The Caine Prize-winning writer on resurrecting history’s ghosts, finding stories amid political violence, and why “Kenya is a mercurial character.”
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s debut novel, Dust, begins with a man running for his life, gunshots, and a lot of questions: Who is this man? Why has this happened? What does it mean? Owuor, a Kenyan writer whose style has been described as “incantatory and propulsive” by the Washington Post, initially had no answers to these questions. “I followed the story,” she says. “The story wrote itself.”
The running man—shot and killed—is Odidi Oganda: rugby player, engineer, and social visionary. His sister Ajany sets out to learn why her brother died. His parents Nyipir and Akai-Ma make no such choice. By the novel’s end, each character meets some kind of reckoning. Addressing the questions raised by Odidi’s death, Dust takes in the lives of the Oganda family, its community, and Kenya, too. But the author says firmly that she didn’t intend to write anything so “zoomed-out,” and is reluctant to embrace her designation as an important contemporary Kenyan voice.
Owuor used to be the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival, but now feels distant from that former self—“Yvonne the producer of events” is how she refers to it. She seems presently to be relishing a second life as “Yvonne the author.” Her story “Weight of Whispers” won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing, in 2004 she was named “Woman of the Year” by Eve Magazine in Kenya, and in 2005 she was a resident in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
I spoke to Owuor via Skype, she in Nairobi, me in London. There was silence in the background but for the occasional thunder of a motorbike gunning past her window.
—Michael Halmshaw for Guernica
Guernica: Your new novel, Dust, was recently released after seven years of writing. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t read it?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Dysfunctional family in the Kenyan desert, trying to make sense of life, death, and meaning. And Kenyan politics, of course.
Guernica: Through that one family, it seems you were able to create a window into a lot of ideas. Was that the aim?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I guess I was looking at the family as a microcosm of our national family dysfunction. But the novel took whatever form it took. I keep saying, “I did not intend to set out and write this novel, I did not!”
The first inspiration was from the 2005 Kenyan referendum, and a growing awareness of national subtexts and the danger of the things that were not being said. I had a sense of foreboding certainty that if the national ghosts we’re so good at hiding were not addressed, or the skeletons clattering in the cupboard were not released and aired, we would detonate. That emotional landscape provided the energy and organic content that would evolve into Dust.
The book had a very different form in 2005, a very different character. At that particular point it read like a treatise. When I finished I was aware that it wasn’t quite a novel. That created a crisis: “Am I doing the right thing? Is this the purpose of my life?” Then, ironically, when the country did detonate after its disputed 2007 elections, and all the pent-up unacknowledged rage exploded, and we shocked ourselves in our madness so that it required the intervention of outside friends like Kofi Annan and Benjamin Mkapa to calm Kenya down, I went down to one of the epicenters of the national chaos with a group of friends—other writers—led by Binyavanga Wainaina. In retrospect, it was very naïve of us, but as Binya put it when he showed up in front of my house in a taxi loaded with other bemused Kenyan writers, we did not have a fucking choice.
We wandered as witnesses. We looked, we saw, we touched hands with our frightened, wondering people.
So we went down. There we met our displaced compatriots, and some of those doing the displacing, the shielding, the hiding. We wandered as witnesses, eavesdroppers. We looked, we saw, we touched hands with our frightened, wondering people. Mostly we listened, and were struck by the explanations, their very old roots, ancient grievances that in our now-established Kenyan manner were very swiftly buried in shallow graves. This whole experience changed me and changed the story that finally became Dust. For one, I could attach the memory of a hundred real haunted gazes to characters in the story.
Guernica: The years of 2005 and 2006, as you said, weren’t tranquil, but they were years when there wasn’t such high-pitched tension. In the novel, those years are almost like a dirge.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: “Dirge” is an interesting word. I come from a culture that has refined the art of the dirge to a sublime level, so it’s an interesting idea. Perhaps a dirge to a dream, a broken dream, that as a nation we never quite acknowledged, and we’re longing for some form of resurrection within that.
