Marechera was born in Vhengere Township, Rusape, Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia) to Isaac Marechera, a mortuary attendant, and Masvotwa Venenzia Marechera, a maid.
In his novella, The House of Hunger (1978), and 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 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, is the product of a period of despair following his time at Oxford. Among the nine stories 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), although it has been compared with the writing of James Joyce and Henry Miller, 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, it explores the idea of anarchism as a formal intellectual position. The Black Insider (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 around African identity and the nature of art, with the protagonist arguing that the African image is merely another chauvinistic figure of authority.
At New College, Oxford, Marechera struck his professors as a very intelligent but rather anarchic student who had no particular interest in adhering to course syllabi, choosing to read whatever struck his fancy. He also had a reputation as a quarrelsome young man who didn't hesitate to fight his antagonists physically, especially in the pubs around Oxford. Marechera 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. He 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 submit to a psychiatric examination or be sent down; he chose the latter, charging that they were mentally raping him.
At this point, Marechera's life became hazy and troubled, even landing 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 then 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. When it was published by James Currey, Marechera became something of an instant celebrity in the literary circles of England. However, his self-destruct button proved irresistible and Marechera constantly caused outrage such as at the very launch of the book where he launched cutlery at invited guests and others when he suffered a tantrum. Still, Leeds University offered him a writer-in-residency's position, something Marechera liked to misrepresent as a professor's position. However, this may have been part of his eccentric tendency to have several narratives for virtually everything about himself.
It seems Marechera thought the British publishing establishment was ripping him off so he resorted to raiding the James Curry offices at odd times to ask for his royalties. Still, Marechera 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 hang 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, didn't feel Marechera was helping his cause by putting on airs, affecting upper class British accents and having an eccentric sense of dress. For his disruptive behaviour, Marechera was regularly thrown out of the Africa Center, the cultural center for African and Afrocentric scholars and students. Some accounts suggest Marechera did get married to a British woman but not much is known about the union.
Marechera returned to the newly liberated 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 may have died but he 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.
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, the same way Marechera's own life was an unfinished story in every sense.