by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor


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A Washington Post Notable Book

When a young man is gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, his grief-stricken father and sister bring his body back to their crumbling home in the Kenyan drylands. But the murder has stirred up memories long since buried, precipitating a series of events no one could have foreseen. As the truth unfolds, we come to learn the secrets held by this parched landscape, hidden deep within the shared past of a family and their conflicted nation. Spanning Kenya’s turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Dust is spellbinding debut from a breathtaking new voice in literature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345802545
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 800,739
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor was born in Kenya. Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, she has also received an Iowa Writers’ Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications, and she has been a TEDx Nairobi speaker and a Lannan Foundation resident. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Massive purple clouds rush in from the eastern coast. Ambushed by a warm wind in Nairobi, they scatter, a routed guerrilla force. At Wilson Airport, a qhat-carrying eight-seater plane weaves its way off the apron. The last small plane out of Nairobi without top-level permission for the next week. Above the airport din, egrets circle and ibises cry ngangan- ganga. Father, daughter, and son are going home.
Dusk is Odidi’s time. In the contours of old pasts, Ajany retrieves an image: She is sitting on a black-gray rock, spying on the sun’s descent with Odidi. Leaning into his shoulder, trying to read the world as he does, she stammers, “Where’s it going?” He says, “Descending into hell,” and cackles. She had only just learned the Apostles’ Creed.
The plane lifts off.
The coffin and its keepers are nestled amid bales of green herbs.
Straight-backed, stern, silences reordered, Nyipir is a chiseled stone icon again, an archetypal Nilotic male. But there are deep furrows on his forehead. She can paint these, too. Trail markers into absence. Ajany had once believed Baba was omnipotent, like God, ever since he had invoked a black leopard to hunt down the mean and red-eyed inhabit- ants of her nightmares.
She trembles.
Nyipir asks, “Cold?”
Baba’s baritone, Odidi’s echo. Dimpled handsomeness. The Oganda men were gifted with soft-edged, rumbling voices.
Ajany turns. The light of the sky bounces on her thin face, all bones and angles. Fresh bloodstains on her sleeves. The frills of her orange skirt are soiled. She is tinier than Nyipir remembers. But she had always been such a small, stuttering thing, all big hair and large eyes. More shadow than person, head slanted as if waiting for answers to ancient riddles. He clears his throat. From the gloom of his soul, Nyipir growls, “Mama . . . er . . . she wanted to . . . uh . . . come to meet you.”
Ajany hears the lie. Sucks it in, as if it were venom, sketches invis- ible circles on the window. Stares at the green of coffee and pineapple plantations below.
“Yes,” Nyipir says to himself, already lost, already afraid. He shifts. The dying had started long ago. Long before the murder of prophets named Pio, Tom, Argwings, Ronald, Kungu, Josiah, Ouko, Mbae. The others, the “disappeared unknown.” National doors slammed over vaults of secrets. Soon the wise chose cowardice, a way of life: not hearing, not seeing, never asking, because sound, like dreams, could cause death. Sound gave up names, especially those of friends. It co-opted silence as an eavesdropper; casual conversations heard were delivered to the state to murder. In time neighborhood kai-apple fences were urged into thicker and higher growth to shut out the dread-filled nation. But some of the lost, the unseen and unheard, cut tracks into Nyipir’s sleep. They stared at him in silence until the day his disordered dreams stepped into daylight with him to become his life:
They had pointed a gun to his head.
Click, click, click.
He had fallen to the ground, slithered on his belly like a snake, hissed, and vomited, because he had forgotten how to talk.
Sweat on palms, heartbeat quickening, Nyipir swallows. A groan.
Ajany hears a father’s leaching anguish. She scratches an ache where it itches her skin, gropes inside-places as a tongue probing cavities does. Expecting to be stung.
The past’s beckon is persistent.
From the air, Nyipir peers down at an expanding abyss. His country, his home, is ripping itself apart. Stillborn ballot revolution. These 2007 elections were supposed to be simple, the next small jump into a light-filled Kenyan future. Everything had instead disintegrated into a single, unending howl by the nation’s unrequited dead. This country, this haunted ideal, all its poor, broken promises. Nyipir watches, arm- pits damp. A view of ground-lit smoke. Dry lips. His people had never set their nation on fire before.
On the ground, that night, in a furtive ceremony, beneath a half- moon, a chubby man will mutter an oath that will render him the presi- dent of a burning, dying country. The deed will add fuel to an already out-of-control national grieving.
Nyipir turns from the window.
He is flying home with his children.
Yet he is alone. Memories are solitary ghosts.
He lets them in, traveling with them.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Dust, the riveting new novel by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor.

