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.
In June 1962, there was a writers’ gathering at Makerere, impressively styled: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression.” Despite this sonorous and rather solemn title, it turned out to be a very lively affair and a very exciting and useful experience for many of us. But there was something which we tried to do and failed—that was to define “African literature” satisfactorily.
Was it literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?
In the end we gave up trying to find an answer, partly—I should admit—on my own instigation. Perhaps we should not have given up so easily. It seems to me from some of the things have since heard and read that we may have given the impression of not knowing what we were doing, or worse, not daring to look too closely at it.
A Nigerian critic, Obi Wali, writing in Transition 10 said: “Perhaps the most important achievement of the conference … is that African literature as now defined and understood leads nowhere.”
I am sure that Obi Wali must have felt triumphantly vindicated when he saw the report of a different kind of conference held later at Fourah Bay to discuss African literature and the university curriculum. This conference produced a tentative definition of African literature as follows: “Creative writing in which an African setting is authentically handled or to which experiences originating in Africa are integral.” We are told specifically that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness qualifies as African literature while Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter fails because it could have been set anywhere outside Africa.
A number of interesting speculations issue from this definition, which admittedly is only an interim formulation designed to produce an indisputably desirable end, namely, to introduce African students to literature set in their environment. But I could not help being amused by the curious circumstance in which Conrad, a Pole, writing in English could produce African literature while Peter Abrahams would be ineligible should he write a novel based on his experiences in the West Indies.
What all this suggests to me is that you cannot cram African literature into a small, neat definition. I do not see African literature as one unit but as a group of associated units—in fact the sum total of all the national and ethnic literatures of Africa.
A national literature is one that takes the whole nation for its province and has a realized or potential audience throughout its territory. In other words, a literature that is written in the national language. An ethnic literature is one which is available only to one ethnic group within the nation. If you take Nigeria as an example, the national literature, as I see it, is the literature written in English; and the ethnic literatures are in Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba, Efik, Edo, Ijaw, etc., etc.
Any attempt to define African literature in terms which overlook the complexities of the African scene at the material time is doomed to failure. After the elimination of white rule shall have been completed, the single most important fact in Africa in the second half of the twentieth century will appear to be the rise of individual nation-states. I believe that African literature will follow the same pattern.
What we tend to do today is to think of African literature as a newborn infant. But in fact what we have is a whole generation of newborn infants. Of course, if you only look cursorily, one infant is pretty much like another; but in reality each is already set on its own separate journey. Of course, you may group them together on the basis of anything you choose—the color of their hair, for instance. Or you may group them together on the basis of the language they will speak or the religion of their fathers. Those would all be valid distinctions, but they could not begin to account fully for each individual person carrying, as it were, his own little, unique lodestar of genes.
Those who in talking about African literature want to exclude North Africa because it belongs to a different tradition surely do not suggest that black Africa is anything like homogeneous. What does Shabaan Robert have in common with Christopher Okigbo or Awoonor-Williams? Or Mongo Beti of Cameroun and Paris with Nzekwu of Nigeria? What does the champagne-drinking upper-class Creole society described by Easmon of Sierra Leone have in common with the rural folk and fishermen of J. P. Clark’s plays? Of course, some of these differences could be accounted for on individual rather than national grounds, but a good deal of it is also environmental.
I have indicated somewhat offhandedly that the national literature of Nigeria and of many other countries of Africa is, or will be, written in English. This may sound like a controversial statement, but it isn’t. All I have done has been to look at the reality of present-day Africa. This “reality” may change as a result of deliberate, e.g., political, action. If it does, an entirely new situation will arise, and there will be plenty of time to examine it. At present it may be more profitable to look at the scene as it is.
What are the factors which have conspired to place English in the position of national language in many parts of Africa? Quite simply the reason is that these nations were created in the first place by the intervention of the British, which, I hasten to add, is not saying that the peoples comprising these nations were invented by the British.
