Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes herself as “pluralistic by inclination and nationality.” Having previously been, among other things, executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival, she entered the literary world when her short story “The Weight of Whispers” earned her the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her two novels Dust (2014) and The Dragonfly Sea (2019), both set mostly in Kenya, center upon families bombarded by the forces of history, geopolitics, and trauma. Her essays and stories have appeared in journals such as Kwani? and Granta, and in anthologies such as New Daughters of Africa (2019). She holds degrees from Kenyatta University, the University of Reading, and the University of Queensland. In addition to her many awards and fellowships, Owuor is now an artist-in-residence at the German Academic Exchange Service in Berlin. She was interviewed by Erika Koss in 2020 at the Pallet Café in Nairobi and over Zoom.
Image: In October 2020, you gave a virtual keynote at a conference on colonial histories hosted by the Gerda Henkel Foundation in Berlin. At moments you channeled an Old Testament prophet, especially when you gave an “autopsy on colonialism.”
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: What people call “the age of colonialism” ought to be addressed by its rightful moniker, “the age of atrocity,” for its egregious will to violence, its slaughter of humans worldwide, for offenses against nature, for the frenzied, inhuman, and obscene worship of the golden calf. With very few exceptions, colonial hoards behaved like beasts. No, beasts act with greater integrity; they acted like demons, like people possessed by a void. They then conjured up all sorts of excuses, some of which persist to this day.
What is the story that gets told later? Illegal immigrants and refugees who show up on the Mayflower in the territory of other nations—these become sanctified. They are made the founding aristocrats of American society. But before and after these grows a trail of blood, of unrelenting sorrow, of existential losses.
Image: You introduced me to Swedish historian Sven Lindqvist’s book “Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, which he both begins and ends by saying, “It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” His book was published in 1992. Do you think we’re still missing this kind of courage?
YAO: Yes. This kind of courage would require a fervent and collective soul reckoning, and it’s not something that anyone can do for anyone else—the descendants of atrocity-perpetrating cultures cannot really escape from this summons. The shadows and weight get passed down, like genes and trauma. There is a reason for the long resonance of unease. It behooves a culture to do its own self-examination, to conduct its internal Nuremberg trial, as family, a society, a country. Now, apart from Germany being pressured to constantly reckon with its soul and psyche, few other nations are honest or brave enough to face their internal demons or the effects of having unleashed those on humanity.
Image: Would this start with a nation? The church? Or does this begin with the individual?
YAO: I imagine it would start with the individual. The individual alone, the individual within family, the individual in community, society, and nation, the individual in church. Then it might evolve into a cultural habit. Yet there is always resistance. There is the school of thought that declares, “There is no point in looking at the past. Let’s look only to the future.” Yet past falls into the present, and that adumbrates the future. In the age of atrocity, an intrinsic, natural, and essential covenant of human relating was betrayed and shattered. As a consequence, so many unsettled ghosts linger. They lurk. They haunt. They are everywhere waiting for acknowledgment, to be appeased, to have their unlived lives and destinies accounted for by those who have benefitted from their extermination. There are places you go to where, as a human, you shudder. You feel the uncanniness. You tell yourself, something terrible happened here.
Image: You’ve said that to name these ghosts is one way to begin their exorcism.
YAO: I should be kinder to ghosts! To name the ghosts is one way for us all to enter into a gateway of peace. As a human race, we need to find a way to put to rest what roils in our soils and souls, to meet with and give a name to the intimate losses the earth sustains when humans destroy the covenant of dignity and decency and desecrate life. This psychic disruption not only damaged the intrinsic codes of human hospitality but also served to calcify the human heart. The ghosts and genies of what-could-have-been seethe in so many threshold spaces; there is grief in there, too. These need to be gazed upon.
Image: Your first novel, Dust, follows two families in the aftermath of the formation of modern Kenya, a British settler-immigrant family and a multi-ethnic African family. Their stories intersect as one adult child from each family returns to Kenya in the 2000s. To me, Dust reads like an investigative mystery novel, since the children are on a quest to discover, through the fogs of silence, the secrets of their parents’ wounds.
