t buy into the nationalist project upon Zimbabwe’s independence, and stood outside it as a critic – a position that triggered his own estrangement and alienation from the post-colonial Zimbabwean literary scene.
Veit-Wild’s account of her romance with Marechera is the most intriguing part of this memoir. Marechera as an individual does not come out of it particularly well – indeed, his behaviour towards both Veit-Wild and Veit-Wild’s husband, Victor – both of whom allow him to stay at their home for an extended period – is full of emotional blackmail and verbal violence, which at times makes for difficult reading. This seems to be a courant with Marechera’s personality in general, and his behaviour towards the world at large – simply distilled and amplified in the context of his intense personal relationship with Veit-Wild and Victor. However, the really interesting part is not that; it is that this period coincides with Marechera’s most fruitful literary output, some of which is inspired by his equation with Veit-Wild. Veit-Wild herself switches between the roles of lover and critic – for example, at the height of their romance, he sits down with her for an extended interview about his literary “philosophy” and style, with both of them seemingly able to seamlessly transition into this more arms-length, “professional” relationship. What is equally interesting is that through Veit-Wild’s eyes, we get an entirely fresh perspective into some of Marechera’s most famous poetry, which was written for her – or at least, written with her in mind. I don’t think I know of any other memoir with this unique positioning – where the memoirist is the subject’s literary critic and lover, at the same time!
The final part of the memoir follows Marechera’s death of AIDS (it turns out that he probably passed on HIV to both Veit-Wild and Victor), Veit-Wild’s return to Germany and her taking up a Humboldt University professorship, her guardianship of Marechera’s literary through editing and publishing work left unfinished or unpublished upon his death, and her own struggle with clinical depression. As a story of a complete life – or rather, three complete lives, if you count Marechera and Victor – this is an account that is filled with generosity, warmth, and humanity.
Perhaps the only issue where the memoir stumbles a bit is Veit-Wild’s engagement with the question of race. As I write at the beginning, Marechera is Black; Veit-Wild is White. There are fraught issues here that cannot be brushed aside. Veit-Wild seems to move between being almost *too* self-aware about this, to not being self-aware *enough*. At particularly difficult moments, she appears to dismiss the issues too quickly; and at other – seemingly more innocuous times – agonise at great length about the racial equation between them. This is understandable, but it does add a few jarring notes to an otherwise beautiful memoir.
But perhaps that is the point. After all, as Marechera wrote, “nothing is whole or holy, least of all African literature.”
See also: “On Dambudzo Marechera: The Life and Times of an African Writer“, by Helon Habila; Me, Dambudzo: A Personal Essay“, by Flora Veit-Wild.