Masking Rage with Silence: A Conversation

Yvonne Owuor
Yvonne Owuor

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
Paul Ostwald

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.

When Doctors become Storytellers

“This is how it is when you glimpse a woman for the first time, a woman you know you could love. People are wrong when they talk of love at first sight. It is neither love nor lust. No. As she walks away from you, what you feel is loss. A premonition of loss.”

Freetown, January 1969, an evening party at the university campus. Elias Cole, an academic, sees his colleague’s wife, Saffia and becomes irreversibly attracted to her.  Thus begins the most powerful story of his life, full of betrayal, passion and obsession. Freetown, 1999, in a hospital. Cole is now very ill in the care of Adrian Lockheart, a psychologist. In the same hospital Kai, a young surgeon and a survivor of the civil war, suffers from a double wound: the injuries of war and lost love.

The three lives are intertwined in distress, violence, political and social instability —the perfect context to portray the fragility of the human condition. Unfolding through three simultaneous voices, timelines and spaces, Aminatta Forna’s second novel gives the reader a fragmented, yet vivid and sometimes cruel image of how war changes lives.  However, the fact that the three main characters are either healers or victims of physical injuries (be they victims or doctors), also shows to what point love can be the most vivid and harmful wound.

The plot is centered on memories, on relics, on what is left when love is no more, or, more interestingly, what the survivors of love become. The possible answer, common to the three characters, is that writing and story-telling is only way to keep the feeling, and oneself, alive: Elias Cole’s life is the story that we read when he is speaking to Adrian Lockheart who keeps a textbook of psychologic pathologies as a means of preserving and putting order in his life.

The Memory of Love is a book about what love injuries, like war injuries, can do to the human soul, and also how stories help us gain perspective and direction in life. In the violent context of war, physical pain and death, love marks can only be healed by words and story-tellers become doctors.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury Paperbacks| 2011| 978-1408809655

Review by Ioana Danaila

IMG_0478-2Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.

 

6 Amazing Books by African Women You Have to Read

So Long a Letter by Mariama BâSo Long a Letter is an epistolary novel written in the voice of Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese school teacher. Addressed to her best friend Aissatou, the letters chronicle Ramatoulaye’s emotional journey after her husband’s second marriage and his unexpected death. Considered a classic of contemporary African women’s literature, So Long a Letter is a must-read for anyone interested in African literature and the passage from colonialism to modernism in a Muslim country.

 

A Bit of Difference by Sefi AttaUsing the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.

[Read our interview with Sefi Atta here]

 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieFifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. They live in a beautiful house, with a caring family, and attend an exclusive missionary school. They’re completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, as Kambili reveals in her tender-voiced account, things are less perfect than they appear.

 

 

Maru by Bessie HeadA moving and magical tale of an orphaned girl, Margaret Cadmore, who goes to teach in a remote village in Botswana where her own people are kept as slaves. Her presence polarizes a community that does not see her people as human, and condemns her to the lonely life of an outcast. In the love story and intrigue that follows Head brilliantly combines a portrait of loneliness with a rich affirmation of the mystery and spirituality of life.

 

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga: This stunning first novel, set in colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s, centers on the coming of age of a teenage girl, Tambu, and her British-educated cousin Nyasha. Tambu, who yearns to be free of the constraints of her rural village, especially the predetermined lives of women, thinks her dreams have come true when her wealthy uncle offers to sponsor her education. But she soon learns that the education she receives at his mission school comes with a price.

July’s People by Nadine Godimer: Set against a fictional civil war during the aparatheid in South Africa, Godimer’s second novel covers a middle-class family of white liberals in South Africa fleeing the horrors of a large scale revolution started by blacks who then find safety in their black servant’s village.

The New Testament | Nike Adesuyi

I walk the coasts of Ibeju Lekki

White sands, a blue sea and a

Happy sun distil putrid visions

*

I run into the winds;

A kite buoyed on the wings of fun

*

I race the wind to an infinity of sands and shells

Until my feet are shocked by the magic of Mammon

Asphalt scarifies the polish of the sands like tribal marks

*

Beyond the billowing wrapper of the sea,

In places secret to the coastal eyes,

Principalities and powers are violating

Our maiden of mercies

*

In Ogoni** the fishes are fevered

From the typhoid of crude

Oil paints the sea black

And all the waters mourn.

**  Ogoniland in Nigeria, where Shell Oil company vastly polluted the Niger Delta river.

NIKE ADESUYI is a Nigerian poet, and a member of WRITA. She is the editorial manager of a thriving publications company in Lagos. Her poems have been published in several anthologies.

