A Focus on World Literature
I came across Kenyan author, Okwiri Oduor’s Things They Lost in 2022 while perusing OneWorld Publications, one of my favourite indie publishers. Their books are described as:
“emotionally engaging stories with strong narratives and distinctive voices. In addition to being beautifully written, we hope our novels play their part in introducing the reader to a different culture or an interesting historical period/event, and deeply explore the human condition in all its vagaries”
Some of the wonderful books they have published that I have read and reviewed are Ugandan author, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu and The First Woman, Russian author Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha, Lebanese author Hoda Barakat’s Voices of the Lost, Iraqi author Shahad Al Rawi’s The Baghdad Clock and Korean author Sun-mi Hwang’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly.
Otherworldly Surrealism that Feels Real
Things They Lost is a coming-of-age tale of a young girl who is highly intuitive and sensitive to other spiritual dimensions. She has always been aware of the presence of entities that may not be apparent to others, although some of the women around her also have perceptive abilities.
I absolutely loved this novel and was pulled in by the narrative voice immediately. It was one that gave me a frisson of excitement very early on, that feeling of having encountered an author that might become a favourite, their assured use of language above and beyond the norm.
Ayosa Ataraxis Brown is a character that is going to stay with me for a long time. She is 12 years old and lives virtually alone in a large house that has passed down the family since the English woman Mabel Brown first arrived and built a house and employed enough people to call the surrounding area Mabel Town. It has now evolved into the more aptly named Mapeli Town.
It was not so much a deformation as an emancipation, for the name had softened, and could wedge itself better in the townspeople’s mouths. Mabel Town had belonged to the Englishwoman, but Mapeli Town was theirs.
Poetry, Death News, Snatchers
Ayosa, the great grand daughter of Mabel now lives in the big house. Her expanded awareness is a necessary trait for her survival, when it is difficult to tell whether the person standing in front of you is real and kind, or a wraith that has sussed out your innermost desire, used as a lure to snatch you. The Fatunas who dwell upstairs keep her company and at times make the whole house shake.
The radio keeps her and the townsfolk company. Radio man reads the death news while Ms. Temperance recites a daily poem; violence has been known to occur when she missed a day, so important is the daily poem to the welfare of this community. It helps them deal with the things that have happened.
She also keeps a notebook and jots things down, about what it’s like for her as a girl. Of memories, things remembered from the Yonder Days.
She said, I wish it were true.
You wish what were true?
That you could remember me as a girl. There are things I cannot tell you with my own mouth. I wish you could have been there to see them yourself.
Ayosa said nothing. In her notebook, she wrote, I was there.
Jolly anna ha-ha-ha
The prose is magical, how to even describe it, reading Okwiri Obuor is to enter into another world, her rich, vibrant, incantatory prose doesn’t just shine, it is deeply invested in portraying the day to day presence and effect of abandonment by the mother.
Certain repetitions of phrases and words create the girls own vernacular and familiarise the reader with their linguistic world. There is mystery throughout, we are at the edge of knowing, the more we read, the more questions we have, trying to understand and interpret through these young all seeing eyes.
Her mama had an outside life and an inside life. In the outside life, she was Nabumbo Promise Brown. Daughter of Lola Freedom. Sister of Rosette Brown. Granddaughter of Mabel Brown. But in the inside life she was none of those things. She was Another Person. She lived in a tree hollow, inside a red city. She was a beggar and a thief. She robbed and plundered and murdered.
There but Not There, A Peculiar Absence
It is never entirely clear what ails her mother, sometimes absent, sometimes there, but not there. Ayosa has been aware of her mother since before she was born, when she was a mere wriggling thing. She is able to remember things that happened before.
That was how it was. Mamas left. Daughters waited. Was that why Mamas birthed daughters – so there would always be someone in the world devastated with desire for them?
Ayosa is one in a line of daughters who have been abandoned, of those who have continued the pattern; this is her coming-of-age story, this all-seeing girl, how she lives, what she sees, what nurtures and nourishes her in the absence of mother.
Along the way, we meet a host of entertaining characters, woman who stand in on occasion for the absent mother, the reliable Madame Apothecary and her granddaughter Temerity, the mysterious Sindano in her empty cafe, so while we are concerned for Ayosa, it is reassuring to know there is a community nearby.
Friendship and Sisterhood
Through her burgeoning friendship and connection with Mbiu – with her horse Magnolia, that pulls a pockmarked Volkswagon – she has the opportunity to break free of her self-imposed entrapment, despite the maternal protectiveness that has developed in her as a result of all she has experienced until now.
Okwiri Oyuor succeeds in making the reader see through the perspective of young protagonist, we are forced to let go of our own version of reality and accept Ayosa’s, to see and understand as she does. Some will read this and interpret it as magic realism, but for me it felt realistic, like stepping into the mind of a well-developed and highly sensitive imagination, attuned to their local environment and cultural heritage, their ancestral connections, to realms beyond the physical – it seems that the absence of one (the mother) creates the opportunity for the elevated development of the other.
This is a journey of the soul, of the many lives already lived, of those met along the way in this one precious life, of overcoming challenges and learning to stand up to what is no longer acceptable. Written in mesmerizing poetic prose, that pulls you into a magical, if somewhat fearful world, until the devotion of female friendship liberates all.
Highly Recommended. Will Be One of My Favourites of 2023.
Okwiri Oduor, Author
Okwiri Oduor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. At the age of 25, she won the Caine Prize for African Writing 2014 for her story ‘My Father’s Head’. Later that year, she was named on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of 39 African writers under 40 who would define trends in African literature.
She has been a MacDowell Colony fellow, and she received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has a story forthcoming in Granta.
Things They Lost is her debut novel and was long listed for the Dylan Thomas Award 2023. She currently lives in Germany.
Interview, Guernica Magazine: “What is your specific lonely like?” Okwiri Oduor on her debut novel, Things They Lost By Carey Baraka
A Profile: breathless babbling and blathering about Okwiri Oduor By Aaron Bady