The Doorway, A Gullet: Home as a Body in Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger (Mar.14.2022)

Every home is a body, as every body is a home. It undergoes the same processes—it is built up, layer by layer, just as an embryo; it is covered in a layer over its bones; it is dressed for company—most importantly though, it eats, it hungers, it digests. It rots. It rejects.

In The House of Hunger, Dambudzo Marechera gravitates toward a notion of “gut-rot,” a phenomena that seeps through the narrator and all of those who are a part of his “home” nation of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. A home is a body, permeable to outside influence. A home is a body, able to be scarred, able to be, as the narrator reiterates over and over, “stained.” The rooms of The House of Hunger—and too, the rooms of the House of Hunger—are animated, embodied, in possession of will, acting upon the bodies within them, processing them. Turning them into extensions of themselves. This commentary on the nature of what home is also encompasses the nature of bodies, of bodies undergoing psychic, physical, and psychological violence. This moment in which Marechera is writing, this moment of independence in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe1, is a moment of reinventing a home, but not without the stains of violence that are embedded into it. The narrator has a unique position as someone who left this home, who was spit out to be digested in another-place, and has returned, transformed by this foreign processing. The narrator has a unique position as someone who left this home, who was spit out to be digested in another-place, and has returned, transformed by this foreign processing.

The inhabitants of a home—be it a room, a house, a country, a state of existence—become extensions of it, and are able to act upon others as the home acts upon them. To gently mangle the words of my dear friend, bodies are the teeth of a home2. As they are parts of this body, the home wishes very much to keep them—“the House of Hunger [clings] firmly to its own,” our narrator observes, “after all, the skeletons in its web still [have] sparks of life in their minute bones.”3 They can be of use, and so they must be kept. The narrator’s leaving of the House is always an act of transgression and great will; and thus his return is even more of a transgression—those within have pushed him out to have a life out-side of the stain of the House, of the home of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, and yet he has returned to it, returned to its jaws in a different shape than he left. But the House and the home reincorporate themselves into his body, just the same. “I leaned back against the msasa tree and lay still, trying not to think about the House of Hunger where the acids of gut-rot had eaten into the base metal of my brains. The House has now become my mind; and I do not like the way the roof is rattling,” he comments.4 The House is indelible in him, it has “eaten into the base metal of [his] brains,” and made his mind a likeness of itself.

After the narrator blacks out at the beer hall, his head wound connects him back to the House as he comes back to consciousness. The “cold cold stitches they had used on the gash” were “enough to weave webs from the one wall of [his] mind to the wall of the House of Hunger.”5 In the process of recollecting himself, his mind “slowly [becomes] the room,” complete with its “faded posters peeling off the egg-cracks in the walls of [his] mind.” Bodily language becomes the narrator’s own body and the extended body that is the room. In “Protista,” one of the later short stories, the narrator’s body extends into his house after a period of political exile is further compounded by the departure of his wife. His hair “[grows] into the floor like roots…also [his] fingers and [his] toes and the veins and arteries of [his] body… [grow] into the earth floor.”6 This story in particular ties hunger and home—throughout, the narrator struggles with a repressed desire for and to become a ‘manfish,’ and have a home as a place of belonging within the river, the menfish’s domain. His new home, “this raw region” as he calls it, is subjected to a drought right as his wife left him; his state and the state of his home are in synch. There is a lack of water—he is longing for it, for the embrace of the manfish. His wife can no longer sate his hunger, even as she has gone from him in order to sate it—she “had one morning taken down her bows and arrows and had gone out into the rising sun.”7

The figure of the old man at the end of “The House of Hunger” novella tells a story of a body which is cast out of home and is unable to be satiated, an allegory of the narrator’s own expulsion and unwanted return. This body feeds on discontent and “his hatred of all things,” but this neither quenches his thirst nor fills his belly.8 His hunger drives him on and on, and is what drove him away, in the beginning, from “the things of his first world,” his home. “A strange thirst. An unknown hunger,” is what does it, something that is unknown to the gut-rot and the processes of the House of Hunger, something that cannot be acquired or sated in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. Perhaps something that cannot be sated at all.

