On 4 December 2014, in the grand setting of Marlborough House (Binyavanga Wainaina wryly explains away his lateness as a consequence of getting lost in Prince Charles’s bedroom) a polite, excited crowd gathers to celebrate the publication of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s debut novel Dust. Hosted by Granta and Commonwealth Writers, and in collaboration with Kwani Trust, The Caine Prize, TEDxEuston, Numbi and the Royal African Society, there is a sense before introductions are even made that this is an important event for an important novel.
Despite rapturous reviews and high profile endorsements (by Wainaina and Taiye Selasi, among others), Dust has slipped relatively quietly into the mainstream UK publishing market. While this launch heralds the first publication of the book in the UK, the novel has been garnering fans and praise since its publication by Kwani Trust in East Africa back in November 2013, a decade after Yvonne Owuor won the Caine Prize for her powerful story ‘Weight of Whispers’. This evening, with the UK being just a little late to the party, chair of the discussion Zimbabwean broadcast journalist Georgina Godwin welcomes everyone in the room to what she calls “the cult of Dust” – “prepare”, she warns, “to be converted”.
Owuor looks bashful and a little surprised as her novel is described in turn as “a very important book”, the “book of the post-independence generation” and “the book of the millennium so far”. In many ways it is a challenge for Owuor to compete with these introductions in the discussion that follows. She seems to lean further towards pragmatism than poetry in conversation, characterising the novel’s theme as merely that of a dysfunctional family, correcting the assumption that it took ten years to write (it actually took seven) and addressing the question of whether or not to write in English with refreshing frankness: “If I could write in Japanese, I would”.
Poetry, of course, is what happens to come pouring out when Owuor reads an extract from Dust; phrases such as “Long ago I carried Kenya’s flag. It was not so heavy then” offer a poignant glimpse into what lies beneath the novel’s sunset coloured dust jacket. So what does the weight of this flag mean to Yvonne Owuor? Is it the heavy burden she evokes in the novel, or something a little more coincidental, a byproduct of the place she happens to be from? The discussion of place that follows offers some of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking moments of the evening. Though Owuor says she dreamt of Northern Kenya for three months prior to the novel’s gestation, the actual writing process featured numerous locations and nations as a backdrop. Owuor admits that she had to get away from the Kenyan space in order for the narrative to be written, and I am reminded of Selasi making a similar confession last year about writing her debut novel Ghana Must Go. Different landscapes hold different things, and Owuor proudly refuses to associate with the sense of guilt that often comes with writing in exile: “If I have to go, I have to go”, she states plainly. It is clear that she has not and will not shape her version of Kenya by anyone else’s definitions or perceptions of it; when pushed on the topic of language, Owuor is quick to point out that the Englishness she uses is the language of her own Kenyan space. I open the book in my hands to its first page and notice that the italicised Swahili words slip seamlessly and effortlessly into the rest of the narrative.
Throughout the discussion I am touched by the way that Yvonne Owuor speaks about her own novel. She seems happy to let the book rather than the author take centre stage, acknowledging softly that “the book in every way was [her] teacher”. Asked about the potential symbolism of water and poetry in Dust’s narrative, Owuor concludes “I’m learning a lot about the book” and leaves space for readers to draw their own conclusions.
The so-called “cult of Dust” follows me for the next few days. On a crowded tube train, a woman notices that I am reading it and tells me she has just bought a copy for her daughter. We talk briefly about Kenya, home, mothers and daughters before she rushes off at Oxford Circus. The next day I spot someone buying a copy in Foyles bookshop and the cashier gets there before me when she gushes “you’re going to LOVE this book!” I think of Owuor – modest, quiet, grateful for what the book has taught her – and am glad that her beautiful novel has found another home in the UK.