Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor on What It Means to be Human

Host Christoper Merrill talks with Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor about the courage of addressing historical darknesses, as well as her first novel, Dust.

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Interview Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.


Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.


The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at  iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


This episode of Origins features Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.


Yvonne Adhiambo OWUOR (fiction writer; Kenya) is an author, lecturer, and arts curator. Her first novel, Dust, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2014, and received the 2015 TBC Jomo Kenyatta Literature Award. In 2003, she won the Caine Prize for African Writing for her story “Weight of Whispers,” also the title of her 2003 volume. She was an IWP Fall Resident in 2005, and has returned to the Residency as our first Grinnell Fellow. She participates courtesy of Grinnell College.

We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Yvonne, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.


MERRILL: In 2004, you were named as the Woman of the Year by Eve Magazine. Now, almost a decade later, how has this affected you?

OWUOR: Well, woman of the year for her contribution for arts and culture. I don’t know if it has affected me, but it was a fascinating year in which a lot of accolades related to a new artistic path which I was not expecting, having had a previous corporate lifestyle. It started to, you know, unfold, so in some way, it was one of the events that eventually let me to this creative path.

MERRILL: Was it a kind of direction turner?

OWUOR: Major direction turner. I was looking for a signal, and these were all the signals that started showing up all the way.

MERRILL: You were here in 2005. In an interview with Periscope, you said that your impression of Iowa City was “Eternal. I immerse myself in the imagination of Iowa’s river when I need to just be.” So now you’ve returned to Iowa City, after all these years, and I wonder has this impression of Iowa City changed or grown in any way?

OWUOR: It has grown, and I was talking to someone about this. I am struck by how much the 2008 floods, and I refer to that directly because it involves the Iowa River…

MERRILL: Which destroyed the arts campus of the University of Iowa, causing billions of dollars worth of damage.

OWUOR: I know, and I return to the river of course, and I feel like it has changed. It feels more haunted and walking the old paths, finding places where some of the old houses have gone. And the moorlands and ducks which used to populate the riverfront from the hotel have also gone. The shape of the river has changed. So, I was struck in this particular time. Of course, Iowa City has grown, but I was struck by the sense of the impact, the changing archeology, the changing shape of the city that was probably occasioned by the flood. And I’m struck by the fact that, not too many people want to, well I was looking for literature around that and I haven’t run into it. So I started to ask around, just quietly. And those who have got riverfront homes have for sale signs, but the houses are not selling. So maybe going back to your question, I’m struck by the haunting, certainly for me I leave with the sense of the hauntedness of the Iowa River and it’s a memory that I would love to revisit; I want to know what happened.

MERRILL: A friend of mine who lost his home in the flood—we were driving to dinner one night and we drove by the river and he looked at me and said, “Now it just looks infernal.”

OWUOR: Ahhh, yes.

MERRILL: And he and his wife had moved somewhere else but in fact what had seemed a placid watercourse is for anyone who’s lived through a flood, never that again.

OWUOR: It’s never that again. I think that’s very apparent, yes.

MERRILL: In our International Literature Today class, you spoke of, “the story as an inadequate answer and response to the question of what it means to be human.” And so I wonder, is there an adequate answer to this question? What strengths, then, if any, are there in the inadequacy of the story?

OWUOR: I think the gift of the inadequacy means that the human will always search, will always maybe dig deeper and maybe hope that this time, the story will tell, and when it doesn’t, you dig a little harder and deeper.

MERRILL: So when you finished Dust, did you feel that, at least momentarily, that you got it? And then over a period of time, that there was another story to tell? Or what was that experience?

OWUOR: It was like unpacking a box of riddles, so one riddle leading to the next, leading to the next, and by the time you think, “Okay, I’m going to get out of this process,” you’re hooked. You’re completely hooked, even though you curse yourself. There’s no way out. So yeah, there’s a gift in that inadequacy.

