Book Review: Dust, Author: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Publisher: Kwani Trust. Reviewer: Odhiambo Orlale.
Photo: Odhiambo Orlale
Publisher: Kwani Trust. Reviewer: Odhiambo Orlale. Photo: Odhiambo Orlale

As Kenyans marked the International Women’s Day, award- winning author, Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor, had reason to smile.

Her latest book the Dust, published in 2013, has made her join the league of leading women authors in the country who were celebrated during the annual event as heroines and literary champions.

Owuor’s first book Weight of Whispers that depicted a Rwandan aristocrat who fled to Kenya following the 1994 genocide won the Caine Prize in 2003. The book is a masterful, multi-layered portrayal of the political and social chaos of that time.

She joins the league of other Kenyan women heavy weights in the literary world like Grace Ogot who was celebrated for breaking the glass ceiling by writing a series of books: The Promised Land; Land Without Thunder; and The Island of Tears. Ogot was also a founder member of the Writers Association of Kenya.

Others are Muthoni Garland, author of Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori, which documents a troubled marriage against a back drop of a rapidly modernising Kenya, and Tracking The Scent of My Mother, which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2006. Muthoni is also a founding member of StoryMoja, a writer’s collective publishing house based in Nairobi.

Another prolific writer and poet is Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, her most celebrated works being Coming to Birth, which charts the story of a young woman coming of age against the backdrop of a nation attaining independence over half a decade ago from colonialism. It was awarded a Sinclair Prize upon release in 1986, and remains a potent interpretation of the mixture of the hope and fear that accompanied Kenya’s independence in 1963.

Dust is a 385-page book written in a prose of arresting power and has been described by critics as “a stunningly original work of art”. It ranges over the contemporary history of Kenya, offering a stark portrayal of the lingering effect of conflict and colonialism on people and their individual identities.

The author won the coveted prize in 2003 and is a recipient of the Chevening Scholarship and an Iowa’s Writers’ Fellowship. She was also named Woman of the Year (culture and arts) by Eve Magazine in Kenya in 2004 for her contribution to the country’s literature and arts.

Owuor has gone places since then, from 2003-2005, she was the Executive Director of world famous Zanzibar International Film Festival and she has also been a TEDx Nairobi speaker and Lannan Foundation resident.

The book is set in contemporary Nairobi where a young man named Moses Odidi Oganda bleeds to death in the streets, murdered by the police. As his lifeblood — full of memories, colours and songs — pours into the dust, the stories that tumble forth reveal the violent upheaval of Kenya’s own life, reaching from the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s to the murky intricacies of modern-day corruption.

In the captivating story, Oganda’s grief-stricken family journeys home to Wuoth Ogik, their crumbling, coral coloured far out in Kenyan dry land, built 50 years ago by a British colonial officer, whose name they no longer dare speak.

The mystery of his disappearance is woven together with the secrets, desires and shadows within their decaying desert house. In the parched landscape where the Ogandas live, stories are of paramount importance — and this is a story about stories, about how myths come to pass, history is written and war stains us forever.

With strength, empathy and grace, this book brings together the shards of a family and nation’s shared and hidden history, which gradually come clear and are exorcised.

According to Owuor, her first book has been “breathed to life through the thoughts, words and composite souls, creatures and landscapes”.

She also acknowledges Wylie Agency and Sarah Chalfant, who sought and believed, and then turned the story’s delivery in to a cause.

Says Owuor: “Dear Jacqueline Ko, for putting up with random ramblings with such tenderness and strength. To my brilliant, patient editor Diana Coglianese at Random House, who peered through the convoluted word thickets, shone light upon scenes while humanely killing assorted ‘darlings’ thus infusing order into a long, long tale.”

Turning to her Kenyan readers, the award-winning author thanks them saying her canvas, haunting rage, passion, song, impulse, yearning, love, frustration, and you’re fierce, fun and fascinating peoples, who laugh at themselves, and muddle hard towards a good they ache for.

To ‘disappeared Kenyans,’ the ones who we forgot about, and to jo nam (people from the lake, and denizens of vast northern lands, gifted teachers and trustees of life; “I beg your indulgence. I have reshaped trails, places, narratives, people, creatures, landscape, and names in order to curve out this story.”

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