In this conversation, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is open, cheerful and energetic. It occurred to me, in the course of the conversation, that the language she expressed herself was similar to the one in which her acclaimed novel Dust is written.
In a conversation that lasted for three months, via Gmail Chat, Yvonne in Nairobi and me in New York, I earned (and I boast unreservedly) her friendship. But since this is not about me, I offer a revised transcript, where she discusses the process of writing her novel, her impression on her characters, her next book, and the notorious label “African literature.” Plus more. A shorter version appeared in the Wasafiri blog.
Yvonne was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated at the Kenyatta University, the University of Reading and the University of Queensland. She received the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, “Weight of Whispers,” described by the BBC as a “subtle and suggestive work of fiction that dramatises the condition of refugees.” She was the Executive Director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival from 2003 to 2005. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications worldwide including Kwani? and McSweeney’s. Her story “The Knife Grinder’s Tale” was made into a short film in 2005. She now lives in Nairobi. She is the author of the widely acclaimed novel Dust, which has received glowing reviews since its publishing in 2014.
She is the author of the widely acclaimed novel Dust, which has received glowing reviews since its publishing in 2014.
– Emmanuel Iduma for Saraba
Saraba: Sometime last year I had a chat with Mary Ellen Caroll, a visual artist based in New York, who at the time had just returned from Nairobi. She was in admiration of the talk you had given at the Kwani Lit Fest, where she said you talked about an “ethical imagination.” I wanted to read Dust through that notion, but I wasn’t sure it was what you intended…
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: No, no, not at all…Dust and the ethical imagination, I mean. The idea was deliberately directed at the educators, and the educator class and their preference for rote learning as a pedagogical method.
Saraba: That’s clearer. I mean, I wouldn’t want to read a novel as something that works as an “imagination” and “ethics” at the same time. But what about your writing practice? What ethics have you set up for yourself.
Owuor: Ha! I wish I could waft lyrical on that. Grace and grunt and the compulsion of assorted muses mostly.
Saraba: You know there’s this very chauvinistic idea that I hope wears off. When I think of muses, I think of goddesses.
Owuor: Oh feel free to think this. My muses are shape-changing, gender-twisting types. Maybe because of the fascination of difference, my prevailing muse (like the prevailing easterly wind) is male, but very indulgent of my habits.
Saraba: But it took so long for Dust to come out! I remember just before the book came out, my friends were saying, “where’s Yvonne Owuor”? She gave us that story that won the Caine Prize, and she disappeared. Should I blame this muse that indulges your habits?
Owuor: Yep, them entirely. Absolutely. Actually, I think I’ve said it before, I had to ‘grow up’. Dust was my very hard, mean, tireless teacher.
Saraba: How long did it take for you to “grow up”?
Owuor: Seven years, with a two and a half year sulking period as I explored my inner corporate creature (or is that gender insensitive (!) to say?)
Saraba: No, it’s not…I was thinking, also, about this vague word “readership.” Something I read year’s back about Proust was that he imagined his readers. There’s a reader for your book (a strange thing to say because all books should have readers). But your writing is amenable, I guess, to a kind of reader.
Owuor: Yes, peut-etre. I do imagine my readers, a composite form, people of my ‘world’. Like Middle-earthers, for example. My people.
Saraba: To start to think of your world, I’ll begin with a word you used earlier, “shape-changing.”
Owuor: You too, you must have run into ‘your’ people, they transcend description and category, but you ‘know’ each other when you meet, no? Shape-changing? Go on.
Saraba: Yes, I know this people. I always begin with a seven year-old who, when asked by his teacher not to swallow his words, said, “when I swallow my words they taste like air.”
Owuor: Ah! I know the seven year old.
Saraba: Yeah, so I guess I think of a people who taste words like air.
Owuor: Yes! Yes!
Saraba: This might have something to do with “shape-changing”, or not. What happened I was reading your book was that I felt the need to reread a paragraph twice. It wasn’t that the narrative was unclear, but somewhat axiomatic. I wanted greater understanding.
Owuor: Go on.
Saraba: Like when we meet Akai-ma for the first time, we’re told that “She flows like magma, every movement considered, as if she has come from the root of the world.”
Owuor: Akai-ma [smiles]…go on…What about her?