Guernica: Is that something the characters are hoping for in Dust, some form of resurrection?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I feel they are. It may not seem that way, but I am an absolute optimist, an unrepentant optimist.
Guernica: I read this as an optimistic novel, ultimately. The characters, for the most part, find the answers they’ve been seeking, and there is an astonishing resilience among them.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Good! I’ve been surprised by the Kenyan reaction: it’s largely been warm and receptive. But I think what strikes me most are the conversations I’ve been having with a lot of the younger readers who are either very poignantly saying, “We didn’t know at all,” or, very reflectively, “We need to talk.” That was something unexpected.
Guernica: From these recent conversations, have you found this generation has new concerns?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: The young readers I have interacted with carry old concerns repackaged in the skin of a new generation: puzzlement over continuous national moral failings, contradictions with the elders, nostalgia for a nonexistent Kenyan past. For those who thought they had voted for a government of the digital age in 2013, the shock of not only discovering that nothing changed but also the strangeness of being asked to contort their large Kenyan-ness into teensy, myopic ethnic boxes of being. And their struggles with what it means for their generation to be Kenyan outside of the gradual degradation of a national vision that seems to have afflicted the country since 1963.
But more positively, among a group of young people who virtually summoned me to a meeting with them, a desire to redefine, redesign, and own a vision of Kenya that is grounded in ideals that have been thoroughly fragmented.
Guernica: I gather that when you set out to write Dust, you weren’t trying to enter the national conversation. But now you’ve found yourself there.
Kenya is a mercurial character. I feel the country has a presence that can turn on its people in a very violent way.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Very, very reluctantly so. I mean, I love this country, not in a nationalistic way, but it’s a beautiful place, and it’s such a privilege to be of this land. So to see its brokenness and acknowledge its brokenness wounds something of my own spirit.
Kenya is an immense land with a capacity for healing. It’s very much a character in the book, the country itself. But it’s a mercurial character. I feel the country has a presence that can turn on its people in a very violent way. It’s a majestic and a very fierce geographical space.
Guernica: So if Dust began as a private piece of work, did you show it to anybody initially?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I kept it to myself for a long time. A very long time. When I thought it was ready, I gave it to Binyavanga Wainaina, my barometer, truth teller and very dear friend, who will tell me, “Yvonne, this is crap.” Which he did.
And I appreciate that. Of course such honesty precipitates a personal crisis, like maybe I should be learning how to sail, or fish, or something like that. But eventually you go back to it. Jacqueline Lebo helped me recover faith in the project, and Kate Haines retrieved the buried manuscript and led my hand back to it. They and Binyavanga were very instrumental in Dust’s journey.
Guernica: What is your writing routine?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: In my perfect imagination, with stern discipline I rise with the first bird, salute the dawn, have a healthy breakfast of fruits, wander over to my faux-oak desk, tap the On button on my Macbook Air, acknowledge the muse, and skip into the world where the story flows over the day and into the night.
The truth, and nothing but the truth, is that dawn begins with a wrestling match with my soul and a systematic rejection of all the other useful possibilities a day offers. I make obeisance to the story, its characters, and the muse with burnt offerings. I do need to find inner tranquillity and get into a “zone” before I switch on the computer to work on a story. Only after this do I enter the story world, where I meet the characters and, together, we work through the day and night. When conditions are right, it is a simple thing to forget that time and food exist. If life’s other offerings prove more tantalizing, I succumb to temptation and go gallivanting and do all sorts of other meaningful things in the manner of most professional procrastinators.
Guernica: I know you’ve also written screenplays, and you said once that the difference for you between screenwriting and novel-writing was that screenwriting was this tough, ordered process, whereas novel-writing was more like lounging around and “inhaling tiramisu.” Is that you now: less suffering, more tiramisu?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Novel-writing is a settling, lovely space. I call it self-indulgent—I feel mildly guilty about it. But in the seven years of writing this novel, we were close to a divorce, Dust and I. We didn’t talk to one another. I had to go to Brisbane to find Dust again.
