A profile of Okwiri Oduor, writer. Read the full transcript of my interview with her here.
Okwiri speaks slowly, carefully, gently. Often she doesn’t speak at all. In a group, you will see her listening intently, but in a crowd, she has a tendency to disappear, to retreat into herself. And then, suddenly, she speaks, and it’s worth hearing. She says things. It’s good to listen to her.
In my first conversation with the most recent winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing—arguably the most prominent prize for contemporary African writers—I found myself talking a lot, and listening less than I wanted to. There’s an intensity to her silences that I couldn’t help but babble and blather to fill. Not because she made me uncomfortable, but the reverse: she is a listener. And how do you hear a writer who listens? What is the sound of one writer listening? Of course, any writer worth listening to has already mastered the art, but there’s something almost tangible—almost—about her silences. Indeed, I find myself babbling now, putting myself into what is supposed to be a profile of her. And maybe that’s the point. I’ve struggled with writing this “profile” for a month now, because while you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows her that dislikes her, or has a bad word to say about her, her writing isn’t about her. Okwiri listens and makes you comfortable—in fact, at a certain point in the interview, I found myself telling her about how I stopped being a vegetarian, about my time as a primary school teacher in Tanzania, about all sorts of random things—so much so, that she herself almost disappears. But her writing unsettles, disturbs, lingers, and endures.
People have said a lot of things about the short story that won the Caine Prize, “My Father’s Head,” a story that was rejected so many times that its author eventually gave up and put it in a drawer, but it’s also a hard story to catch. It’s this elusiveness that you try to catch in describing it, in fact: it’s a story that can be read and re-read; “an uplifting story about mourning – Joycean in its reach,” as the novelist Jackie Kay put it; “a story you want to return to the minute you finish it.” As Keguro Macharia wrote, it’s “a story about listening”:
“a story about stories, about the labor of memory-work. It is a story about leaving and returning, a story familiar to so many of us, a story, in some ways, about the way returns are never possible. In the final moments, it becomes a story about a kind of impossible world. It is about a world made less possible because a person imagined to be a fixture in the world no longer exists in that way. It is, in some ways, about the ethics of the stories we tell, how we tell them. It is also about how we listen, and who we listen to.”
It’s about eight pages long, but you find yourself re-reading it. When Okwiri was in London for the various Caine Prize events, she found herself re-reading it—a few dozen times—because she wanted to carefully prepare for each public reading, by practicing first. I like the image of Okwiri reading and re-reading herself; she speaks with a slow deliberation, and constantly doubles back on herself; when I was transcribing the interview, later, I used a lot of ellipses, and I couldn’t help noticing how often she corrects herself, how many words she tries out on the tongue before rejecting them, and trying something different; I can’t help but hear the sharp contrast between my own voice—the way I’m rushing through my sentences, almost speaking over myself—and her measured, very slow pace. At first you might take that gentle uncertainty in her speaking voice to be caution, or restraint, but it’s not, not really; she speaks with such a deep respect for the words she’s using, that she’s always correcting herself, repeating herself with a difference, to clarify or to question. If you didn’t know she was a writer, it might seem like nothing; it might even seem like she’s unsure of herself, nervous. But when you’ve read her stories, and especially as you get to know her better, you can almost see her take up each word, each sentence, with a probing curiosity, brushing it off and holding it to the light.
My first conversation with the most recent winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing was at an event in Nairobi called the World’s Loudest Library, a mix of literary discussion, book-swapping, drinking, and dancing, in a warehouse space on Kijabe street, just above a textbook store. Against one wall, there were ceiling-high boxes of… something, I don’t know what. When we arrived, there were maybe two dozen people or so sitting on lawn chairs and rough furniture, chatting amiably, quietly. As we meandered through the room, Okwiri carefully introduced me to each and every person there, with the same careful conscientiousness that one learns to expect from her. When people congratulated her on winning the Caine Prize—she had only just returned from the awards ceremony in London, so it was their first chance to do so—she shrugged it off, uninterested in being praised and congratulated.