Saraba: From that moment I begin to see her as someone who teaches us about higher laws. But it’s almost difficult to tell if this is something only about her, or as a result of the language she’s presented in.
Owuor: I see what you mean. I see what you mean. She startled me when she showed up too!
Saraba: Did others startle you too?
Owuor: Yes. Most of the characters did. They turned into beings I had not first imagined. But that was part of the lesson, the ‘growing up’ I had to learn the hard way, that is get out of the way of the characters. You probably learned that early, no?
Saraba: I don’t think I’ve learned it. I mean, up until June I kept thinking of people as ideas. Then I read something that said, no, people are not ideas.
Owuor: Exactly Emmanuel, they are not ideas, and that was the first battle I had with the more ruthless muse. And then I discovered that characters even have free will.
Saraba: Do you think reviews of Dust have treated people as placeholders for ideas?
Owuor: A few, Emmanuel. Some have embraced them as the presences they are. I am sure you have run into those sessions where the other members of the literature ecosystem offer their experiences of the narrative, and introduce perspectives that also boggle your mind and heart as a writer, and you want to bleat–It’s er, just, er…a…story. But still, you accept that as part of the territory.
Saraba: You know, talking as a critic, it’s so difficult to let the work reveal its presences. It wasn’t easy for the writer and it wouldn’t be easy for the critic.
Owuor: True, true.
Saraba: But, back to people as ideas. You’re writing a novel, with characters-as-presences, but there are certain ideas you cherish. How do—did—you deal with that?
Owuor: Since they are characters -presences, they also have opinions which may or may not echo my own—so we either concur, or experience a kind of friction….if that makes sense. Stories for me are sense makers, and allow the questions that are often too shy to appear in public, but a character, even if it’s the landscape, can explore these. That is what I learned. Still learning though.
Saraba: Do you expect the story to do something first in the body, I mean physically?
Owuor: Yes! Yes! Yes!
Saraba: The body is faster than the mind.
Owuor: I have to feel the story. (Is it one of those admissions that sound ‘twee’?) But I tried the other way, the first time I wrote the manuscript, and to put it plainly it was crap—as darling Binya so very kindly told me.
The body is faster than the mind? I like the sound of that. Do you mean the body gathers the story presences before the mind can make sense of them?
Saraba: Yes, I believe that’s how it works. I think that’s what I was saying when I talked about going back to reread your fragmentary paragraphs. They sparked off wild sensations (I could feel the easterly wind, hah).
Owuor: Humbled. And good. So, so glad.
Saraba: There’s something you write, also, in the prologue: Sometimes we are places, and not people. I think what your novel does is dissemble this notion, but also assemble it. It’s Kenya as place, as history, but Kenya as people, and Kenya as place-people.
Owuor: I am ‘hearing’ you. The echoes of what is sometimes come back to a writer from unexpected places. This is one of those moments when I am saying, “oh…now I understand.” What is your pet peeve right now? Ebola? Shall we talk Africa Ebola?
Saraba: Let’s talk about what people call “African literature”
Owuor: African Literature, yes, go on….my talons are out…
Saraba: I read a transcript of a conversation between Keguro, Aaron Bady and Sofia Samatar. And one idea that was recurring was that we can start with a definition of African literature as “nothing. Sofia said, all criticism begins with a no.
Owuor: Why nothing, why ‘no’ when something exists already? Judgement surely is non-judgemental.
Saraba: I haven’t thought it through. But I think that “no” must take us to a “yes.” Yes, as in, this is what it can be.
Owuor: Is it nothing now?
Saraba: What do you think?
Owuor: An off-base question linked to a happening. I was in Northern Kenya hills and joined a small group seeking what is called ‘rock art’ in distant hills. Well, we finally got there Emmanuel, and this is what I saw—some time-distant author had enshrined his story on stone panels on a high mountain, in a language I no longer understood. But there it was, text, in Africa, with a message and meaning. Is that literature?
Saraba: It’s written, readable, so it must be. I mean, I keep trying to trace the origins of western literacy from cave art in Lascaux to Homer. I can’t tell if it is “African literature” because, you know, there’s a sense in which it is a commodity.
