“What the map cuts up, the story cuts across,” writes Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life. Adhiambo Owuor’s novel The Dragonfly Sea begins as a quest for Swahili poem-maps of the Swahili Seas (Afrasian/Indian Ocean) and turns into a fragmented atlas of the many languages and senses of the ocean. Knowledge of most of these has been amputated by recent historical events, but clues, provocations, and echoes of the whole lurk in embodied stories, memories, and images in and of the in-between, seemingly ordinary happenings that bear great historical resonances. “You are looking for a map?” asks the late poet, boat captain, and “sea whisperer” Haji Gora Haji, the main interlocutor in this quest. “You are looking for a map? … The sea, my child, is the map.” Yet in the poem “Bahari Usichungue,” Haji counsels caution because “the sea is a cipher / she holds her secrets close.” This causerie contemplates aspects of the East African oceanic imaginary in its intimacy, vastness, and “pluriversal transworldliness,” highlighting some of the elements that inform the novel’s quest.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is an author, essayist, public thinker, traveler, and creative content developer. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Owuor has an MPhil in creative writing from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. She came to the literary limelight when she won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing for her story “Weight of Whispers.” Her first novel, Dust (2007), has been translated into several languages. Her 2019 book The Dragonfly Sea explores the long historical entanglement of East Africa and China as it is mediated by the sea and a daring oceanic imaginary. She has written for numerous publications worldwide, including National Geographic, and is currently a writer-in-residence at the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin program, where she is working on a new project.