Yvonne Owuor’s Taijito Tango

... Ouwuor's writing in this book observes the fundamental tao of Taijito, fluidity as of the sea, movement as of the dragonfly...

Tade IPADEOLA (poetry, translation, prose; Nigeria) received the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature for his poetry collection The Sahara Testaments, which has been translated into four languages; in 2009 he won the Delphic Laurel for his poem “Songbird.” A Bellagio Rockefeller Fellow and a juror for the Nigeria Prize for Literature, he also translates poetry into Yoruba. 

Owuor’s Taijitu Tango

A review of Yvonne Owuor's The Dragonfly Sea, Knopf, 2019, p.489

“The world is a withered tree, rest not your weight upon it.”
- Traditional Kiswahili

  The yin of Africa and the yang of Asia, or, were they to trade places, the yin of Asia and the yang of Africa find lavish and lyrical treatment in Yvonne Owuor’s latest offering, The Dragonfly Sea. Whereas prior efforts by African writers exploring this theme did so mainly through the genre of science fiction, or kept China at the margins, or related to China through the Chinese diaspora in the West, Owuor’s novel, decidedly literary, centers China in plot, even if only peripherally in character and time. Owuor does more, taking her exploration of Asia to its virtual limits, in this case, the turnstile that is Turkey.
  Mapping genealogies over territories and temperaments in contemporary African fiction began sometime in the middle of the 20th century but  gained traction at the end of the 20th century. Ayi Kwei Armah, Andre Brink and even Ali Mazrui, all male and all ideologically committed in disparate ways, were visible figures in this enterprise. Through Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea however, it appears to have come into its own as a literary preoccupation of contemporary African writers. The specificity of Owuor’s quest – China--makes her writing more akin to the efforts of Mayra Montero and Daína Chaviano, both Cuban and both women, who also share an interest in Chinese travel and infusion into Cuba.
  Since making her entry on the continental stage in 2003 with  "Weight of Whispers," her Caine Prize-winning story, Yvonne Owuor has gone on to stand on the world stage with Dust, her debut novel, and now The Dragonfly Sea. We are introduced to Ayaana and her world on Kenya’s Pate island. She is a child in her littoral world of subsistence fishing, divers, fishermen, traders, beauticians, and itinerant handymen--a near idyllic place with its small dramas and colorful personalities until the twin terrorist attacks on U.S embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998. The attacks turn Pate’s once tranquil ambience into a place where terrorists, informants, and law enforcement conduct their hide and seek with severe consequences for the natives. Ayaana’s mother Munira is a single parent, and remains so until a precocious Ayaana seeks out a father for herself. Muhidin, the man that the young Ayaana chooses as her father was a man old enough to father men who could father children of their own at the time he enters into the picture. He is labelled a rebellious apostate in a world of observant Muslims. Munira and Muhidin maintain a platonic relationship.  Muhidin is Muslim in name only. He takes on the task of educating Ayaana. His salutary influence suffers a rupture, however, when one of his biological sons also appears on the same island, seeking shelter from a manhunt for terrorists, which has already claimed his brothers and their families. With Ziriyab's appearance, an erotic charge symbolizing the approaching turbulence enters into the narrative until it is interrupted, twice, by the great Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and the enforced disappearance of Ziriyab by State forces.
  All the while, Ayaana is growing up into an impossible beauty. She arrests the innocent attention of fellow adolescents, the lustful gaze of seafaring merchants, as well as the improbable search party from China who are in Kenya to find traces of Admiral Zheng He’s nautical adventures into Malindi 600 years ago. The Chinese decide, based on DNA evidence, that Ayaana is actually a descendant of one of the men in Zheng He’s party from six centuries before and therefore a "descendant of China," qualified for scholarship in the PRC.  From that point , things move rather quickly.
  In a telling episode, while in China studying, an Indian colleague emphasizes the Indian Ocean in a proprietorial tone. Ayaana retorted “Ziwa Kuu?” to which her antagonist offers a recalcitrant “Oogle Boogle?. “Ratnakara.” Chimed the Indonesian student. “Ziwa Kuu!” chanted two students from Pakistan. ‘The class slipped into an uproar that did not change Chinese foreign policy. The lecturer, who has watched the disintegration of order in his class in disbelief, his face becoming blotchy, at last screamed, “The Western Ocean! You are in China.”’
  There is clever writing all through The Dragonfly Sea but especially when Owuor tackles conflict. Her deployment of irony in these instances is sometimes so subtle as to pass unnoticed but they do not escape close reading. In another encounter which occurs while Ayaana is in Turkey with Koray, her Turkish ‘boyfriend’, Koray’s mother says to Ayaana:
  “The Chinese, my dear, are very, very tricky. Possessed of terrible hungers, dear, fathomless hungers…”
  Pablo Neruda, trying to express almost the same sentiments about Europe likened European hunger to the tail of a famished comet. There was nothing terrestrial to which he could compare the ravenousness from Europe which had latched on to South America. Only the alien image of a comet’s tail sufficed.
  By the time Ayaana wraps up her studies in China and decides to head back home, she makes a declaration, denying her connection to China even while in Lai Jin’s loving embrace. She could not possibly be Zheng He’s descendant, He himself being a eunuch, she is alienated from the very idea of the modern Silk Road which is the spirit behind her presence in China.
  Lai Jin is the marginal character who is most positively present in Ayaana’s world. He is Chinese but not quite China, he is able to love without destructively possessing the beloved. He is strong enough to withstand the ravages of the rampant mercantilism consuming the land of his fathers. If there were to be a bearable ideal of China, Ayaana --read Africa--could embrace, it would be Lai Jin.
  The Dragonfly Sea reads with the kinesis of a tandem bicycle. A large part of the propulsive force is Owuor’s lyricism but there is a part reserved for the reader. When author and reader are in sync, the novel can be that dream every reader seeks in all literature. For Owuor’s magical narration does not always fold neatly into the political ideas she pursues in the book the way it does when she writes the erotic, for example. The scope of Owuor’s work i here is so vast, spanning centuries and three continents, as to render any expectations of a stable yin and yang unrealistic. Her writing in this book observes the fundamental tao of Taijito, fluidity as of the sea, movement as of the dragonfly. What matters most is that in assaying the wide canvass before her, she kept her nerve and one would never suspect that what she has accomplished in terms of imagining a workable bridge between Africa and China had never been done before by any African or Chinese writer of literary fiction.
  First principles work wonderfully for physics and the physical sciences but they crumble in constructing or explaining literary fiction. Owuor was most certainly aware of this and kept the darting logic of the dragonfly as her mantra throughout her telling of the sea tale. She dared to take on this project and ended up creating some truly gorgeous pages of fiction which will keep coruscating for as long as Kiswahili, Luo, English, Chinese, and Turkish are read.
  Owuor has touched upon many solid things in this newest novel but she has touched on the ineffable as well. Some semiotic currents worthy of Umberto Eco are embedded in this latest offering. For example, between Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude, butterflies became a permanent presence in literary fiction. The Dragonfly Sea almost singlehandedly may transform the dragonfly into such iconic status as butterflies alone had hitherto. Africa not being invested in any notions of dragons, oriental or occidental, the authorial choice to tie the dragon to delicate flight is one of those cute things Owuor does, even as the last thing that occurs to a contemporary African when contemplating China is cuteness. It is one memorable way Owuor resists the extraversion that has swamped African geopolitics in recent times.
  Indigenous words for the dragonfly from the very limited samples collected from Africa almost always have to do with the description of how they fly, darting colorfully about. Ex Africa semper aliquid novi: out of Africa, after all, always come new things.