Eritrea: Virginity | Ribka Sibhatu

To a bride, her virginity can be more important than her eyes. In
our tradition, if a bride isn’t a virgin, the day after her wedding, we
return her to her parents’ house, dress her in a wonciò, and set her on a donkey. This is considered a disgrace by the whole family. During the war, people fled the city for the countryside. To adapt, you had to make sacrifices, like carrying twenty litres of water on your shoulders, even if the well was three or four kilometres away. In 1981, I was a refugee in Adi Hamuscté, some twenty kilometres from Asmara. One afternoon, a handsome youth and four old men came to the house where I was staying, and explained that the young man, whom I’d never seen before, wanted to marry me, because a day earlier, he’d had the misfortune to discovered that his bride had been violated! If my father had agreed, and I’d refused their proposal, I’d have risked either being married off or being cursed by my father. The curse of a parent is a child’s worst fear. So I had an idea: to declare that I too had suffered an irreparable incident…! I leave you to imagine my father’s reaction who, in the eyes of our community, was also disgraced. This young man of ours left without a word in search of his virgin.

Original Poem (Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely)

La verginità è importante come gli occhi, se non di più, per una sposa.
Nella nostra tradizione se una sposa non è vergine l’indomani del suo
matrimonio la si riporta a casa dei suoi le si mette addosso lo wonciò (*) e la si carica su un asino. Questo fatto è considerato una disgrazia per tutta la famiglia. Durante la guerra la gente di città si era rifugiata nelle campagne. Per integrarsi ci volevano tanti sacrifici, per esempio si doveva portare una ventina di litri d’acqua sulle spalle anche se la sorgente si trovava a tre o quattro chilometri di distanza. Nel 1981 ero rifugiata ad Adi Hamuscté, una ventina di chilometri di Asmara. Un pomeriggio arrivarono, nella casa dove ero rifugiata,un bel giovanotto e quattro anziani e mi spiegarono che il giovanotto, che non avevo mai visto prima di allora, voleva sposarmi perché il giorno precedente aveva avuto la disgrazia di trovare una sposa violata! Se avessi rifiutato la proposta e se mio padre fosse stato d’accordo con lo sposo avrei rischiato o di essere sposata con la forza o di essere maledetta da mio padre. La maledizione dei genitori è molto temuta dai figli! A questo punto mi venne un’idea, quella di dichiarare d’aver avuto anch’io un incidente irreparabile…! Vi lascio immaginare la reazione di mio padre che nella nostra comunità venne anche lui considerato disgraziato. Il nostro giovanotto senza aprir bocca andò alla ricerca della vergine!

(*) una specie di coperta di lana ruvida, di colore nero, normalmente usata per la sauna tradizionale solo dalle donne.

Ribka Sibhatu is a poet from Eritrea who writes in Tigrinya and Italian. Her first published work was Aulò! Canto Poesia dall’Eritrea (1993), a collection of lyrics and prose poems. It was followed by Il Cittadino che non c’è. L’immigrazione nei media Italiani (1999 ), a sociological look at the Italian media’s coverage of immigrant communities. She speaks five languages and currently works as a social mediator, focusing on improving inter-cultural relations in state schools.

Culled from PoetryTranslation.org

Burkina Faso: Black soul | Monique Ilboudo

Black and woman
God knows
if I have a soul

man or woman
Who knows
if I have culture

with or without a soul
I know
That I exist

with or without culture
I know
Who I am

 

Monique Ilboudo was born in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. She completed a Doctorate in Law and taught at the University of Ouagadougou until 2000. She is currently the Minister for Promotion of Human Rights in Burkina Faso.  This poem is a translation from the original French language version. 

 

 

The African Book Review is posting a poem from each of Africa’s 55 countries over the next few weeks. Poem suggestions can be sent through the comments form below. ‘Like’ us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr to read all the poems.

Angola: Testamento | Alda Lara

To the youngest prostitute
In the oldest and darkest barrio
I leave my earrings
Cut in crystal, limpid and pure…

And to that forgotten virgin
Girl without tenderness
Dreaming somewhere of a happy story
I leave my white dress
Trimmed with lace…

I leave my old rosary
To that old friend of mine
Who doesn’t believe in God…

And my books, my rosary beads
Of a different suffering
Are for humble folk
Who never learned to read.

As for my crazy poems
Those that echo sincerely
The confusion and sadness in my heart
Those that sing of hope
Where none can be found
Those I give to you my  love…

So that in a moment of peace
When my soul comes from afar
To kiss your eyes
You will go into the night
Accompanied by the moon
To read them to children
That you meet along each street…

 

ALDA LARA (1930- 1962) was an Angolan poet and lusophone writer. Born in southern Angola, she attended the University of Coimbra in Portugal and obtained a degree in medicine. She lived in Portugal for thirteen years, during which time she was an active contributor to Mensagem,  a prominent literary journal published by African students living and studying in Portugal. Read some of her poems in Portuguese here. 

The African Book Review is posting a poem from each of Africa’s 55 countries over the next few weeks. Poem suggestions can be sent through the comments form below. ‘Like’ us on FacebookTwitter, and Tumblr to read all the poems.