They Called You Dambudzo
My memoir looks back at my relationship with the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera and how it impacted my life. Set against the heyday of Zimbabwe’s national euphoria in the early 1980s, it explores the intricacies of a love affair between a European woman, married, with two small children, and a homeless black writer. With flashbacks on his and my earlier life respectively, it digs into the creative inspirations emanating between the two characters as well as the gradual disillusionment about a liaison that was doomed to fail. The story climaxes in Marechera’s death of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987 followed by my own HIV diagnosis. From that point on, it sheds light on what it meant to be Marechera’s biographer and literary executor; the great chance and challenge of becoming a professor of African literature after my return to Germany; and the trials of mental and physical illness I underwent. Overall, as the title indicates, it is also a posthumous conversation with Marechera; I am talking to him while trying to figure out what happened between us.
I had already published a personal essay – in Wasafiri in 2012 – in which I came out of the closet and talked about my personal involvement with Marechera. The challenge of a book-length memoir was to find adequate stylistic and narrative ways to explore the intricate ways his and my life were entangled, the ironies and incongruities of what had happened between us. I had all these different personae. For instance, I was his mistress who inspired some of his poetry, and at the same time I became the literary critic interviewing him about his love poetry. Or the question of race. When being with him, I did not feel the difference of skin colour. It did not seem to matter to him nor to me. Yet then, at certain occasions, the deep divide which of course existed between us in terms of race, class, background etc., erupted with a sort of destructive force. I had to find ways of talking about it without any lengthy expositions.
Yes, definitely. The chapter entitled “Lake Mcllwaine – The Entrapment” was one of them. I was haunted by the memory of an outing which was supposed to be three days of pleasure and passion and turned into a psychological nightmare. Let me quote: “Even now, as I want to recreate those moments, I stumble. It is so hard to talk about it. So painful.”
The other very difficult part was to talk about my HIV infection, and everything related to it. Here, I chose a narrative technique which helped me to shield off the personal anguish: I listed, in a very matter-of-fact, neutral voice, facts which reflected the “Great Scare”, as the pandemic was called, the waves of mass hysteria that were sweeping through the tabloids in Germany and the UK in early 1987, the time I (and my husband) were diagnosed HIV positive.
This question pertains to another challenge I had to master in writing my memoir. The issue of me becoming the “custodian” of Dambudzo’s work, as you call it, is of course a very controversial one. How should I explain that I obtained a role I had not opted for? How should I engage with the allegations that I had hijacked Dambudzo’s work, was making name and money out of it? Well, I ended up using a kind of ploy – I insinuated an interview with myself, a Q and A, into which I could bundle all those issues at stake. Thus, another narrative device found entry into my book. –
Dambudzo’s legacy is kept alive through his work. I have not undertaken any conscious efforts to do this for him. I have given a hand, so to speak, where the occasion arose, as have others done.
His poems. His prose. Every line of his work. The images. The rhythm. Read them. Let them vibrate in your mind. Let them illuminate you from within.
They have guided me in my work, they have revoked images in my own memory. They reappear in my chapter headings. “Eaglets of Desire”, “Heaven’s Terrible Ecstasy”, “Bastard Death”. How better can you say the unspeakable, intimate what you cannot spell out?
FLORA VEIT-WILD is Emerita Professor of African literatures at Humboldt University, Berlin. She lived in Harare/Zimbabwe from 1983 to 1993 and became known for her work on Zimbabwean literature and as literary executor and biographer of Dambudzo Marechera and a founder member of the Zimbabwe Women Writers. Her numerous publications include studies of body, madness, sexuality and gender in Anglophone and Francophone African writing as well as code-switching and linguistic innovation in Shona literature.