by April Zhu
Verses and aphorisms acknowledge that nothing is really ever new; they carry history well. Not all languages hold poetry naturally in daily speech, or are old enough to speak of ghosts with mundanity. Kiswahili is one, and Chinese is another. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor looks for the ghosts that fit in the timbres of these two languages, to hear all the frequencies of China’s relationship with Kenya, a 600-year-old story of which “China in Kenya” as we know it today (chinkuus and railroads) is only a very recent chapter. Her latest novel, The Dragonfly Sea,is an intuitively emotional piece, centered on the marginalized, deeply fluent in the ways in which negative spaces—history, memory, death—shape lives.
The “dragonfly sea” is the Indian Ocean, an 11,000-kilometer stretch across which millions of dragonflies cross from Asia to Africa. The journey at the center of the novel is an echo of this natural epic migration. Ayaana, a girl from Pate Island off of Kenya’s north coast, is chosen to make a momentous trip across the Indian Ocean to China. It is a fictitious re-imagining of Mwamaka Sharifu’s real-life journey in 2005, upon discovery that she had Chinese ancestry, that she was a houyi (后裔), a Descendant, “someone to walk the space between the past and the present, so the future can be shared.”
Traces of China on the Lamu Archipelago point back to Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who, in the early 15th century, reached the shores of East Africa with a flotilla many times greater than that of his European contemporaries. On his seventh and final voyage, a large storm shipwrecked part of his fleet off of Kenya’s north coast, where it is said survivors sought refuge, converted to Islam, married, and named new homes after old ones (Shanga from Shanghai).
Before Ayaana was a celebrated houyi, she was the product of shameful circumstances. Her absent father forms a void that shapes her life and and that of her mother Munira on Pate. Munira, a woman who “does not believe in men,” teaches Ayaana early on that identity is no less valid if chosen rather than inherited. They choose their own family name, and Ayaana “chooses” into her life a father: Muhidin, the “sun-blackened, salt-water-seared, bug-eyed, and brawny” fisherman with a poet’s mind, who gives her the gift of Rabi’a al-Adawiyya’s poetry, verse in a woman’s voice that becomes Ayaana’s lodestar in strange countries. The lives of Ayaana’s patchwork family are ghost stories, shaped by deaths and disappearances that drive them towards the ocean. When Ayaana speaks of her “family” later to her Turkish friend Koray, he responds, “Life is crafted from absence to absence.
In The Dragonfly Sea, Owuor centers the margin. The Kenya in this story is the Swahili Coast, it is Pate, it is Muhidin when he leaves Pate to “go to Kenya” and, while in Nairobi, is captured and interrogated as a terror suspect for being Muslim, hailing from the north coast, and, really, not being Kenyan enough. Each character, from Teacher Ruolan, Ayaana’s subtly racist Mandarin instructor, to Nioreg, the Congolese widower hired to be the ship’s security detail en route to China, is delicately crafted, a victim of something, their backstories a map of brokenness and the resulting plot simply points where these intersect. Owuor places us in a position of empathetic omniscience, which often feels alien and improbable, where, as in a Baroque painting, everything is at once, impossibly, fully in focus.
As with Owuor’s debut novel Dust, The Dragonfly Sea turns on the axis of an interracial relationship, unexpected because it does not fit the expected power imbalance, but through its incidental-ness, tests the norms of race and sex (and our assumptions thereof), especially between Asians and Africans. (It also refreshingly embraces the desirable, sexual Asian man.) As Ayaana embarks on the ship MV Qingrui to reach Xiamen, where she will be paraded around China as the houyi from Africa, she meets and is almost at once—through some undefined familiarity—drawn to the ship’s captain Lai Jin. His face and body “written” by a fire that claimed his wife, Lai Jin had become a “life member of a noisome asylum that was at its core, a void,” and he too, like the tragedy-battered members of Ayaana’s family, turned to the ocean. Owuor makes a good-faith attempt to draw the stages of love between two individuals without defining it by their grasp of a shared second or third language. English is not the center of Ayaana and Lai Jin’s relationship; sometimes, neither is prose.
At the center of this story is a question: how does one complicate the present “return of China to Kenya?” “China in Africa,” a category so broad it means nothing (or, rather, chooses only politically important meanings), is meant to embody an impossible multitude of stories: aid and debt, migration, proliferation of informal and illicit trade, cultural diffusion, cultural imperialism, demographic anxiety, racism, and coloniality. But coverage of these issues is so often flattened to a geopolitical plane populated almost entirely of elite men, one that exists in official, poorly translated English on banners, speeches, press releases, and mottos.
On the day the MV Qingrui embarks from Mombasa to Xiamen, Chinese and Kenyan bureaucrats gather to be photographed: “The merry-makers disembarked in undulating descent, careful to support one another, and demonstrating proof of the power of cheap champagne to forge loving connections between two uneven countries.” Ayaana and Lai Jin watch, together, above and separate from the optics. Owuor is hardly naïve about modern (or historical) Chinese involvement in Kenya and the injustices and humiliations it has exacted on Kenyans. What she does do is ask what seismic geopolitical shifts look like when seen from the margins. Later in the book, Ayaana thinks aloud to Lai Jin: “China says she has come back. An ‘old friend.’ But when she was here before, we also had to pay for that friendship. Now she speaks, not with us on Pate, but to Nairobi, where our destiny is written as if we don’t exist.”
At the Nairobi terminus of the Chinese-built Standard Gauge Railway, tainted as an omen of a second colonization, there stands a colossal bust of Zheng He. The label beneath asserts that his fleet made several trips to Mombasa, “embracing mutual understanding between China and Kenya and strengthening Kenya-China friendly exchanges.” Zheng He and his shipwrecked sailors who put down roots in Kenya, were proof—so it goes—that “friendship” between China and Kenya predates European colonization, proving that China’s interests, unlike those of the predatory West, are beneficent. The admiral’s ghost, not only in Kenya, has been increasingly invoked by the Chinese government to carry out the political work of justifying China’s modern imperialist moves. What is the houyi exercise, after all, if not one of China’s many “emblematic ways of excavating, proving, and entrenching Chinese rootedness in Africa,” in the poetry through which China speaks of geopolitics?
To make sense of (and authenticate) narratives of the powerful, it will only be more important to look towards the margin, as Owuor does. “But maybe as it approaches us, this earthquake that is ‘Zhongguo,’” Ayaana muses, after the completion of her journey, “it will do us the honor of recognizing that Pate Island is also the keeper of its graves?”
Owuor’s optimism—if we can call it that—is that, if we look to the margins, we may find old ghosts that that play no part in national stories. Old cyclicalities, like the pervasiveness of shame, how powerless a woman is to prevent passing to her daughter the experience of rape. The potency of art, silently passed down from a disappeared mother to her not-enough son. Older ghosts, which can be found if we look beyond political ghosts cast in bronze and search instead for those who washed ashore in a foreign land, said the Shahada, and took the purgatory bath—those who find rose-scented love and finish their lives in a new land.
April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya