"My Only Loyalty In The Process Of Writing Is To The Story" - Kenyan Author, Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor

As part of the Open Book Festival media junket, I had the opportunity of meeting Kenyan author, Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor. Finally!  She's got a very warm deameanour. Here's a breakdown of our conversation.

Who is Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor?

I'm Yvonne Odhiambo Owuor from Nairobi, Kenya. 
Writing came about in a very public way many years later after I had done all these sort of things you assume one must do. You know... get a life, do the professional job thing, try to find meaning and things that don't have meaning, and then have a personal crisis so that you can learn to write again {laughs} which is the gift of the personal crisis. Yeah, that in essence is it. Then after that very shocked by the gift of writing it took along time to settle into it but I finally did.

How long ago was that?
Personal crisis or settling into it?

The Personal Crisis...
After doing all the career things. I got a Master's Degree in the thing I thought was going to change the world, Television Video for Development. I actually naively thought that the images were receiving from the West about Africa the idea of the story came that they didn't understand or didn't know;not knowing it was a deliberate intent to create an idea of the African narrative.
So my personal crisis begun when I realised Oh my development is just a business. 
It allowed me a chance to meet the gift. 

Your First Book..
The first book I wrote was the novella, "Weight of Whispers" that came about because of a whole series  of events.  Kenya at the time was going through a time of great creative flux. A lot of new things were emerging around writing music, visual arts and then 2002 Binyavanga Wainaina had won the Caine Prize and then when he came a Woman called Anne McCree held an event, she's a great fashion designer. I think She thought 30 people would come. She dd an event for him; not that she knew him either. She did a call out and over 300 of showered up and we all showed up just to stare at Binyavanga.  We were staring and wondering is this possible. 

You had these closet writers, people who'd been writing secretly but didn't know what to do with that. And that whole thing of thinking the ways are closed, the ways are difficult so we don't do it. 
Binyavanga basically called the crap out of us. He said guys the internet is available. The internet is a democratic platform.  
So what happened with Weight of Whispers, a funding trust got set up the first publications went out on the internet so it was first published through the internet and because the Caine Prize accepts all forms of publishing; it doesn't have to be in book form.  And then to my great wonderful surprise I won the Caine Prize  the next year in 2003. This was my first story, the first story I ever wrote, I wrote it in 5 days, but I also wrote it to get Binyavanga off my back.  He' be calling me every 30 minutes, "Yvonne is my story ready yet?"

I usually refer to Kenya as East Africa's superpower not only economically but also when it comes to the arts. How's the environment there and the future of Literature as a whole?

It's such an incredible time in that, so much is happening. It's kind of you to call us the super powers leading the arts but you have to understand that our influences especially around the visual arts were Ugandans who moved to Kenya.
But also it's lovely, there's such a flow around the region in all the aspects of the arts its so beautiful to see and linked with what I call the catalyst of technology right now. The future is absolutely brilliant certainly within the arts. The stuff that's coming out is AMAZING!

Yesterday was International Literacy Day. According to statistics, 700 million adults are illiterate and 2/3 of that are women. What's your take on this?

Really? You know sometimes, forgive me but I don't believe in statistics. You know having worked in development, now I can put my claws out, part of the crisis came from the fact that you could put together projects and documents but what you'd do is take a situation, say for example you take a slum like Kibera in Kenya and suddenly turn a hundred thousand people into one million people; it suddenly it becomes the biggest slum in Africa. But when you go and  do a census you'll find there eighty thousand people live in Kibera, actually. And then NGOs... people have a crisis because that figure is not reflective on their document and they raise money on the basis of a million.   It's a game of numbers. And what I found most irritating is when it's Africa, the numbers have to be negative; they could never be positive even if the key was positive. The numbers were manipulated for a purpose; in order to continue a narrative about Africa. It's always about funding.  So no, I don't believe those things.

We need to tell our stories, stories of our experiences, but they don't have to be experiences in Africa at all. We can even write stories of Europe with European characters but write as Africans.
Speaking of continuing a narrative about Africa. Why is it imperative for Africans to tell their stories?
You know... We need to tell our stories, stories of our experiences, but they don't have to be experiences in Africa at all. We can even write stories of Europe with European characters but write as Africans. But also the stories we tell about our stories could be truthful, not to paste over  the horrors but we need to tell them because someone will tell them story anyway.
But not only through writing, it could be through song, visual arts, languaging, architecture etc.

Accessibility... Sometimes it's a struggle finding a diverse collection of African Literature. How do we work around that?

Really? Is that a problem here? I find that nowadays we are more accessible, listed in alphabetical order next to everyone else. Be it in Europe, you're able to have various collections from African writers.  Part of the challenge realistically is also around distribution networks, the different sectors. The book publishing world has divided sectors, so seven different sectors don't speak to one another and people are very protective of their tab, really protective.
But I also don't think it's less a political problem. It's more of a commercial and corperate competition problem and I think publishers need to get over themselves and allow us access to the stuff we need.

Hopefully someone can take advantage of that distribution niche.

Going forward, what does the future of African Literature look like?
I tend to use the word Literature in Africa. It's extremely promising there's incredible stuff coming out, You know about Jalada.org. There's incredible writing and you keep running into it at every single point. I'm so excited.  There's a bold daring new generation emerging. I'm so proud of them.

Your thoughts on platforms like Open Book Festival?
Excellent! Absolutely excellent. I'm so grateful that people do it; quite frankly, I don't care where it's done, whether it's done in Mars or in the middle of the ocean for a simple reason because there are very few spaces for writers to converge and meet as writers.

In terms of books, are you working on something we should know about?
We shall talk about it next year {laughs} But yes, I'm working on something now and hopefully it will be out either next year or the year after that, assuming that it is approved.

When it comes to developing a story, what goes into your thought process when writing?
{Laughs} Let's give an example of what happened two weeks ago. Sitting at a table with a few friends involved n Kenya's high corporate sector. They were talking about this one guy, he is a Kenyan of Asian origin who had died.
So what happens, I'm sitting there and listening to them going on about how this guy is a this share holder with shares in so many corporate companies, So what companies would do  is every time they knew he was coming, they'd ensure he traveled well and accommodate him well.  Because he's the guy when he asks questions the board doesn't want to answer; he petrifies everybody but they are in dread because of this man

The guy says it's a very large company but the event they have to create, they have to damn it down they have to serve water because of people like this who say is this why you have to serve us water and biscuits? Are our shares down?  So immediately for me I got excited about the character of this man so the story that suddenly came to mind, and I remember writing it down... its called The Sharehold. That's how it happened. the idea comes. You Suddenly realise you're going to  follow the character, see his life  and write it down. That's basically, a story comes from anywhere.

Have you had situations where you write for the audience and not yourself?
I have to. I write for myself, I cannot write for the audience. The moment you do that... that is my only lesson. You lose focus, you lose the story; the story doesn't like you anymore.
My only loyalty in the process of writing is to the story.  The story owns you, you submit to it, you follow it's rules and when it's finished with you. It lets you go.

In terms of inspiration, who would you say are your favourite writers? 
I have no favourite writers. Love them all, dearly.  Having said that, there are writers who don't write in books, like oral writers. Writers who write life through their words. People like my Mother, she's my eternal muse, later on my eternal inspiration. Just her way of everything speaking life is a book in itself

Landscape for me is also a book; the greatest book. Something Collin, The Book of Revelation.
Writers like Toni Morrinson, Michael Anderchi, I'm a stalker of Michael Ondaatje,
, Oscar Wild,  I actually love Coetzee, I'm jealous of the way he can tell a story of my world in small few phrased.  There's so many of them!
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