Guernica: How is Brisbane significant?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I first went there for the Brisbane Writers Festival and when I admitted at the festival that I was stuck with Dust, something happened. I love the Brisbane River—it’s one of those unexplained loves. One day, I was running to the river. Along the way there was the most exquisite butterfly, a tiny little thing, on the pavement. I kind of jumped over it. And then two days later I woke up in the middle of the night with a character running, jumping over butterflies on the streets of Nairobi. After that, I followed the story. The story wrote itself.
Guernica: I am amazed by that. I was convinced this was a carefully charted-out novel.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: [laughs] Thank you for saying that. But no. It took a very long time [for me] to get out of the way of the story. And then I let the story get ahead of me. I was following, merely taking dictation.
The characters changing, the plot points, moments of deep surprise—as I was writing I was thinking, “Oh my! So this is what happens.” But you can’t tell this to too many people, because they think you’re hearing voices. Which you are.
Guernica: Was there a day when you knew the novel was closed, done, resolved?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: No. The editors and publishers had to wrestle it from me. I can edit into infinity. It’s such a joy. I’d probably edit until the last word. Until there’s only one word left.
Guernica: Speaking of which, the title used to be A Season of Dust and Memory, and it was chopped down to one word: Dust.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: That was part of the editing process. I get turned on by the idea of an essence—finding the essence of the thing. As the editing progressed so did the title, and it just diminished.
Guernica: “What endures?” is asked several times throughout Dust, and the most resounding answer, I’d argue, is, “Starting again.” That seems to be the novel’s essence.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I think that’s the gift of life. The cliché of the circle of life. Where does the circle go, where does it begin? I think every morning we wake up offers a new beginning, a new way of stepping into the day. I think every conversation could be a new chance. For the family in Dust, and for Kenya: we have a chance to start again each time we meet one another. The ghosts do not need to define the future.
Guernica: That’s an optimistic view—that the past, an imperfect past, can be overcome.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I think it can. I know it can.
Even if we want to eradicate our ghosts, our dead, our murdered, even if you erase a name and the record of the existence of a person, somebody remembers.
Guernica: The character Nyipir thinks that after Tom Mboya was assassinated there were three languages in Kenya: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. Later, he amends this, adding Memory as a fourth language, a way to articulate and preserve the unspeakable.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: And not just preserve—it’s almost as if memory acts as a prod and a conscience. Even if we want to eradicate our ghosts, our dead, our murdered, even if you erase a name and the record of the existence of a person, somebody remembers. I don’t think Kenya is the only country that tries to induce amnesia—it seems to be a global phenomenon. But offenses do not die. They do not disappear. There are records of them in the human collective memory somewhere. So you might as well learn to acknowledge them rather than pretend they didn’t happen, to take an oath of silence.
Guernica: That seems one of the most dangerous things, the silence. If one cannot speak something, it will die when its bearer dies. But you suggest that collective memory can overcome this.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Yes, even if [memories] are passed down in the form of pathologies manifested in the life of another generation. That generation is forced to ask: Where did this begin? Where did this wounding start? And in retracing those steps they’ll go to the place of the original wound. The first wound has to be acknowledged, I feel. We might delay it, but at some point we will have to at least name the ghosts to get free, to start again. Otherwise it’s a burden. Matters of the subconscious affect reality in ways we don’t quite realize.
Guernica: Is there a writer, or writers, you feel you’ve inherited something from? Is there a Kenyan writer who is particularly important to you?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Inheritance? I am indebted to anyone who has ever written anything. I am indebted to the unknown carver of pictograms on a gallery of stone panels, which I encountered and stood in silence before on top of a distant odd-shaped hill in northern Kenya. For whatever reason the muses have most unexpectedly invited me to join this immense procession. I am humbled and delighted.
Every Kenyan writer has offered me something to hold onto, something to believe in—those of the older generation like Grace Ogot and Ngugi wa Thiongo, and others occupying the contemporary literary space like Binyavanga Wainaina and Parselelo Kantai, among so many fascinating others.
