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The allure of language and the sea

  • Published at 08:59 pm April 11th, 2020
The allure of language and the sea

Book review of 'The Dragonfly Sea'

In her latest book, award-winning author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor weaves a story of identity politics and history in a globalized world, as well as friendship, love and loss.

Set in Kenya and beyond, the story leads us to a mother who desperately searches for her son in gory photos that have gone viral right after a suicide bomb blast in a market thronged by many. Blurry-eyed, she seeks to identify her son in the scattered mob of dead bodies. She is not trying to trace him among the victims though; her gaze is fixated on those wearing necessary gears to carry out a suicide bomb blast. After similar attacks, she regularly looks through the photos for any hint of her son—a son who left his community, radicalized, to join the “Jihad”; a son who has been “caught up in a war of worlds that should have never touched their lives.” A man clad in niqab, popping eyes, cracked skull, lies among bloodstained rubbles, blackened vehicles—could that be her son? She searches among the “ceaseless screams frozen on human faces”.

One of the vital elements that forms the bones of this sprawling novel is the menacing presence of radicalized youths. The tentacles of radicalization touch a significant number of characters. National and personal implications of radicalization echo throughout the story, laying bare the fault-lines fissuring the security forces’ retributive measures and national unity. This aspect, among others, perhaps is what makes the novel so relevant for this time and age. How can one untangle oneself from the traps laid by fanaticism? How can one adjust to a community surrounded by elements of radicalization? How does a nation draw the line between “War on terror” and downright generalization of a specific community? How does one cope with personal losses deriving from radicalization? These are the questions Yvonne tackles by displaying the shadowy yet tangible presence of the discourse known as Islamist extremism.

The Dragonfly Sea is set in Pate island, which is off the coast of Kenya, fringed by mangrove forests, edging the Indian Ocean. Pate’s appeal attracts those who “barter solitude for guilt”, those who “wear the beleaguered faces of hurriedly abandoned pasts”, those who seek invigorating reprieve from the perils of the world (“They entered Pate to disappear”). It bleeds into one’s conscience and holds them captive in its charm. Its residents leave the island, only to return years later. And travelers from faraway lands lodge themselves into the heart of Pate. One can barely deny its allure. (“Invariably, at least three of those who had entered the island’s cult of hospitality did not leave”; or “And there were far more than expected who left, only to show up again years later.”)

On the island, Ayaana, who was conceived at the same time as when Tiananmen Square protests raged on, lives with her single mother, Munira—a debilitated subject of endless judgmental looks from others in the community. Munira is an emblem of someone who has defied the conventional laws set within the bubbles of a community. She walks a solitary path and braves life’s unpredictability instead of waiting out the storm.  An outcast, an effigy of ignominy—a “fragrant whore” and “on-the-tail-end-of-a-scandal mother”.

Ayaana is the “fruit of lying dreams”, an evidence of Munira’s past decisions fraught with risks and consequences for the present. Everyone on the island knows of Ayaana’s fatherlessness; this bit of knowledge sets the stage for the politics of shaming Ayaana and Munira for the latter’s choices. That’s why the neighborhood kids are strictly advised against mingling with Ayaana. Both Ayaana and Munira grapple with the social mechanism of shaming throughout the course of their lives. The course of their regular life changes when Muhidin, a reservoir of knowledge, a sailor, arrives on Pate in a desperate bid to drift away from the din of his past. The friendship that blooms among the three is so remarkable that Ayaana starts addressing him as her father and Munira finds herself mired in a complicated romantic affair. Later on, Muhidin’s son Ziryab also arrives on Pate, fleeing from the violence of airstrikes in Libya, and we see the forging of a wholesome bond between the four, leading to the birth of “a makeshift family”. This has a somewhat calming effect on the reader: that one can swim out of the waters of hostility and embrace generosity pulls at the reader’s heartstrings.

Soon Ayaana receives a scholarship at a maritime University in Xiamen and makes an incredible, suspenseful voyage by MV Qingrui—a mammoth vessel that can be treated as a significant character per se—to China, as a result of her mysterious ties to the country’s history. It is from this point that the plot starts branching out of the confines of Pate, unraveling across diverse geography and through new characters and sub-plots.

Yvonne uses Ayaana’s link to China (which is based on a real event) to establish a vantage point for readers so that they can take a look at China’s capitalist expansion and the consequences it brings about for a particular country (“Just like China dreaming Kenya...without our elephants and lions, without our land, without us”). The allure of the novel lies as much in the plot as Yvonne’s lyrical tone that punctuates almost every sentence. By blurring the line between poetry and prose, she achieves the feat of capturing the power of a fleeting moment, etching it into the reader’s imagination for a long while. 

Yvonne’s lyricism informs the novel’s progression at every stage. Consider the following instances: “Five hundred death grimaces of African beings: lions, leopards, pangolins, zebras, and gazelles”; “A bird with a low-pitched voice lifted the morning with a punctuation mark—tong, tong, phee!”

Most significantly, the sea, with its recurring presence, turns out to be a metaphor with meaning as vast as its own depth. It contains ghost ships, lost fleets defeated by East African storms, curious pods of dolphins and seals. Ayaana’s excursions into the sea, her swimming with the dolphins and other aquatic beings, provide an outstanding imagery of a girl at one with nature. In a world increasingly facing threats of environmental degradation, this imagery is remarkable. The sea is also a subject of simmering tension in the face of many forces (drilling by multinational companies, especially the Chinese ones).

Politics of identity, stifling marriages, encounters with ocean pirates, history, culture of syncretism, unspeakable tragedies, vestiges of colonialism—all of these themes combine to create this story with a richly imagined setting and storyline, armed with poetry. If this book was compared with the sea, one would find it impossible to leave its waters, the aqua-universe inhabited by dolphins and hundreds of thousands of marine species.


Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a young writer. He can be reached at [email protected]