Owuor: But I digress. So African Literature starts with a no, and then what does it become when yes encompasses it?
Saraba: Well, it becomes a kind of project. It escapes the product. It gestures towards the margins.
Owuor: I have got to sit with that thought a bit. Is that the experience of the author? Perhaps I am too comfortable with the liminalities that in the time of eruption, evolution choose not to have labels or categories. I have to tiptoe towards the thing, and heck, to my amazement it might emerge as a Spanish Story about the Salamanca building tiles. In the construction of ‘no-maybe-yes’, is there a place for this story of Spain in AL? I don’t know. What do we want African Literature to be? Is Augustine’s City of God, African Literature? He was African, after all.
Saraba: I think, yes, this place for Spain in African Literature must be constructed. Or, we must disrupt what labels we accept to make space for it. My point from the beginning has been that no-maybe-yes is not a way to say, “Oh, African literature does not exist.” That’s the easier part. The harder part is to stay within the bracket, and shift it, and make it accommodate what you want. Of course, Le Clezio is an African writer! I think the first thing the “no” should do is ask, “who we”?
Owuor: We are reading from the same hymn book dear Emmanuel. Who are we? Beautiful, yes, yes, yes. Before no, there is ‘I’, there is ‘I.’
Saraba: I mean “diversity” and “multiculturalism” is the language of modernism, a world that keeps moving into worlds. So we must admit that African Literature is a construct for a later stage in the process. I bought Dust in Strand Books, New York City’s largest bookstore. As far as Strand is concerned, African Literature exists. For you and me, the question is a no-maybe-yes.
Owuor: Heh, as far as Strand is concerned, a Literary Product exists! When I being a shit stirrer, I always ask a question that seems to irritate—what is African when the very word ‘Africa’ is not even African?
But it is a valid question. When I was in Zanzibar and in Lamu, I met men and women darker than I am who called themselves Persian (Shirazi). They said “We are not African.” I thought at once that they were people disconnected from and deniers of African roots.
Saraba: In Mauritania they make a distinction between “Arabs” and “Black Africans.”
Owuor: Poo to my ignorance. When you return to their history, long, long before the idea of their being African was brought into the maritime scapes they had inhabited for eons, they had known themselves as ‘Shirazi’. To understand, to meet a people of roots embedded in histories of the seas for whom the boundaries of identity are not only fluid, like the beloved sea, but belong to an epoch that for them is still alive, and to understand that for them, to be Shirazi is older and more real than African, that Emmanuel does something to the pit of the African spirit.
Saraba: But do you think the valid question is whether they are Shirazi or whether they are African? If they aren’t the latter, who does their “no” serve?
Owuor: Their no serves their ancestors, their stories of origin, their no serves their deepest ‘I’, and the destiny of that being.
Saraba: So perhaps our task is to think and wrestle with epochs, the angel of history?
Owuor: Their no is also to me—if I have to call myself something, why can’t I call myself ‘Shirazi’ too? Its roots are more deeply implanted in this ‘African humus, than Africa is.
“So perhaps our task is to think and wrestle with epochs, the angel of history?” I do that. I love that. My next book is Indian Ocean oriented—the one I am working on now. It is a wrestling match. But that is OK too.
Saraba: You are looking outwards?
Owuor: Unlike Mauritania, here they do not really make a distinction between Africans and Arabs. The culture subsumes and consumes and becomes Swahili with Shirazi echoes, a lovely blurring of what is normally treated as definitive identity lines. One of my wise bosses, Dr. Rafique Keshavjee was much exercised by the idea of pluralism, both inner and outer.
I am looking inward, as in inside the geographical idea that is now called ‘Africa’. To explore the ‘Indian Ocean as an African is not to look outward, it is to look more deeply inward. How did the contemporary African space get to amputate itself from its seas, from its oceanic imagination? So I still look inward because I need to see how far the realm of African seas extend. Do the space we call Africa extend into and beyond the seas, and stop perhaps, at other sea ports? The idea of land that encompasses the sea—I am of this sea too. I started to notice the denial of African maritimity, and its oceanic imagination in the work of scholars, as if certainly for East Africans, the seas are out of bound unless they are speaking of themselves as slaves on other people’s ships—how silly is that.