YAO: Dust emerged from the debris of Kenya’s national illusions of exceptionalism. We touted ourselves as Africa’s “island of peace in a sea of turmoil” and believed our own nonsense. We needed the lie as a reason not to reckon with our own shadowed pasts. A reader once called Dust a dirge. It probably is that, too, for a dirge is also a love song, isn’t it? The book grieves a deluded people and the ghosts they created, which they rebury year after year. In Kenya, every five years—with our election cycle—the pain erupts again in an almost ritualistic bloodletting that only debilitates the soul of the country. In Dust, the two descendants intimately live out the effects of all these buried histories. Rather unfairly, they are the ones left to confront an historical wound wrought by antecedents who were too cowardly to come to terms with their hauntings. Which is to say: whether restless phantoms are dealt with now or in five hundred years’ time, a reckoning is inevitable.
Image: What would you say to those, especially Christians, who say, “The past is over. Let’s just focus on the future”?
YAO: If they were followers of the Way and not merely cultural Christians adorned in the robes of a useful faith system, I would be rather surprised to hear this. If we who follow this road seek to endear ourselves to the deep, true, and full meaning of Jesus Christ, who walked the earth two thousand years ago, and if we stake our faith on the long resonance of Calvary, isn’t this also a past that is alive and vital for the now? Some of us also uphold a belief in the apostolic succession and the communion of saints. We even seek their intercession for present needs. Is the past over then? Don’t we still live out outcomes and build upon the consequences of human choices made eons ago? The past is omnipresent, is it not?
Image: I’ve been rereading Hannah Arendt this year, who, as summarized by Lindqvist, argued that “imperialism necessitated racism as the only possible excuse for its deeds.” But Christianity was also used as an excuse by colonialists who sought to “civilize” Africans. How do you interpret both excuses?
YAO: Both were fig leaves! The first statement is insightful. The classification of others into a hierarchy of proximity to humanness by those who placed themselves as the ideal—it would be hilarious, if the results were not so long-reaching, tragic, and evil. The “civilizing mission” excuse was such a cynical veneer, used by those who were unable to live by the tenets they espoused. You know the Christian exhortation, “by their fruits you will know them”? Whose kingdom were the interlopers spreading? Definitely not the one whose Creator states: Thou shalt not kill; Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods; Thou shalt not bear false witness…
Today you still see the same habits expressed in the charade of “spreading democracy” that is used to invade and destroy nations and peoples, restrain advancement, and steal wealth unchecked. The sociopathic impulse is to secure a benign or transcendent narrative to camouflage dastardly deeds. People arrived from Europe with a raging barbarity and a will to violence. They committed numerous acts of genocide, trafficked human beings, and then proceeded to accuse those whose lives they had invaded, stolen, taken over, of being the barbarians, the savages, the uncivilized ones. It was a shameless act of psychic judo. This intrinsic evil expressed by human beings leads me to often wonder, What happened to the human being? How did the often luminous European culture, for example, lose its grip on the basics of what makes a being human? What was so broken inside their souls, that upon meeting others in all their difference and beauty, their dominant reaction was an urge to destroy, consume, and possess? Not even nature was spared—and we are experiencing the dire consequences of this offence today. Who does this, and why?
Image: After so much evil and violence done in the name of Christ’s kingdom, I’ve known many young people, especially in the United States and Canada, who want nothing to do with Christianity as a result. What would you say to them?
YAO: Tough one, that. I would say this: dare to rescue God as Emmanuel from the dense debris of hubris, and from the weight and stench of whited sepulchers. For it is true, an excess of ghouls have appropriated for themselves the meaning and potency of the revolutionary One who dares to pronounce to humanity, “Love your enemies… Do good to those who hate you.”
Why should young people let themselves be revulsed by a legion who never fully entered into the depths of the subversive, seductive, paradigm-dissolving, drinking-and-hanging-out-with-sinners, beautiful, and heroic man-God? Why wouldn’t young people set out to experience for themselves the grand and compelling epic of a creator God in love, who loses his children and the earth to a defiant and rebellious once-beloved prince of light, and who struggles long and hard to regain the humanity he had loved and lost? So passionate and desperate is the creator in this endeavor that he will enter into humanity to try to court and secure these cherished children, even at the risk of his own murder—and even that does not stop the love. A love stronger than death? Don’t we all write anthems, in one form or another, yearning for this?
