Kenyan novelist Yvonne Owuor who brought us the critically acclaimed novel Dust has a new book in the works. The Dragonfly Sea centers on a largely unexplored period in Africa’s past: the Chinese-African encounter via the Indian Ocean.
The novel centers on a girl named Ayana who lived a solitary life on the island of Pate, off the coast of Kenya. Her life soon takes a dramatic turn when she embarks on an odyssey to the Far East.
In a recent interview featured on Publisher’s Weekly, Owuor talks about the inspiration behind the novel, why she decided to tackle that period in Africa’s history, and why it is important to her that East Africa confronts its centuries-long relation with China.
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The novel’s protagonist, Ayaana, is a fictionalized version of a real person. How did you decide to write her story?
Living along the Indian Ocean, I’d heard different versions of the story of old Chinese friendships dating back 600 years. I’d heard the story of Admiral Zheng He, who underpins so much of the story, and of sailors that had drowned and how a few of them had found refuge on Pate, this little island off the coast of Kenya. The story had bubbled in the back of my mind, and when this girl Mwamaka Sharifu was sent to China [in 2005, after learning of her Chinese ancestry], I thought there’d be a greater noise and maybe a greater understanding about this idea of the return, the final chapter in a 600-year-old story.
Did you have to do much research?
I lived in Zanzibar for three years, and I also lived in both Mombasa and Diani in Kenya, so a lot of the sea references come from encounters and experiences. I conducted interviews with all sorts of fascinating souls, including East Africans who had gone and lived in China. Some of the adventures that young Ayaana has in China come from the life stories of real people—those who dared open their mouths to answer my questions. And of course I used lots of historical sources; one of my favorite Swahili scholars was a poet-minstrel who inspired Muhidin, the great poet Haji Gora Haji from Zanzibar.
What do you think most people don’t understand about the relationship between Africa and China?
So much of the conversation about China’s relationship with Africa, and certainly Eastern Africa, is presented as something new. Because of where I lived, in Eastern Africa, I had an awareness that China’s “new” engagement with Africa was actually nothing new. I find resonance in that with the way the Chinese are presenting the return of their engagement with the world—the Maritime Silk Road. Part of my own questioning was what—within the East African space—ideas about China’s new engagement with Africa actually means. Very little reference is made to the past, when I think that the past is what is informing this new relationship. So I wanted to write about this idea of return, that some of the answers we seek might actually be found in the past.