Reading Yvonne Owuor II

I needed Ajany so that I could “return” to Akai. This is, perhaps, appropriate, as Ajany is the one who “returns to” Akai (returns Odidi and, in a sense, returns Akai to “herself”).

Akai understands the exhaustion of bleeding life one love at a time, of trying to keep a step ahead of threat, dread, fear. Struggling not to need, not to crave more, trying to ignore the hunger to contain an other, always battling not to swallow her own.
“I anger.”

Akai-Ma’s English, pockmarked, dragged through moonscapes, propped up by gesture and hacked into low-droned present-tense portions into which any number of languages were inserted.
. . .
Ajany had long understood that Akai rendered words as they were made to be—soldier verbs, constructed for action and war. Ajany cowered in front of them.
. . .
Akai Lokorijom dispossesses herself even of stories she had buried in the earth.

Akai is rarely “eloquent” or “articulate.” As a girl, she is “at the top of her class, excelling in all subjects”: “Her restless imagination thrived when it found fresh universes,” even as she refuses to imagine herself a tabula rasa. Against the model of the unknowing native, she demands,

Why is what you know more truthful than what I know?

And now I’m stuck. I’m stuck—in fact, “arrested”—because Akai’s question is not only about history and memory, nor it is about that ongoing contest between experience and theory. (To stage claims about what “it is not” and “possibly is” is already to miss the lesson of her question; one can only insist on the contingency of one’s claims, on the tentative nature of those claims, on their partiality, hoping that these gestures are not understood as “merely formulaic” or “token.”)

Akai lives in the Northern Frontier District (NFD), distanced, Dust tells us, from the heart of Kenyan politics. While her life intersects with the state in its various formations—through colonial-missionary education, through her affairs with Hugh Bolton and Ali Dida Hada, state agents at different moments, through her relationship to Nyipir, a “dead” state agent—she is, for the most part, removed from the Kenya imagined in “fiction about Kenya.” She is difficult to “fit into” the stories told about Kenya, the stories told about “what matters” in Kenya. Her desires (as a girl, to undergo initiation “into manhood,” to become a “teacher and a traveler,” to organize “”proper cattle raids,” to “own at least ten thousand large-horned cows”) fit oddly, if at all, within the narratives told about women’s desires in “project Kenya.” (One notes that for a certain “familiar” narrative to emerge about “project Kenya,” Akai must be “forgotten”; or, more precisely, the value of what she knows and how she knows must be “discounted”; and the fragments she lets slip fit too easily into a “project Kenya,” so much so that readers need never query what else she knows and how she knows it.)

As an aside, I should note that Akai reminds me of Rebecca Njau’s Ripples in the Pool, in that way that books “call to” books.
It’s late.

Perhaps I’m struggling to say that few, if any, of the frames available to write on “African women” (as marginalized and marginal, as subaltern, as “spectral”) seem to work for the Akai who lives in the Northern Frontier District. None of these frames speak to and within this particular geo-history. Against these frames, Akai’s question returns,

Why is what you know more truthful than what I know?

As the novel ends, Akai “dispossesses herself of stories” that remain outside the scope of the narrative, unheard and, perhaps, unhearable. While it’s tempting to believe that Akai’s revelations (about Hugh, about Selena, about her dead twins) “end” her role in Dust, one imagines that the stories she tells waft in the air, linger to be caught by faint breezes, to slip into the unsettled sleep of those with restless dreams.

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