The Jalada Conversations No 2: Yvonne Owuor

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Interviewed by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma



25/8/2015


Welcome to the Jalada Conversations, these are conversations about literature and writing, and we talk to some of the continent’s most exciting and respected writers. Today I shall be talking, over Google Chat, about writing and language with Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Yvonne’s short story Weight of Whispers won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing. Weight of Whispers is a magnetic, poetic narration of the lives of a royal family from an unnamed Francophone Country in exile in Nairobi, Kenya. Yvonne has served as the Executive Director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival; her writing has appeared in numerous publications including Kwani and McSweeney’s, and her story The Knife Grinder’s Tale was made into a short film of the same title, released in 2007. Her epic, critically acclaimed novel, Dust, at once poetic and visceral, was shortlisted for the prestigious 2015 Folio Prize.

Yvonne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about writing and language, it is such a great honour to be speaking with you.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

It’s such a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me today.

INTERVIEWER:

Your novel, Dust, is a book of such tender and at once searing portraits of love and family and secrets, it begins with a chase down Nairobi’s streets, and the death of Odidi, and it traces, you know, the roots of his death and his life and the impact it has on his loved ones. And this feels like a motif for the epic story of Kenya post-independence that is chronicled in the book. What makes it particularly stunning is the language that carries and propels this story; one gets a sense that you have invented a ‘new’ language, as it were, it’s English but with very different rhythms and fresh stylistic preoccupations. How did you conceive of the language for Dust?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

In a way, the language for Dust conceived itself, Novuyo, and my job, you do understand, writing Dust was quite a process, and part of the process of learning how to write Dust was learning how to get out of the way of the story, and learning to hear the story in its own voice. And the voice it used was the voice of the country, the voice of Kenya. If you’ve ever been to Kenya, one of the things you hear is the sheer variety of cadences, the rhythms, the pace of our Englishes, our Kiswahili. So, uhm, I tried to, I don’t know if I tried as much as I listened, to the particular cadences that the story invited me to hear.

INTERVIEWER:

The language is painterly, and then we have, you know, Ajany is a painter, Hugh Bolton is a painter, and Kenya seems to seep into both of them. You say it’s the voice of Kenya, and one feels like Kenya is seeping into the characters, it’s like it’s painting itself, and there’s a particular passage where you write: Bloody Kenya. Bloody. Not Blasphemy. Bloody. Blood had seemed to leak from too many holes there. A cut bled. Sunset bled. Red mud roads bled. These various Englishes, are they a direct translation of various languages in Kenya, or do you draw from other languages within Kenya?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Both, actually. Some are direct translations. Others are the imagined way that a language might sound if it was English, I hope that makes sense. So, yeah, I guess I also experiment with the vessel of language. I treat language as both a palette and also a container. And I think there’s this subversive self that wants to know, what would Luo sound like if it was English? So, there is that.

INTERVIEWER:

Yeah, I think one of the most amazing things about Dust is not just the English and the way it sounds and the rhythms but, there is this sort of judicious, over-arching narrative voice that seems to absorb and is absorbed by the landscape and the characters. The English in your book, I mean for instance, it imbues Akai-ma, Ajany’s mother who is rural-born, with the same complexity and sophistication that it gives Ajany, for example, who is metropolitan. You know, at one point the narrative refers to Akai-ma’s English, it says that her English is pockmarked and hacked into low-droned present-tense portions into which any number of languages were inserted. But there is never a sort of caricature of her ruralness. How is the language able to remain judicious, you know, it has these clashing realities of its characters, but it seems to evoke each equally with the same level of, you know, complexity.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Wow, Novuyo, I think this is one of those moments when my only confession is, I don’t know! I have learned from you, I didn’t know that, I’m hearing it and saying, yes, of course, now I see it, I see what you mean! (laughter) I can’t fake any reaction about that! Thank you for letting me know. (laughter)

INTERVIEWER:

(laughter) That was one of, I think the most beautiful things about reading the novel, the way it moves in between different realities with the same level of sophistication. And the novel evokes Kenya, both on a micro and macro level. You have juxtaposed stories from different facets of Kenya, Odidi and his life in Nairobi, his sister Ajany and her time in Brazil, Nyipir, their father and his life during and after the war, his wife Akai-ma who the language is barely able to contain, you know, what with her fierce stature, the Englishman Isaiah Bolton and his family’s link to Kenya, Galugalu who minds the livestock at their rural home Wuoth Ogik … Can you talk about the process of juggling and fusing these multi-narratives into the text? Because they are fused into one another. Did you write each individually and then go back sew them back together, or were you writing all of them as you went along?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

I wrote all of them as I went along. That’s one. But to step back a little, the book in its current manifestation took a long, long time to emerge, but before that, and I keep going back to the idea of getting out of the way of the characters so that the story can tell you what it is that it wants. And for me it was such an epiphany. It was almost playing tag, looking at the story and hearing and eavesdropping, very much playing the role of eavesdropper, and then secretary, you know, recording that which I heard, and meeting the characters. Some of them really really surprised me,  the way they showed up, because my imagination of them, certainly the character of Isaiah, I have no idea how he turned into who he became, because I really didn’t have a role for him in my first kind of conceptualisation of his particular  story. So, yeah. And then they emerge and they all show up.

