Yvonne Owuor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her story The Weight of Whispers was awarded the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2003. Since then she has been working on a variety of visual and literary projects. Her debut novel Dust was published in 2014 and is shortlisted for the Folio Prize.
Paul Ostwald grew up in Nairobi, Moscow and Germany and currently reads Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford. He works with amnesty International and contributes to both German and British papers.
The African Book Review hosted a conversation between Yvonne and Paul about Yvonne’s debut novel Dust, and the effect of Kenya’s history on the evolution of characters in Yvonne’s novels.
Paul: Dust is your first novel. You’ve been writing short stories for years and you’ve had great success. Is Dust a crime story, a tragic love story, a historical drama, or even an epic poem?
Yvonne: When I set out to write Dust I was very clear about what it should be. But then, when Kenya exploded in late 2007, the story acquired it’s own life and it wanted to be told. Something was unleashed and suddenly all characters began telling me their own stories. My characters are very musical, before I see them I hear their music, the songs they love and the ones they hate. Each character tells an own, different story of fear, longing and admiration.
Paul: Like Nyipir, the father of the murdered Odidi Oganda, his trade is storytelling. He notes that three languages have defined Kenya since it’s independence. English, Swahili and Silence.
Yvonne: I haven’t looked to deep into other societies, but we Kenyans are very good at covering our rage up with silence. All these years since the independence people were infuriated, about the land others had stolen unpunished and the vile things that happened decades ago. And as I heard them and understood what they said, I wondered: How come nobody ever said anything? Yet the rage acquired a space of silence in which it was unnoticed, it was kept and sustained for decades. Yes, we’re good with silences. It might be the most Kenyan language of all three.
Paul: Nyipir is an incarnation of Kenya’s independent history. But he concludes that he owes no allegiance to Kenya and even begs his daughter to forgive him.
Yvonne: The characters startled me by the things they said. Maybe the Kenyan ideal was broken at the end. Yes, we did not treat these memories the way we should have. History has lately been removed from the Kenyan syllabus. Nyipir in particular aims to retrieve the memory of his father, who fought for the British colonialists in Burma. He feels that the dead generations are not treated with the dignity we owe them and he has a point there.
Many Kenyans feel detached from their heritage, like the sister of Moses Odidi. When she eventually returns to Nairobi, she seeks something that’s supposed to make here feel complete. She had experienced the world through her brother, and now she’s discovering herself through his death, the empty space he’s left. There is a young generation that has lost something that defined them.
Paul: Is that why many of your characters have a place they long to be? Odidi as a boy always dreams of a Far Away.
Yvonne: All of them have a place of longing, somewhere they want to return or have never actually been. I think everybody does, I think there’s an idealised place. For me it might be Middle Earth from “Lord of the Rings.” “Lord of the Rings,” I go back there to reconcile. I’ve not met a single person who does not have a place of secret longing. Even if they maybe fully content in the Now, even the contentment within the Now speaks to something else. If you sit down and talk to someone for long enough, everyone has a place he longs for or a place where he feels something needs to be completed. They need to tie up something there.
But there’s something more to it. Digging deeper you sometimes discover that people can be places, too.
Paul: Ajani, Odidi’s sister, falls in love with Isaiah Bolton who has come to Kenya to complete his own father’s history. What knits them together?
Yvonne: There is something very powerful about the two. Someone once put it “a fatherless man and a brotherless woman.” It is a wound that binds them together. Isaiah’s father used to own Wuoth Ogik, the home of Ajani’s family. Nyipir was his servant for long years. But he knows little of his father’s colonialist history, that is why he has come to retrieve him. So has Ajani come to find out who her brother really was.
Paul: But how do Kenyan readers react? Your friends, people you know?
Yvonne: It’s very interesting. Among the younger generation I’m amazed by their, not only openness, but their embrace. A lot of them say “we did not know about this, although it’s part of Kenyan history.” And I say, “OK, look, a lot of this is fictionalised but the core elements are there, look it up there is information available in the archives.”
But on the whole, among peers, response is been amazing. It’s interesting to go into bookshops and find that, although the price is exaggerated I think, it’s sold out. The launch party attracted so many people that the New York Times correspondent kept on asking me “how is this possible in Kenya?” Well, it is…and it’s great.
Paul: Another thing that reappears in your novel is the question of “what endures?” The characters seem to answer “starting over again.”
Yvonne: Yes, they do. And memories. Our memory is like dust, things evaporate. But then again, everything begins with dust. And that’s a message not only to the Kenyan people.
There’s a difference between forgiving and simply forgetting. What happens with the power and energy of forgiving is that when you meet that particular memory, you don’t meet it armed to kill, you may meet it to say “You’re there. That’s you’re shape, that’s who you are.” The chance to start all over again and our memories is what defines us, it might be all we have. And it’s all we need, if you think about it.