After Marechera: Subversion, reinvention

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Zimbabwean literature’s millennial strivings are occasionally seen as tending to experiment, although the majority of cases can be put down to importation and repetition. Either case, this reflects a consciousness by new writers of the need to create something new and daring, something to distinguish them from former generations and guarantee posterity. Others, captivated by the peaks of the Zimbabwean canon, are grouped in the name of the patriarchs, although history is seldom kind to artistes propelled by group waves, imitation and affirmative action.

Dambudzo Marechera, perhaps Zimbabwean literature’s foremost export, is a definitive example of struggling with tradition, an ironic accomplishment in that it raises him into a new cult fetish and ignites another cycle of imitation.

Marechera may be a spark in the galaxy, his contemporaries being disruptive in their own right, but his pop culture standing and cult following set him a league apart, not so much on the basis of content but influence.

Memory Chirere’s essay “Marechera-mania and Zimbabwean Literature” makes reference to a tendency by young writers to set out sounding like reincarnations of their literary hero.

Besides his phenomenal verbal facility, Marechera owes his influence partly to his role as the writers’ writer.

Because he is both the director and the actor in his theatre, he discusses literary ideas more freely than his peers, endearing himself to prospective writers absorbed by similar concerns.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu of Dambudzo Marechera Trust protests in a 2014 interview for these columns that the mind-boggling “doppelganger” has been sometimes misappropriated by fanatics “who speak and write without thinking, read without understanding and look without seeing.”

In this edition, Literature Today looks at the bad boy of Zimbabwean literature’s attitude to tradition and implications for the generation of young writers basking in his influence.

It may be interesting to look at Marechera’s cultural parricide in light of defining works on literary influence such as Harold Bloom’s “The Anxiety of Influence” and T.S Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

We undertake this from an assumption that Marechera’s method is more useful to prospective authors than his output and, to embolden this distinction, locate Marechera’s rebellion on two fronts: the ideological front and the artistic front.

On the ideological front, Marechera comes across as a nihilist, narcissist, hedonist, anarchist, fatalist, secularist and iconoclast, altogether bent on self-destruction.

In this he is negative and negligible, standing for nothing but against everything that questions his “blind impulse,” rather in need of examples than he can ever be an example.

There are, of course, strands worth redeeming on this front and these include, at best, his incisive critiques of power, commercialism, hypocrisy and bandwagonism.

Where the first generation is bent on a romantic reconstruction of a pre-colonial past against a colonial setting and repeating new political mantras, Marechera becomes a cynical stain on the post-colonial flag.

With a few contemporaries, he deconstructs the politics of transition, unravels new contradictions and unsettles layers that cause-affiliated colleagues would rather have intact.

In staging parricide on the artistic front, however, Marechera becomes the foremost model of writing a generation out of a corner. Colonial themes, political mantras and romantic reconstructions exhausted, Marechera breathes into art a life of its own.

Where predecessors are sometimes simplistic and technically bankrupt, he undertakes an assignment in subversion and reinvention, a reconstitution of the language of art.

But there is another sense in which method and output can be separated. To wear the rebel’s mantle, prospective writers have his method not his output to revive.

Marechera’s achievement is in coursing against the current and where his achievement has become the new current, latter-day rebels must stage their own cultural parricide, against their new hero, to guarantee continuity of the Zimbabwean canon.

Exceptional artistes write their age out of the corner, into another corner; revive continuity only to fanatics stuck with a new convention.

T.S Eliot argues in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that tradition must be positively discouraged if it consists in imitating the generation immediately before in a blind or timid adherence to its successes.

With sungura, for instance, Alick Macheso emerges when exponents of the genre have been silenced by death or age in the last half of the 1990s, with a rousing, new sound which drowns out his predecessors.

Unfortunately, he kills the race as emerging artistes blindly work within his new style, slavishly aping his output rather than his example.

Marechera mania does not represent a comprehensive assessment of Zimbabwe’s literary scene as there is no shortage of thoroughbreds.

Chirere points out in his essay that the serious among Marechera’s initiates “unlike their less gifted colleagues. . . pick and develop their own versions of the master.”

Some never do and others, gathered not around Marechera but around other causes, schools, establishments, tangents and figures, equally entangle themselves in the swaddling bands of influence. Key is to extend from the past into the present, not the output but the example, not the spoils but the stratagem.

Sections of Marechera’s work, particularly in “Mindblast” and “The Black Insider,” read like a disjointed literary encyclopedia. To read Marechera in this mode is to traverse the cultural atlas with him.

Yet such allusiveness does not mute the writer’s individual voice. Rather it becomes a conceptual map from which the writer blends deliberate elements to create his own world.

Extensive references are supports rather than normative outlines as the writer’s immediate space and experience are the substance of art.

While this tends to post-modernism in Marechera’s case, an ideologically themed writer can deploy the method to provoke fresh persuasion and an authentic experience of art.

Marechera starkly contrasts with a new import-and-paste generation who have perfect causes to champion, but lack the wherewithal to localise and incarnate them.

When it comes to writing for the culture square, the authenticity of a cause does not guarantee an audience, as some well-meaning young writers seem to assume.

What is not just the cause but the case, not just the idea but the argument, and to be an able writer one needs not only to read, but to criticise and to synthesise.

To pitch a case for posterity, one must cultivate the capacity to condense the whole for the immediate, and appropriate the immediate as the whole.

“The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together,” Eliot writes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Marechera describes as his motivation a “passion for books and a passion for realising concretely what was contained in the books from which I derived most pleasure.” No writer staking a claim to posterity can sidestep this obligation.

For all his glory, however, the conspicuous absence of indigenous lore from Marechera’s cross-section of influences lends credence to the charge that he is “the man who betrayed Africa,” the cultural mutant even.

African notables Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi WaThiongo “think” in their languages and write in English. Charles Mungoshi and Chenjerai Hove’s works are Shona souls in English bodies. Marechera fails this identity test.

“Shona was part of the ghetto demon I was trying to escape. Shona had been placed within the context of a degraded, mind-wrenching experience from which apparently the only escape was into the English language and education,” Marechera confesses.

“The English language was automatically connected with the plush and seeming splendour of the white side of town. As far as expressing the creative turmoil within my head was concerned, I took to the English language as a duck takes to water. I was therefore a keen accomplice and student in my own mental colonisation,” he says.

However, this consciousness sets him on a duel with his chosen language: “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.”

It is this subversion, described as passionate misreading in Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” that has helped Marechera create a new world out of the rubble of his rebellion.

Prospective writers coming after Marechera must not be carbon copies of their heroes and causes but must fault, troubleshoot and configure them to fit the present and ensure the continuity of the Zimbabwean tradition.

Stanely Mushava blogs at upstreamafrica.blogspot.com and can be contacted at [email protected]

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