By December 2007, Yvonne Owuor had spent two years writing her debut novel, Dust. But the chilling reality of politics prevented her from completing the story.
During this period, 1,200 people died, and 500,000 fled their homes, in a violent upheaval that followed the national elections in Kenya.
By February 2008 former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in Nairobi to negotiate a peace deal, which was eventually reached in the form of a power-sharing government.
Six years later, Owuor is living in Brisbane, Australia, finally releasing a novel she initially imagined would come to fruition earlier.
“I had started the book in 2005,” she explains. “At the time I thought if Kenya did not address the ghosts, the unspoken issues, and the silences, we were going to explode as a country. When that explosion actually happened in 2007/08, I was in the middle of the book, and so it changed completely.”
Coincidentally, the publication of Dust comes about as Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, awaits his trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He is charged with crimes against humanity for the violence just mentioned. Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, is on trial at the ICC on the same charge.
“To think that Kenya has made those who were the figureheads of that violent period the leaders of our nation says a lot about a country that does not see the chaos of its own people,” says Owuor unapologetically.
In the opening pages of Dust we read, in gruesome detail, how Odidi Oganda, the hero of this novel, is shot dead on the streets of Nairobi. As arrangements are made for his burial, Odidi’s sister, Ajany, tries to understand why, and how, her brother was murdered.
Another plotline runs parallel to this. A man called Isaiah Bolton arrives from Britain, looking for his father, Hugh, a former employee in the Colonial Service. Hugh’s mythological past fails to correlate with the real history that emerges, as Isaiah uncovers the truth through a series of clues and secrets.
Memory and nationalism are two subjects that are dissected and analysed in great detail, as 60 years of Kenyan history are unearthed.
Two interesting questions emerge: what exactly is a nation? And, are truth and justice achievable concepts in the shared community that a flag supposedly represents? So, has Owuor found an answer to that question, in the decade or so she has spent thinking about this subject? “Well, I often wonder if belonging to a nation has a lot more to do with a feeling of the place and its people? I really think nations are the desperate human attempt to become one. But this idea is a struggle: how do you overcome cultural differences in order to evolve into a commonality?”
Owuor’s novel, in many ways, attempts to clinically define the concept of a nation. It also tries to understand what makes a family function, blossom, or disintegrate. Families and nations are more closely linked than people realise, Owuor suggests.
“The dysfunctional family that comes across in this novel is a kind of microcosm of the Kenyan family. It’s a very Kenyan thing not to speak about family dysfunction.
“While writing this book I was also thinking about that idea of what happens in the family stays in the family. But we know these issues don’t stay buried. I do think about the family a lot: because it is the primary unit of human life. And the distorted values that amplify things within human life, actually come from things that are not resolved within the family space.”
Owuor speaks about the memories a country holds of itself: its traumas, criminal acts, assassinations, and massacres. Of which there are plenty in her native country, she says.
“In Kenya we are particularly good at repressing memories. I am aware of the fact that memories are ghosts that do not rest easy at all,” she says.
Readers who have no previous knowledge of Kenya’s past may find some of the overtly political passages in this book a little hard to follow, or even confusing at times.
Owuor randomly drops the narrative into key moments in Kenyan history: such as the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule in the 1950s, or the shocking assassination of the then Minister for Economic and Planning Development, Tom Mboya, in July 1969.
Owuor maintains that her interest lies in exploring a universal concept of identity, from a humanistic perspective, rather than documenting the evolution of Kenyan politics through a post-colonial thesis, disguising it then as a novel. She is not that kind of writer, she insists.
“I hope the book shows that the idea of belonging is far more complex than words like colonised or coloniser. The brutality of colonial history is something that has been perpetuated and sustained through successive Kenyan governments. You really can experience colonisation within your own people.
“Whether we like it or not, the idea of Kenya emerged from the vision of men who happened to be British. This is something that Kenyan people now try to pretend did not exist. But Kenya is something that I was born into. It’s a story and a narrative that we have inherited and cannot deny. Nor can you isolate one group of people and say they are all bad. We are all an immigrant nation. At one point, one culture colonises another.”
Families, nations, and political parties, all seem like unworkable entities for the characters we meet in this book. Landscape, on the other hand, provides a kind of utopian escape route, or a mythical highway, where the characters can find solace and comfort by simply immersing themselves in the beauty that the natural world provides.
It’s worth quoting a brief passage to show Owuor uses these poetic descriptions of the natural world, to create a rare moment of placidity in the text: “The plane flies through the layers of time, reveals the hollowed brown rock below from which Ajany and Odidi would survey the rustling march of desert locusts, dry golden-brown pastures where livestock browsed and they would run after homemade kites, eat cactus berries, and curse one of the land’s visiting winds, which ripped the kites to shreds.”
Owuor confesses that landscape is something she is very passionate about, calling it her “weak point in life”.
“Of course that comes from growing up in Kenya,” she says. “A lot of people are completely compelled and seduced by Kenya, but they cannot say why. I think it may be the arrangement of the features on the land and the sky in this country. We move as human beings through landscape. It provides us with a rhythm of being: for example, even the simple idea of sunrise, into midday, and then sunset, it’s something that fascinates me.”
It’s perhaps a slight exaggeration to compare Owuor’s analysis of her native Kenya to Joyce’s treatment of Ireland. But the similarities are there: a writer in exile, viewing a country’s follies as an outsider, without the innate tribal and local prejudices one feels when they enter back inside its borders.
Owuor name-drops two legendary African writers, Wole Soyinka, and Grace Ogot, as her biggest literary influences. But she also draws from figures with no literary background: people like her late grandmother, or the Zanzibar boatmen, as they prepare for a day’s work on the shore. She is currently thousands of miles from her hometown, but truth often emerges from those who scribble away in exile.
So anytime Owuor returns to Kenya, she does so with a sense of purpose.
“Sometimes I stand on a corner of a Nairobi street and just listen to people talking. The stories they tell are woven into life. Nobody tends to look at these as a form of literature. But really, it’s a place that is full of stories if you listen closely enough.”