Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dambudzo Marechera’s undying legacy

(picture: Moses Magadza)

‘Moving Spirit: The Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in the 21st Century,’ the latest book on the Zimbabwean writer who has become a cult figure in Zimbabwe and abroad, was published this May 2012.

In this wide-ranging interview, award-winning veteran Zimbabwean journalist Moses Magadza interviews Dobrota Pucherova (PhD) who compiled the book about its purpose, omissions and additions on the life and works of Marechera.Enjoy.

Moses Magadza: How familiar are you with Dambudzo Marechera the man and Dambudzo Marechera the works?
Dobrota Pucherova: I first “encountered” Marechera while doing my PhD on southern African writing at Oxford. I did research on him and he became one chapter in my PhD thesis which includes writers such as Bessie Head, Yvonne Vera, Ingrid Jonker, Wopko Jensma, Mongane Serote, Kabelo Sello Duiker, Ishtiyaq Shukri and Achmat Dangor. The thesis has now been published as The Ethics of Dissident Desire in Southern African Writing (Trier, Germany: WVT, 2011) and deals with literary instances of desire as a boundary-breaking energy that can contravene the segregated spaces and bodies of southern African history. Concerning Marechera the man – who can say they “know” Marechera? He remains an elusive person for me as much as for others, although I have been lucky to speak to several people who have known him personally.

Moses Magadza: You are an academic and have studied Marechera extensively. What drew you to the Marechera phenomenon?
Dobrota Pucherova: Marechera’s writing expresses very well the desire for mental freedom that concerned me when studying southern African authors. He believed that overcoming oppositional identity discourses and freeing the imagination to create space for individual reinvention could achieve true liberation from oppression. At the same time, Marechera’s vision of the political as sexual and the sexual as political provided new insights into power relationships in colonial and postcolonial conditions. Last, but not least, his flair for language and his infectious humour make his books very pleasurable to read.

Moses Magadza: What inspired this new book on Marechera?
Dobrota Pucherova: The answer to this is a bit long-winded, so bear with me. When I was writing my thesis chapter on Marechera, alongside I wrote a play based mainly on Black Sunlight. To me, this novel is immensely comical and at the same time sophisticated, and I felt that it has been misunderstood due to Marechera’s unwillingness to edit his work, as James Currey has documented. In adapting the novel for the stage, I wanted to bring forth its audacity and deeply sophisticated comedy. The novel’s challenging humour, its intertextuality with European modernist texts such as Beckett, Conrad and Kafka, and cryptic references to Orwell, Bakunin and Sartre, among others, were what made the novel to be perceived as “difficult”; on the stage, I felt, the novel’s meanings could be literally “performed” and come to life. In addition, its parodic references to Oxford University made it particularly suitable for an Oxford production. And so, when I decided to produce the play in Oxford, I felt: why not organize an entire festival on Marechera? The festival, which took place on May 15-17, 2009, was an international multi-media event that included film, theatre, fiction, poetry, painting, photography, memoir and scholarly essays, all inspired by Marechera’s work and life. Information about the event can be found at The book is the proceedings of the festival, with a few additional pieces. Julie Cairnie, who has co-edited the book with me, was a participant at the Oxford Celebration.

Moses Magadza: What did you set out to achieve through this book? Have you succeeded?
Dobrota Pucherova: I adapted Marechera’s prose for the stage because I felt that the singularity of his engagement with language demads an active, inventive, performative response to do it justice. In other words, I feel scholarship can engage with Marechera in one way, by applying a particular theoretical lens to his texts, but art can do it differently, by experiencing his texts, which can bring new insights into the reality around us. As the contributions in the book demonstrate, Marechera’s work invites reinvention: performative and dissident, it plays with meaning and engenders new forms, myths and epistemologies. Marechera inspires us to seek new ways of experiencing reality. The book is about the irrational force of art that moves us, but often cannot be explained, and we seek to respond to it through art. In this sense, I think we have succeeded.

Moses Magadza: What would you say were the biggest challenges you encountered when you worked on this project?
Dobrota Pucherova: The biggest challenge was to find a publisher. Several academic publishers were afraid of this book, as it is not a strictly scholarly volume, but rather a “big baggy monster” that includes fiction, poetry, memoir, pictures etc. Eventually, I was very lucky to meet Dr. Veit Hopf of LIT Verlag, Berlin, who offered to take on the project and suggested to include the DVD, which contains the multi-media presented at the Oxford festival, as well as bonus archival material.

