• Prizes play a critical role in the celebration of individual talents in a society
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is one of the finest Kenyan novelists alive today. The 52-year-old prose writer won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2015 for her epic novel, Dust. This is the highest award a writer can gain in Kenya today. Instituted 46 years ago, the list of authors who have won this coveted national prize since the 1970s reads like a gallery of Kenya’s finest writers.
These include Meja Mwangi, Abdilatif Abdalla, Wahome Mutahi, David Maillu, Margaret Ogola, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Kyallo Wamitila, Ken Walibora and my contemporary Stan Gazemba. The revered surgeon Yusuf Dawood and bespectacled Henry Ole Kulet are present in this hall of fame, too. Blossoms of the Savannah (2008), by the latter, is the current literature set book in Kenyan high schools.
The prize has offered an index of identification of tacit literary talent across our national landscapes of literature in English and Kiswahili. Prizes play a critical role in the identification, evaluation, celebration and canonisation of individual talents in a society whose heritage is both a tradition as well as a work in progress. The works of a canon can achieve the status of classics within a certain cultural and literary matrix.
Here in Kenya, the Jomo Kenyatta Prize presents a veritable platform for canonicity in relation to postcolonial literatures. The names above, among winners of other categories of the same prize, occupy a hallowed status in our artistic traditions as a republic that turned 57 this week.
Owuor’s ouvre within this matrix of Kenyan literature has continued solidifying over the past decade. She first hit the literary scene with her cinematic short story, “The Weight of Whispers”, published by Kwani Trust in 2003. The account of an ill-fated Rwandese family fleeing the Rwandan genocide is set in Kenya. It bagged for her the Caine Prize for African Writing in that year. She became the second Kenyan to win it after the late Binyavanga Wainaina, who earned it in 2002 and was one of the founders of Kwani Trust.
Her first novel Dust came out a decade later in 2013. It continued this itinerary of sterling literary energies and heralded the arrival of a powerful face of contemporary Kenyan literature. Yvonne studied English in Kenya and England but cinematic arts have played an integral role in her formation. I recall that she bought me my first-ever air ticket and flew me to the Zanzibar International Film Festival 15 years ago, where she was the executive director and I a rapporteur as well as a postgraduate research student.
Her literary talents and creative energies, coupled with her consummate understanding of African modernities, left an abiding impression on me. Here was a writer who embodied the native muses of our nation and continent, yet stood firm on the principles of cosmopolitanism and transnational cultural intercourses.
Hers literary philosophy is informed by the quest to locate Africa’s positions in global traffic of aesthetics. To her, the Indian Ocean aquascape is symbolic of the networks of interlocution and exchanges that plug our eastern African cultures to the narrative energies of elsewhere.
Bending backwards the traditions of this part of the continent, she has deconstructed simple takes on identity, history and geography consistently from her first short prose, the second one and her third epic work, the recent novel, titled The Dragon Fly Sea (2019).
In this novel, we see vistas of cultural ambivalence that announce the making of one through the weaving of the many. Life and love cease to be elements in black-and-white as they achieve multicolourful expressions in interwoven stories of splendour.
The Dragon Fly Sea is a glittering expansion of Owuor’s literary cosmopolitanism that kicked off with her debut novel. It returns to staple themes of postcolonial discourses on identity and positionalities using the hybridities and histories of the rich East African Swahili coast. In it the coast becomes both a corner-stone of our modernities as well as a camouflage for the overlapping narratives of ease and unease that animate contemporary Kenya, such as tourism and terrorism.
Today, Owuor is in Berlin, Germany, as a one of the creatives hosted by the DAAD Berlin Artists-in-Residents. The successful artists were selected and announced in November last year. Past residents in this programme include her contemporaries Binyavanga Wainaina, Helon Habila of Nigeria and Petina Gappah of Zimbabwe.
The Kenyan novelist is using her time abroad, in the midst of a roaring pandemic and winter, to pen her third novel. It is a clear sign of her intention to soar to even greater heights on the wings of her national mythos. Hers is an important voice on the orchestra of Kenyan literature in the 21st Century indeed and in deeds.