AiW Guest: Lizzy Attree.
Flora Veit-Wild presents this compelling book as a memoir, and it does contain some personal details of her early life in Germany which supplement and enrich the portrayal of her love affair with the Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera. Given away by the title They Called You Dambudzo (2021, Jacana Media), this memoir does not primarily focus on Flora herself, beyond being written from her perspective, and it remains essentially the story of love lost and a kind of haunting.
At the Marechera conference at Oxford University in 2009, I asked Veit-Wild directly if she had been romantically linked with Dambudzo and whether that left her vulnerable to HIV infection. She declined to comment saying she would talk about it “when the time is right”, smiling enigmatically and adding, “it is time I wrote my own story”. Although it had become an open secret in Zimbabwean literary history, Veit-Wild broke her silence in 2012 when she published an article in the March issue of Wasafiri entitled “Dambudzo and Me”. This confessional piece of writing coincided with her retirement from Humboldt University in Berlin where she taught African literature for 18 years.
Given that their affair only lasted 18 months, the impact clearly lasted a lifetime. Veit-Wild writes that the exposition of They Called You Dambudzo is “my final attempt[s] to hold onto our love” (177) and there seems to be an element of desperation as well as nostalgia in telling this story so vividly in her own words. Why does she want us to understand the intimacy of this love that went on to shape her academic career so positively and her health so negatively? Is it because of the continued accusations that she has profited somehow from Marechera’s legacy? Veit-Wild has certainly done more than anyone to ensure his name and his work is remembered. To shield against such accusations, a whole chapter titled ‘Execution’ (referencing her role as executor of Marechera’s non-existent will), comprises a self-interrogation in which Veit-Wild is cross-examined either by questions she has received in the past or questions she has asked of herself: “Some people insinuate that you have appropriated him and have used his name for your own personal benefits” (223).
The issues of entanglement, which many academics who come from Europe to study “Africa” will recognize, go beyond the usual ethical issues around “native informants”, “eurocentric criticism”, and insider-outside dichotomies. Veit-Wild goes to great pains to show us that Dambudzo was loved not just by herself, but by her whole family, her husband and her children, who accepted him into their lives with great generosity. Her husband Victor is described as “very welcoming. He could relate to our guest’s mindset… [he] appealed to his own literary sensitivity and he also liked him as a person” (104). In many ways, Veit-Wild acts as a dedicated collector of treasures in the years following Marechera’s death, compiling her source book rather than overly interpreting his work.
Not only does the author make her sexual gratification clear, Veit-Wild makes links to her HIV infection which she calls a “gift”. This “gift” was also given to her husband, whose knowledge of the affair is made quite clear and consensual from the beginning. Their struggle to grapple with their own diagnoses is also remarkably even-handed, given that there was no treatment for HIV at the time. Friends asked Veit-Wild whether her husband blamed her, and she reveals, “Victor’s answer was simple: ‘it could have happened to me too. Nobody is to blame. No one knew about AIDS at the time’” (206). The possibility of “cross-couple flings” is discussed openly in the chapter ‘Elective Affinities’, enabling the Veit-Wilds to explore the “emotional deficits that existed in their marriage” (64).
The most intriguing aspect of this book is Veit Wild’s revelation of the “two faces” she has worn for such a long time. Veit-Wild has been the “public face of your [Marechera’s] biographer and editor, of the teacher, the critic, the Dambudzo Marechera ‘authority’ as people started to call me, the face of the committed scholar who would safeguard your legacy, commended by many, envied and reviled by others” (276). Yet behind this persona was a woman who paid a heavy price for loving a man whose parting “gift” to her was her seropositive status. Veit-Wild’s battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in her early 50s, a common cancer arising in those who are HIV positive, as well as depression, her brother’s suicide, and her eventual separation and divorce from Victor, meant that “Behind the public face, only known by some, imagined by others, was the private one, the face of the woman who had loved you [Marechera] and had lain in your arms, had seen you die and had her own physical grievances to bear” (276). Veit-Wild openly debates the possibility that their love was an illusion, but also contemplates the attraction she had to a man who “explored the ‘black sunlight’, the explosive energy of life that can tear you apart” (269). She asks whether this was what attracted her to Dambudzo: “had he conjured forces that lay dormant in me?” (269). In the end, They Called You Dambudzo leaves us only with the comfort of the lovers’ story, which like a jigsaw with the final piece missing, now feels complete. Veit-Wild references Shakespeare’s Dark Lady throughout, but Tennyson’s paradox of romantic regret resonates strongly: “’tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
Lizzy Attree teaches World Literature and Contemporary London Literature at Richmond, the American International University in London and works part-time at Blake Friedmann Literary Agency. She is the co-founder of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize, the UK director of Short Story Day Africa and sits on the board of Wasafiri magazine. She was the Director of the Caine Prize from 2014-2018. She is the Producer of ‘Thinking Outside the Penalty Box’ (an African Footballers project funded by Arts Council England and supported by the Poetry Society) and a freelance writer, reviewer and critic.