Let the next generation of seekers strip themselves of the extraneous stuff. Let them dare to go after transcendental truth on truth’s terms. Let them also visit old worlds that contain the spirit of the faith, not just in the Middle East, but also northern Africa, northern Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, all those rubbed-out places (that colonialists presumed to suggest they were “civilizing”) from which Christianity entered into and transformed Europe and the world. Let them encounter, for example, the Eastern Rites, and hear God referred to as “Allah” in a Christian church, for that is how it has been long, long before an unthinking generation decided to demonize old worlds and their ways of worship. Let the young liberate themselves from the error of thinking that Christianity is a European invention—maybe this is true of Protestantism with its (largely) abandonment of the sacramental imagination. An historical quest for meaning at sites of origins might inspire young people to look again at the call to adventure and transcendent idealism that is the Way.
Image: And what about the young people who are wrestling with the ghosts and asking deeply, what do we do now? What would you say to them?
YAO: Oh, poor things! What a terrible burden they have inherited. And the ones responsible for the disorder, the generations before them, have proven incapable of appeasing the rattling ghosts of history. Yet the work still has to be done. One of the things 2020 showed us, with the reactions to the murder of George Floyd and others, is that the phantoms of the past will always show up and demand an accounting. I wish the young people courage, clarity, and sense. I wish them depths and an appreciation of complexities. I wish them light in the heart to be able to look at the abyss and converse with the restless presences there. I will for them a wisdom that will grant them the courage to finally open up the book of debts, to discern which accounts can be settled and which can only be negotiated through acts of acknowledgement, or apology, or atonement. I wish for them the soul-heroism the previous generations have lacked. I wish for them the knowledge that in the quest for truth and order, goodness and beauty, they do not ever voyage alone.
Image: Part of that digging would lead to an understanding that Africa’s stories go back much farther than colonialism’s plunder-filled, violent era.
YAO: To have to state this, the obvious, reveals the extent to which a corrosive and devastating lie has taken root. Occidental engagement with Africa has been predicated on an absurd assumption—still prevalent—that there was nothing in Africa before Europeans showed up, despite the evidence of archives, museums, culture, and stories. What a loss, not only for the continent, but also for the world. Thankfully, there are multi-institutional and transcultural efforts to recover these stories—stories that carry the residue of all human origins. The age of atrocity visited our African worlds, yes. And yet, although it was virulent, destructive, brutish, and evil, in the scheme of things, its overt manifestation was brief. Its deeper and most insidious roots are still in the soil, but that is not the main African story by a long shot.
The twenty-first century, for example, has reactivated old memories of African trading empires and networks that extended into the Middle East, likely into the Pacific and Asia, too. China’s engagement with our continent, ramped up in the same year The Economist declared us “The Doomed Continent” has produced all sorts of jitters and babblings from the West, who have suddenly also remembered where the records of an older, more equitable precolonial relationship are stored. Anyway, there is a generation of Africans, both on the continent and elsewhere, who are finding themselves in our displaced pasts and writing both the present and the future.
Image: You’re doing that in your second novel, The Dragonfly Sea, which is set on the Kenyan island of Pate. It’s an ancient place of dozens of peoples and languages, and although your novel is a work of fiction, you include many historical references to a clash between cultures and nations.
YAO: Pate Island is a space of timelessness where vestiges of old-world histories linger. The beautiful island plays host to one of the oldest mosques in the world, which was also used for worship by travelers of other creeds. People lived an easy ecumenism that has been so badly damaged in the contemporary world. Pate Island, a gem in the Swahili Seas, has long been a theater for cultural, political, and historical clashes. One real-life incident I include in The Dragonfly Sea: Military invaders in pursuit of “terrorists” showed up on the island and, after brutalizing the local community, abetted by the Kenyan state, decided to “win Pate hearts and minds” by building a well. They did not bother asking the islanders why there were so few wells in the area. They presumed to know better. On the day of the launch, their ambassador took a ceremonial sip of the water and immediately discovered why so many ancient settlements fell into ruin: the water is brackish and unsuitable for human consumption. I will spare the blushes of the heart-and-soul-winners by not naming their country.