1. Why do you think that the author has chosen the name Dust for this novel? Where do we find dust mentioned or depicted in the novel? What symbolic purpose might this name have? Likewise, how do other natural elements described in the book—weather and landscape—help to reveal or inform us about the inner selves of each of the characters?

2. Who killed Odidi Oganda and why did they kill him? How does each member of Odidi's family respond to his death? What burial traditions and customs does the Kenyan family observe and what views of death do they share? What does the novel seem to reveal about death and the process of grieving?

3. Why has Isaiah Bolton come to Kenya to meet with Odidi? Is his trip successful? Does he ultimately find what he was looking for? How does his presence in Wuoth Ogik affect the members of the Oganda family? What is Isaiah’s relationship with Ajany like, and how does it evolve over the course of the novel? What do the two have in common?

4. The Trader is a “gatherer and carrier of stories.” (84) Why do people share their stories with the Trader? What do they gain from this? What does the Trader gain?

5. Many of the characters in the novel share common experiences. Several of the characters, for instance, have lost children and many have left home. What are some of the other common experiences depicted in the book? Are the characters bound by these common experiences?

6. Speaking of the deceased Odidi Oganda, Justina says: “That sister calls him Odidi; me, I say Odi-Ebe; you say Moses. Many people. One person.” (247) What does Justina’s observation reveal about identity and the nature of relationships? In fact, many of the characters in the story have multiple names. Which characters choose to employ false names and why do they use these aliases?

7. Consider the structure of the book and the author’s use of flashbacks. What major themes does this literary device help to reinforce? For example, how does the structure of the book help to support or enhance the themes of history or memory?

8. Evaluate the author’s use of repetition as literary device. How does repetition create a sense of the poetic or lyrical and why is this stylistic choice significant? Where do we find examples of poetry or song in the novel? What are some of the subjects they depict, and what significance do they have for those who listen to them or perform them?

9. Dust is a book filled with haunting silences and secrets. Discuss some of the major secrets kept by the characters. What does it mean to say “to name something is to bring it to life”? (251) Likewise, why do the characters take oaths of silence or refuse to speak certain names aloud? Why does the narrator say that silence is one of the languages of Kenya? Find some examples in the text to support this. Who reveals their secrets by the book’s end and what is the outcome of the revelation?

10. Explore the themes of leaving home and homecoming in the novel. When Ajany reflects on her decision to leave home, she wonders: “Was it possible that two separate feelings of place could exist between [her and Odidi]?" (119) Why does Ajany leave home while Odidi remains? What does the author mean when she writes “Places are ghosts, too”? (121) What other examples of homecoming or leaving home are found in the novel? What are the characters' reasons?

11. Discuss the impact of political and economic circumstances on the characters’ process of decision making. What are some of the decisions that the characters are faced with and how do they handle them? Are the characters able to stand up for what they believe in and do what they think is right, or must they compromise in order to survive?

12. Which characters in the novel are artists and what are some of the subjects of their art? Do we discover what these characters hope to gain from practicing their art? Why did Ajany’s parents burn her artwork when she was a young girl?

13. Does your impression of any of the characters change over the course of reading the book? How does your impression of Hugh Bolton, Nyipir, or Akai evolve? Why? Likewise, do any of the characters change their minds about their fellow characters as the story goes on, and if so, how does that affect their relationships with one another?

14. Consider the treatment of superstition, myth, and religion in the novel. How are the characters’ views of life and the world around them shaped by these ideas? What are some of the myths and superstitions referenced in the book? How is Christianity depicted? What do the characters find faith in?

15. What role does truth play in the novel? Are the stories recounted by the characters or told to each other always true? Are the characters reliable storytellers?  If not, what causes them to lie or to otherwise refrain from telling or admitting the truth?

16. In Chapter 40, why does Isaiah build a cairn?

17. Discuss Owuor’s use of native language in the book. Why might she have chosen to leave some passages in a native language rather than to have the entire novel printed in a single language?

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