Dambudzo Marechera and the American Reader

A literary scholar interested in reading the works of the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera in the United States will be unsettled by the absence of these works in bookstores and most libraries.  While Dambudzo Marechera was well-received in places like the United Kingdom, and while his influence is spreading rapidly in Africa and other places, he is not as famous in the United States as he should be.Over the years I have wondered why this is so.

For one, Marechera emerged as a writer after American literature had gone through its interesting phase of avant-gardism, nihilism, and the beat; it had just entered the phase of post-modernism, which thrives to this day. This might have contributed to Marechera going un-noticed. In fact, according to Flora Veit-Wild, compiler and editor of Marechera’s posthumous works, Pantheon, an American publisher, “offered a contract for a hardback edition of The House of Hunger” (Black Insider 9). This happened toward the end of 1979, after the book had won the prestigeous Guardian Prize for Fiction. Veit-Wild adds, “Too late Pantheon editor, Tom Engelhardt, who was impressed by Marechera’s writing, found he had misjudged the American readership” (ibid; italics mine). So the publisher had to remainder the rest of the edition. In short, House of Hunger failed dismally when it was introduced in the United States in 1979, and it seems no publisher after that wanted to take another risk.

 In fact, Veit-Wild further points out that Pantheon reader for Black Sunlight dismissed it outright, describing it as “an exercise in self-destruction.” For the reader, Viet-WIld writes, Marechera had “reacreated the fatal flaws of bad surrealist writing chaos, fragmentation, separation from meaning–and that the characters [were] not fully developed.” For a literature that had already experienced Bukowski and many of the works by the beats and was getting ready for the postmodernist chaos of Kathy Acker, Marechera should not have seemed that nihilistic, but again, publishing, especially where contractural rights and possible advances are concerned, iis more about making money. Perhaps Marechera would have fared better in 1979/80 had he seemed to celebrate the emerging African leadership in Zimbabwe. For the knowledgeable American reader, he probably was not Zimbabwean-Rhodesian (hence African) enough for the times. Even the Kenyan reader for Heineman was as disappointed as the Pantheon reader, and expressed his fear that the book would alienate the African readership (Veit-Wild/Marechera 9).

Another reason might be the fact that when Zimbabwean literature was marketed outside the country, and especially in North America, focus was given to writers who were deemed representative of African literature, like Chenjerai Hove, Musaemura Zimunya, and Charles Mungoshi. These writers have had an opportunity to serve in fellowships and residences that Marechera, due to his premature death, did not have a chance to participate in.  Writers like Tsitsi Dangarembga and Yvonne Vera have penetrated ethnic, literature, gender studies classes that find the works relevant. While the presence of such works in the United States leaves a lot to be desired, it far surpasses that of the works of Marechera. Perhaps the 2009 UK conference on Marechera will create interest in his work across the Atlantic.

V.S. Naipaul Versus Derek Walcott

I studied V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas in my first year at the University of Zimbabwe.  I found the book engaging and enlightening, rich with its characters’ unique experiences. Later, I browsed other books by Naipaul, such as A Bend in the River, but none seemed to surpass the talent displayed in A House. So I can safely say I know one or two things about the works of Naipaul. But I am a new comer to Derek Walcott’s works, although I have always known about him being one of the Nobel Laureates. A few weeks ago someone mentioned Walcott’s facility with poetic style and the first opportunity I had I bought his Selected Poems and Tiepolo’s Hound.  That was last week.

Then today I woke up to find out these  Nobels have an on-going dispute in which they doubt each other’s talent in writing. Naipaul is reported to have labeled the poetry of Walcott as “full of emptiness”. Sometime in 2007. Now, actually last weekend, Walcott made a public attack of Naipaul at the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, in his poem “The Mongoose”. As he started his reading, reports The Statesman, Walcott announced, “I’m going to be nasty.” Here are the opening lines of the poem:

“I have been bitten. / I must avoid infection./ Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.”

Here is a longer extract as transcribed by The Statesman:

“So the old mongoose, still making good money

Is a burnt out comic, predictable, unfunny

The joy of supplements, his minstrel act

Delighting editors endorsing facts

Over fiction, tearing colleagues and betters

To pieces in the name of English letters

The feathers fly, the snow comes drifting down

The mongoose keeps its class act as a clown

It can do cartwheels of exaggeration

Mostly it snivels, proud of being Asian

Of being attached to nothing, race or nation

It would be just as if a corpse took pride in its decay

After its gift had died and off the page its biles exude the stench

of envy, “la pourriture” in French

cursed its first breath for being Trinidadian

then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian

Once he liked humans, how long ago this was

The mongoose wrote “A House for Mr Biswas”

The UK’s Telegraph  reports that Patrick French, Naipaul’s biographer, said “Knowing Naipaul, he’ll say nothing and then at some point he will lash out. He said to me once, ‘I settle all my accounts.'” Whatever happens, literature wants to see moments like these.