Periscope: Yvonne Owuor

Yvonne Owuor

Yvonne Owuor (IWP 05) Kenyan fiction writer, conservationist, cultural activist; past Executive director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Yvonne Owuor won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for "Weight of Whispers," a story told from the perspective of a refugee fleeing after the 1994 massacres. Since then, a number of her other stories have been published, including "Dressing the Dirge," "The State of Tides," and "The Knife Grinder's Tale."

Literary/ personal

IWP: What books and journals are on your night stand right now?

YO: Song for the Blue Ocean, Carl Safina
Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
People of the Lie, Scott Peck

IWP: What writing projects do you have open on your PC? Which one are you most eager to finish?

YO:

  1. Fine Arts curriculum concept paper for a new liberal education campus in Arusha
  2. A Season of Dust and Memory—The novel. Most eager to finish this one.

IWP: What routines or rituals does it take for you to get your writing to flow?

YO: Stillness, even if there is music. Sensing the presence of characters. Losing self (getting the hell out of the way of the story)

IWP: Is there music that complements your writing?

YO: Really depends on what the character wants. Yes.

IWP: Has your time in Iowa City left any long-term impressions?

YO: Eternal. I immerse myself in the imagination of Iowa’s river when I need to just be. Autumn is always Iowa for me, no matter where I go. Eternal.

Literary/generic

IWP: Does the flourishing and pervasive digital environment influence your writing? And where do you go on-line to keep yourself up to date with what other writers are doing?

YO: Oh yes. Literary forums, Facebook. Web alerts form literary bases.

IWP: What writers and work out there are in need of more translation and attention?

YO: Scandinavian, Chinese, Japanese, what we term those from the ‘Worlds of the Indian Ocean’

IWP: What literary neighborhoods excite you most right now?

YO: The Indian Ocean Zone. Amitav Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Abdulrazak Gurnah, some of the poetry and songs that are born of life in the Indian Ocean from poets like Gora Haji Gora from Zanzibar.

IWP: In the US many writers make a living as instructors of creative writing. Is this a possibility in your country?

YO: Short term consultancies to select interest groups.

IWP: And what are your thoughts about teaching creative writing?

YO: A vocation, a necessity. Pedagogical approach key, of course as is an appreciation of the myriad pathways that lead to assorted literary objectives. For example, how does a teacher become sensitive to, and even learn to utilize culturally specific approaches to story?

IWP: From your vantage point, is a Ministry of Culture/Education a useful institution?

YO: Absolutely, but for heaven’s sake, with a very, very clear terms of references and mandate (lest they transform the space, as they do into Kenya, into a dumping bin for exotic missions—Ministry of Culture, Sports, Gender and Youth!

IWP: That is, do you think the state should be involved in artistic production? How?

YO: Yes. This is linked to the notions of Creative (knowledge) Economy development in which the state has a stake.

YO: How: Policy formulation. Include creative economy discussions in national vision documents. Duty deductions for means of creative production. Legal protection and intellectual property enforcement, subsidies/breaks for start-up creative enterprises, which will help banks extend loans for example. Ensure that the fine arts are in the school curriculum and included in continuing education initiatives.

General/politics

IWP: It seems as if, much more than a few decades ago, religion has come to play a visible role in public affairs. Is this the case in your part of the world, and if so, what are the effects of this turn?

YO: Yes. Religion and spirituality always been sewn into the fabric of Kenya national visioning. Contradictions and paradoxes blurred. Crisis followed the 2007 post-election violence when religious centres were seen as partisan and with this perception lost a lot of moral ground and authority.

IWP: What—if anything--mdash; has given you a cause for political optimism in the last decade?

YO: President Barack Obama

Happening Now

  • Over on  Asymptote, in English and Cantonese, the long poem " The Man Who Lost HIs Shadow,"  by Hong Kong poet and editor Stuart LAU (IWP '17).

  • On fish-paste English and cheddar-English: a long interview at LARB (Los Angeles Review of Books) about language, politics, and language politics with Burmese poet and worker KO KO THETT (IWP '16).

  • Behind the 2018+ 2019 Nobel Prizes for Literature given to novelists Peter Handke  and Olga Tokarczuk are translators--one key among them Jennifer CROFT, novelist as well as translator from the Polish, Ukrainian, and  Spanish. Congratulations!

  • "Resisting English": at NYRB, Adam Kirsch reviews three decades of the translated work of the Japanese novelist and essayist Minae MIZUMURA (IWP '03).

  • Just out in Beirut, the intriguingly titled ['Laughter as Destructive History'] by the Iraqi poet, translator, and editor Soheil NAJM (IWP '07).

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