This is what I am suggesting: ‘Africa’ encompasses all its seas, however they are named, they are also us.
Saraba: Tell me what you’ve been reading while writing this new book.
Owuor: I have a 100 line reading list!
Saraba: I really meant to ask: you’re dealing with these ideas about the sea, and so you will have so much reading to do. We talked about people-as-ideas, and this comes back to it. What amount of idea-gathering is sufficient?
Owuor: I have also had the privilege of engaging with and interviewing Poet-navigator, cartographer of many waters, former seafarer, Zanzibar based old man of the sea, Haji Gora Haji. He has fed my mind and the spirit of my character Muhidin. Such a privilege to know him.
Saraba: When I finally finished reading Dust, I wrote that it brought an excitement and a brokenness I cannot yet name. How do you suggest I deal with that?
Owuor: [smiles] Not that the smile is helpful. It would be very interesting to see where the emotion takes you to…
Saraba: I think I want to make a film, even if it’s the only narrative film I make in my life. I know this sounds stupendously impressionable, but until another book unseats this emotion, I’ll keep hoping that I can resolve the tensions by making a film of the book.
Owuor: Oh Emmanuel, now you bring tears to my eyes. Thank you for that endorsement. The feeling of the story, that is what I mean. Maybe words are not useful if you are in the ‘feel’, but what is the brokenness?
Saraba: The brokenness, for instance, is what I felt when Nyipir knows he must return to Burma, and when Wouth Ogik disintegrates. I’m the kind of person who detests nostalgia. And the book made me confront all the nostalgias of the places I’ve left and never returned to.
Owuor: Saudade, the name of the Bajian club in the book actually means “nostalgia.” Yet within the kingdom of nostalgia, there are unrequited ghosts. What do you do with them?
Saraba: You make graven images out of them! You become an artist! Like Ajany, perhaps.
Owuor: Delectable sentiment. Heh, I am always startled by what a story does to its readers. Such a variety of sentiments it is so mysterious. You do know there are those who loathe the book [smiles]. I keep saying, “it is just a story.” But hearing you I understand that there is no ‘just’ in story.
Saraba: Yes, some people must loathe it, because it’s a book about memory, about inscribing the shadows left by the past, and our first inclination when we have a terrible past is to try to forget. Now, also, can you tell me about your relationship with visual art, and artists?
Owuor: Longing, yearning, incestuous; I enter art galleries the way I do Cathedrals. The sensors on my skin turn to those images and consume everything. Sometimes I get a bad reaction. I once went to the Tate Modern, they had a certain artists whose name will remain a secret, and after I emerged into the daylight, I had to find a corner to collapse and—there is no polite way of saying this—vomit. We are intertwined. And sometimes I see my stories as painting-impressions.
Saraba: Do you sometimes feel that in your stories you’re writing about art? I’ll like to know if you feel moved towards art criticism.
Owuor: No, not in anyway. Never, at least not deliberately. But maybe the characters—they of free will—have such orientations. Me, nope!
Owuor: A different ‘calling’, I believe. The seven years of Dust-learning was about paring down, and learning the hard way that the Story Muse has his or her singular path. The story, only the story. If something else emerges, it is because The Story wanted it to be there. But having said that, I imagine every text is imbued with one’s biases and passions and commentaries. No? Unless. Thinking again about this, I suspect I “take pictures of life with my eyes,” if that makes sense. Freeze and frame socio-political moments, and then proceed to examine it as if it were an art piece—it is just possible. I must reflect some more on this.
Saraba: That sounds intriguing to me, being a visual artist in a roundabout way. But yes, it’s a thing of calling. Yes, the biases and passions are there. And my bias recently has been to find a way in which art criticism begins with a fictional premise, in a kind of direct way.
Owuor: What led you there?
Saraba: Well, I’ve been studying and writing art criticism for the last two years or so. And I felt like I came to it through fiction. And perhaps because I like the word “agglutination” a lot, because when I read that there was something called ficto-criticism, I thought what-the-heck that’s what I want to do.
Owuor: Agglutination! The clumping! My Aga Khan University curriculum development years brought me home to the place of—“inter-, trans-disciplinarity.” Now when I see lines and silos my inner iconoclast sets out to rub them out!
Saraba: And that’s what you tried to pull off with your Indian Ocean project?
