Despite his tragic demise at the age of 36 on Aug. 18 in 1987, I seriously believe that literary pioneer Dambudzo Marechera was a genius. We should get that out of the way, otherwise, the comment section or timeline will be filled with comments laying out nothing but bitter about how shallow-minded I’m in philology and literary criticism. And because his work is very much alive among us to this day, I would have loved to be writing of him in the present tense because he fucking lives through his writing, but I will not for readability’s sake.
Of course, the man was flawed just like every one of us. He might have been a fvckboy, probably an asshole and maybe he was not mentally with all of us more times than he was sailing alone, but I believe he was a literary genius in the same way Fela Anikulapo Kuti was a classical musician. The way he played around diction and find new meaning and emotion in them is no different from how Michaelangelo found the Pieta in a piece of marble.
Sure, upon his return to Zimbabwe, his peers (that is if he had any, though; I was so shocked to discover that Tendai Biti might have been one of them) witnessed him slowly descending into the depths of fulltime assholery and were afraid to check up a brother or simply say, “Bro, are you OK? Or, “Man, you gotta slow it down!” Hon. Biti said they “knew he was troubled & was probably trapped by his past at Oxford but we allowed him to intellectually seduce us coz we knew it wouldn’t last”. Wow, humanity went extinct for a long time ago, huh!
Sure, he might have displayed a few narcissistic tendencies and started trading in girlfriends for successively bigger booties and lighter skin (his mythology has it) and his aides might have thought it was cool then as he kept on barraging the literary scene with his dense, thorough and devastating analysis of Zimbabwe’s post-Uhuru self-image. According to a submission made by Tinashe Mushakavanhu, nothing succeeded and the only constant and exception was change itself in Dambudzo’s world. His vision, Mushakavanhu continued, was penetrating and his critiques show an open-endedness that negates closure and anticipates change. He refused to idolise and gratify national discourses and ideologies and instead “fractures them and shows the temporariness of the values that underline them“.
Thus, in his anarchic vision, Marechera was not a teacher, rather a provoker, shocker and subverter. Many of his followers love him for what he represented even though they didn’t agree with him in some cases.
While many folks have systematically overlooked his humane side and fight against mental and moral afreets because he gave them wordsmithian chills and even heckled and iconoclast-ed the late Mugabe to his grave, there is a section of humanity which feels some type of way. Peerless fictional literary writer and lawyer Petina Gappah happens to be one of them. Asked during a Twitter Q & A session she hosted on Independence Day what she makes of the fallen hero of literature and if she thinks he was the best thing that ever happened to Zimbabwe, Vasco DaGappa recognised that the man was a case of brilliance that crossed over to mental unwellness.
“Marechera was a brilliant but ultimately undisciplined writer whose mental illness struggles have been fetishized to a degree that makes him outshine his work. I think his influence on Zim writing is reflected more in the idea of what a writer is, but not in what good writing is,” she wrote.
In another instance, Petina said that he was a “vastly overrated” writer who survived by cadging.
“He was a riot, and was extremely good at persuading people to part with their money. And many were perfectly happy to do their bit for art. Here, @BitiTendai recalls how he was conned into parting with his payout!” Gappah emphasised quoting Biti who still hasn’t come to terms with his engagement with Marechera.
She went on to echo Dambudzo’s publishers who said that he was “very hard to publish” and impatient with editing. Gappah also added that he was “homeless most of his life and was often mentally ill with schizophrenia and other manic symptoms and died sadly young of HIV”. And largely because he “notoriously wrote almost all his black female characters as prostitutes”, Petina feels that his writing can barely stand a feminist consumption.
But hey, don’t get it twisted, she still admires Dambudzo’s work and she read his every word. In fact, she has been reading him since she was 14. Alls she was going with this conversation was a “discipline of scholarship where you examine art critically while still admiring the artist” as that’s what informs her reading. Period!
You know after she said those words, the internet went apeshit crazy. There are certain subjects that one cannot have an intellectual conversation about without fear of being shouted down, and as it turned out, Dambudzo’s polarising work and personality is one of them.
While most arguments for and against Marechera hold water, I for one learnt from this conversation that many of the people who were screaming online are not usually smarter and often don’t have stronger opinions. All they need are blinders to obstruct their objective view, an unwillingness to openly listen to another opinion and strong vocal cords. Another takeaway was that when discussing works by male creatives DOA, one must be prepared to have one’s eardrums assaulted with accusations of misogyny, male privilege and promoting “rape culture.”