Image: I fear this imaginative disconnect often exists in international development. How do you see the lingering effects of the age of atrocity manifesting today?
YAO: There are three letters that define that idea completely: GDP. In those letters, human beings are reduced to the market value of tradeable goods. This alone should have incited humanity to gather and weep! “I trade therefore I am?” Really? How ridiculous.
Image: You’ve called “development aid” a euphemism that undergirds the toxic relationship between worlds and props up the international development industry. Will you expand on this toxicity?
YAO: “Developmental aid” is the age of atrocity rebooted with a secular veneer. Yet another fig leaf! What the West missed most, it seems, after African and Asian independence, was feeling messianic. Enter the pity industry and its secular patron saints—mostly Caucasian celebrity types trotted out to “speak for the voiceless” (who do actually have voices of their own, though their role in this industry is as props). The fact that at least 70 percent of the “aid” does not leave its source country is quickly glossed over. The poverty economy is a lucrative one, and its aberrations and abominations have not been properly scrutinized.
Image: You’ve called for a “forensic accounting of history.” What do you mean by that?
YAO: That was during a discussion in the virtual keynote about what other kinds of professionals needed to enter the spaces of history studies. I suggested forensic auditors and accountants steeped in historical logic and knowledge. If Africa were to conduct an audit of all the corporations, museums, and nations that have “done business” with it over the past four hundred years and demand that outstanding debts (not reparation) be settled, the topic of “aid” would evaporate overnight. Coffee, diamonds, cocoa, ivory, humans: there are accounts outstanding. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden, Belgium are renowned “producers” of goods they have neither grown nor mined, the value of which exceeds the pittance that is returned as philanthropy. Let’s be fair. Let’s settle our long outstanding accounts.
Image: How does this differ from reparations?
YAO: Reparations would be the outcome of an examined conscience that seeks to atone for an acknowledged wrong. It is a gesture to demonstrate an intent to repair a wound and restore broken human relations. My proposal is pure business. It’s about settling a debt.
Image: If we were to apply this historical forensic accounting to a specific commodity today—say, coffee—what would that look like?
YAO: It might begin with a listing of coffee trading companies and auctions. A forensic examination of accounts. Also, a reclamation and re-storying of coffee’s origins, culture, and use. A restoration of coffee’s original African lexis. A scientific investigation of stolen seedlings and germplasm. Look, we have precedents that we can turn to. For example, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program and the Arts Looting Investigation Units established to retrieve cultural property stolen during World War II. In December 1998, a conference set out guidelines for returning Nazi-looted art. Eleven non-binding principles were adopted, one of which was to impose a moral commitment on countries “to identify and publicize stolen works so the original owners can claim them.” I suggest a similar treatment of the stolen African patrimonies that others are drawing benefits from.
Image: How might we envision coffee being traded differently today?
YAO: I’m a supporter of the patrimonialization of coffee, like what the French did with Champagne, because it acknowledges that the refinement of the product has been the work of cultures that turned it into this exquisite artifact. Very few of us recognize what it took for that cup of coffee to get to our tables. We settle on the contemporary stereotype of the Black or brown “peasant farmer” and lose the sense of a very old, very complex African patrimony.
In my next book, I’m indulging my obsession with African coffee by exploring its other worlds through a story titled “The Coffee Mistress.” I suspect it will be a noirish love story. Or not. Who knows.
Image: You taught me that coffee was a forest spirit.
YAO: As I learned from those who nurtured coffee and sent it out into the world, it primarily served a sacramental purpose, something that got lost in its long history of appropriation, commercialization, and commoditization. From its origin as trees in the montane forests, it enters the lives of its cultivators as a therapeutic artifact that is also accorded the privileges of a human-sustaining being, whose destiny is sacrifice. In cultures where coffee is known, you don’t drink coffee, you slaughter coffee. Speaking of losses, the most outrageous thing I was ever told in New York was, “Yes, Africans had coffee, but they didn’t know what to do with it!” My mother’s training in good manners was sorely tested that day.
Image: You seem to have a sacramental imagination. Where did that come from?