And I must admit to you, there are those of you who, and you lead the pack very much, Novuyo, those who get and know and even teach me about the story, but there are those who cannot bear the density of the characters. (laughter)

INTERVIEWER:

(laughter) Such a loss on their part. I can predict, Dust is going to be one of our classics. It evokes that type of beauty.

And Nyipir, Odidi’s father, he writes that After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili, and Silence. There was also memory. How has each of these languages shaped the space that is Kenya?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Well, English, because for fifty years of Kenya’s life and even in its own definition, that was the language through which it was imagined, and then that was inherited by the post-colonial government which then inserted Kiswahili as a national language, a language that wove the different tapestries and the thing that we could say, at least we have an African language that holds us. Because, Swahili itself is a cosmopolitan and, you know, a multi-leveled language, so it made absolute sense.

But then come the, the, if you want, the loss of the dream, the loss of the imagined Kenya, particularly I think, even in conversations, the whole series of events, you know, the assassinations that took place, of the likes of Pio Gama Pinto, culminating in the murder of Tom Mboya, who, in so many ways, and I think of him now with Obama in the country, because somebody said that with the death of Tom Mboya, the One Kenya project came to an end. But the loss of that must have been so grievous to the psyche of the nation that the silence around that death has sustained itself to this particular day. It’s very much a, there’s a flinching that occurs, the kind of, a retraction of the chest that happens when the name Tom Mboya is mentioned up to this point. So the silences are very present. And last year, particularly, it seemed as though we were heading that way, we were heading back to silence. The caution, the things that we no longer tell one another, we have to kind of establish, who are you first, before you open your mouth.

But then, the idea of memory is that, is the notion very much that there is something within the human being and there is something also within the community, and I use that in a very broad sense, that does not forget. There is a story from my culture I heard that the purpose of the stones is to record the memories of human lives. So, nothing can ever be forgotten. It looks stale and silent, but everything is recorded, right. So, even if we try to bury our ghosts, even if we hope silence will erase the horror of what it is as a society we have done, and have done to others, the fact of memory is so persistent, it does not go away.

INTERVIEWER:

As you were talking, I could see parallels between Kenya and Zimbabwe, interestingly. It’s a lamentation about Kenya, but it’s so broad, and, both on the human and the national levels, it applies to so many communities and societies the world over.

In 2010, you participated in the Chinua Achebe Center’s ‘Pilgrimages’ project and you travelled to Kinshasa, and you wrote a lovely essay about your trip that was published in The African Cities Reader series, titled Kin la Belle. In it you write that Lingala, like bitterness in coffee, is but one of four essences that make up the fullness of Kinshasa. There are four national languages here. The other three are Kituba, Tshiluba and Kiswahili… Lingala carried a pain-filled past. It carries many wounds. This is interesting, the interaction between language and wounds. How do you think one can navigate a language that carries wounds?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

I think with awareness, with consciousness. And I think, oh, with almost, with deliberation. I do not think, you know, Lingala coming on the back of soldiers who came to destroy and to wound and, and, you know, and commit, you know, basically agents of death, yet it has become this language, this exquisite language of beauty and song. I think, in a way maybe there is the answer: how do you navigate a language that carries wounds? By singing it. By singing it.

INTERVIEWER:

By singing it… Yeah, and music is a theme in Kin La Belle. It starts with Mbote Mbote! (laughter). There’s this  like, musical conversation that was amazing. And then, you go on to write, this is interesting, so you wrote, there are four national languages, and then you go on to write, the fifth essence, French, though cherished, applied and used everywhere, is regarded as a bit of a pedophilic uncle who must be endured because he is family and is also useful. (laughter) And of course, that had me drawing parallels with the English language. What are your views regarding English, you know, as a colonial language?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Ah…you know, maybe this, this may not be the right forum to confess to my anglophilia (laughter) –

INTERVIEWER:

(laughter) I’m an anglophile myself –

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

– but only because of the books, like Tolkien, oh my, I mean, that, that Lord of The Rings, that was (laughter) –

INTERVIEWER:

(laughter) But I mean, you wield the English language with such command, seriously, the English in Dust is its own English, it owns itself, it owns the space it talks about, it’s a confident English that brings new realities and sensibilities.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Thank you for saying that, Novuyo, I love the language, it’s the language through which I navigate the world most confidently. I dream in English, for example, but I own it, and I don’t want it to be limited to just England, because it’s been here, whether we like it or not as a country, it is the language that framed the vision and the idea of contemporary Kenya. And I was born into it, this was the landscape, both, you know, the physical and metaphorical landscape into which I was born, and that to which I’m born I claim with no apologies whatsoever.

