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Conversations with Yvonne Owuor and Jackson Biko

Tuesday April 23 2019

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor reads from her new novel, 'The Dragonfly Sea', during its launch at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi on May 12, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor reads from her new novel, 'The Dragonfly Sea', during its launch at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi on May 12, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY 

MARGARET MUTHEE
By MARGARET MUTHEE
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To mark World Book Day, we bring you the stories of two of Kenya’s most celebrated authors: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Jackson Biko.

They spoke to Nation.co.ke about their sources of inspiration, aspirations, fears, writing journeys and their words of advice to aspiring writers.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is the author of short story Weight of Whispers and two novels: Dust and The Dragonfly Sea.

Jackson Biko is a renowned Kenyan writer, blogger and columnist who recently released his first book titled Drunk.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR

Yvonne won the 2003 Caine Prize for African writing for her short story Weight of Whispers.

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Her first novel, Dust, that was not only shortlisted for the Folio Prize, but also won Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

Her latest work The Dragonfly Sea has been hailed as a global novel and one of the best reads of the year.

What would you say has been the strongest influences on your writing? What inspires you to write?

Thank you so very much for your kind words. Life, family, experiences, people, nature, questions, other literature and arts, are all influences. I write because I must, I love the world of words.

How would you describe your writing journey so far, and particularly in regards to your latest book?

My writing journey has been a gift, an adventure, fraught with the usual things of life.

A site of discovery, learning, working in new ways, an opportunity for encounters of the best kind.

The Dragonfly Sea takes us to Pate, an island off the Kenyan coast. How did this story come to you and what were there challenges, that you faced in creating the work? 

Loving the ocean, dreaming of its many lives, the questions of and around the East African maritime imagination and why we seem to be so cut off from it in this modern age, the other question of what China’s return to Eastern Africa through the seas might imply for small intimate histories, and what the responses of the ‘ordinary people’ might be.

Challenges; discipline to write, having to travel to research aspects of the story and the questions I had, but these come with the territory.

Writer Oyunga Pala addresses some of the guests during the launch of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's new book, 'The Dragonfly Sea', at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi on May 12, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY

Writer Oyunga Pala addresses some of the guests during the launch of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's new book, 'The Dragonfly Sea', at Prestige Bookshop in Nairobi on May 12, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY

What is your ideal writing space, and does this always have to be?

By the sea, lots of light, no curtains, colour, natural noise or silences, creative people in the vicinity with whom one can have a deep conversation about strange ideas, a nearby well equipped library required for research work, good food close hand, great company and reliable internet.

Tell us about your favourite book and what you are currently reading?

I cannot choose one book over any other. I love them all dearly. Choosing them would feel like discrimination. I am currently reading Warlight by Michael Ondatje.

On the writing process, what would be your advice to young aspiring authors?

To write, write, write; to invest in craft without shame or fear. Crafting your art is a process that never ends, to love words, wherever they are from, and to write, write, write as if it is the very last thing you will do with your life.

JACKSON BIKO

Jackson is a contributor to a wide range of magazines. He is a columnist with the Saturday Nation and the Business Daily newspapers.

He is a multiple award winning blogger under the name Biko Zulu, and is also a social media influencer.

In 2015, he was named one of the Top 40 under 40 men in Kenya.

As we celebrate the World Book Day we want to celebrate you for your writing. You authored your first book , Drunk while still working on other things; tell us about your writing journey.

It is now nine years since I started writing for my blog.

At some point everybody I met started saying, “Oh write a book! It’s time!” Everybody! I didn't think it was time, but I guess I’m still a teenager inside and is prone to peer pressure. So I wrote a book.

It was tough…Tougher than writing a blog. I’m glad I did it though, because it was out of my comfort zone and what I was used to; short furious 3,500 word essays. 

Copies of Jackson Biko's drunk. PHOTO| MAGUNGA

Copies of Jackson Biko's drunk. PHOTO| MAGUNGA

What would you say is your strongest influence to writing? What inspires you to write?

People. People say interesting things. People do interesting things. There is never a shortage of content when you plug into people.

You wrote a good chunk of Drunk in a tree house in Elementaita and later finished it at English Point Marina. What would you describe as your ideal writing space, and does this always have to be?

My ideal writing space is a place that doesn’t have a crying child. Otherwise I can write anywhere; Airport lounges, Cafes, Farms, Offices… But ideally, I write best in silent environments. No music. Sober.

can never write like Hemmingway- with a drink in hand.

 

What are some of the challenges you faced in writing the book?

Insecurity; that nobody would like it… that I would sell only four copies. I have four siblings, that’s the least they can do for me. I also found it so hard to stay interested because it took me a year to write it.

There is a sort of literary imprisonment that comes with that, having to keep going back to these characters’ lives for a year! You get sick of them and their challenges. It’s hard labour!

I also found that time was a big challenge; given that the book wasn’t my bread and butter and as such I had to juggle it with paying writing jobs that ideally should have had priority.

Make that labour of love. 

 

As we celebrate the World Book Day, tell us about your favourite book and what you are currently reading?

Is there anyone with a favourite book? The world is full of such astoundingly beautiful and diverse books to cling onto the notion of favourite book. Plus, the book I swear by now will not be the book I swear by tomorrow. In high school, for instance, I thought The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger was my favourite book. At university,  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt did it for me. Not anymore! Since then I have fallen love with many books. And they keep changing.

What is your word of advice to a starting out writer about the creative process?

Read. Read. Read. There is no writer who ever wrote well from just watching TV and spending time on Instagram.

Finally, besides the blog, is there another book in the works or what should we expect next?

Oh, here we go again. Sigh.

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