MERRILL: The title of your novel is Dust. We’ve just been talking about a flood, which leads me to wonder if you believe in the relationship between geography and the physical space and the people who reside in them. You’ve raised a really interesting question, “Why isn’t there more literature about the effects of the flood on this place?” I just wonder, is there an ideal relationship between space and geography and the art that comes from it?

OWUOR: I think that it is intricate, it’s more than an incestuous relationship. I think the poet John O’Donohue speaks of landscape finding its voice through the human being. If landscape kind of gazes upon itself, it finds itself in the mirror of the human gaze. I completely believe in that as someone who is deeply influenced, moved by, inspired by landscape. And yeah, I know even though the stories have not been told, you know, about the Iowa River and its impact, just a subtle question here, and a question there, you get a sense that the Iowa River stops being, as you said, the benign sparkly little river that it used to be, and it becomes the bogeyman, you know, let’s not talk about it.  But everybody knows that it’s there. And I’m struck, I’m really, really struck by that and I’d really love to engage with that or find the literature that asks Iowa and all the other places that were affected by the flood, how did this change you?

MERRILL: So in that connection, I wonder what landscape are you writing about now? What’s shaping your imagination?

OWUOR: The first one, of course that I’m editing, I was finalizing the edit on the second book, which is about the Indian Ocean. So it’s the fluid landscapes, particularly the Western Ocean. But the new book that I’m working on is a motorcycle adventure story; it involves a young man’s adventure story within the African landscapes. It’ll probably be mostly mountains, earths, the earthy soil related stuff, the direct engagement with earth.

MERRILL: On a panel with other African IWP writers, you spoke about, “the fluidity of places where we belong,” which seems wonderful for a book about the Indian Ocean, but now to move inland, if you will, into the mountains, does that require a shift in point of view, in consciousness, in a way of writing, or does one flow into the next?

OWUOR: That’s interesting. I don’t know about others’ experiences, but when a particular story seizes hold of me, or maybe of others as well, something happens. I have no idea of what a motorcycle even looks like, for example…I had, I had, maybe that should be past tense. I’ve suddenly become obsessed with the shape and the mechanics of the motorcycle.

MERRILL: Did you learn to drive one too?

OWUOR: No, I don’t even ride a bicycle. But suddenly a community of motor-heads have tied up with me, and probably by the end of the story I’ll probably be riding one. But no, a story leads you, I’m sure you know that, in very strange, strange ways. And one of the lessons I had to learn through the process of coming to write Dust was to be open and not to restrict the direction and dimensions the story needs writing to.

MERRILL: I was thinking that when you were writing your first novel, Dust, you went to the epicenter of the chaos after the 2007 elections in Kenya. And of course, we’re in something of the same situation here right now.

OWUOR: Exactly, exactly, and it’s very interesting. Just in following and getting feedback about what’s happening on the ground in Kenya and it’s very interesting that Dust as the story has reemerged again, as a reference as people are saying, strangers I don’t know even are saying, refer to Dust right now. Because the same themes that we as a nation did not deal with in 2007, 2008, we buried them of course and hoped that thing would go away. The premise of Dust is that the ghosts of the past, the buried histories do not go away until they are named and addressed directly. And given the chance to do so, we did not, so of course they have emerged.

MERRILL: Yeah and I love this line you gave in an interview for Guernica that in that novel you were able to “attach the memory of a hundred real haunted gazes to characters in the story.” And now it sounds as if those characters have, in their own ways, come back to life, haven’t they, on the grounds and in Kenya today?

OWUOR: It was inevitable and I think I’ve said that very many times in all the different forums, even in Kenya, that unless we have acquired the courage to speak to our horror, and I know it’s very hard to address our own historical darknesses as a people and a nation, these patterns will reemerge over and over again.

MERRILL: It took you, I think, seven years to write it. So I wonder, how did you keep yourself going during that duration of time, dealing with really pretty profound topics?

OWUOR: Chris, I didn’t keep myself going; I kept doubting.

MERRILL: Doubt became the fuel?

