Book Review

On writing bestsellers - VIDEO


Yvonne Owuor, the author of Dust and Dragonfly Sea. PHOTO | POOL


  • The award-winning writer of ‘Dust and Dragonfly Sea’ has two fronts between which she oscillates with astonishing ease.
  • Yvonne is arguably one of Kenya and Africa’s best authors, with the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature under her belt.
  • One reader describes Dust as “complex” and wonders if feedback from it shaped her subsequent book ‘Dragonfly Sea’. Yvonne says each of her works takes a life of its own.

Conversations with authors are often a trip into the jumble of their thoughts, books written and unwritten, and, inevitably, their imagined world. One with author Yvonne Owuor gives you access into the joyful and bustling well of her imagination, but also of a solitary life of writing.

The award-winning writer of ‘Dust and Dragonfly Sea’ has two fronts between which she oscillates with astonishing ease: the intense and near-combative demeanour and a perky and sentimental side. But it is her smile that is her most beguiling feature.

Yvonne is arguably one of Kenya and Africa’s best authors, with the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature under her belt. She won these for her story, Weight of Whispers (2003) and debut novel Dust (2015) respectively.

One reader describes Dust as “complex” and wonders if feedback from it shaped her subsequent book ‘Dragonfly Sea’. Yvonne says each of her works takes a life of its own.

“Not every book is for everybody. Books also choose their readers. Some become clearer to you when you reach a certain age and after you have gone through certain experiences. While some people find ‘Dust’ hard, others have read it multiple times.”

Yvonne is a nomad and has been in a literary residency in Berlin, Germany, since last year. She speaks French, German and “Spanish comes naturally to me.”

Have her different excursions shaped how she sees the world and how she writes? She says that one cannot be untouched by their experiences: we are all products of our life circumstances.

“I have had this question from childhood: what does it all mean for me to be human? What does the humanity of the other person mean for me? What is the place where I find myself? Why do humans do the things they do? No artist walks through life without being compelled by a question for which they are always looking answers.”

She adds: “Each place and each encounter counts. It gives me an answer to some of these questions. The experiences provide me with ideas and even characters in the stories that I write.” Is there Yvonne the human and Yvonne the writer? Her face lights up.

“Yvonne is a human in progress and process. The older I grow, the more I realise that being human is the last thing that a soul discovers before transitioning. Every process of encounter, therefore, becomes like filling in a puzzle.”

With the successes that she has had as a writer, does she struggle to publish anymore? “No,” she replies emphatically.

“I have more books in my head than I can write. What I do struggle with is a sense of indiscipline. There are so many exciting things in life that distract me. I should spend more time writing than on Twitter. I could do with a little more focus.”

For up-and-coming writers, she notes that finding one’s voice to stand out is never easy. “This took a lot of time for me and I did not know I needed that time.”

She talks of another struggle for many writers: standing in the way of the story. Developing this independence took her a long time and lessons from her mentor, the late author Binyavanga Wainaina.

“He told me, ‘you must step away from the story. Your characters to have free will. Even though you are the one writing the story, you are not the story. The story belongs to the story,” she recalls, admitting that she struggled with ‘Dust’ “trying to construct a character the way I thought the character should be rather than letting it emerge.”

Some characters emerge sooner than others. Some after a year and others after five.

How do her characters show up? For Yvonne, it is an outline, usually an image shimmering in the distance. “I have to wait for him to come close enough rather than running after him. It’s only after I can see his face that I know we are ready. Then we can write,” she says.

She adds that it is critical to allow the characters, especially the main character, to mature. “Do you know what their dreams are? Do not impose your opinions on the character.”

Landscape, conversations, and her experiences inspire her writing. “I am an immersive writer and I need to go to a place to see it, to smell it, eat its food and feel it in my skin,” she adds.

How long, approximately, then does she take to write a book? Yvonne giggles.

“When I start, I set a timeline of, say, five weeks. Usually, five years later, I will not have finished the project. There is a fantasy timeline and the practical timeline.”

She points out that it is important for every beginning writer “to understand their muse and writing spirit” because everyone has their method. “I have a high-maintenance muse who takes his time. He disappears every time I insist on a certain way. It also does not look at my bank balance.”

Getting the inspiration to write, she says, is like a slow descent into cold water. “It takes a long time to get me into the zone of writing. But once I am in, it is hard coming out. When I am in writer mode, I am a hermit. My muse likes stillness. I want to be surrounded by books and not too much of other things.”

Is she uptight? “I am pretty chilled. Ask my friends,” she says giggly. “I flit from place to place. I hike and attend concerts. I am a swimmer. I love the ocean passionately. I am the best writer when I am by the sea.”

How does she find literature coming out of Kenya and East Africa? Is she impressed? The subject triggers an eruption of delight in her, saying that the new generation of writers is rocking. “They are intrinsically storytellers. Our works stand very well in the world.”

But is it possible to make money from the first book in Kenya? To her, the most important thing for a writer is to be a writer. “Write the best damn story with everything that you have got. That is your place in the value chain as a content producer. The publishing infrastructure then takes over.”

She does not sugar-coat the fact that there is no guarantee that one will sustain themselves when they choose the writing path.

“Follow your bliss because your bliss will provide for you. You write because there is nothing else in life you would rather do. You can [make money from a first book] but you must do the developing part right.”

Part of this journey is to find a good editor and an agent to package the book, she notes. “Once these parties have taken over the text, your job is to write the next book.”