As more people arrived, the event began, and in the foreground, it was energetic, even raucous: after the DJ took a break, the organizers introduced the topic of the night, to the fifty or so people who had been quietly drinking in dimly-lit circles, mostly looking to be in their twenties and thirties. Why don’t Africans read their own stories? the organizers asked; Why are we more familiar with Hollywood movies than with something like Anansi? The discussion that followed was combative, eloquent, meandering, and a little frustrating. Musicians, writers, and artists discussed the problems of being Kenyan creators, both material questions of how and the more existential problem of what and why. What it meant or could mean to be “Kenyan”—much less a Kenyan writer or artist—was passionately up for debate, and was; at several points, the debate broke down altogether and the organizers had to impose strict rules of order on who could speak, and when and how. Okwiri did not join the discussion; much of the debate was familiar terrain, the kind of evergreen arguments that pass through each generation and which had found their way to this one. Much of it was also wildly tangential. There was, for example, the hotly debated question of whether Google Play would allow game designers to upload their creations from Kenya; one person argued that it would not allow it, and another argued—with the courage of deep conviction—that it would. When neither would concede the point, they agreed to disagree, and the question remain unresolved. At a certain point, the debate became a dance party.
Okwiri stayed in the background, quite literally. People at the event kept recognizing her and congratulating her, a celebrity in their midst. But when an organizer asked if she’d like him to introduce her to everyone else, to alert the crowd to her presence, she was blunt, firm, and unambiguous: this was precisely what she did not wish to happen. She took being on stage seriously. and had no interest in doing it here. She was not there as literary celebrity, and certainly not the kind that she had been in London. She is a writer, a distinctly different vocation than the performer of Africanness.
While the argument about African artistic creation raged on, Okwiri and I spoke quietly in the other corner. She talked about being an introvert, about how exhausting it can be to be social. For all the talk in that room about being an artist, a musician, and a writer, I couldn’t help but feel like here was a person who was too busy doing it to talk about how or why. One of the first things she told me was that she had once wanted to be a nun, an image that made both of us laugh. But she certainly does have a vocation. She is a writer.
She’s written a lot, and also not very much. In one sense, she’s barely launched as a writer. She’s in her mid-twenties, and while “My Father’s Head” is a superb story—and she has what I might call a once-in-a-generation way with a sentence—most of what she’s published, in the course of a four-year career as an author, doesn’t quite measure up (as she would be—and is—the first to admit, even to proclaim). She was horrified when I told her that I had done my homework and read her earlier writing; “I shouldn’t condemn myself and them,” she said, reluctantly; “If I’m the writer that I am today, it’s because I had to be that writer, I had to write those stories to become this writer, to write these stories.” But there really is a sharp distinction between her earlier writing and what she’s writing now.
Those stories were written by Claudette Oduor, her name for many years. If you look for things Claudette wrote, you can find stories like “The Red Bindi on Diwali,” “Tentacles of the Same Octopus,” and “The Plea Bargain,” published online. You might also find a story called “Children of the Dark” in an anthology called Fresh Paint: Literary Vignettes by Kenyan Women, and a much-praised, but little-read novella, “The Dream Chasers,” which you can buy as an e-book for $0.99 (you should buy it. Despite what she’ll tell you, it’s quite good).
When I asked her about her earlier work, she cringed. She looked physically pained when I asked her about “The Dream Chasers,” urging me not to read it, and she declared “Children of the Dark” to be “the worst story ever.” She seemed startled—not false modesty, but what seemed like genuine surprise—when I told her that I thought the opening to “The Red Bindi on Diwali” was a spectacular piece of prose:
On the window ledge where glass separated two kinds of night, I watched the two nights. The first night cried out loud, distressed because it could not see the vast horizons where it had buried its treasures. It is too dark, the night wailed. But the stupid night forgot that it was it that brought in the darkness. It looked in the mirror and cursed the folly of its freckled face, forgetting that each freckle was a twinkling star. It cried because a one-eyed monster nestled in its crevices, forgetting that the one-eyed monster was the moon that lit the night’s night.
Inside the window ledge, wherein I stood, the second night thought itself more superior to the night outside. It was proud because it was warm and well-fed, charged with the important duty of keeping secrets and inventing dreams. It patronised the night outside forgetting that it was worse off. It was a caged night, a tamed useless night that would die if let out in the wild…
At some point, she stopped calling herself Claudette. “As Claudette, I was a very different person,” she told me:
“In school, I was very bound to follow many rules, many different kinds of rules, religious, home, or school. After that, it was just a long process of un-binding myself and discovering that the world was… much bigger than I imagined, and my mind was much bigger than I’d been led to believe, and language was much bigger. There are rules, but you don’t have to follow them. Of course there are consequences, but it’s nothing that kills you.”