I’m not afraid of that, I just want to get past that hurdle to have a meaningful conversation, so again, I say, I believe Dambudzo was problematic. I do, however, think that it is intellectually dishonest to paint those who don’t believe so as stupid, fetishers and romantic-cuddlers of toxic cultures.
Certainly, I cannot loudly confirm that there is an upsurge in Deconstruction and Feminist Literary Theory in Zimbabwe but I can assure you, dear reader, that similar conversations involving other creatively iconic figures have been taking place, and so far, the late Dr Oliver Mtukudzi and Andy Brown have been sucked in.
In November 2019, I attended the Harare Literature Festival (Litfest) and watched ethnomusicologist, author and archivist Joyce Jenje-Makwenda went toe to toe with award-winning guitarist and music producer Mono Mukundu over the essence of Oliver Mtukudzi’s music and how it addresses nature and environmental issues.
How it happened I still don’t recall but a panel that was supposed to be about nature and the environment ended up being about Tuku’s treatment of women, particularly his sister Bybit Mtukudzi. Jenje-Makwenda, who has carried out research and interviews on early urban culture, music, politics, education, religion, media, fashion, taboo, sexual and cultural issues and women’s histories in Zimbabwe since 1984, argued that while the late Dr might have been seen as a creative advocate of feminal issues, he had a case to answer concerning his dear sister.
Jenje-Makwenda submitted that while Dr Tuku started out on music together with Bybit, he still had the guts to reprimand her to ditch her creative journey when she got married, and according to her, the song Wamambo Mwana stand as a piece of historical evidence to back that claim. In the song which was supposedly dedicated to Bybit upon her wedding/marriage because that’s all he reportedly had at the time, Dr Tuku congratulated her sister for taking a leap but strongly censured her not to “sing” anymore as the child of a chief is a slave elsewhere.
“Usazonoshamara waikoko nekuti mwana wamambo muranda kumwe,” he sings.
It was Jenje-Makwenda’s argument that Tuku acted out on his patriarchal privilege to decide what was right for his sister, who by the way should have called her own shots.
Mukundu, who worked with Dr Tuku for a long time, albeit contended that although Dr Tuku might have said that, it was out of brotherly love and most importantly the onus was on Bybit and her husband to determine whether they should have taken up the word or not. He shared memories in which he described the Dr as a kind, sensitive man of few words and quite thoughtful in his articulation.
As I was still trying to process the Jenje-Makwenda and Mukundu somewhat heated and chills-giving exchange, it wasn’t long before Ammara Nury Brown released a new video for her single “Tichichema” and spilt some never-been-heard-before ugly tales about her deceased father, Andy Brown aka Cadia Shoko.
Speaking at the launch of the video in Harare, Ammara said she was considering getting married but the amount of abuse that her mother suffered at the hands of her father since she was 12 was holding her back over the past years. She said she love(d) her iconic father as he was an “incredible” and “passionate person”. Howbeit, he was flawed. He would seasonally come in and out of their lives when she was living in the US with her mom and because she was only a child, she didn’t figure out what the problem was because “when you are child, your father and your mother are almost godly”.
“You do not see the flaws, you think that they are these perfect people…So I asked my mother about their parting. Then she explained the truth to me about what happened. There were loads of different kinds of abuse in reality and in my mind it didn’t make sense because my father was a perfect man and this loving somebody, so how did this two and two tie together,” Ammara told the press.
Ultimately, after a prayer she confronted Andy about it, and they had a conversation because she wanted to heal.
Ammara said they were millions of women were experiencing abuse every single day and they are taught to suppress these memories and taught to accept these people as they are. She said men like her father who abuses women needed help.
“I know I am not the only person who went through this, as millions of women also went through it. These abusive people need help, as it does not mean that they are totally bad people, but they need help. Through this song (Tichichema) l know that at least I can change one person who has been going through abuse – be it physical, emotional and mental,” she said.
Well, people love Dambudzo Marechera, Oliver Mtukudzi and Andy Brown and I understand why people don’t believe most of the things or say murky acts that they historically stand charged of. It is hard to believe the unpopular narrative when you dearly admire someone. Maybe our favourite icons are not the Holy Grail of humanity as we had wanted them to be.
Perchance, with the coming into play of the cancel culture they are just being lied about or hated on by folks who wanna make a name out of the?
Either way, that’s the conundrum.