Marechera was born in Vhengere Township, Rusape, Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia), to Isaac Marechera, a mortuary attendant, and Masvotwa Venenzia Marechera, a maid.
In his 1978 book, The House of Hunger, and in interviews, Marechera often falsely suggests that his father was either run over by "a 20th century train" or "came home with a knife sticking from his back" or "was found in the hospital mortuary with his body riddled with bullets". Such incorrect accounts may be part of Marechera's penchant to revise even the "facts" of his own life. German researcher, Flora-Veit Wild seems to give too much weight to an account given by Marechera's older brother, Michael, about the destructive element in the younger Marechera's life. Michael suggests that Dambudzo was a victim of their mother's muti, implying that he was cursed in some way. Interestingly, when Marechera returned from London and was made writer-in-residency at the University of Zimbabwe, his mother and sisters attempted to come and meet him but he rejected them offhand, accusing the mother of trying to kill him. Still, it is known that Marechera never even made an effort to meet with any member of his family until he died in 1987.
He grew up amid racial discrimination, poverty, and violence. He attended St. Augustine's Mission, Penhalonga, where he clashed with his teachers over the colonial teaching syllabus, the University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe), from which he was expelled during student unrest, and New College, Oxford, where his unsociable behaviour and academic dereliction led to another expulsion.
In his short career he published a book of stories, two novels (one posthumously), a book of plays, prose, and poetry, and a collection of poetry (also posthumous).
His first book, The House of Hunger (1978), is the product of a period of despair following his time at Oxford. Among the nine stories it contains, the long title story describes the narrator's brutalized childhood and youth in colonial Rhodesia in a style that is emotionally compelling and verbally pyrotechnic. The narrative is characterized by shifts in time and place and a blurring of fantasy and reality. Regarded as signalling a new trend of incisive and visionary African writing, the book was awarded the 1979 Guardian fiction prize.
Black Sunlight (1980) has been compared with the writing of James Joyce and Henry Miller but it did not achieve the critical success of House of Hunger. Loosely structured and stylistically hallucinatory, with erudite digressions on various literary and philosophical points of discussion, Marechera's second book explores the idea of anarchism as a formal intellectual position. The Black Insider, posthumously published in 1990, is set in a faculty of arts building that offers refuge for a group of intellectuals and artists from an unspecified war outside, which subsequently engulfs them as well. The conversation of the characters centres on African identity and the nature of art, with the protagonist arguing that the African image is merely another chauvinistic figure of authority.
At Oxford University, Marechera struck his professors as a very intelligent but rather anarchic student who had no particular interest in adhering to course syllabi, choosing rather to read whatever struck his fancy. He also had a reputation for being a quarrelsome young man who did not hesitate to fight his antagonists physically, especially in the pubs around Oxford. He began to display erratic behaviour that may have been a result of excessive drinking or culture shock but which the school psychologist diagnosed as schizophrenia. Marachera threatened to murder certain people and attempted to set the university on fire. He was also famous - or notorious - for having no respect for authority derived from notions of racial or class superiority. For trying to set the college on fire, Marechera was given two options: either to submit to a psychiatric examination or be sent down; he chose the latter, charging that they were mentally raping him.
At this point, the trajectory of Marechera's life became troubled, even landing him in a Welsh jail for possession of marijuana. He joined the rootless communities around Oxford and other places, sleeping in friends' sitting-rooms and writing various fictional and poetic pieces on park benches and regularly getting mugged by thugs and terrorized by the police for vagrancy. During this period he also lived for many months in the squatting community at Tolmers Square in central London, and it is believed that this is where he finished writing his first book. It was thus from the combined experiences at the University of Rhodesia, Oxford and vagrancy on the streets of England and Wales that Zimbabwe's most celebrated novel, The House of Hunger, emerged. After it was taken on by James Currey at Heinemann and published in their African Writers series, Marechera became something of an instant celebrity in the literary circles of England. However, his self-destruct button proved irresistible and he constantly caused outrage. At the buffet dinner for the award of the Guardian fiction prize to him for House of Hunger, in a tantrum Marachera memorably began to launch plates at a chandelier. Nevertheless, Leeds University offered him a position as writer-in-residence - something that Marechera liked to misrepresent as a professorship, though this may have been part of his eccentric tendency to have several narratives for virtually everything about himself.
