Reading Yvonne Owuor III

While I continue to gather my thoughts about Akai (the missing II of this series), let me turn to the difficulty of imagining Ajany.

Dust hinges on one sentence: “I’m . . . uh . . . looking for Odidi.”

By this point in the novel, Ajany has accompanied her father to Wuoth Ogik to deliver Odidi’s body to Akai (such an awkward formulation is needed). She then returns to Nairobi to “[look] for Odidi.” The gendered economies of quest narratives makes her search all but illegible. Writing in the Washington Post, Ron Charles claims Ajany travels to Nairobi to “investigate her brother’s murder.” This is not quite right—but then Ajany, despite being “the center” of the novel, as a few astute reviewers note, risks fading away, being displaced from the novel’s center by long-established critical habits that must center men. In reading review after review, I’m reminded that seeing women in books requires a lot of labor—affective, ideological, political.

In an odd way, the novel anticipates this “unseeing” of Ajany. The ellipses that mark her speech, her stutter, gesture, if obliquely, to the “already known” and “never known” with which patriarchy “always already” fills in the silences of women’s speech. That such gaps may be—should be, can be—left unfilled, that they have purpose, seems unthinkable. Women’s silence is not waiting for patriarchy’s prattle. And, in many ways, this is a novel about women’s silence.

This “silence” is central to Ajany’s artistic practice, with which the novel proper opens:

Here. She could paint this; hold the brush as a stabbing knife. There. Coloring in landscapes of loss. She could draw this for him, this longing to hear his particular voice, listening for echoes of bloodied footsteps, borrowing dead eyes to help her find him again. Here. Jagged precipices of wounding, and over cliffs, an immense waterfall of yearning, falling and falling into nothingness.

Note the repeated pull and insistence of “Here” (even when it hides in “There”). (It strikes me that “Here” is an important term in women’s cultural production.) I’m tempted to claim the “three” “Here/here” in this passage dissipate into “nothingness” at the end of the paragraph, but I think that is a strategic, too-easy misreading, one that, too easily, erases representational frames and practices.

“Here,” after all, refers as much to the space Ajany occupies as she paints as it does to the painting itself—an abstraction of “loss,” “longing,” “echoes,” and “yearning.” It refers to the time-space and geo-history of her remembering, to her body’s present. It refers, as well, to her struggle to materialize into a now:here that would register her as “present,” as “witness.” I’m stuck on this “Here” because so many reviews of the novel are too quick to gloss over Ajany’s present, too quick to make that present “matter” because it’s in a mortuary, in a heading-to-war 2007, in the future of a past colony, and so on. Ajany’s labor as an artist of “Here,” a painter of “Here,” becomes lost.

How does one represent a “Here” of “yearning” and “nothingness”? How does one represent a “Here” when one is never allowed to be present or to matter?
*
A confession: Yvonne is a friend.
*
Another confession: I am useless at “reviewing” books because I want to linger on, to obsess over, to stay stuck on, to hold on as long as I can. I lack the reviewer’s ability to map broadly, to evaluate casually, to read for markets and to market.
*
“Here” occurs many places in Dust, as a particularly gendered insistence on women’s labor, women’s movements, women’s art:

Ajany cannot stop moving. When she dances, the dread dies. When she moves, she is not lost. When she moves, there is no absence. When the music moves her, there is such life she cries. The antics of a firefly caught in the memory of a once-perfect flame. Ajany dances.

If Dust is a restless book—and it is—how might that restlessness be embodied in Ajany’s dancing? In her multiple shifts across space—national and transnational? In the insistence on “Here”?

(One might argue that Ajany is present every time ellipses occur in the novel, for ellipses mark her speech, her stutter, her embodied speech. Every single time ellipses occur in the text, Ajany is made present, made “Here.”)

One more instance of “Here,” less because it fits into an emerging thesis, and more because it’s been nagging at me since I read the novel. Also, because it made me cry.

Ajany discovers where Odidi was shot:

She has found the place.