The country which we know as Nigeria today began not so very long ago as the arbitrary creation of the British. It is true, as William Fagg says in his excellent new book, Nigerian Images, that this arbitrary action has proved as lucky in terms of African art history as any enterprise of the fortunate Princess of Serendip. And I believe that in political and economic terms too this arbitrary creation called Nigeria holds out great prospects. Yet the fact remains that Nigeria was created by the British—for their own ends. Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before. Nigeria had hundreds of autonomous communities ranging in size from the vast Fulani Empire founded by Usman dan Fodio in the north to tiny village entities in the east. Today it is one country.
Of course there are areas of Africa where colonialism divided up a single ethnic group among two or even three powers. But on the whole it did bring together many peoples that had hitherto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.
You can take this argument a stage further to include other countries of Africa. The only reason why we can even talk about African unity is that when we get together, we have a manageable number of languages to talk in—English, French, Arabic.
The other day I had a visit from Joseph Kariuki of Kenya. Although I had read some of his poems and he had read my novels, we had not met before. But it didn’t seem to matter. In fact I had met him through his poems, especially through his love poem Come Away My Love, in which he captures in so few words the trials and tensions of an African in love with a white girl in Britain:
Come away, my love, from streets
Where unkind eyes divide
And shop windows reflect our difference.
By contrast, when in 1960 I was traveling in East Africa and went to the home of the late Shabaan Robert, the Swahili poet of Tanganyika, things had been different. We spent some time talking about writing, but there was no real contact. I knew from all accounts that I was talking to an important writer, but of the nature of his work I had no idea. He gave me two books of his poems, which I treasure but cannot read—until I have learned Swahili.
And there are scores of languages I would want to learn if it were possible. Where am I to find the time to learn the half dozen or so Nigerian languages, each of which can sustain a literature? I am afraid it cannot be done. These languages will just have to develop as tributaries to feed the one central language enjoying nationwide currency. Today, for good or ill, that language is English. Tomorrow it may be something else, although I very much doubt it.
Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the positive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.
Some time last year I was traveling in Brazil meeting Brazilian writers and artists. A number of the writers I spoke to were concerned about the restrictions imposed on them by their use of the Portuguese language. I remember a woman poet saying she had given serious thought to writing in French! And yet their problem is not half as difficult as ours. Portuguese may not have the universal currency of English or French but at least it is the national language of Brazil with her eighty million or so people, to say nothing of the people of Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, etc.
Of Brazilian authors, I have only read, in translation, one novel by Jorge Amado, who is not only Brazil’s leading novelist but one of the most important writers in the world. From that one novel, Cabriella, I was able to glimpse something of the exciting Afro-Latin culture which is the pride of Brazil and is quite unlike any other culture. Jorge Amado is only one of the many writers Brazil has produced. At their national writers’ festival there were literally hundreds of them. But the work of the vast majority will be closed to the rest of the world forever, including no doubt the work of some excellent writers. There is certainly a great advantage to writing in a world language.
I think I have said enough to give an indication of my thinking on the importance of the world language which history has forced down our throats. Now let us look at some of the most serious handicaps. And let me say straightaway that one of the most serious handicaps is not the one people talk about most often, namely, that it is impossible for anyone ever to use a second language as effectively as his first. This assertion is compounded of half truth and half bogus mystique. Of course, it is true that the vast majority of people are happier with their first language than with any other. But then the majority of people are not writers. We do have enough examples of writers who have performed the feat of writing effectively in a second language. And I am not thinking of the obvious names like Conrad. It would be more germane to our subject to choose African examples.
The first name that comes to my mind is Olauda Equiano, better known as Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano was an Ibo, I believe from the village of Iseke in the Orlu division of Eastern Nigeria. He was sold as a slave at a very early age and transported to America. Later he bought his freedom and lived in England. In 1789 he published his life story, a beautifully written document which, among other things, set down for the Europe of his time something of the life and habit of his people in Africa, in an attempt to counteract the lies and slander invented by some Europeans to justify the slave trade.
Coming nearer to our times, we may recall the attempts in the first quarter of this century by West African nationalists to come together and press for a greater say in the management of their own affairs. One of the most eloquent of that band was the Honorable Casely Hayford of the Gold Coast. His presidential address to the National Congress of British West Africa in 1925 was memorable not only for its sound common sense but as a fine example of elegant prose. The governor of Nigeria at the time was compelled to take notice, and he did so in characteristic style: he called Hayford’s congress “a self-selected and self-appointed congregation of educated African gentlemen.” We may derive some amusement from the fact that British colonial administrators learned very little in the following quarter of a century. But at least they did learn in the end—which is more than one can say for some others.