The old man talks too about the bodies of a certain race of women in Africa, which are bottles, “and in every bottle there [is] a ship.” The ships rather than the women are what is prized, but the bottles are unbreakable. The ship is only ‘of use’ when it is without the body of the woman which contains it, and yet there is no ship without this body. The desire is not to undo the ship to remove it, but to undo the woman. To undo the home without undoing its inhabitants. If you were to fill up the woman with a stomach acid and rot the ship into sludge, you could extract it that way. But it would be processed in the gut of her, it would be itself turned into gut-rot.

The narrator is processed by his experience abroad at Oxford, so much so that facets of his home become illegible, unpalatable to him. He is transformed by his encounter with the home-body of the English, including its language. Early in the novella, he recalls excitedly telling his mother some story, only to have her hit him, saying, “How dare you speak in English to me,” at which point the narrator realizes that he has been speaking in English without really intending to.9 Distraught, he tears up his English exercise-books, but relents and winds up purchasing new ones, although this does not save him from physical abuse from his father, who strikes him hard enough to knock out his front teeth. And after his more protracted transformation in university, even his references are from a different body of work—with Harry, he references The Iliad, and in “The Christmas Reunion,” makes repeated reference to the god Pan, also of Ancient Greece.10 In the latter story, his time away has transformed in a way his masculinity as well, for he is unable to kill the goat for Christmas dinner.

Domesticated houses are bred to have no teeth, says B. Perlin.11 Of course, she refers primarily to architecture, but I think we can expand the concept further, from houses to homes. A home without bodies to gnaw with will still process, will still digest—in The House of Hunger, this is the pervasive “gut-rot,” a psychic digestive agent, which warps and naturalizes bodies into the concept of this home. Rhodesia-Zimbabwe is not longing for bodies-as-teeth, but it is still itself sick and slick with gut-rot. Marechera’s language gets to the fact of home-as-process, home as a series of events rather than home-as-thing. A body is not a thing, a body is a process. A body is a series of events. A body is a home. A home is a body.

“The human face in close-up is quite incredible – Swift was right. And what of the house inside it? And the thing inside the house? And the thing inside the thing inside the thing inside the thing?”

At the beginning of the text, our narrator leaves the House of Hunger, because he could no longer remain there, “where every morsel of sanity was snatched from [him] the way some kinds of bird snatch food from the very mouths of babes. And the eyes of that House of Hunger lingered upon [him] as though some indefinable beast was about to pounce…”12 While his body has in theory left, his mind remains connected, and the House seems to expand throughout the text—the eyes of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe, the eyes of colonized and colonizer alike, also linger upon our narrator. The House of Hunger is his home nation as much as it is his parents’ house.

And, in such a fashion, he cannot ever leave it—when he was at Oxford, different eyes licked at his bones, he was used as teeth in the mouth of a different home. His return makes him different, makes him fit differently, his shape worn by other, unfamiliar bodies. But the gut-rot welcomes him, as it has become a part of him, as his mind has become part of the House of Hunger, as his body is a part of the home of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe.

How alike to a tongue is a carpet. How alike a border is to skin. How alike a doorway to a gullet.

1. Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger. (Illinois: Waveland Press, 2013).

2. B. Perlin, in conversation with N. O. Captain and M. Emmerich, “Psychic Lesbian Zoom Summit”, Mar 2022.

3. Marechera, p14

4. Marechera, p24

5. Marechera, p51

6. Marechera, p128

7. Marechera, p123

8. Marechera, p97-8

9. Marechera, p24-5

10. Marechera, p47, p112-116

11. B. Perlin, PLZS Mar 2022

12. Marechera, p11


B. Perlin, in conversation with N. O. Captain and M. Emmerich, “Psychic Lesbian Zoom Summit”, Mar 2022.


Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger. (Illinois: Waveland Press, 2013)

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nemo o. captain

n. o. captain writes weird faerie prose, bizarre & unsettling poetry, and occasional essays.

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