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Renowned author Yvonne Owuor teaches “Literary Tourism”

Professor Owuor spoke with students about her work in JRC 209. Photo by Govind Brahmanyapura.

Clara Larson

Yvonne Owuor, a renowned author from Kenya and recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing and Eve Magazine in Kenya’s “Woman of the Year” in 2004, has found herself teaching a course this semester at Grinnell entitled “Literary Tourism” through the international writing program and the University of Iowa.

“I was asked to teach a course on writing, so I designed it around something I absolutely love,” Owuor said. “For the last four years, I’ve had this affair with maps and cartography. … You can create a map in order to understand a story. … My work, my art, has taken me to many places of the world.”

It’s curious that someone so fascinated with maps, someone with the world at their fingertips, has found a temporary home in Grinnell, Iowa, arguably a jewel in the middle of the prairie. But for Owuor, home is “anywhere where magic happens.”

In 2013, Owuor published her most recent novel, “Dust,” set in Nairobi, Kenya. Although it takes place in the second half of the twentieth century, it was inspired by Kenya’s current political climate.

“What happened in about 2007/2008, was post-election violence, … and suddenly, for us who had grown up with a sense of an intact country, … we had all these myths about ourselves, how exceptional we were, we were an island of peace in a sea of violence, etc., etc., well suddenly, that falls apart” Owuor explained.

“So suddenly as a citizen, I had to ask, what does it actually mean for me to be Kenyan and who do I become if I lose my country? What happens when the dream that our parents brought us up with is broken apart just like this, what do we do,” Owuor said. “And when you look around and found the older generations themselves don’t have an answer, in a way it was my outlet to explore that bigger question, that was my inspiration.”

Owuor drew on the themes she found to be most prevalent and troubling in present-day Kenya, such as loss of identity and loss of innocence, and she applied them to a Kenya of the past to craft a novel that “in the end becomes a story of a family coming to terms with the loss of that kind of innocence, within themselves, but also within their country.”

Her novel “Dust” has taken her around the world and back, and Owuor said, laughing, that she’s “met as many readers from all over the world as probably the entire population of this beautiful town.”

She’s found that no two people have the same reaction to her book, and said that “everyone seems to get something out of it, even things that I didn’t expect, so I’m learning things from them.” She recounted two memorable encounters with readers.

The first: “A young girl I met in Nairobi, who came up to me and said, Yvonne, I had four men courting me, and I bought each one of them a copy of ‘Dust.’ The one who read it is the one I’m with now.”

And the second: “A man in Germany, recently, said, because the book has been translated into German as well, and he got so upset at the idea that the book had originally been written in English, he comes to me and says … you are German but you do not know it … I said oh how sweet, he said no, no, you are German but you do not know it yet.” This tale speaks to the ability of her novel, and the themes of a country and a people in turmoil, to transcend not only time, but space as well.

Due to the United States’ current tumultuous political climate, Owuor wonders whether American readers would resonate with the novel as well. She relates that her “country was going through, and still is, going through a major crisis, quite similar … to some of the vibes that I’m hearing from this country.” She said that she’d “love to have a discussion with students who have engaged with it [the novel]” to understand how “students themselves engage with conditions … in their country … how do you express it, how do you sing it, write it, tell it or paint it. That’s the kind of conversation I’d be fascinated by”.

This is part of the magic awaiting Owuor in Grinnell, Iowa. In that the fears, worries and uncertainty shared by Kenyans and Americans alike, could bring them together and inspire them to learn from each other.

Professor Owuor spoke with students about her work in JRC 209.
Photo by Gonvid Brahmanyapura
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