Yvonne Owuor on ‘Dust’ and why the language of silence is growing in Kenya

Friday July 22 2016

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor the author of Dust in a candid chat on books, politics, education and lasting friendships and why the language of silence is growing in Kenya. PHOTO | FILE

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor the author of Dust in a candid chat on books, politics, education and lasting friendships and why the language of silence is growing in Kenya. PHOTO | FILE  

By KINGWA KAMENCU
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Yvonne Owuor’s work has received attention from varied corners including the academic world, writers, cultural organisations and individual readers. In recent times, an academic conference cantering on her work took place at the African Leadership Centre in Nairobi as well as a book reading evening at the Goethe Institut.

If the writer is indeed the surgeon of society as has been averred in the past, we found it timely to speak to the author herself to share her insights on recent happenings in the country as well as on writing. 

The Africa Leadership Centre in Nairobi recently hosted an event celebrating your work. That must have been exciting, how did you feel?

Gobsmacked!  I had no idea they were planning this until I walked into the ALC and saw my face on a poster. Flummoxed, humbled, mildly terrified, and then awed. It suddenly makes the hours and hours of wrestling with words meaningful. 

Your novel Dust (2013) talks about the four languages of Kenya: English, Kiswahili, Memory and Silence. Is Kenya any more vocal or eloquent now? And, should Silence as a language worry us or is that a normal thing for a  body politic?

I am startled by how much silence has re-entered the Kenya vocabulary and our interactions, the expanding silences between peoples of different political persuasions, and, more alarmingly, of different ethnic persuasions. Silence and mistrust, except nobody is admitting to the loss of trust in one another.

The silence plays out in the hasty attempt of the powerful to shut down independent voices that cannot be controlled; the at-risk species in the current political landscape are the young bloggers. I worry when people stop to engage with the centre and the institutions and retreat to a sullen silence. It can become a silence that is about disconnection from and disinterest in the entire national project. 

A month ago, the country was abuzz with discussions on hate speech, in the context of the arrest of the eight members of Parliament. Does hate speech signal an end to the language of Silence?

‘Hate speech’ is a mask, and a pathetic one at that. It is an act of offence/defence against a thing, a wounding that nobody really wants to talk about because to do so would mean responsibility for the mess would have to be attributed, right? It is a symptom of that anorexic lack of imagination I talk about: here is evidence of the Kenya crisis of imagination. We can speak about ‘hate speech’ but not the conditions, events and circumstances that created the imagination of those words. A people with no sense of themselves or their future resort to abuse in order not to innovate around a particular problem in order to heal it. ‘Hate speech’ is just a signal of the amplification of silences that hide our communal demons. 

Dreams were a big concept in Dust and the death of dreamers in Kenya. Do we still have dreamers in Kenya? Where are they to be found?

We have dreamers who desire to create for this country, but most are now so broken hearted. There are dreamers of Kenya in all parts of the world, not just Kenya, and they crave the space to offer the tangible pieces of their hopes — but the ecosystem to support a transformative imagination is squeezed shut. 

Being each others ‘brother’s keeper’ is a theme that permeates your work. Will we ever get to a place where we are each others brother’s keepers or are members of humanity fated to always be in conflict with each other?

We could try. We could hope. We could dare to imagine a togetherness that includes. We could try to reconnect with each others’ hearts. There is nowhere else to go, who else would we live with? Life is such a short and intense gift; why spend so much if it at war, in hatred and loathing? 

Your work has explored state formation, and Kenya’s experiments with that. Is the formation of a nation state something done first from theory — almost like the building of a house — whereby there is the first the architect with his blueprint, and then the engineer with the building and then the designers to pretty it up? Where is Kenya is in this scenario and what still needs to be done?

I do not have a proper answer to this important question. But more and more I am coming to believe that a nation state cannot be forged in a drawing room filled with ideas and ideologies, to be a living and meaningful entity, it can only be forged among and between peoples who have an imagination for and therefore choose to be together, to share destiny, to relate, to play and pray together, to be in a life-giving relationship, a people who are willing to gamble in the way God gambles; creating a covenant, not mere agreements. A covenant is about the exchange of blood and hearts.

A peoples publicly and ritually declaring that ‘your people are now my people’. The repository of the covenant becomes the nation state. After that, anything is possible, and when you deal with each other you deal with human beings who are blood members of one house, so to say. 

Already there is buzz around your second novel The Dragonfly Sea. Is it currently with the publishers? What is it about?

The Dragonfly Sea is with the publisher now, should be out sometime next year. It is a contemporary coming of age story of a young girl named Ayaan growing up on Pate Island. It explores an idea of the Swahili Seas (the Western ‘Indian’ ocean) — the elements of an East African maritime imaginary. The story plays with the question of how the return of China to East Africa through the seas held in common translates among ordinary inhabitants. Through the gaze of this child, the story re-imagines intimate and personal histories of a Kenyan island with an identity older than Kenya itself, that itself has been shaped in part by its own 600-year-old relationship with China. 

On the writing process now. What would you advice a writer starting out; should they write like the writer they  admire or should they just get onto their screen (or paper) and see what comes out?

Ultimately a beginning writer will be haunted by the style and voices of those she or he admires. Their influences will show up in the evolving work anyway. When I teach or work with aspiring writers, I tell them, “Write.” Face the screen (or paper), and, having presumably already ‘felt’ and ‘seen’ your character, and heard their ‘voice’ and sensed the pull of the story, start with the first word. Now make that a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph. Write. It took so long for me to trust that writing style, voice and flow often prefer to find the writer, and do not always appreciate the writer hunting after them! 

What book are you currently reading?

I have just retrieved Frantz Fanon’s, The Wretched of the Earth. I found it necessary to consult with the prophets to make sense of this twilight season. It is making me a little sad to think about what could have been, what might be, and indeed how difficult it still is for human beings to acknowledge the ghosts that haunt it, how we would rather tolerate their destruction of our souls than exorcise them. I am thinking how strange it is that after all these years Fanon still offers an imagination for the reality of our age. 

From your interactions with writers from all over the world in fellowships, book festivals and fairs, who among them impressed or annoyed you the most on meeting them and why?

Haha. I dearly love them all. It is such a grace and gift to meet another artist, even if they are broody and indifferent, because it is like running into a member of your scattered and isolated tribe. You share a common idiom. The things that leap out of your mouth are no longer censored or strange. Such a liberation! I am especially pleased to have met and broken bread with the gently luminous and truly talented Taiye Selassi on three occasions over the past year and shared a few panels, a stage…she has become a sister of my deep soul through the gift of these kind of encounters.