Guernica: You said in a TED talk about four years ago, “The purpose of deep art—its primary meaning is that of expressing, revealing and in this deepening the texture of life, and recording the story of being… What we sense of it is something of spirit, emotion, the forces of life we neither understand nor control, but which move us, and from which we can imagine the impossible and the probable.” Would you say that’s still true for you?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: It’s still true. It hasn’t changed. Recording stories is a way of honoring the faculty of memory, even if it’s recorded, outsourcing memory to technology.
Guernica: What would the forces we neither control nor understand, but move us, be for you?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Oh, so many. Love. Even though we’ve written epic poems and made incredible films about love, I still don’t think anyone can understand what it is, or why it means everything.
Violence, the inclination toward violence. The devastating violence wrought by humanity upon humanity.
The earth itself. Why does it move the way it does? Waking up in the morning, I also wonder, and maybe this is strange: Why are we the way we are? Why wake up in the morning? Why is it necessary to sleep? What rhythm is this that we’re a part of? Not just human beings, but all creatures, all life. What is this rhythm? Nobody has ever really defined that for me. And why is it the way it is, you know?
Guernica: That seems like the tireless question, “Why is it the way it is?” Do you think you’ve got any closer to answering these questions?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: No, I’ve only gotten more odd. I mean, my relationship with the Brisbane River, it’s almost incestuous. I “met” it on my first visit to Australia. It seized me, I don’t know why. I hope the Brisbane River won’t mind when I say this, but I love its strangeness. It looks one way but you always get the sense it is more than that. It’s a river that changes its face just like that. Elements of the wild, the strange, the uncertain, I like that. I guess that’s what fascinates, compels, and seduces.
Guernica: What’s next for you, now that Dust is out?
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I’m working on my next novel. Its working title is Dragonfly Monsoon, but as you know it’ll probably change, probably to just a single letter. It explores one of my other passions, the Indian Ocean.
Dying away from home, away from the soil of your birth—and to do so unseen and unmourned—is a profound horror.
Guernica: There is a passion for the Indian Ocean in Dust, with Nyipir’s thoughts and dreams about leaving Kenya for Burma.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Oh no, I’m revealing myself! That is so important to the character, but is inspired by one of my late great-uncles who served in Burma during World War II. He was a man of incredible gravitas, but he carried the death of something he had experienced in Burma that he never really talked about. After he passed on, I started to look around and ask how Burma connects to Kenya, and particularly to the little village where my father and great-uncle came from. Burma evoked the lost Kenyan soldiers who served in the war. You never hear about them. There were a significant number of casualties, men who never came back home. But they’re never commemorated. Dying away from home, away from the soil of your birth—and to do so unseen and unmourned—is a profound horror. As is the fact that we don’t necessarily talk about this absence, even if the feeling of the loss looms in different homes.
Guernica: As you said earlier, we have to hope that we’ll eventually get to the truth of lost lives, lost stories. I once lived with a Polish man who was very indignant about the lack of recognition for Polish soldiers, especially pilots, in the Second World War, whom he felt had been passed over. There’s still a long way to go.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Yes, I read about those pilots. Why do you think it’s so difficult to acknowledge them? It puzzles me. What’s so hard about saying yes, you did it, and we’re all the richer for it? This just occurred to me: we recently celebrated Kenya’s fiftieth anniversary. But there was a mass disengagement with the state celebration. Was it because of a realization that the particular state-sanctioned narrative of what Kenya is has excluded all other narratives that contributed to the texture of what became the Kenyan nation? This may apply to other nations, a desire by certain sectors to own a specific national story, to ensure that it’s their identity, their name, their biography, their biology that is attributed as the founding origin of a grand narrative. Any competing narrative is perceived as a threat to the sanctioned myth.
Guernica: If you’re in control of the narrative, you don’t want changes to it. It’s incredibly powerful, being in charge of the grand story.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: But even if you’re in charge of the grand story there’s still memory. The other stories do not go away.
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