YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR is an award-winning author whose novels, Dust and The Dragonfly Sea, have been widely praised for their examination of the entire gamut of human experience, from love and beauty to violence and grief. Her writing journey began when she won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, “Weight of Whispers”, about an aristocratic Rwandan refugee living in Kenya. From 2003 till 2005 she was the executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. RASNA WARAH spoke to the talented Kenyan author about her writing journey.
Q. Kenya has three official languages: English, Kiswahili and silence. This line from your book Dust has resonated with a lot of Kenyans. For those who have not read your book, could you elaborate a little on what you meant by this? And do you believe that the language of silence is currently growing or diminishing in Kenya?
As a Kenyan steeped in our many histories and their trajectories, I have been most struck by what remains unsaid, unstated, concealed, camouflaged, written over or deliberately erased because they are inconvenient to whatever narrative is being pushed forward by different parties. I am struck by the people of a nation that will turn “accept and move on” into a mantra that proceeds too gaslight the wounds, pains, anguishes and longings of its own, that imagines it can hide its atrocities under bandages and hymns. All these thoughts struck during the 2007-8 post-election violence when I saw and understood that unless a people are willing to confront their own shadows, wounds, hatreds and prejudices head on, they are doomed to slide into a cycle of violence, frustration, stagnation and fury. The absence of conflict does not always mean peace; the erasure of words does not always mean forgetting. That is why the fourth language, “memory” is also included.
Q. Your two novels, Dust and The Dragonfly Sea, explore the lives of the “forgotten” Kenyans, whether they be in Turkana in Kenya’s arid north or on Pate Island off the Kenyan coastline. They explore the various layers of identity among Kenyans and question state formation. What made you want to venture into these territories and subjects?
A passion for the country that is home, its complexities and richness in diversity that is often avoided, neglected or ignored to suit extremely myopic orientations. As a traveller, it is into my country that I first travelled and am in awe of its complexity. I feel and sense that the most accurate sense of Kenya, its mysteries, lurk and lie in its interstices. I am also weary of the one-beat drumming of our institutions and media that persist with a very colonial narrative and image formation of a nation, as if they are unable to get their heads into the idea of our profound complexities, and the depths of our histories. Is it laziness, brainwashing or fear? I don’t know.
Q. Trauma is a very important theme in your writings. The African trauma of slavery and colonialism, which is rarely talked about, plus the trauma of certain ethnic groups being “othered” after countries like Kenya gained independence. In recent years, you have also written about the trauma of African migrants and refugees leaving their countries only to face acute racism and ill treatment in Europe. How does writing help heal some of these traumas?
Writing is also an act of witness, of naming the demons. The ritual of exorcism starts with the negative entity naming itself. Trauma, or woundedness, is one thing, the other element to which it is entangled is shame, and shame generates silences and dismissal, it buries the story that needs to be told, at least to one other human. After 2007-8, I refused to collude with the darkness and shadows of our being by denying their existence. I also want to believe that when given a voice and value, the site of wounds can also become a source of light and transformation. But we must work to let the light in. Writing is one of many ways.
Q. Many of your speaking engagements in Europe and elsewhere force your mostly white audiences to acknowledge their role in perpetuating these traumas. You essentially remind white people that they and their ancestors are responsible for many of the problems facing Africa. How have your audiences reacted to these uncomfortable truths?
The whole gamut of human reactions, from indifference, defensiveness to resistance to grief. I do love that invariably, the younger generation always approach me afterwards to ask, “Ok, what must we do to repair this situation?” By the way, I also deliver a variation of that lecture when I am on the continent; paint a picture to our authorities and leaders about the ways they have not lived up to the ideal, how their incapacities have betrayed us, the citizens.
Q. In one of your interviews, you said that the late Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina inspired you to be a writer. You left a corporate job to become a successful writer. But most writers cannot make a living off their writing. What words of advice can you give to an aspiring young writer who has the talent but is too afraid to take the leap into becoming a writer full time?
Really, really invest in the time and energy required to hone your craft. There is so much on the internet these days so there is no excuse not to immerse yourselves in the study of the art. Read widely and wildly and without limit. Try to build a writers’ community also. Feed all your senses; music, art, food, dance, hike. Watch people mildly detached, study their characteristics, expressions, cadences. Read some more, and above all, write, write, write. Short stories, screenplays, poetry, your novel. If you have to live simply in order to satisfy the hunger to write, please do so. If you are bothered most about your peer who is now driving a Prado while all you have is a dream to hold on to, then let go. For this situation will only worsen. Follow this path if there is nothing else in the world that you would rather do. Then practically, try to finish that manuscript.
Q. You come across as a very private person. I know you love cats. Can you tell us something about you that people might be surprised about?
(Smile) I sing well and am also a damn good cook!