She scrapes fragments of her brother’s dried, rusted blood onto a small piece of paper. . . . She has just noticed the sullied petals of a crushed lily when the acrid loathing surges from her body, gushes out of her mouth, and mingles with the chaos on the ground.
. . .
She has poured water into the wound on the ground, and scrubbed with her fingers and hands. But before she poured the water she had bent over, rested her head on the warm tarmac, touched the memory blood with her face. Ears to the ground, listening and waiting.
. . .
She will keep vigil over a spot of road.

What is it to be “Here”?

We later discover that Justina also keeps vigil at this “spot of road,” that she brings lilies to remember Odidi, her lover, the man she helped to survive. Why is Odidi “Here,” at a “spot of road” watched over, now, by two women? And what is a woman’s “Here”? What is Ajany’s “Here”?

Later, we will learn that Justina also paints. Justina also produces “Here”: “Justina cradles Ajany’s face, paintbrush in hand. She touches her brush to Ajany’s tears.” In part, Dust “is about” how easy it is to forget how women remember, how women live, how women “Here.”

Simultaneously, it reminds us how women “Here,” how they occupy now:here, how they represent now:here, how they paint with scraped up blood and tears, with stabbing brushes.

“Here . . .”

4 thoughts on “Reading Yvonne Owuor III

  1. I find your description of Ajany’s painting compelling. You mention:

    “Here,” after all, refers as much to the space Ajany occupies as she paints as it does to the painting itself.

    But I also wonder how the (re)beginning of Ajany’s painting might work the beginnings of your thesis. We recall that Ajany, as a child, almost quit painting after her work was destroyed by her father. The following scene and conversation with Odidi then took place:

    Nothing was ever said about her artwork again. But when Odidi and Ajany returned to school in the middle of January, once they were inside the school gates, Odidi said, “‘Jany, you’ll paint.”

    She had stared at the soil.

    Odidi shook her. “You must paint.”

    She had shaken her head.

    Odidi pinched her jaw, lifting her face, his eyes deep and clear. He said, “I say you paint, silly, or I take you back to your tree now.”

    “Can’t.”

    “Can.”

    “Don’t know how to start.”

    “Try.”

    “Everything burned.”

    “Silly, paint a river out of Wuoth Ogik. Then paint an ocean and ship, and inside the ship, me and you going Far Away.”

    Ajany had turned and run into the art studio, retrieved last term’s unfinished canvases and hardened paint. She could already hear the sound of ocean waves, and inside the waves, she saw the color yellow-white screaming at the color indigo blue.

    Ajany had turned and run into the art studio, retrieved last term’s unfinished canvases and hardened paint. She could already hear the sound of ocean waves, and inside the waves, she saw the color yellow-white screaming at the color indigo blue.

    ***

    It would seem as though Ajany paints as both a means to escape (go “Far Away” from) “here” as well as to retrieve “here”. There’s a productive ambivalence there that makes me wonder about (and not know what to make of, and possibly misread) your insistence on “Here”.

    Readers like myself were astounded by the restlessness you mentioned. None of the women in the story seems to want “Here”. The men, for the most part, are either buried here or shackled here (by nationalism, lust, love, inertia, whatever else). This of course speaks to issues of patrilineal land ownership (WM) and the patronymic requiring the exchange of women (Butler).

    Is there a certain violence in re-inscribing the restless women, including Ajany, “Here”?

    ***

    A confession: I really don’t know how to read this book (or any book). I look to you for guidance.

    Thank you for your thinking.

    • I am tempted to insist that what I’ve written has “nothing to do with Hegel.” Given the ink that has already “been spilled” and will be “spilled” over Odidi and Nyipir (and Tom Mboya and Ali Dida Hada and the Boltons, though, perhaps, never Galgalu), I am reluctant to expend much, if any, brainpower on the “men” in the novel. I have neither the desire nor the inclination to bend my brain that way.

      • I am reluctant to expend much, if any, brainpower on the “men” in the novel.

        Fair enough. Though I’m not at all sure I was asking about the men in the novel. Still, I hear you.

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