OWUOR: Not the fuel, I would bury the thing and then sulk and then think, “Maybe I should become a butterfly collector,” anything else. And my process of procrastination is particularly sophisticated, I take up spectacular new jobs that have great meaning to the world, that kind of thing, but that means then, I don’t write. But having done so, I think at some point, the inner self just protested, objected, and had to confront the very thing I didn’t want to do, which was to do this thing, to write.

MERRILL: Well one of the interesting jobs that you had was the executive director of Zanzibar International Film Festival. So I wonder, it took you away from writing because it’s such a big thing altogether, but it must have shaped your writing in some fashion.

OWUOR: Well, because I’m writing about the Indian Ocean, because the idea to the one place, apart from the festival, it was more about being in Zanzibar. It allowed me to cohabit with my own shadows, because it’s a place that does that very, very well.

MERRILL: How so?

OWUOR: Oh, well Zanzibar is very layered. It has its own histories of blood and darkness but right next to that is a place of clothes and scent and exquisite ocean landscapes. And it’s in the songs of the land that mourn deeply but in such, in the sweetest ways. So there’s a kind of stretching, both agony and ecstasy. Yet it’s a place where, and I’m not exaggerating, it’s labyrinthine. I love the labyrinthine streets. You know you’re walking, the shadows are extra-long and something passes and you get the idea of the veils between, you know, the veils between the worlds being very, very thin and you’re a bit player in it. So it allowed me to, you know, all the walls one builds over time, all the certainties, Zanzibar’s a place where whatever certainties you have about life and yourself will very quietly erode, whether you like it or not. So having experienced that but also having understood got in a sense of the immense history, of not just the place of Zanzibar, but the immense history, deeper histories, of the African, or of what became known as Africa. And having encountered layers, stories told in so many ways of being, I had to question everything that I had believed and had learned about identity of self and of place. And that informs everything that I explore in my writing.

MERRILL: In an interview with Books Live, and this follows on that, you said that, “I hope they get a sense of story; the thing that story gives you, whatever story it is. I hope they leave with that thing, that intangible thing.” So, going into Dust, then, did you have any type of message that you wanted the audience to take away or did you believe that the story would do all that work for you?

OWUOR: The story does it, only the story tells it. No message.

MERRILL: So in your time at Iowa, do you, have you written any stories that you think will shape your future work?

OWUOR: Iowa River. Certainly, the haunting that is the Iowa River is absolutely going to do that. And certainly the road trip to and from Grinnell allowed me, because the person who was driving, Elle, was such an amazing raconteur of place and journey, and I suspect somewhere a road story located along that kind of road is going to emerge at some point.

MERRILL: That sixty-mile stretch between Iowa and Grinnell.

OWUOR: Yes, it’s so important. It’s also amazing, Chris, to see the landscape change. It’s a very mutable landscape, it’s incredible.

MERRILL: It’s also, maybe shall we say, a slightly subtler landscape than it might appear at first glance.

OWUOR: Yes, yes, the progression and the colors. If I was an artist, I think I’d be stuck here, just capturing those colors.

MERRILL: I can assume that you’ll be capturing those colors on the page. So before we wrap up our conversation, you’re working on your new novel, but what are you reading these days? Do you have any recommendations for our listeners?

OWUOR: I dare not admit, but I shall, let me be brave and do so, Death in the Afternoon by Earnest Hemingway.

MERRILL: And what do like about it?

OWUOR: Visceral, it’s very visceral and very direct. I’ve been struggling with, well you know the fantasy of every writer, most writers, is how do you say so much in the fewest possible words and he does that so well. Yes, so study him.

MERRILL: Well that’s a surprising recommendation and I’m very grateful to it. We’ve been speaking with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and I’m very thankful to have this time with you.

OWUOR: Thank you, thank you Chris, thank you for everything.

The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available March 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where I talk with Macedonian writer Vladimir Martinovski

Additional Information

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
February 15, 2018

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