INTERVIEWER:

Now, in Weight of Whispers, the language’s poetic cadences are rooted in the main character’s upper class origins; our main character who narrates the story, Boniface Kuseremane, is the exiled prince of a Francophone Country. And there’s an interesting interaction between languages there, because although it’s written in English, one gets a sense that it’s sort of a translation of Boniface’s French, you know, the family speaks hesitant English in Nairobi, and this manifests itself at times in the dialogue. How did you conceive of this interaction between the two languages?… It’s like a Francophone English, you know, it’s got some rhythm.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

The character told me, Novuyo, the character told me! (laughter) But to be honest, I’ve got friends, I’ve got people. I hear the voices of friends, of people I know. I eavesdrop a lot into conversations in order to draw the rhythm, the sense, the spirit of the language. So, in many ways, Boniface’s language and cadence and way was framed very much by the way certain friends of mine who are francophone speak.

INTERVIEWER:

Awesome, the ownership of both the French and the English is quite impressive. After reading your book and having read other Kenyan authors, I wanted to learn Kiswahili, because I’m trying to understand how the English has this very, you know, poetic and very distinct, sort of, rhythm to it. Kenyan writing, it’s all different and yet it has a very distinct personality, the English has a distinct personality.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

I’d love to hear that. It’s not that…I guess because you’re in it, you don’t see it. But, yeah, I’d love to hear your take on that. That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of that.

INTERVIEWER:

How many languages did you grow up speaking?

YVONNE ADHIAMOBO OWUOR:

Three, I’m a typical Kenyan, we grow up with three: English, Kiswahili and then our home language was Luo. But then of course you also, as a Kenyan you grow up hearing, I don’t think we pay enough attention to the languages that we hear; you grow up hearing, at least, comfortably, and I’m going to use the low estimate, you grow up probably hearing at least seven different languages around you. It’s probably more in certain places.

INTERVIEWER:

So, you hear them, do you understand some of these languages?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

You might pick up certain things. So, my nanny was a Luhya, and you hear the vernacular radio stations, and apart from that, on the street you hear Gikuyu, you hear Luhya, you can hear Gujarati as well. My mother used to teach in an Asian school, so we grew up with Indian music and Gujarati and stuff (laughter) And you grow up thinking it’s absolutely normal, you think everyone in the world grows up like this.

INTERVIEWER:

And everyone looking in is fascinated! (laughter) Is there literature in local languages in Kenya?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Not enough. I don’t know if I consider Kiswahili a local language, but for the purposes of this discussion, if I were to say yes, Kiswahili is one of the local languages, it’s very much a lingua franca. It’s huge, there are massive amounts of literature in Kiswahili. Not enough in the other, say, last count, about sixty four ethnic communities here, apart from the Bible and maybe hymn books.

INTERVIEWER:

Many languages on the continent, in Southern Africa for example, have an oral tradition, so stories are passed on that way. Do you think local languages have a space in literature, in the sphere of writing? Would it be viable? Is that culture there outside of the English language or the bigger languages like Kiswahili?

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

I think it has a space, I just cannot define it. I’m afraid that sometimes, you know, some of the stuff that can be put out can probably be put out as a form of protest art or a kind of, you know, objet d’art, and you will only engage with it visually or you’ll hear it but you won’t necessarily feel it or understand it, but it’s there. But I don’t know, the world is in such wonderful flux, anything is possible.

INTERVIEWER:

Yvonne, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I look forward to your next literally project. It’s been such an honour talking to you.

YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR:

Oh, Novuyo, such a pleasure, thank you so much, and thank you for your work, as well, everything that you do.

INTERVIEWER:

Thank you.


Novuyo Rosa Tshuma grew up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and has lived in South Africa and the USA. Her collection, Shadows (June 2013), was published to critical acclaim in South Africa by Kwela and was awarded the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize for the best literary work in English, as well as long listed for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for African Literature. She earned her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a recipient of the Maytag and Teaching-Writing Fellowships, as well as a Rydson Award for Excellence in Fiction Writing. Novuyo is currently an Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, where she is finishing work on her novel. She is the Deputy Editor of Jalada. Visit her online at http://novuyotshuma.com.