Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

By Shingai Kagunda

Photos by Prestige Bookshop.

On 1 March 2019, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor launched her second novel, The Dragonfly Sea, for the first time. She honoured us by doing so at Prestige Bookshop with an open audience and a mini panel discussion. Nairobi was not prepared for the explosive event that took place inside our little bookshop at the end of Mama Ngina Street.

By 4:30 p.m., people were in our bookshop with the most enthusiastic expressions on their faces. We were all ready, waiting, expectant. Voices could be heard outside and inside, excited chatter. The air was electric with anticipation.

Oyunga Pala began the evening by bringing all the guests together with his deep vibrato. Introductions followed. Abubakar Zein gave a beautiful speech in honour of a book he said is “a journey of liberation.” He spoke of our history and collective memory. “The narratives we have been fed,” he said, “robbed us of our memory and thus our imagination.” The Dragonfly Sea, he said, is a call to remember and to imagine. When we remember the truth over the narrative we were fed by oppressors, we begin to liberate ourselves. The book is a step towards the liberation that comes from telling our own stories. “If you read this book and you get stuck, then you are reading it the right way,” he said—an echo of the notion that remembering truth is not easy. “It offers space for reflection, conversation, imagination, and liberation.”

Professor Mohammed Bakari took up from where Abubakar Zein ended by starting with a joke: “I would like to ask Yvonne, as President Obama was accused, whether she is crypto Muslim?” This was greeted by laughter. He then went on to praise Yvonne’s grasp of Swahili culture and Islamic ideologies without bias. She has written outside of her immediate context, he said, and this is important. “All civilizations are results of the impact of other civilizations,” he reminded us. “There is nothing like a pure ethnicity or culture. This idea is a fragment of our imagination. The history of humanity is in essence the history of migration.”

As a Luo woman telling a story largely based on Swahili culture, he said, Yvonne has written intertextually. There is no singular new narrative, after all, and new texts are written by old texts just as new cultures are expounded upon by old cultures. The idea that Chinese, Arabian, and Swahili influences, among others, are all interconnected and build upon each other to tell several stories with a single thread binding them is genius and revolutionary—and even more so because Yvonne tells the story from multiple perspectives, through different worldviews, and still keeps it balanced, giving each vantage the honour, space, and time it deserves. “This book,” he said, “is truly unprecedented.”

Taking advantage of the subtle shift in the atmosphere, Aleya Kassam stepped in to do a beautiful reading of a poem by Mwana Kpona Binti Msham, adapted by Deidre Lashgari:

Daughter, take this amulet,

tie it with cord and caring.

I’ll make you a chain of coral and pearl

to glow on your neck. I’ll dress you nobly.

A gold clasp, too – fine without flaw to keep with you always.

When you bathe, sprinkle perfume and weave your hair in braids,

string jasmine for the counterpane.

Wear your clothes like a bride,

for your feet anklets, bracelets for your arms.

Don’t forget rosewater;

don’t forget henna for the palms of your hands.

It was a soft tribute with considerable impact. By the time Yvonne got up to speak and read from the book, the room was silent and eager to hear her heart.

After thanking Ahmed of Prestige Bookshop for organizing the event, Yvonne concluded by stating: “I’ve always wanted my work to start here. This is home. . . . And quite frankly, I write for my people first.”

Although The Dragonfly Sea took on a life of its own, the original inspiration for the novel is a historical event. Six hundred years ago on the Swahili Seas, commander Zheng He’s ship capsized during an exploration trip and roughly twenty Chinese survivors swam to the Lamu Archipelago shores. With no way home, they intermarried with Swahili women, took up the Islamic faith, and settled on the Islands. Centuries later, in 2005, a young girl, Mwamaka Sharifu, who is a resident of Pate Island, is taken to China on a scholarship—a symbolic return for her.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea can be bought at Prestige Bookshop for 2,890 Shilling.

Tags: , , ,

Otosirieze is deputy editor of Brittle Paper. He is a judge for the 2018/19 Gerald Kraak Prize. He is an editor at 14, Nigeria’s first queer art collective, which has published volumes including We Are Flowers (2017) and The Inward Gaze (2018). He is the curator of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of e-anthologies of writing and visual art focusing on different aspects of Nigerianness, including Enter Naija: The Book of Places (2016), which explores cities, and Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (2017), which explores professions. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review and Transition. He has completed a collection of short stories, You Sing of a Longing, is working on a novel, and is represented by David Godwin Associates literary agency. He combined English and History at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is completing a postgraduate degree in African Studies, and taught English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. Find him at, where he accepts writing and editing offers, or on Instagram or Twitter: @otosirieze. When bored, he Googles Rihanna.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


African Literary Digest: 101 Notable Pieces of 2018


It was inevitable: compiling a list as monstrous as this would consume time, cause a delay. But here we are. […]

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Diana Evans Longlisted for the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize


The Zimbabwean novelist Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and the British-Nigerian novelist Diana Evans have been longlisted for the £30,000 Rathbones Folio […]

Ben Okri to Headline the 2019 African Book Festival in Berlin, with Ainehi Edoro, Musa Okwonga as Moderators | All the Guests + Key Events

berlin festival of african writers

Ben Okri will headline the 2019 African Book Festival in Berlin, curated by Tsitsi Dangarembga, where panels will be moderated by Brittle […]

Gerald Kraak Prize Anthology, Trifonia Melibea Obono, Uzodinma Iweala Shortlisted for the 2019 LAMBDA Literary Awards

lamda awards 2019

Four books by Africans have been shortlisted for the 2019 LAMBDA Literary Awards for literature about LGBTQI+ people. Equatoguinean writer […]

Praxis Magazine Announces Seven Poetry Chapbooks for Its 2019-20 Publication Series

praxis chapbook series graph

Praxis magazine has selected seven poetry chapbooks for its 2019-20 publication series. The announcement, made on its website, included submissions from […]

Poetry Collective & Press Konya Shamsrumi Gets New Columnist-Bloggers in Tafirenyika, Anena, Grieder, Gatawa, and Sabuke

konya shamsrumi

The poetry collective and press Konya Shamsrumi (KSR) has announced new columnist-bloggers for its website. They are: Tinashe Tafirenyika, the two-time National Arts Merit […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.