It is when we come to what is commonly called creative literature that most doubt seems to arise. Obi Wali, whose article “Dead End of African Literature” I referred to, has this to say:
until these writers and their Western midwives accept the fact that any true African literature must be written in African languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end, which can only lead to sterility, uncreativity and frustration.
But far from leading to sterility, the work of many new African writers is full of the most exciting possibilities. Take this from Christopher Okigbo’s “Limits”:
Suddenly becoming talkative like weaverbird Summoned at offside of dream remembered
Between sleep and waking I hand up my egg-shells To you of palm grove, Upon whose bamboo towers hang Dripping with yesterupwine A tiger mask and nude spear….
Queen of the damp half light, I have had my cleansing. Emigrant with air-borne nose, The he-goat-on-heat.
Or take the poem Night Rain, in which J. P. Clark captures so well the fear and wonder felt by a child as rain clamors on the thatch roof at night, and his mother, walking about in the dark, moves her simple belongings
Out of the run of water
That like ants filing out of the wood
Will scatter and gain possession
Of the floor.
I think that the picture of water spreading on the floor “like ants filing out of the wood” is beautiful. Of course, if you have never made fire with faggots, you may miss it. But dark’s inspiration derives from the same source which gave birth to the saying that a man who brings home ant-ridden faggots must be ready for the visit of lizards.
I do not see any signs of sterility anywhere here. What I do see is a new voice coming out of Africa, speaking of African experience in a worldwide language. So my answer to the question Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? is certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask. Can he ever learn to use it like a native speaker? I should say, I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. I have in mind here the writer who has something new, something different to say. The nondescript writer has little to tell us, anyway, so he might as well tell it in conventional language and get it over with. If I may use an extravagant simile, he is like a man offering a small, nondescript routine sacrifice for which a chick, or less, will do. A serious writer must look for an animal whose blood can match the power of his offering.
In this respect Amos Tutola is a natural. A good instinct has turned his apparent limitation in language into a weapon of great strength—a half-strange dialect that serves him perfectly in the evocation of his bizarre world. His last book, and to my mind, his finest, is proof enough that one can make even an imperfectly learned second language do amazing things. In this book, The Feather Woman of the Jungle, Tutola’s superb storytelling is at last cast in the episodic form which he handles best instead of being painfully stretched on the rack of the novel.
From a natural to a conscious artist: myself, in fact. Allow me to quote a small example from Arrow of God, which may give some idea of how I approach the use of English. The Chief Priest in the story is telling one of his sons why it is necessary to send him to church:
I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eyes there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share. The world is like a Mask, dancing. If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place. My spirit tells me that those who do not befriend the white man today will be saying had we known tomorrow.
Now supposing I had put it another way. Like this, for instance:
I am sending you as my representative among these people—just to be on the safe side in case the new religion develops. One has to move with the times or else one is left behind. I have a hunch that those who fail to come to terms with the white man may well regret their lack of foresight.
The material is the same. But the form of the one is in character and the other is not. It is largely a matter of instinct, but judgment comes into it too.
You read quite often nowadays of the problems of the African writer having first to think in his mother tongue and then to translate what he has thought into English. If it were such a simple, mechanical process, I would agree that it was pointless— the kind of eccentric pursuit you might expect to see in a modern Academy of Lagado—and such a process could not possibly produce some of the exciting poetry and prose which is already appearing.
One final point remains for me to make. The real question is not whether Africans could write in English but whether they ought to. Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling.
But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it. I hope, though, that there always will be men, like the late Chief Fagunwa, who will choose to write in their native tongue and ensure that our ethnic literature will flourish side by side with the national ones. For those of us who opt for English, there is much work ahead and much excitement.
Writing in the London Observer recently, James Baldwin said:
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
I recognize, of course, that Baldwin’s problem is not exactly mine, but I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.