It seems that Marechera thought the British publishing establishment was ripping him off, so he resorted to raiding the Heinemann offices at odd times to ask for his royalties. Still, he lived in dire poverty and his physical health suffered greatly because he did not eat enough and drank too much. Friends, fellow Zimbabwean students such as Musaemura Zimunya (a poet in his own right), Rino Zhuwarara, Stanley Nyamufukudza (another gifted writer) and mere casual friends were all suspected by Marechera of being involved in his many troubles even when they acted in good faith. In the end he hung around with the down-and-outs who lived on the fringes of the literary establishment, barging into parties and generally getting into trouble and more than once, being bailed out by Currey. To complicate matters, many Africans, including fellow Zimbabwean students, did not feel Marechera was helping his cause by putting on airs, affecting an upper-class English accent and having an eccentric sense of dress. For his disruptive behaviour, Marechera was regularly thrown out of the Africa Centre, the cultural meeting-place for African and Afrocentric scholars and students. Some accounts suggest that Marechera married to a British woman but not much is known about the union.
Marechera returned to the newly independent Zimbabwe in 1982 to assist in shooting the film of House of Hunger but fell out with the director and remained behind in Zimbabwe when the crew left, leading a homeless existence in Harare before his death five years later, from an AIDS-related pulmonary disorder. Mindblast; or, The Definitive Buddy (1984) was written the year after his return home and comprises three plays, a prose narrative, a collection of poems, and a park-bench diary. The book criticizes the materialism, intolerance, opportunism, and corruption of post-independence Zimbabwe, extending the political debate beyond the question of nationalism to embrace genuine social regeneration. The combination of intense self-scrutiny, cogent social criticism, and open, experimental form appealed to a young generation of Zimbabweans, the so-called mindblast generation, who were seeking new ways of perceiving their roles within the emergent nation.
Marechera's poetry was published posthumously under the title Cemetery of Mind (1992). Like his stories, his poems show the influence of modernist writers from Arthur Rimbaud and T. S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Okigbo, and confirm his proclivity for perceptive social critique, intense self-exploration, and verbal daring.
In an interview Marechera said of himself, "I think I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met." This is an accurate assessment of Marechera's role in shocking the reader into looking at himself anew through the eyes of the other. His individualism, literary experimentation, and iconoclasm ensure that his work resists narrow definitions; it is constantly shifting and crossing boundaries.
Dambudzo Marechera remains Zimbabwe's most important cultural product on the creative writing front. Since his death, dozens of younger writers and many of his colleagues have written numerous accounts and biographies detailing his troubled life and works. In the 1990s, the most prominent were foreigners, especially the German scholar, Flora Veit-Wild, who has written both a biography and a sourcebook of Marechera's life and works. What Wild misses dismally is the fact that Marechera edited his own life as he went along. Wild seems to take many of the things she got from Marechera as facts. In an article in Wasafiri magazine in March 2012, Wild answered the question of why she "did not write a proper Dambudzo Marechera biography", by saying: "My answer was that I did not want to collapse his multi-faceted personality into one authoritative narrative but rather let the diverse voices speak for themselves. But this is not the whole truth. I could not write his life story because my own life was so intricately entangled with his." She then described in detail her very personal involvement with him over an eighteen-month period.
More recently, indigenous Zimbabweans have made their own unique perspectives known in various publications. Many Zimbabweans feel Marechera's legacy has been appropriated by foreign scholars and other wandering researchers for their own good. Conversely, Marechera himself distrusted many of his Zimbabwean colleagues and often fought with them for various reasons. He also seemed more at ease living with white friends, tourists or other foreign, non-black admirers whom he always took advantage of. Marechera's legacy will continue to be what it is: an unfinished story, in the same way that Marechera's own life was an unfinished story in every sense.
- Currey once described Marechera as "a one-man civil war." See Gray 2010, p. 179.
- "Profile: Dambudzo Marechera", Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog, Neo-Grio.
- Drew Johnson: The Last Book I Loved, The House of Hunger, The Rumpus, November 18, 2009.
- Petina Gappah blog, Saturday, 29 August 2009.
- Wasafiri, issue 69, March 2012.
- "Me and Dambudzo: a personal essay by Flora Veit-Wild", Kwachirere, 2 march 2012.
- "The German Girl Who Made Love to Dambudzo Marechera", The Zimbabwwe Mail, 27 March 2012.
- Gray, Stephen (2009). "Book Reviews: Africa Writes Back by James Currey". Research in African Literatures 40 (1): 177–180. JSTOR 30131199.
- Helon Habila, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2006. "On Dambudzo Marechera: The Life and Times of an African Writer."