Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was born in Kenya and currently lives in Brisbane, Australia. An acclaimed writer, Owuor won the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 with her short story, Weight of Whispers. Last month, she released her new novel, Dust, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Owour is also a past recipient of the Iowa Writer’s Fellowship and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She has been a TEDx Nairobi speaker and a Lannan Foundation resident. In 2004, she was named ‘Woman of the Year’ by Eve Magazine in Kenya. Africa Book Club had the pleasure of interviewing her recently.
What would you say have been the strongest influences on your writing? What inspired you to become a writer?
Influences:–life, art, all other writers. Inspiration to write–the same curiosity that has been known to kill cats. Inarticulation that only makes sense when I see it spelled out in letters. Questions. A love of story.
It’s been a while since you won the Caine Prize for African Writing? What have you been up to since?
Watching life roll out, eavesdropping into other people’s journeys, having adventures of my own, exercising my other selves, being a raven shopping for experiences, struggling to make peace with becoming a writer who does other things rather than an other things person who happens to write.
How did winning the Caine Prize change you as a person? Did it open doors or impact your writing in any way?
The Prize shocked and rocked my Nairobi middle class professional sensibilities. It was like falling through a trap door into this other magical realm of other possibilities that I was not prepared for even though I had secretly, secretly hoped for it.
You’ve just released your new book, Dust (published by Knopf). Tell us about it.
Long story (pun unintended). Short version–Fragmenting Kenyan family living in the Kenyan desert (imagined margins) forced by tragedy to at last confront their illusions, secrets and country in order to find peace.
What inspired you to write the book and how long have you been working on it?
A combination of factors: the northern Kenya landscape, Kenya’s 2005 referendum, Kenya’s 2007-8 post election violence, a moment when I heard the music of Franklin Boukaka followed by Cesaria Evora. I have been working on Dust on and off for the past seven years.
Is the book available in Kenya? How has it been received?
Yes, it was launched in Nvember to coincide with Kwani Trust’s 10th anniversary and Kenya’s 50th. It has been received, so far, with startling warmth.
Do you work on one book at a time or do you have multiple projects going on at any time? How does the whole creative process work for you?
I am trying to curb my inclination to start on multiple projects at any one time, and no, the multiple projects do not involve just books–they include event creation or some corporate plotting somewhere. I do aspire for the discipline of the single project. When I grow up I shall get there. Going to write from Brisbane Australia is an attempt towards this goal–but even there I have managed to locate other projects to explore. The creative process as it pertains to writing–Very muse dependent. The place in which I write is also important. I need nature close by. Bit of an effort to get to the ‘zone’ of inner silence which I require in order to enter into a story. When that happens, it is blissful, and I can write and write for days on end. When it is absent, it is torture.
You are a writer and film-maker, which is an interesting combination. Given a choice, would you rather read the book or watch the movie version first?
I am actually just a writer. The film making was an oblique way of entering into writing and story. I reach for the story that comes to me through whatever medium without quibbling whether it is the film or the book I get first. But then I do then ensure that I get both the book and the film at some point.
Can we expect “Dust” the movie soon?
Haha. Let us see what the oracle order!
Are there any African writers that you particularly like? What are some of your favourite books by African writers?
Oh yes. Quite a few. Aminatta Forna, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Beryl Markham, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Binyavanga Wainana, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dayo Forster, Shalini Gidoomal, Grace Ogot, Ayi Kwei Armah, Bryce Courtney, J. M. Coetzee, Alexander Fuller, Pettina Gapah, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Mia Couto…I could go on and on and on.