Book of the month: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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One of the delights of this project – and a key reason that I continue the blog more than three years after my year of reading the world came to an end – is the fact that I still receive large numbers of book recommendations from bibliophiles all over the planet.

It’s a great joy to hear from enthusiastic readers and to learn about so many tempting stories. However, because I sometimes get several such messages a day, it means that the already gargantuan list of reading suggestions that I gathered during my project is still growing faster than I can tackle it (and that’s not to mention all the books that I have to read for research and reviewing, as well as those titles that sometimes leap out from bookshop shelves, grab me by the scruff of the neck, march me to the checkout and force me to read them there and then).

All the same, the recommendations do not go to waste. I often check back through them and select titles to buy. And so it was that, a few weeks ago, I came upon Dust by Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, my latest book of the month.

The novel was suggested in 2015 by Kerem_Kerem, who also recommended Taiye Selasi’s excellent Ghana Must Go. Having read each of them, I’m not surprised that this reader liked them both – they share several plot devices and themes, not least the ambition to diffract national stories through the prism of a single family’s experience. Indeed, there’s even an endorsement from Selasi on the cover of my edition of Dust, which was published in 2014.

Both novels have received considerable praise from critics. But it seems to me that Owuor is less well-known in the UK than Selasi. As a result, I decided to write about her book.

As in Ghana Must Go, the narrative of Dust is kickstarted by a death. In this case, it’s the violent death of Odidi, a man in the prime of his life, who is shot in the street in Nairobi on the night of the 2007 elections. Bewildered by the news, his fragmented family reconvenes at Wuoth Ogik, the remote farm in northern Kenya where he and his sister, Ajany, grew up. There too, appears Isaiah William Bolton, the son of a British man who knew Odidi’s parents. What follows is a troubling, moving and engrossing story, in which the characters attempt to piece together the shards of what they know into a picture of the past that they can all recognise.

This is a book in which multiple stories are told on almost every page. One of Owuor’s greatest achievements is that she reveals repeatedly how multi-faceted human beings and the things they create are. This is nowhere more evident than in her presentation of Kenya, a place that is at once the site of great suffering and corruption, but also of extraordinary love, forbearance, beauty and humour.

Insights leap from the page, frequently launched from only a handful of well-chosen words: ‘After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Swahili, and Silence’; ‘as long as there was enough to move the day, beyond a grumble, people really didn’t care to know why their lives had become harder’; in the wake of the violence that splintered it, Kenya is a nation ‘that is gluing its cracked shell together again’.

The book is often very funny too. Owuor is a great conjurer of characters, from the ever-hopeful Babu Chaudhuri, who continues to advertise for a shop manager 46 years after he first intended to pack it in and move to England, to the wily Trader who circulates around the country, bartering stories, information and whatever comes to hand. My favourite is Aaron, a police officer posted to an isolated station in the rural north, and made at once ridiculous and pitiable through his loneliness.

Owuor’s writing is at its most beautiful when it treats of the desert landscape, where the ‘wind lumbers past like an ancient wizard’ and the dusk comes ‘plodding in and scarring the sky with yellow-orange trails’. The place is soaked in imagination. Indeed, as we follow the characters over the rocky terrain, it often seems as if we are wandering through a vast psyche rather than a physical region.

That said, the writing isn’t always this good. Poorly rendered similes and unfortunate word choices crop up here and there, and at times the prose seems as uneven as the landscape it describes. In addition, the multiplicity of stories and ideas Owuor explores occasionally clogs the text, giving odd passages a congested and sometimes confusing feel.

In the final analysis, though, I can’t help but admire Dust. Its scope is impressive, its revelations frequently breathtaking and its perspective unfailingly humane. It is a rich, slow read – one to savour over a number of days rather than to race through in an evening. But if you invest the time, the novel will reward you. I’m very glad Kerem_Kerem recommended it.

Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Granta Books, 2014)

Picture by Enzinho83 on Flickr.com

Kenya: a momentous proposal


Say the words ‘Kenyan writer’ to most world literature fans and they will come back with one name: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Imprisoned for speaking out against injustice and corruption, the author of such landmark books as A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow abandoned English to write in his first language Gikuyu in the late seventies. He is revered around the world for his work and his passionate advocacy and has been given many awards, seven honorary doctorates and held numerous visiting professorships.

It seemed a no-brainer that I would read one of this literary giant’s novels as my Kenyan choice. But then I heard about Philo Ikonya. Arrested repeatedly for her human rights activism and living in exile in Norway since 2009, the poet and novelist is an avid blogger and journalist, as well as a keen linguist. She is also president of PEN Kenya.

Intrigued though I was to read the work of Kenya’s great man of letters, Ikonya and her oddly titled novel Kenya, Will You Marry Me? piqued my interest. I decided to give it a go.

In a nutshell, the novel is a love story. It gives an account of a life-long passion for and relationship with the country Kenya in all its exuberance and raw pain. Growing up in a village near Nairobi, the young narrator uses dolls to act out and embody some of the conflicts she sees around her, while flashes forward and backward in time and stories from other relatives and friends bring home the personal consequences of such traumatic events as the attempted coup of 1982 and the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the rigged election of 2007, as well as the long shadow of colonialism. Hurt but not discouraged by all that she has seen, the young woman transforms herself into the embodiment of Change during the course of the narrative, urging her fellow countrymen and women to get behind her and appealing to the nation she loves to unite itself with her.

Nationhood and what it means to belong to a country bind the narrative like the spine of the book. Frequently speaking about Kenya as a person, the narrator emphasises that ‘history and politics live in homes’, showing how events in parliament pervade even the bed sheets and the cooking pots of the most remote villages. This sense of the interconnectedness of national and domestic events is coupled with a great love and celebration of the beauty of the land and, as the narrator’s grandfather explains, a ‘greater love [which] is to realise that these are only ours for some time and that your children must find them still here’.

As a result of her intense connection with her country, the narrator feels every threat to its wellbeing as a personal attack. This leads to a barrage of righteous anger against the injustice of colonial rule, the heartlessness and corruption of politicians, the cruel rapes suffered by many of the country’s women and children, and the fact that ‘people gifted with melanin continued to be left out of the game’. Often, this takes the form of powerful, rhetorical addresses in which the narrator apostrophises various groups in her effort to galvanise them into positive action, taking in everyone from her dolls and her compatriots, to corrupt politicians and even Western readers:

‘You, most of you, in the West have the comfort of analyzing what you call deception, we are grateful for the small straws of hope we see near us. We cannot afford to shun all.’

Ikonya’s poetic sense comes through strongly in the narrative, adding subtle layers of meaning. Whether she’s playing with rhymes to make deeper points – ‘I have never been able to hear the word “bribe” without seeing “tribe”. Vice like lice lives in families too’ – or stripping back the etymology of place names and sexual terms to reveal the power struggles that lie beneath, she uses words richly, milking them for every last drop of significance.

Readers unfamiliar with Kenyan history and politics, as I was, will sometimes struggle to follow the narrative, which is often essentially a stream of consciousness ‘crisscross[ing] years, beating arrangements in books’. In addition, the novel’s fragmented and free-flowing nature means that there is often very little to drive it forward other than the narrator’s passion. The fingers begin to itch to flick in the last third where earlier polemics on corruption and women’s rights are reprised without much development.

Nevertheless the commitment and fervour of the narrator carry the day. As a portrait of patriotism, this stands in stark contrast to the rather anaemic if not downright cynical expressions of national pride we tend to hear in the UK. It is an urgent reminder of the importance of politics and the influence that individuals can have on events larger than themselves. No wonder the people in power felt threatened.

Kenya, Will You Marry Me? by Philo Ikonya (Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2011)