Okwiri is the name she was given at birth, a name she had “grown up believing was rough and ugly and unacceptable.” As she told the South African Mail and Guardian,
“The things I believed about my name can be taken as metaphors for how I saw myself and my writing as well, and so coming to terms with the person I was meant first and foremost carrying my own name with no shame. I chose to be unapologetic about being myself.”
Her discomfort with her earlier writing—an almost visceral recoil from its existence and continued circulation—is a feeling most writers will probably recognize. There’s also a measure of critical insight in it. She is much harder on herself than anyone else would think to be, but Okwiri Oduor is unquestionably a different writer than the Claudette who wrote stories about young love thwarted by tradition, or parental authority, or circumstance; as Okwiri dismissively joked, they’re the sorts of stories you might find in a UN anthology about on women’s rights. Even her novella, “The Dream Chasers,” takes Kenya’s 2007 Post-Election Violence as the backdrop for a story about star-crossed lovers, divided by tribal allegiance. But however stylistically virtuosic these stories might be, it can still feel like you’ve read them before: the children not allowed to marry because of their parents’ prejudices, patriarchal abuse, the violence of war… these are familiar narratives, rendered vivid and compelling, perhaps, but also recognizable and moralistic. There is also a temptingly false solution in each of them: just let the kids alone! Forced marriage, tribalist prejudice, or female circumcision; in each case, it’s tempting to find a rather simple and reductive take-away. If you take away the parents or patriarchs who violate and control their children, everything will be fine.
She’s written less under the name Okwiri, but what there is, so far, is spectacular. After “My Father’s Head” she has a story called “Christopher” in Saraba magazine, and a story called “Ragdoll” in the Africa39 anthology put together by the Hay Festival. I’ve read them all many times, and I expect to read them a few more times. They don’t so much end, as stop. And that’s part of what it means to put “Claudette” aside, if I may make so bold: the stories written by Claudette can be temptingly simple, capable of resolution. Change one thing, and the tragedy becomes a comedy, a drama that ends with a wedding instead of a corpse.
The stories that Okwiri has written, by contrast, are not stories you’ve read before, and they don’t finish, or let go of you when you put them down. Sometimes she writes beautifully, but her prose is never easy, and never simple. Instead, sense comes apart in her hands, and as her sentences warp and distort, the warped and distorted reality beneath comes into view. Indeed, “My Father’s Head” is about many things, but one of them is this evolving insufficiency of stories themselves: as the protagonist strives to remember that which cannot be recalled, reality warps and twists under her attempt to grasp it. Even the terms of the story we think we are reading, when we begin reading it, have changed dramatically by the time we get to the end: you are not reading the same story at the end as you were when you begin. Some people have used phrases like “magical realism” to describe her writing, but it only gestures towards what she’s doing without saying very much about it: the reality she shows us is not magical, just real in ways we may sometimes lack the perception (or courage) to see. But more importantly, there is, in the uncanniness of the worlds she creates, the familiar incongruity of the self, made strange to itself, the face in the mirror that is, and is not, your own. That it seems magical, and real, is a measure of her accomplishment.
People tend to treat her as if “My Father’s Head” is the only thing she’s ever written—a statement which has almost enough of a kernel of truth to almost let it pass—but I feel confident in predicting that we haven’t yet read the best things that she’s written, much less of what she will write. Her novel in progress, she told me, is set in the Kenya of 1988, amidst some of the deepest political repression of the Moi regime, an era of protest, crackdowns, torture, and dictatorial violence. It’s also, she told me a moment later, a novel about female friendship:
“…half of it is in this world, but half of it is in another world, if I should call it that. I guess there’s two main characters now. One died, but she’s still making a journey, and it’s the same kind of journey that the other girl is making. A kind of journey into…”
And then her voice trailed off. “Um, I don’t know,” she said; “I’m not very good with words. I’m not good with words when I’m writing.” We both laughed at that.