Owuor: Yes, I have always read maps as stories. A childhood predilection…
Saraba: Can you recall when you felt called to Dust?
Owuor: In 2005 when Kenya was doing its ostrich head in the sand referendum
Saraba: Aha. Clifton Gachagua said to me that in the book you get the language and songs of the people of the North, and he doesn’t know how you did it. Well, how did you do it?
Owuor: I went there. And….something like ancestral memory stirs in my soul. I know those trails. Somehow, I have an affinity (should I admit to this publicly) for cattle. I can follow them….
Saraba: This stirring, I could feel it while I read. Because you know the English language of the book was of a different dialect. That’s what I kept thinking.
Owuor: [smiles] Thank you for seeing that too. I am not of that school that says that to be authentic to place one must use the language of the place. I wondered if language (which I treat as a malleable repository) can be shaped into the geography of the place in which it finds itself, and then convey the place’s meaning in a way a place can hear and maybe understand itself.
Saraba: I don’t think we can authoritatively say “yes, this is the language of a place!” It’s all broken and fragmented. Maybe that’s what makes your writing special; you don’t avoid the fragmentary, diffusive tendencies of language. So, where are you in your book-in-progress?
Owuor: Don’t tell the muse I told you, but I can see the beckon of that last full stop. Actually, I need to get myself to China even for two days to breathe the place and inhale its scents for the final part of the book. It is two-thirds done….now…
Saraba: Do you find yourself restless to move on, to commit to a new project?
Owuor: Less so now. I now get obsessed with finishing the project that is in my grasp, in order to leap onto the next one. I have a third story pounding in my head. But I have to tell it to wait a bit.
Saraba: How often do you visit Kenya, or are you based there now?
Owuor: I am very much grounded and rooted here. I am in Kenya now.
Saraba: Was there a time you desired to be “grounded and rooted”?
Owuor: I think I am exaggerating the rootedness since Ibn Batuta is one of my icons. But I am diving deep before I surface and soar to some other strange kingdom.
Saraba: I see. I’m also keenly interested in how you’ve moved from “dust” to “water.” Is fire next?
Owuor: Who knows? The Muse has his plans. I meekly follow [laughs] Now that you mention it, the third story is fed by fire, lots of fire. I wasn’t even aware of that.
Saraba: Wow. I’m terrified.
Owuor: But The Indian Ocean and I must complete our walk, first.
Saraba: Yes, please. It was very intriguing to read your lengthy acknowledgement-list in Dust. I think it’s the longest list I’ve read. Why did you think you had to do that?
Owuor: So I never have to do it again. In my culture, you acknowledge deeply and profoundly in order to secure necessary blessings for the onward journey. My next acknowledgments will probably be a single line…and then I can get away with it.
Saraba: And then, has there been any “political” response to your book? Has any Kenyan politician publicly admitted to admire (or to have been disturbed by) the book?
Owuor: A lot is said by what is not said, isn’t it? There are a few friends who are in the establishment who have whispered things to me in the matter of clandestine exchanges, complete with look over the shoulder thing. There are those who have outrightly accused me of all sorts of nefarious things that had never crossed my mind–I think. (smile) I have been accused of revisionism or harking to a forgotten Kenya past (you know our national adage, “Accept and move on/or put another way, Bury your head in the sand and think of England”). But it does delight me that a little story can so greatly disturb amnesia’s ghosts and secrecy’s agents.
Saraba: But I like that what you’re also saying (and correct me if I’m wrong) is that even if people want to forget, the land does not forget. A place carries its own past with it.
Owuor: Exactly. Out of curiosity, who was the character you liked the best in the book?
Saraba: Ah, a tough one, because I wrote in my notebook that all the characters seemed to receive the same effusive attention from you. But if I have to make a choice, I’ll say Akai-ma, because of the sentence with which you introduce her for the first time. “…as if she has come from the root of the world.”
Owuor: I suspected that. All Akai-Ma’s people are bonded to the book!
Saraba: I don’t think I’ve asked: who was your favorite character?
Owuor: None of them. Perhaps the marginal ones are those I would hang out with the most—Aaron, for example. And I must confess to having a softer spot from the imp, The Trader, than for the others.