YAO: Do I? I know that I want to, but I am in a constant process of learning how. I have always found that for me, the veil between worlds feels rather thin. I am most myself in threshold places. I am a returned, practicing Catholic, and a Tolkienite. My ancestry and cultural origin permit an engagement with in-betweeness, of seeing pieces of the world through half-closed eyes. I was abetted from childhood by an inquisitive mind and used my imagination to generate answers that sometimes turned into reality.
Image: Tell us about your early education.
YAO: I grew up in a large Catholic family. I went to Loreto Convent Valley Road School in Nairobi, where I was formed by the most imaginative, daring, and adventurous of women, these Irish nuns who wrote tremendous dreams in the lives of the girls who passed through their hands. They were powerful women adhering to the charism proposed by Mary Ward, the Loreto founder, who was a woman before her time.
I didn’t realize the extent to which the Loreto nuns prepared us for and gave us a depth of world, a complex world, of diversity, of pluralisms, and how they informed our seeing. I assumed that what they proposed of the world was that. But when I did step out into the world, oh my shock! To find a much smaller, thinner, meaner, and pettier place than that which had been given to me to treasure and take care of.
That precipitated a personal crisis. Well, then, what is true? I wondered. I entered the world and found, instead, bewilderment. What is this thing? What is this world? I asked. It was a time when I was coming into my own as a woman, as a Kenyan and African. I traveled. I also encountered, for the first time, people who would judge me by my looks and my passport details, and who dealt with their own confusion that I did not conform to their African stereotype by getting irritated: How can you swim/ride horses/cite Tolkien? You’re small. Oh, you are a hybrid. You can’t do this or that…. It was my first encounter with the consequences of the monstrosity of human classifications that has become a belief, a matter of faith for certain people.
All this uncertainty led me to a gradual questioning, and then a rejection, of the faith system I had believed was sacrosanct. I floundered, lost my way. Took some of my questions to literature. I trusted books. Bless mother and my late father, who was a scientist. He gave me a love for the etymology of words, the ontology of ideas, the etiology of cultural and even scientific dictates.
Image: You’ve described yourself to me as plural. What does this mean?
YAO: “Plural” not as a divided self, but more as many streams flowing together. I am Kenyan, and Kenya is a space that contains all the world and all its ways. We learn early to navigate the many versions of ourselves. In Nairobi, one grows up with multiple languages, multiple creeds close by: in one hour you might hear the bells of a Hindu temple and a Buddhist shrine, the adhan from the mosque, and the tolling angelus of the Catholic church, and life goes on.
Image: How did this inform your spiritual journey?
YAO: In my long quest for a spiritual shelter, I have been a bit of a soul tourist. I’ve traversed many visionscapes. I paused ever so briefly in atheism. It was exhilarating for a while, just until the eternal riddle of death penetrated my senses and drove me to despair. Nihilism did not suit me; I felt so terribly lonely and self-destructive. During a quick affair with the New Age (“I bless the power of the universe”), I scattered scents and oils on everyone and everything while radiating uncanny positivity and wished away the reality of wounds and evil. Hare Krishna, Hatha yoga, Ananda Marga. One day, I tumbled into Sufism through the literature of Hazrat Inayat Khan. Later the insights of the poets Ra’abia, Rumi, and Hafiz offered rods to redirect my discontents. They remain important to me.
Image: Was there a moment that you look to as emblematic of this turn and return?
YAO: I was in Cape Town, South Africa, feeling empty, soul-weary, and alone, as much as I was also experiencing a creative burgeoning. Still, I felt out of place on the earth. One day, walking back to my room, I took a detour and happened upon a church. Struck by an overwhelming longing for home, I found my way in. I sat at the back in that cocooning space, for there was a service going on. It took some time for me to realize that it was a requiem mass. I don’t know who it was for, but something eased inside me, and my tears—they had been stuck for a long time—started to fall. There was sadness, but in that liturgy, as if for the first time, I heard the cries of humanity reaching beyond time and space to God, acknowledging imperfection, but pleading for transcendent mercy on a man. It broke my heart in good ways.
