Owuor’s epic The Dragonfly Sea (Knopf, Mar.) tells the story of a young girl of mixed heritage who travels to China from a small island off the coast of Kenya.
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.
The novel’s structure is inspired by the ebb and flow of tides, framed by themes of searching and returning. What inspired that choice?
It comes from a real passion for the ocean; I was six years old when I first met the Indian Ocean in Kenya, off the coast in Mombasa. I’d never seen anything more beautiful in my young existence. And in a very strange way, it was the first time I felt like I belonged to something of the Earth, that I’m a part of it.
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.