Nigerians’ hassle and toughness dazzle me — Adhiambo Owuor
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan award-winning author, screenwriter, creative writing teacher and regular TEDx speaker. 2003 Caine Prize for Literature winner for her short story ‘Weight of Whispers’ and 2015 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature winner for her novel ‘Dust’, she has written three novels, ‘The Dragonfly Sea’ (March, 2019), being the most recent. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about her life growing up in Kenya, her mentor Binyavanga Wainaina, her new novel and her visit to Nigeria.
W HAT was life like growing up as a young girl in Kenya? And, when did you know you would make a career from writing?
I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, in a home environment inhabited by the books of parents who were universalists, who adored books. They brought the entire world into our home walls through books, art, music, discussions. They took us into nature and revealed to us the book of nature, of landscape. I was lucky in the school I went to where teachers nurtured small strangenesses like the shy girl who always found a corner to hide in in order to read stories. I should have understood that writing was my vocation, given that it brought joy to my spirit. But it took years and years of doing a whole load of other things, useful things, before I understood that writing was the way I would read and navigate the world and figure out my place in it.
What motivated you to go for an MA in Television and Video Development? Between screenwriting and prose writing, which one comes easily to you?
I should have gone straight into creative writing rather than that M.A. I wish I had been braver and dared to enter straight into what I really did want to do: write stories. I did that degree because it seemed to sit well at the cusp between social development and creativity.
How would you describe the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s influence in your writing career?
That man, that wild, unruly, disruptive, mad, beautiful, gifted, visionary beloved man, that prophet, that midwife and seed-giver, the story-whisperer showed up like firelight for me in a season of floundering. He was mentor, believer, champion, critic, first-line editor. I am a writer because he believed I was a writer. I wrote ‘Weight of Whispers’ to get him off my back. He would call me about seven times a day to ask for a story. It is the story that also lunched Kwani Trust. It opened the doors that set me on a literary trajectory.
What is your writing process like? The themes of your novels are mostly about loss, sacrifice and survival. Why is that?
Writing process: Get moved by an image that won’t go away. Pursue the muse. Procrastinate. Make excuses. Set deadline. Research and research. Sit. Write and write. Get edited. Write again. Ask select friends to review what is written. Implement suggestions. You get the picture. About my story themes: I wrestle with those twin questions of what does it mean to be human/what does the humanity of the other mean for me. I am scoured by my African living, its complexities, its beauties, its paradoxes. The themes include sacrifice and loss, less survival as much as resolution or transcendence. But there are also themes of love, desire, homecoming, discovery, plurality, family, what might happiness mean. Life, I guess.
Briefly tell us about your new novel ‘The Dragon Sea’. How is the novel faring in the market?
‘The Dragonfly Sea’ is a coming-of-age story set on the island of Pate, off the coast of Kenya. It focuses on Ayaana, her mother Munira and the father Ayaana adopts, Muhidin. It is a story I enjoyed writing as I explored notions of our Eastern African oceanic imaginary, our relationship with the seas, and what China’s return to our part of the world portends for intimate, personal histories. Where the novel is available, it seems to be gathering quite a good number of friends. I am delighted.
Why were you named the ‘Woman of the Year’ by Eve Magazine? Have you thought of setting up a literary magazine or foundation in Africa?
The magazine wanted to honour the surprise of having a Kenyan woman being recognised elsewhere for contributions to art and literature. I am a contributor to magazines, sitting on the boards of a few. But my calling and metier is story creation. There are others who are better trained and ‘called’ to do these. Who knows the future? But I do intend to have something established to support the writing hopes of the many in Africa and beyond—resources and time permitting.
As a creative, in what ways do you think African literature can help address African essential challenges?
This question speaks directly to what I regard as the primary crisis in our beloved continent—that of the imagination, not only for ourselves but for the whole world, for the galaxies. Of all the places in the world ours is the one blessed with the best and greatest of the earth’s bounties. Yet, it has indeed been the most afflicted by all sorts of external and internal wounds that seem to paralyse its essential being. Take off requires a deep, volcanic re-imagining, a re-telling of us in the world, and of the world in us. Story, daring, bold, immense, all-encompassing truthful story, should we so desire it, will help our glorious, gifted continent realise its grand destiny.
You live in Australia. What necessitated your residency there? And, how does the country remind you of Kenya?
No, I live in Kenya. When ‘Dust’ was published I was in Australia then, doing my MPhil. But I am Kenya born, bred, fed, nurtured, dwelling, living, fully identified. Having said that, Brisbane’s climate mirrored Nairobi’s. The landscapes were a delightful invocation of home. There are also resonances of habits shared that probably come from the British connections.
What is your impression of Nigeria? If you were to visit the country, where would you like to visit and why?
The places in Nigeria I have been to: Lagos, Abuja, Abeokuta. My experiences were exhilarating. It is like travelling across landscapes to arrive at a place not dissimilar to the home you left. I am struck by the hassle, the joy, the toughness, the beauty, the humour, the immensity, the wealth, and oh my, my…the food, the art, the giftedness. It cannot be known after a mere glance. I think one must immerse oneself for a few years before having the boldness to say; this is what Nigeria also is.
What are you currently working on? Do you see yourself winning Nobel Prize in Literature in the future?
New Book. The Future is like night. Who knows what the dawn might show up with?
What is your greatest challenge as a creative? And, what do you like doing at your leisure?
Discipline to deliver to deadlines. Governing the self to work according to schedule. Avoiding the feast of distractions that offer themselves to you every day you promise: Today I shall work. Leisure? Outdoors stuff. Hike, swim, run, read, travel. Watch Korean drama. Eat good food. Catch up on the latest news (aka palaver/gossip).
What advice do you have for young people, especially the female ones, who are aspiring to be like you?
Read widely, wildly. Ask strange and big questions. Dare to ask yourself these two questions often: What does it mean for me to be human/what does the humanity of the other mean for me? Find your voice. Talk to the elders. Listen. Learn the things that delight you, annoy you—turn them into characters. Write out your fears—turn these into a tale. Observe life, humanity, your own heart. Get experiences. Whatever task you are given to do, use it to study human interactions, relationships, voices. All of these will inform your story journeys. Then, when you decide to write, write. Write because if you don’t write you will suffocate. And if the accolades and applause come, nod at these. But, keep vulnerable as you write. And may your stories nourish you and the world. Oh yes, and do have fun while doing so. It is not a grim race to some fantasy finish.