I still don’t understand why this encounter mattered so much to me. I wonder now if it was because I had inadvertently entered a site where that which I feared the most—death—had been integrated into a conversation with eternity; death did not have the last word. My stumbling in was an unexpected gift. I wept as if I were that stranger’s relative; and maybe in a sense I am. I had climbed so many odd mountains—corporate, educational, relational—and touched summits and found emptiness, emptiness, emptiness! Like a constant ashen taste in the mouth. By the time I went to that requiem, something had happened. Later I enrolled to work in a hospice as a caregiver, partly to meet that which I feared.
After the requiem experience, I wrote in my diary, What do I seek? I wrote a whole list: I need a God who inhabits my humanity. I need a God who wails, who dances. I need a God who gets down and dirty. A wild, wild uncontainable God. I had a whole page, an anthem! I need a God who walks in the darkness but also who decides to gobble it up and fills the crevices with startling light! This whole litany was such a visceral cry of the soul. Who knew that this would be a summoning?
Image: And this was when the Irish poet John O’Donohue came to Cape Town?
YAO: Yes! There was a New Age thing going on, some conference in one of the halls of the University of Cape Town, and John O’Donohue was one of the scheduled speakers. At the time, few knew of him. His book Anam Cara was yet to be released. Who knows why I chose his session. I was late, and he had already started to speak. In a booming Irish brogue he declared, “I’m introducing you to a wild God, a fierce one who dances!” It was as if someone had transported my secret cri de couer and planted it in this stranger’s song. My knees gave way. He was still a Catholic priest at that time, and after his talk, I heard there was a retreat. Of course I enrolled. The next day happened to be Easter, and John O’Donohue held a pre-dawn mass, under a tree, waiting for the light.
Yes! my soul, sang. Here it is! This is the doorway.
And that was the beginning. May John O’Donohue rest in a delicious peace. He delivered both direction and nutrition that met my deep spiritual famishment. Afterward, it was just a matter of time. I didn’t realize at that time that an eternal immensity interested in littleness had interposed its presence between me and the questions of my being. On my knees, one day, I succumbed. For better or worse. That’s what happened to me on my way to somewhere else.
Image: Your novel The Dragonfly Sea engages with so many mysteries and paradoxes; it’s a deep story, it’s an old story, and the sea is a character in the novel. Do you also see the sea as sacramental?
YAO: Absolutely. The sea has had a sacramental quality for me ever since our first encounter, when I was six or seven, and my parents took me to Mombasa. My first sense of the sea was that briny scent, the waves teal and tinged with white froth, and they hurled themselves into this pristine white sand. As far as a child can have a transcendent experience, this was it. There was a falling away and then this abrupt expansion within me. A possessiveness too: mine! But I’d never seen anything more splendid, more beautiful, more everything, in my entire little existence. The presence. Everything my heart needed appeared in that moment, and then receded! I gave my heart over to the ocean in that moment. Since then, there’s not a single day that I do not miss the sea. Although a city-dweller, I remain sea-haunted. I am a much better human being when I am near the sea. Everything is there, not just the invisible graces, but the very overt grace of compelling presence. There is an eternal mystery to the sea—and it writes its own story, tells its own life. It’s an incarnational presence. I sense that it also belongs to something Other: tremendous, fearsome, glorious, dangerous, wild, and beautiful. I pray better when I’m near the sea. Not with words though.
Image: When I read a book, I want to go on a journey. Is that the sense you want your readers to feel?
YAO: The quality of journeying is what I love in books I adore. I love entering into other worlds in a new yet familiar language, meeting other kinds of beings, battling contradictions with them, seeing new kinds of skies and waters, everything that feels vaguely familiar yet is fresh. The Dragonfly Sea is also an ode to journeys. I hope its readers delight in its sights, sounds, and spaces.
Image: Its main character, Ayanna, is certainly on a journey, and she often turns to books when she’s lonely or wants to escape. In particular, she often turns to The Book of Chameleons by Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa. What is it about this novel that takes you, and Ayanna, to another world?
