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We are living inside a palimpsest

Yvonne Adhiambo Owour on her novel, Dust, and life and politics in Kenya.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owour’s internationally acclaimed debut novel, Dust, begins in Nairobi, where a former rugby playing engineer turned thug, Ogidi, is shot by the police. We meet his painter-sister, Ajany, who comes for the funeral, his mother, Akai-Ma, his father, Nyipir, and a host of other characters as Ogidi’s remains lie at Wuoth Ogik, the homestead. We delve deep into individual stories that take us back and forth in time, to the Mau Mau campaign of the 1950s, the assassination of Tom Mboya, the senseless violence that followed the 2007 Kenyan elections, and memories and silences about things that happened in Brazil and elsewhere.

Throughout, Owour’s prose comes alive in the reader’s ears. You hear words being spoken in all their peculiar glories of Kenyan pronunciation.

“Our mbrave mboys returned fire for fire. Two of our men are wounded. The gang leader mocked us. Threw abuse. Our mbrave mboys gave chase. The climinals fred on foot. We persisted. We forrowed for two kirometers … The climinals moved with the plecision of rocusts.”

Dust cover

In the end, Dust is a testimony to the fact that human perfection is imperfection. Good people are bad people and bad people are good people. Complex, beautiful and elegant, Dust is an astonishing accomplishment by one of our finest writers.

It was a pleasure to catch up with Owour to chat about her debut novel and about politics in Kenya.

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire: Your short story, ‘Weight of Whispers,’ has been described as the best to ever win the Caine Prize. I know it was written a long time ago, but did you feel pressured to produce something afterwards? If you did, how did you deal with that?

Yvonne Adhiambo Owour: I was under all sorts of pressures. I did emerge with several short stories that got published in faraway places. I even did a place and travel piece for the Essex County Council, The State of Tides, in a joint project with a UK artist. Quite frankly, winning the Caine Prize for the first story I ever publicly shared came as such a surprise that I was caught napping. I did not have another story when agents came calling for manuscripts, and I certainly did not think of myself as a ‘writer’. I hid out doing other ‘meaningful’ things, like the Zanzibar International Film Festival and, later, Project and Curriculum development for the Aga Khan University.

In short, strategic and effective procrastination. But the time away was also useful to get to feel the relentless urge to create with words and to do so truthfully. I ended up in two key literary happenings that turned things around for me: Iowa Writing Programme (it weaned me from my Zanzibar illusions) and the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, which introduced me to the face and voice of readers; these elderly Queensland beauties from far away who had read my stories and had strong opinions about the life of characters who I would have assumed had nothing to do with their lives. This moved my deepest self and I understood then why I must write. For me, and for those like us who simply love story, no matter where it comes from. That released me from my and others’ expectations. The simple lesson: just work with the story that lures you to its telling. The external stuff is unnecessary drama.

You were already working on your novel when the post 2007 electoral violence (PEV) erupted in Kenya. Reading Dust now and seeing how the violence is in some way central to the story, I wonder how the novel would have turned out had it not happened. But maybe it had to happen. Maybe what we learn is that an identity formed in violence and unresolved grievance can only reproduce violence and more grievance.

It would have been a different novel, certainly. ‘Maybe what we learn is that an identity formed in violence and unresolved grievance can only reproduce violence and more grievance” Bwesigye is correct. But fortunately there are ways to put a big stick into the spokes of violence, I believe; the very things that, for some odd reason (maybe you can explain it), the post-independence African avoids assiduously: rituals and rites of atonement, acknowledgement, forgiveness, a desire to heal together, to name the horror created, to exorcise it. We refuse to. We seek to apportion blame. We twist this way and that to escape the demands of justice. We gloat over the corpses of the citizens we have murdered and call it victory. It is as if to admit to our terrible human brokenness and its effects makes us less than human… and so the un-exorcised cult of violence grows and morphs and acquires new excuses. But it can be stopped.

Maybe what you have called the ‘swift burying of ancient grievances in shallow graves’ is one way we think we are stopping the cult of violence. Do you think that the grievances of 2007 and before have now been buried in deeper graves? If you think that they haven’t, how do you think the cult of violence will be effectively stopped?

We have squandered the gift the terrible violence gave us; to come together as a nation to admit to our guilt, to atone our wounded, to grieve our horror and to start to heal. The ghosts have left the graves, and now they traverse the land and inhabit our different hearts in different ways. The constitution has given us an excuse to retreat to imagined safe enclaves and create a more tenuous link between the imagined being and the Kenya project. We live new and troubling silences.

I heard a word yesterday: palimpsest. I had not thought much of it before. But we are attempting to rewrite another Kenya story on top of what we are under the delusion that we have erased, beneath which lie other rubbed-out phantoms. We are living inside a palimpsest.

How should historical injustices be dealt with? Human to human, community to community, vision to vision. One of the things most of our cultures evolved so brilliantly were rites and rituals and methods of remembering that which had been amputated, and these had to do with human beingness and spirit. I am struck by the example and idea of Yom Kippur, a day of atonement. The courts as they are structured in our societies today are not useful, but we do need to imagine other mechanisms that will allow us to agree to share a common vision of living together again.

A friend of mine says that amnesia is the reason Kenya holds together. In some sense your novel hinges on memory and silence, and at some point I got the feeling that in those silences and memories lay an explanation for why the violence happened. Because things are ‘buried swiftly’. But maybe forgetting has its usefulness. What do you think?

Amnesia is the primary tool we use to bury our crime scene. But it does not mean that we sleep in comfort. We agree to agree that none of us hear the rattling of the bones of our restless dead. We party hard and sing the national anthem very loudly. But the world understands amnesia. The Americans do, very well. They even make films that perpetuate another story that tidies up the horror perpetrated. But forgiving comes from acknowledging, not the pretense of forgetting.

The Kenyan post-election violence was as much about the unresolved 1960-1980 state caused horrors as it was about an election dispute. There is a silent retreat from the centre going on now, afforded by devolution. An emergence of different Kenyas, rather than a ‘Kenya’. It is also informed by mistrust created by the unresolved things the ethnicisation of work opportunities and access to resources, for example. Perhaps this ‘retreat’ is a positive movement; I just do not know yet. It will be interesting to see how far that retreat goes and how it plays out in 2017.  

As a reader, I must admit that Dust was heavy in many parts and had a profound effect on my emotions. It can be called a cliché question, but I can’t resist asking: when you read Dust now, do you get affected as well? Or perhaps as the writer of the story, you have become immune to its immense emotional power?

<Smile> I am so happy the story touched you in parts. Well, my stories and I have an ‘accept and move on’ relationship. Once done, they do not look for me, nor I them. We meet occasionally for one or two night stands during book events. Perhaps I shall be able to read them again a few years down the line.

Yvonne Owuor will join Okey Ndibe, Saskia Goldschmidt and Nakhane Touré at the Meet & Read on 11 September. Proudly presented by This Is Africa, Open Book and #cocreateSA.

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