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Helon Habila on Dambudzo Marechera

By Helon Habila
Posted on Wednesday, 19 January 2011 12:42

Zimbabwean novelist Dambudzo Marechera is a “new post-nationalist writer”, says Nigerian writer Helon Habila, author of Oil on Water.

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Such was the complexity of Dambudzo Marechera’s work that he defies easy categorisation. Most African writers can be comfortably classified as first generation, second generation and so on, based on their thematic focus, the time when they wrote their most important works or even the time when they were born. Born in 1952, Marechera would ordinarily have fitted into the second generation, with the Ben Okris and the Meja Mwangis, until one comes to the little problem of his thematic concerns.

House of Hunger is of course about Zimbabwe, the house in the title, and yet it is not about the ‘nation’ in the style of the nationalists like Chinua Achebe or even Wole Soyinka. It is first and foremost about the individuals in the nation, how poverty, lack of freedom and other existential factors distort their lives. There isn’t that sometimes-obligatory nostalgia for the traditional. In fact, the past is often confronted with derision: “Where are the bloody heroes?” he asks over and over.?

But then one is confronted with the most nationalist of themes in a poem like “Pledging My Soul”:??

Shall I not kneel to kiss the grains of your sand

?to rise naked before you – a bowl of incense??

and the smoke of my nakedness shall be

?an offering to you?

pledging my soul.

If an author is mostly placed by how much he keeps returning to a particular theme, the idea of exile would perhaps explain Marechera more than any other. This is important if one considers the fact that he did not only write about exile as a conceit or abstract symbol, but because he was an exile in London for about nine years. Though this separation inspired poems of longing like “Pledging my Soul”, where home and the past are idealised in a mother/lover imagery, it also solidified his focus on the individual, confirming him as a post-nationalist writer, perhaps the first truly post-nationalist African writer.

This article was first published in the October-November 2010 edition of The Africa Report.