One of the most intriguing aspects of Dambudzo Marechera’s literary exile is the repeated postponement of his return to the country of his birth that haunted his memory. Memories of his country constitute a source of emotional succour for the writer during his exile years.
When he finally returns, the country Marechera left (Rhodesia) has disappeared and replaced by another (Zimbabwe). Marechera would not have voluntarily returned to Zimbabwe had it not been for Channel Four who talked him into producing a TV documentary based on his life experiences that inspired his first book, The House of Hunger.
On his return he is received at the airport by no-one else but fellow writer and friend, Wilson Katiyo. He is disillusioned from the very beginning, questioning the black government’s legitimacy and its authoritarian stance on literature, especially when he discovers that his second book, Black Sunlight (1980), is banned for political incorrectness.
He says, “I just arrived for God’s sake and the first news I receive is that my book Black Sunlight is banned for being obscene.” He is livid and decides he needs to return back to England, but is disallowed by the officials for failing to have the adequate travel documentation.
After his exile, Marechera had avoided the trap of excessive sentimentality and euphoria towards his homeland that Julius Nyerere once described as “the jewel of Africa.” He remained highly sceptical of the whole independence project. He saw it as a neo-colonial construct which was intentionally misused for political ends and fronted by privileged blacks conniving with the white establishment.
On the same drive from the airport he tells Katiyo that the “Zimbabwe I have seen so far is not the Zimbabwe I wanted to get back to.” The panoramic drive from the Harare International Airport to the city centre is enough for Marechera to notice that things have not completely changed even though the political set-up has supposedly changed. The film shots show people hawking wares on the roadside for their dignity and survival, and the old buildings in a new Zimbabwe shock Marechera and he gives this monologue while looking out of the moving car, a yellow Datsun Pulsar:
“It’s all strange to me. I am sorry; I am looking at all this as a bloody tourist. I can feel it inside myself I am looking at it as a bloody tourist not as part of my people. No, I can’t, stay here. I can see it myself. I don’t belong here anymore.”
In some ways, a writer like Marechera carries his own exile with him — in fact, his isolation and oppositionality define him. There is seldom a comfortable niche for writers who are prepared to express their views in an uncompromising manner and who are ready to court opprobrium in defence of causes or beliefs they strongly feel to be right. The personal price they may have to pay can be a metaphorical death sentence leading to social annihilation.
Marechera’s concept of exile evolves from its emergence in the sense of estrangement and alienation that mark the characters in The House of Hunger (1978), through its development as a psychological state in The Black Insider (1992), to his ostracisation as a “mad-writer” in Mindblast (1984) illustrating TS Eliot’s observation in The Four Quartets that “humankind cannot bear very much reality” when confronted with it.
It is precisely the exilic doubleness of Marechera’s situation or placement that accounts for the generative and allegorical texture of his The Black Insider, published posthumously. For Marechera, exile enables him to confront the ghosts of colonialism head on. The colonial malaise is specific to him but also globally widespread and that international aspect is what interests him the most.
It is clear that the imaginative experience necessitated by the distance of exile becomes a boundary crossing of sorts, a projection from familiar space into narrative space where consciousness is displayed as verbal territory. To cross over into fiction is not necessarily to get somewhere with a place name attached to it, but to turn consciousness inside out, to make that which is perceived that which imitated.
Marechera’s exile writing can also be read as a mental biography mapping out feelings and intimations of people and places. But his consciousness is without boundaries and fixed position; bereft of or in a continual struggle with language. It is fractured — indeed, plagued — by discontinuities.
The writings and memories of Marechera are characterised by an absence of fixed spatial positioning; by fluidity of motion and soul; by mutilation of and transcendence of language; by the carnality of the spectacle; by obsessively violent tones. Marechera was not simply reproducing his inner agony, rather he was giving a bastardised version of it. The poetry of the imagination was for him a means of treating that mangled, passionate inner life.