It’s been quite a journey following the Folio Prize this time round. I am an interested party. My pal Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was in the running for one of the richest prizes in world literature; UK pounds 40,000 for the best English Language novel for the year.
I met Yvonne many moons ago. It was at the time Kwani? Trust ran the literature scene in this city before everyone left with their own little piece. I came to enjoy chatting with the soft spoken but very forthright Yvonne. It was at a workshop organized by Kwani that I heard her speak and I made a life decision; to try and make something of this writing thing. I went on to become first a newspaper columnist and then an editor. It was not an easy journey but when it got difficult I just remembered what Yvonne was saying in Lukenya in 2006.
Then there is her story, The Weight of Whispers about a member of the Rwandan aristocracy who ends up working in a mortuary in Nairobi after the genocide in his country locks him out. I remember crying at the end of the story. It was just so poignant. She won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 for that story.
Then we had to wait. We had to wait for her to work with the Aga Khan University. We had to wait for her to work with the Zanzibar International Film Festival. In between the waiting, whenever we would meet I would pester her with questions on her forthcoming novel. It had been promised to us for some long but it wouldn’t come. She would be polite and she would report some progress. If she could.
Then in 2013, she told me she was coming with a book finally. I was overjoyed. Seriously. I had been waiting for the book and its appearance was imminent. Then the guys organizing it decided to couple her book debut with the ten years of Kwani? This celebration included the visit of Nigerian book superstar Chimamanda Adichie. The whole city was star struck with Adichie and I don’t think that our girl got her due for her book at these celebrations. But this is just a personal bias. I heart Yvonne.
I eventually got a copy of the book and started reading it. Dust is a beautiful book. It’s not an easy read. It takes very complex themes and then presents them in some of the most beautiful prose I have had the pleasure of reading. The best part of it for me is that as a Kenyan, she speaks of those little spaces within us that we hide so well away from the rest of the world as we make a big noise about how amazing we are as a nation. Our strengths and weaknesses laid bare. It’s not many that can do that in such an almost effortless manner.
So today I was following the Folio Prize in the UK from home laptop as I wished that one of the best writers this country every produced gets her due. The honour of her peers. I have seen her making the longlist and then the shortlist and I was hoping for the best for her. She didn’t take the prize this year. The big prize of 40,000 UK pounds went to Indian-American author Akhil Sharma for Family Life, the story of an immigrant family floundering in America that took him 13 years to write.
Yvonne wasn’t the big winner this evening in London, but she will always be number one in my book.