Artist Santiago Mostyn revisits The House of Hunger by Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera – an experimental novella with prescient lessons for artistic self-determination today.
“The book is an explosion,” wrote Doris Lessing, “like overhearing a scream.” Marechera is “a writer in constant quest for his real self,” wrote Wole Soyinka. The House of Hunger is an “angst-ridden, dadaesque story virtually unparalleled in African fiction.”
Dambudzo Marechera’s first short novel holds a peculiar place in the history of postcolonial African literature. It also stands as a fascinating cognate for our times, I discovered, when I turned to it during the turmoil and protests of this past summer. Published in 1978 as part of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, the book was a sensation, winning the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979 and positioning the young Zimbabwean writer-poet as a voice of the “lost generation” struggling for independence in white-ruled Rhodesia.
I was drawn to The House of Hunger for its deconstructive approach to postcolonial identity, but found surprising precedents there. Because, in many ways, it feels like we’re living through a moment to match that era, a moment of history in which the hypothetical becomes phenomenal, and circumstances lend themselves – beyond the urgent claims of those fighting for breath or manifesting for justice – to the possibility of decreation, the undoing of the egocentric self.
Marechera was born into deep poverty, one of nine children, in a township outside of Rusape, in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Violence and hunger haunted the family, but Dambudzo (the name means “troublemaker” or “problem child” in Shona) found himself in books and gained entry to an Anglican mission school, one of the first to be opened to Black pupils. From there, scholarships took him to the University of Rhodesia and then to New College, Oxford, where he lasted two years before being expelled for non-attendance and violent behaviour. Marechera would spend another six years in London, either homeless or squatting, before returning to independent Zimbabwe in 1982. The return was equally alienating: Marechera lived as a tramp on the streets of Harare, suffering from alcoholism and writing peripatetically until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1987, at the age of thirty-five.
On the page and in person, Marechera was a volatile presence – living and writing, according to Lessing, “as if the engine had been fed too powerful a mixture of petrol.” In The House of Hunger, the reader must navigate whimsical shifts of mindset, unknown perspectives, and sudden changes of locale, alongside both crystalline and darkly violent passages drawn directly from the writer’s life.
This is madness, I think, as I try to follow the narrative; but then I’m reminded of Frantz Fanon’s definition of decolonization as “a programme of complete disorder.” I slowly realize that what’s being destabilized is my own internal framework of criticality, my assumptions about what makes “good” literature and why – a framework erected by my own British colonial education and subsequent (de)formation within Western academia.
As Marechera was living out his last years on the streets of Harare, I was getting my first exposure to the violence that marked his life, and that society. In the newly built, mixed-race boarding school where I spent my first school years, white teachers would let out their rage, their defeat, on the backsides and open hands of the students: with straps, whips, even once (late at night) with a hockey stick, broken over the cowed figure of a boy, eight years old, whose name I no longer remember.
“This perhaps is in the undergrowth of my experimental use of English, standing it on its head, brutalising it into a more malleable shape for my own purposes,” writes Marechera in an experimental interview with himself, published in the 2009 edition of The House of Hunger. “For a black writer, the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance.”
In this sense, The House of Hunger aligns more readily with the output of post-structuralist European writers whom Marechera had read, and been influenced by, but it does so from a radically different geopolitical perspective: that of the subaltern, the poor, Black colonial subject, the lowest of the low – and this presented a problem. For European readers and critics trying to situate him, Marechera was considered too African to be a successor to the free verse or stream-of-consciousness writers like James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, or even Jack Kerouac, but not African enough in his moral intentions to be grouped with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and other celebrated authors from newly independent African nations. As a literary phenomenon, he was exiled between two worlds.
Not long after Marechera’s passing, my mother decided to move from Zimbabwe to the Caribbean, a shift that, to my eight-year-old self, felt like free fall: from the comradeship of a rural community in a nation lifted by political self-determination, to the New World and the dark inheritance of the slave economy – felt everywhere but only later fully understood – in a matter of weeks. If the legacy of retributive violence played out as a form of artistic deviancy in Marechera’s practice, it played out – after my transition to a Caribbean adolescence, that doubly dislocated subjecthood – as a kind of radical passivity, I think, in mine.
After the success of The House of Hunger, Marechera’s English publishers kept pushing him to make the great “Zimbabwe novel” in the mould of the social realist output from other corners of postcolonial Africa. His erratic behaviour and his refusal to produce a novel within this nascent African literary tradition – in which characters were often metaphors for the birth of Black nationalist identity – meant that his publishers eventually abandoned him. Back in Zimbabwe, his writing was seen as too experimental, too pessimistic and self-involved to have any value in the rebuilding of cultural identity that was the goal of the new government. With his wellbeing deteriorating, his writing was shunned, and his work slowly became invisible both at home and in the West.
Marechera’s legacy remains unsettled, and his work is still difficult to approach. His closest present-day analogue might arguably be Kanye West, who, like the troublemaker Dambudzo, is also able to “weave [his] own descriptions of reality into the available fantasy we call the world,” both irritating and elevating us in the process. But, as a record of that violent “moment of self-construction” of a postcolonial identity, Marechera’s contribution is essential:
“In a sense I am the fiction I choose to be. At the same time I am the ghoul or the harmless young man others take me for. I am what the rock dropping on my head makes me. I am my lungs breathing. My memory remembering. My desires reaching. My audience responding with an impatient sneer. I am all those things. Are they illusions? I do not know. And I think that is the point.”
In the final pages of The House of Hunger, a father figure appears. He sits down and starts sharing “oblique, rambling and fragmentary” anecdotes, completely taking over the narrative until the book comes to an end. Marechera was fourteen when his father died, hit by a truck driven by a Rhodesian army officer who dropped off the body outside the African Hospital and drove away. The appearance of this “old man,” then, at the close of the tale feels like a visitation.
“A man wakes up in a huge night and goes out to make water and is never seen again,” says the old man, sitting with the narrator around a fire.
A woman gives birth to a “huge bloodstained egg” and as husband and wife stare at the egg, “they became aware that the storm outside had come down quietly and had tiptoed into the room to listen to them.”
The old man smiles, shifting between ancient spirit and living being.
“A writer drew a circle in the sand and stepping into it said ‘This is my novel,’ but the circle, leaping, cut him clean through.”
How does the ex-centric, the outsider, redraw the canon? Who sets the limits for what an African writer is allowed to be? In the opening lines of The House of Hunger, Dambudzo Marechera can’t be bothered with our questions. He simply shrugs, and brushes all of our definitions away:
“I got my things and left. The sun was coming up. I couldn’t think where to go.”
Santiago Mostyn is an artist and filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden.
 Wylie, Dan. English in Africa, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Oct. 1991), p. 43.
 Marechera, Dambudzo. Mindblast, College Press (1984), p. 123
 Marechera, Dambudzo. Black Sunlight, Heineman (1980), p. 68