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.

3 thoughts on “Dambudzo Marechera and the American Reader

  1. I am a Zimbabwean, studying at a South African university ,and it has been my dilemma as well to get the thick volume by Flora about Dambudzo’s life. I have failed to get a copy from the Zim bookstores as well as the South African ones. It would be a pleasure to get a copy, or to buy a copy.

  2. It’s up to us new scholars to start writing resource works that cover our writers. We need to do more by way of biography, commentary, and interviews.

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