Moses Magadza: Essays by Dambudzo Marechera’s contemporaries like Musaemura Zimunya, Stanley Nyamfukudza, and Charles Mungoshi are conspicuously absent from your compilation. How do you explain this?
Dobrota Pucherova: The majority of contributions in the book were presented at the Oxford Celebration. The people you mention did not respond to the call for papers, which was widely distributed. Stanley Nyamfukudza was invited to come present his memories of Marechera at the festival, but he declined. I met with him privately after the festival, however, and he explained that he does not like to dig out old memories, for reasons of his own. It was therefore very nice of him to at least privately share some of these memories for the benefit of me and Ery Nzaramba, who is making a film about Dambudzo.

Moses Magadza: Some people think this is the chink in this book’s armor. What impact might this omission have on this book?
Dobrota Pucherova: No book on Marechera can possibly be complete – that is all I can add. There are other famous contemporaries of Marechera who are not included in the book.

Moses Magadza: Why does this book rely heavily on memoirs and personal essays rather than fully researched academic essays?
Dobrota Pucherova: The book reflects mainly the contributions presented at the Oxford festival. Several academics who presented academic essays in Oxford did not eventually submit completed papers for the book, so we had to work with what we had. However, we don’t think this is the book’s weakness. There have been several scholarly volumes on Marechera (a new scholarly book on Marechera is coming out this year with James Currey) but there has not yet been a book just like this. The multi-media pieces are accompanied by artists’ essays about how and why Marechera inspires them.

Moses Magadza: What new insights does this book provide into the life and work of Dambudzo Marechera?
Dobrota Pucherova: This book is not so much about Marechera, but about how Marechera inspires others. I believe it provides many new insights into Marechera’s relationships with his contemporaries, with other authors and with his fans and inspirees. For example, Carolyn Hart’s essay explores Marechera’s relationship with African-American postmodern writers, while Katja Kellerer’s piece examines the intertextualities between “The House of Hunger” and Ignatius Mabasa’s Mapenzi (1999). There are also two pieces on the Marechera cult. The memoir section provides many interesting insights into Marechera’s personal and professional relationships, including his love relationships.

Moses Magadza: This new book comes with rare, archival materials that include audiovisuals such as Marechera’s ranting at the Berlin Conference in 1979, and his speech on African writing he gave in Harare in 1986. How important and in what way is this archival material?
Dobrota Pucherova: This material was added as a bonus to the main DVD material – the creative contributions by filmmakers, musicians and actors. It was offered to us by Flora Veit-Wild who wanted to make it available to Marechera fans and we think it will be of interest, as it shows Marechera in various periods in his life. For me, seeing Marechera interviewed by Ray Mawerera in Harare in 1984 was a completely different experience than watching him drunk and deeply depressed in the London squat as he appears in Chris Austin’s film. In the Ray Mawerera interview, Marechera is an entirely different person – calm, communicative and composed.

Moses Magadza: After this fascinating book - complete, as I have said, with archival material, footnotes and references as well as Flora Wild’s seemingly valedictory piece – what else remains to know about Dambudzo Marechera?
Dobrota Pucherova: I believe no book on Marechera can be complete and I am sure there will be other books on Marechera. Helon Habila’s biography of Marechera is due to be published next year, and I look forward to reading it.
Moses Magadza: For you as a scholar and writer, was this book a once-off undertaking or the opening gambit of an on-going series on Marechera?
Dobrota Pucherova: To organize the festival took a year and a half, to bring out this book took three years. I am not currently planning a series on Marechera, since I am working on other African writers and thinkers at the moment: Nuruddin Farah, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Moses Magadza: What, in your view, sets Marechera distinctly apart from his contemporaries and today’s writers? (Picture: Moses Magadza)

Dobrota Pucherova: Marechera reacted to the Marxist and nationalist tradition in African writing with cosmopolitanism and post-racialism at a time in Zimbabwean history when it was most controversial to do so. He described the violence of the colony and post colony with a liberating laughter and dared to laugh even at the power presumptions of the anti-colonial struggle. Identifying language’s key role in upholding systems of power, he explodes language to create new meanings and paradigms. Moreover, Marechera dared to go to those places in the human psyche where no other black African writer before him had gone. Other have done so after Marechera – of these, I would mention Yvonne Vera and Kabelo Sello Duiker, who similarly explore the dark spaces of the mind and whose highly poetic but authentic language sets them apart from other African writers. It is very sad that both of these have died young, just like Dambudzo.
CAPTIONS: Moses Magadza
Dobrota Pucherova (PhD)

++We have permission from Moses Magadza himself to publish the interview here. Versions of it appear today in The Herald and on

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