YAO: Right from the book’s first line, when we encounter the gecko, Eulalio, an incarnation of Borges as witness and narrator, we meet also with the mischief of a gifted writer playing with his readers. We experience in a beautiful way the book’s Africaneity. Moreover, The Book of Chameleons is drenched with the scent of my people and inklings of their universal soul. The language is sublime! Ventura, our protagonist, is a sweetheart. I have not even talked of the other characters yet. It is adorable in all the ways of story.
Image: How does a five-hundred-page book like The Dragonfly Sea begin for you?
YAO: With sound. Susurrations. And then a feature of the earth, the landscape. In this case, water. The long cave of the imagination—holy ground!—supplies the rest. The writer becomes a miner, an archaeologist, a tomb raider and spelunker, an eavesdropper in pursuit of a vein of gold. The writer follows that little vein.
A little girl shows up in the imagination, peering through a mangrove thicket. I follow her into the water. What does she see? How does she feel? But I would have been crisscrossing the landscapes of her belonging first. History is a part of my palette. I pick up others who offer answers to my questions and weave them into the tale: the painter Zao Wou-Ki, Admiral Zheng He. But my main job is as amanuensis, pursuing the girl in the mangroves, asking, Who are the people around her? What are they saying? What does she want?
Image: How did you begin as a writer? As a girl, or did that call come later?
YAO: As a little girl. I was an extremely shy child who wanted so badly to be invisible. Books were my most reliable friends. I was an average student in general but very good at English language, literature, and composition, which was both my torment and secret joy. I might get five gold stars and have my work pinned up on the wall, but that would draw attention to me, which was agony. It never occurred to me that I could become a writer. When I was in form 2, Sister Maureen O’Connor summoned me to remain after class. I was sure that I was in trouble. I went to her trembling, but all she said was, “I shall tutor you. I will give you extra training in English grammar and literature.” I was the only one she picked out of the class. Those Wednesday afternoons with her were so very special. I owe her so much. Like Binyavanga Wainaina later on, she recognized something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I tried to find her after writing Dust, to thank her, but she had already left Kenya. Later I heard that she had died. I will one day go to her grave with the books I have written and read excerpts to her spirit in gratitude. I stand on so many shoulders.
It took a long, long, long time to realize that writing was my calling. I had to live hard a little, before giving in to this path.
Image: Binyavanga Wainaina, such a vibrant Kenyan writer, later became your “truth-teller” and one of your most important influences. Would you say more about him?
YAO: Binyavanga was my brother, my friend, my mentor. He was my barometer, my gauge. He guided me in the ways of story. He taught me to “get the hell out of the way of the story.” He could see the story that I wanted to tell before it made itself clear to me. He was my cheerleader as well as a ruthless first reader: oh, he could cause all my literary silliness to crumble. He bullied me into writing. He believed in me so hard. I miss him so.
Image: Before we end, what do you think of the rhetoric of the feminism that comes out of the global North today? It often seems to me that it overlooks that there is more than one way of being a woman.
YAO: You’ve said it well. It’s the same hubris to which I referred earlier. It imposes itself on epistemologies and demands attention, offering itself as the only way of thinking and being. This is part of what thinker Santiago Castro-Gómez has called the “hubris of point zero.’’ Not just feminism, but also other evolving ways of being in and with the world. There is a demeaning and even violent assumption that everyone needs to think in one particular way, and if they don’t they are wrong, savage, barbaric—all those words that were used to justify the alienation and extermination of people. Listen: the contents, discontents, and complexities of woman-being in our many worlds, the ways of “feminisms,” are numerous. The world is pluriversal. It is multipolar. And isn’t that also its beauty? This prismic quality that sometimes befuddles us. It’s not a single strike of light, and neither is feminism. Feminism is a colorful terrain.
Image: Like the flame trees of Kenya, your totem tree.
YAO: I used to tell my mother that I was a flamboyant tree. Speaking of wild, wonderful, and patient women. Mummy nurtured a flame tree in our family garden, from when it was a single, weak twig. It is a grand old lady now with big branches and giant, fiery flowers. When I told her that, she nodded sagely, confident that time would wean me of such lunacy (I would call it quirkiness). I think she is still waiting.
Erika Koss is a research associate at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi. She is also a PhD candidate at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and an authorized trainer for the Specialty Coffee Association. @AWorldinYourCup