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Yvonne Owuor: We are no longer a literary desert

Saturday August 17 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 

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor studied English at Kenyatta University and then pursued an MA in TV/Video development at Reading University in Britain. She also has a MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland in Australia.

She is a decorated writer with her story, Weight of Whispers, winning the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2015, her debut novel, Dust, won the prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. In 2019, she released her latest novel, TheDragonfly Sea.

Yvonne spoke to Saturday Nation about the place of women in writing and penning novels.

The New York Times described Dust as; “A dazzling novel where one finds the entirety of human experience – tear-shed, bloodshed, lust, love – in staggering proportions.”

First, let me address the matter of accolades off the bat: these are by-products of good writing. Unfortunately, people, especially aspiring writers, get caught up in the game of what is to come, and who might say what to what effect rather than concentrate on their main purpose, which is to write a story that everlastingly lives in their hearts.

When it is published, that is another thing, another world where the story finds its people, its critics, and those who desire to reward its existence. It is essential for the story creator, I think, to enjoy these, as one does to a good dessert, but to remember the centrality of the main meal, which is the story.


Writing Dust took a long time. The book was my teacher. It taught me humility before the art of story creation. I had to learn that the more I thought I knew about storytelling, the less I actually did. But I had to trust the process, the life and willpower of characters, to honour the questions that drove me and the quest for answers; in the case of Dust, the question of what it might take to salvage a wounded nation.

Female writers most times face a legion of challenges in the male-dominated field. How do you navigate through this?

A good story is worth telling irrespective of the gender. A well-crafted tale has no loyalties to the dichotomies humanity labels on us. It’ll still find its audience(s) whether written by a man or woman. Each struggle is distinct, each barrier unique and often personal.

Nonetheless, the struggle does not make an exception of men or women. I know there is a certain position one is expected to take with regard to storytelling. Sometimes it’s usually a real struggle for the female folk. Without daring men like my brother Binyavanga Wainaina believing in me, I wouldn’t have learnt the courage to commit to this murky pathway.

How am I navigating the literary pathway as a woman? By being human, and trusting in the community of good souls, men and women, who love riveting tales.

What’s your advice to young Kenyan women who yearn to plunge into the daunting field of writing?

Write. Just write. Write without imagining anybody owes you anything, or waiting for the ‘perfect condition’. Write. Write because the fire of the story in your heart, if not assuaged, will consume you. Write because this is what you love. Write as if it is the last thing you will ever write in your life.

Invest in growing your craft. Through craft you will settle into that most vital component of your art; your voice. As much as there are going to be a few naysayers in your life, there are also allies, those that will often whisper to you to keep going, keep running. Please, listen to the latter voice first.

You are a renowned globetrotter with numerous writing assignments in Pretoria, New York, Nairobi, Australia and now in Berlin. Do your intercontinental voyages spice up your writings in some way?

Yes, they do. The world is my palette. Moreover, it has become a small village, hasn’t it? Coincidentally, it’s literature that has sent me to these parts of the world. The spirit of storytelling sends me far and wide, and for this, I am grateful.

You served as the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival/Festival of the Dhow Countries (2003-5). How was that experience for you, being that Zanzibar is a powerhouse of literary creativity with writers such as Said A. Mohamed, Shafi Adam Shafi and M.S Abdulla?

Life changing, identity shaping, it reminded me that as an East African, I am also a citizen of the seas.

In August 2018, some ruthless Nairobi County askaris mistakenly took you for a street hawker and assaulted you at Lavington Shopping Mall.

It has turned into this Kafka-esque farce, with the trial still going on — to those who are interested. It has offered a remarkable look into some of the subterranean ways of our city, and the thousand ways in which the simplest, the most ordinary, and primarily, vulnerable women fall prey to a city system and do so in such invisible ways. The useful thing about my experience is that it has drawn my, and others’ attention to absurd by-laws still in the city statutes that are used to, not serve, but oppress the citizens of the city.

Kingwa Kamencu in her piece: “The charming paradox of Yvonne Owuor Adhiambo” described you as playful, easy-going, mischievous and one with a wild sense of humour. What’s your take on this?

How kind of her. I hope it is true. I generally do love life, its people, and find great joy in the simple pleasure of existing among others. I am Kenyan, oh yes! I hope that sense of humour that will save the country is also part of my identity.

Prestige Bookshop in April hosted the maiden launch of your second full-length novel Dragonfly Sea. Can you paint a picture of the state of book launches in East Africa?

We don’t do justice to what we actually have. TheDragonfly Sea launch was a splendid one. It turned into this cherished family gathering. Nairobians and a few readers from other parts of the country showed up, packed the bookshop and gave the book and I, a rousing launch.

The support of the Kenyan literary community is second to none. They are such gems, and Prestige Bookshop’s dedication to creating spaces where not just books, but the writers can also be encountered is world-class. This was one of the best literary experiences I have ever had anywhere in the world. That ‘literary desert’ tag is a daft, stale one; for writers of the world, Nairobi rocks, it truly rocks.

What’s on your reading list?

I have never found a book I did not like, which makes it such a crisis. I have mounds of unread books like Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa and Alfred Brendel’s Music, Sense and Nonsense glaring at me balefully. I look forward to getting through these all by the end of June!

The writer is a contributor on literary matters  and the Kenyan representative at International African Writers Association (IAWA) based in Lagos - Nigeria. [email protected]