For every manuscript that she writes, Yvonne shares it with a group of seven friends before she sends it to a publisher. “They love me enough not to want me to embarrass myself in the world. They are critical enough, to tell the truth because they love books. From their feedback, I can refine the text.”

So, did she make money from ‘Dust’?

“To my surprise, yes. I could live well. Even if I had to walk a little more distances, I walked with joy because I was doing the things I love. There were also [fees from] lectures that settled some of the bills. I have travelled the world because of literature. I am in Berlin because of my books.”

She talks of incredible gaps in the publishing scene in Kenya, “which makes it hard for writers.” Yvonne notes that the most attractive contracts in the world currently are offered in the content economy. “Netflix, Amazon and Disney are hunting all over for content. It’s our (writers’) time.”

How does she write? Does she have a word target per day, week, a month? “I research extensively. I am obsessive, especially about getting historical details correct. What the story wants the story gets.”

She advises budding writers to practice what she calls craft exercises daily. “Ask yourself: what is a metaphor? What is motif? This is like your gym. It is also fun.” That and reading ‘‘widely and wildly on multiple subjects.” On most occasions, she walks into a bookshop to window-shop only to leave with a trolley full of books.

“I am fortunate to be on the frontline of new books coming out. I am reading an incredibly beautiful book by Sophia Satamar called ‘The White Mosque’ (to be released in October). I also read Japanese stage with writers such as Endo and Soseki.” She also reads poetry “to stir the mood so that the prose mind does not get stuck.”

I am curious about what her life is like beyond literature. About what excites her. Does anything make her feel like a young girl? Yvonne says life delights her “even in its darkness, crises and confusion.”

“I love the art of life and its nature. I feel that I am a part of it. When I was a child, I used to imagine I was a Nandi Flame tree.”

She talks about the writer’s block, every author’s worst dread. How does she deal with hers? Yvonne observes that this state is similar to hitting the wall in a marathon, only the block is more profound. Whenever she is unable to write, she consumes other art forms, either artworks in a museum or music. Sometimes she just walks.

“What is your state of mind? What unresolved issues are you dealing with? The excuse [for the inability to write] could be anything. It could be an apology you need to make to your sister, for instance.”

She adds: “Did you spend time thinking through the premise of your story? It may be only seven lines in the story but the premise is the most important part. Without it, you may write only to run out of steam mid-story.”

There are times when a slump will occur nonetheless. Yvonne says walking away from the project helps. ‘‘An event will always happen that will inspire the next part of the story. Stories are connected to the greater events in life.’’

Some subjects in a work are a reflection of the author’s personality. Does she see herself in her characters? ‘‘Certain characters will reflect my points of view. Whenever I teach, I ask my students about the themes in the world that piss them off. These provide the fuel for the stories that emerge. The characters then show up.’’

One of the things that piss her off at the moment is the experiences of people caught up in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict –which she has been actively tweeting about. What specifically annoys her the most about the war?

‘‘Our human hypocrisy,’’ she blurts out, adding quickly, ‘‘It goes back to what it means to be human. It is annoying that values and courtesies that have been extended to Russians and Ukrainians [during the conflict] were never extended to non-European cultures during the war. I find it hard to sit still not just with that level of hypocrisy but also the idea that some people are more humans than others. It is very Orwellian.’’

But it is African students in distress that have agonised her the most. ‘‘I won’t accept any contempt directed at Africans. I won’t accept any contempt directed at human beings. What this barbarism represents is a certain void and emptiness in the human being that can turn humans into demons.’’

‘‘It’s terrifying and it makes you wonder: where is the human being safe? Where will the Africans be safe in the world? How long for will this lunacy that is perpetuated by skin colour continue?’’

Away from the war, I invite Yvonne to talk about Africa, a topic that fills her with fire. ‘‘Africans project such extreme poverty of mind and imagination yet we are the wealthiest continent. It is almost as if we know what to do but end up doing the opposite.’’

She is talking about poor leadership that bedevils most of the continent. ‘‘Our leaders become the very thing that our continent does not need.’’ 

As a person, Yvonne has felt most poor as a child owing to her ‘‘extreme shyness’’ which made her school life difficult. This persisted for years before ‘‘I fell into the full sense of being human’’. 

 ‘‘I wanted to be invisible and often found refuge in books. I could become someone else and meet new friends inside books. Meeting my classmates was excruciating,’’ she says.

She says she has experienced other forms of poverty but has never been materially poor. ‘‘For a long time, I was spiritually poor which turned me into a spiritual tourist on different spiritual pathways.’’ 

Has she found her place? ‘‘Yes, I have. It is at the place where I started. It took a long time, but I’m a returned Catholic.’’ Spirituality, she says, is a process of becoming rather than being. ‘‘Life unfolds on its terms and [sometimes very] slowly. It is important to learn to be present and to be patient with that fact.’’
One of these facts is that writing is a solitary process.

‘‘It is hard sometimes to find your community as a writer, people who do not think you are mad.’’ For some people, stepping into the world of writing means being unable to do anything else for a livelihood. For Yvonne, it meant leaving a job in the corporate world to answer to her scribal instincts.

‘‘You won’t know how your bills will be paid. It reaches a point when you say: I would rather sit in the street and write.’’

This award-winning author gets almost evangelical whenever she meets writers who are sitting on their writing careers. She says it does not matter how long one quiets the screams in their head: the urge to write will always win, adding: ‘‘Writing is an act of faith.’’

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