“The Dragonfly Sea” by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

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In 2005, on the 600th anniversary of Chinese admiral’s Zheng He’s first voyage, 19-year old Mwamaka Sharifu was plucked from Kenya’s Pate island and granted a scholarship to study in China. She was, it was said, the descendant of a shipwrecked sailor from one of Zheng He’s fleets.

Might she have been? Some people on the island have “narrow eyes” wrote the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof in a 1999 article that seems to have started this off. Local families have surnames Wei and Famao, and one of the ancient towns on the island is called Shanga, which sounds like Shanghai.

Although the wreck that was supposed to be there hasn’t yet showed up, and that the expected DNA results seem never to have published, it could be true that some shipwrecked Ming Dynasty sailors ended up in what is now Kenya; stranger things have happened. In the meantime, as China was exploring relations with Africa, the story served a purpose.

The Dragonfly Sea isn’t really about China.

Dragonfly Sea, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Knopf, March 2019)
Dragonfly Sea, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Knopf, March 2019)

For fiction, fortunately, might-maybe-possibly-be-true suffices and the story of the “China girl”, as she was called, seeded Kenyan author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s new novel The Dragonfly Sea and inspired the creation of its protagonist Ayaana, who comes to be known as “the Descendant”.

Owuor nonetheless feels the need to caution readers in her author’s note that The Dragonfly Sea is fiction. And indeed, while China figures in the story, The Dragonfly Sea isn’t really about China, or—as might be supposed—China’s increasing role in Africa, or Sino-African relations. It is instead a story—an often achingly beautiful story—about love, family, identity and what might be called, at the risk of descending to cliché which the novel itself does not, the inner light of the human spirit.

Ayaana is little more than a toddler when she adopts Muhidin, a troubled, newly-returned sailor, as her father. Her actual father is god-knows-where, having cast off her mother Munira after an affair. Munira was of good family who also cast her off once she returns to Pate as an unwed mother. Mother and daughter live on Pate as—Munira’s skills with perfumes and cosmetics notwithstanding—social outcasts.

Ayaana first melts Muhidin’s heart; he educates her in ways the school can’t or won’t. Mathematics, at which she turns out to be a whiz, but he also opens her eyes and ears to the wonder of classical poetry—Hafez and Rabi’a al-Adawiyya—poetry which then becomes the stuff of life:

 

They watched the sky. They heard the sea ask, Who are you? And the broken moon watched them. She turned and held his face again, the better to speak. But she forgot what she wanted to say as she studied Muhidin’s face. “A small-of-star-insided-your-eyes!” She stretched out a finger and said, “Can-I-touch?” She did not wait for his yes or no. She touched tears, the star fragments she had glimpsed. And they sat on the edge of a promontory, an aging man and a little girl, spying on stars and witnessing the passage of waves.

 

Muhidin then meets Munira, finally. What one expects might happen, doesn’t quite. Life is complicated; in one of the book’s many comings and going, a prodigal son returns. There is enough material here for an entire novel, but this emotional ménage a quatre ends as abruptly as it begins when the teenage Ayaana is discovered as “the Descendant”, fêted, anointed and sent to China. The journey, somewhat improbably, is by ship, but the sea—dividing and joining peoples and families, a source of livelihood and death—acts, from Zheng He onwards, as a central metaphor if not a character in its own right.

China feels observed from a distance.

China is represented by two opposing characters: Shu Ruolan, the young embassy aide roped in to teach Ayaana the ropes, as it were, and Lai Jin, the ship’s captain. Shu Ruolan reflects what Owuor evidently considers some of the less flattering aspects of China’s interaction with Africa:

 

Shu Ruolan was implementing a curriculum to prepare Ayaana for her “auspicious arrival.” In forty days, the Descendant should have knowledge of at least fifty characters. That first morning, Teacher Ruolan smiled at Ayaana, her neat teeth showing. “Now I show you.”
      The ideogram: 非洲.
      Sound: Fei zhou.
      Present tense.
      Teacher Ruolan formed, 非洲. She broke it down for Ayaana: Fei: nothing, wrong, lacking, ugly, not. Zhou: being, state, country. Put together: Africa, Not Existing. “Also can be said ‘Wrong Continent.’ ” A teensy giggle bubbled forth. “Oh dear.” A pause. “We continue.” A bold sequence of strokes produced 中国. Zhōngguó. “China!” she exclaimed. “Middle Kingdom. True. Beautiful.”
      Ayaana watched. Ayaana listened. She imaged “Teacher” in Kipate: Ujinamizi. Nightmare. Noun.

 

Lai Jin, on the other hand, is a man with a deep, and deeply-wounded, soul for which Ayaana provides an intermittent balm.

People, music, languages sail back and forth.

Although she gives it a good college try, Ayaana never feels at home in China. The same might be said of Owuor; China feels observed from a distance. The sections of the book in Pate are the most heartfelt and, since this is very much a book about the heart, the strongest. Here, the novel sticks its toes into the shimmering pool of magic realism—dragonflies are portents, dreams tell stories, people talk to the sea and the moon—without, however, actually getting its feet wet.

The real world’s headlines intrude: there are pirates, terrorists and refugees. While Owuor writes touchingly, even poetically, about the good in people, she is less deft at writing about villains. There is an extended episode in Istanbul where the rich-as-Croesus Turks are portrayed as unremittingly devious and smarmy.

But Owuor’s Pate is a place where cultures wash over each other: East African, Arab, Persian, Indian, even Chinese. Islam on Pate, except when the headlines come visiting, is a gentle religion of beauty and poetry. People, music, languages sail back and forth; The Dragonfly Sea colorfully dips in and out of several languages which Owuor rarely bothers to translate since she usually ensures the meaning is clear from the context. (The Turkish, however, isn’t always rendered quite right, with the correct diacritics sometimes present, sometimes not.)

In this lyrical and contemplative book, it is not China—Belt and Road in hand—that dominates Africa, but rather, it seems, the other way around.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.