Dust: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

It took me a while to get around to reading Dust, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, and am I glad that I did. This book took me quite by surprise; I’m not sure what I was expecting.

Book: Dust (link here to Vintage Books edition)
Author: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Publisher: Kwani Trust
Publication year: 2013 (First edition)

I had heard it said that this book was not an easy read, and perhaps this was the expectation I came with to it. Was it difficult to read? I loved it.

Yvonne (like we are on first-name basis :)) writes experience, she writes life…living and feeling. This is not just a story told, it is a vivid thing, more than a narrative, if that makes sense at all. I lived in that world – I saw and heard and felt. In places the book reads almost like a stream of consciousness of the character on stage, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Whilst I tremendously enjoyed reading this book, I can almost see why the writing might challenge the reader who is used to the more conventional and popular type of fiction.

It is also unapologetically clever sometimes, requiring a little stretching and looking up of terms and phrases and history.

The book begins in action, with one Odidi Oganda in the thick of things, running for his life on the streets of Nairobi. Cops and a Nairobi mob are after him. As he runs, we are introduced to him, to the kind of man he is, through the thoughts that run through his mind even as he tries to get to safety. Even though he seems to be on the wrong side of the law I was left rooting for him, and he unfortunately does not live to see another day.

“You can’t live in the songs of people who don’t know your name.”

One of the memories that flash through Odidi’s mind as he runs for his life.

His father, Nyipir Oganda, and sister Ajany, take his body home to Wuoth Ogik, in Turkana, for his funeral. His death, in one way or another, triggers the main characters into wrestling with the demons in their own lives.

This book got me reflecting on family, belonging, hopelessness and unfulfilled expectations. Loss also runs through the story – loss of the familiar, loss of life pursuits and loss of family – but the overarching theme for me was on Kenya; the birth of Kenya, the move from political idealism to disillusionment and the stories that we have told and continue to tell.

“Kenya is just one story in this place.”

Nyipir Oganda

Speaking of stories; Petrus Keah, a police detective from Nyipir’s past has some thoughts on truth. “Truth, truth, everyone wants truth. Few want to look at it.”

Dust is the only Kenyan book (that I’ve read so far), which is set in the time of the Kenyan post-election violence of 2017, which Owuor portrays as the result of sins past. Indeed, she sweeps through quite a bit of Kenya’s history from pre-independence.

The characters in Dust are not shrinking violets, they all generally do what they have to do, with little regard for world opinion. (Well…apart from the cops.) They simply act and live. They are also not numb, they feel, and they feel deeply. (Apart from the cops.)

Akai Lokorijom, Odidi’s gun-toting, larger than life mother whose presence is mostly defined by her absence and the mystery around her fascinated me to no end. We meet her very briefly when Odidi’s body arrives home and after an extended, deep demonstrative grief that lake Nilotes may well be familiar with, she lurches out of Wuoth Ogik in a green car, wheels squealing. Following her abrupt and dramatic departure, we get to know snippets about her from the thoughts of the other characters, most of whom she has had a huge and lasting impact upon. She clearly does not define herself by the roles of wife and mother. By the end of the book, I still had not quite solved the mystery that she is.

Throughout the book, Ms. Owuor beautifully captures the complexity of our human struggles. One of the characters, Isaiah Bolton, is a British man who came to Kenya to look for his father (or was, in his later reflections, chasing ghosts). He was sorry to be “arriving at a place that was the same as the one left behind.” He wonders:

What if every human is born with a volume of madness to resolve?…Some seize and drive those forces into an inner corral…Others are overwhelmed; they submerge and quietly drown.

The descriptions of Turkana were both harsh and beautiful. I am left with the urge to visit Turkana. I liked that Yvonne referred to Lake Turkana by the name that the Turkana people call it; Anam Ka’alokol, which means ‘the sea of many fish’.

The writing in the book is rich, and layered. It contains a lot of deep thoughts, and if you, like me, are turned on by aphorisms or life philosophies you can turn over deliciously in your mind, then this is a book for you. Even now, when I open a few pages, I find more of these candies.

Fear is a presence, Bernado had hurled at her one night. “It penetrates beauty to deform it.”

This seems like the kind of book that can be read and re-read and yield new insights each time.

Final thoughts

What stood out to me as the main thing underpinning the story was the struggle, frustration and futility and of trying to recapture what is gone, with a hint, at the end of the story of what it takes to overcome it.

About the Author

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer of note, who won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for her story “Weight of Whispers”. She was the second Kenyan writer to win the prize. Dust, her first novel, won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2015, and was shortlisted for the Folio Prize. She also wrote The Dragonfly Sea (2019).

The film ’The Knife Grinder’s Tale’ is based on a short story she wrote.

Her writing has been published in several literary magazines including Granta and Kwani?.

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