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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Dorothea Schlegel Artist in Residence
Research Area 4 "Literary Currencies"

September – December 2020  

Calligraphy of Smoke

Calligraphy of Smoke
Image Credit: Chris Ganda

The Slaughtering Cup and The Coffee Mistress

“Kuma kana, dhugumaa!”

By this coffee tree, it is true!

--Borana oath

 

This is an artistic research project in two parts: a critical paper and a creative project, a novel titled The Coffee Mistress. The work is conceptualised as an interrogation of desire, contradiction, memory, retrieval; of echoes, spirits of place which centralises coffee as a dangerously contested heirloom. It starts as a quest for the ‘holy grail’ of coffees, the perfect bean that is accorded ‘Voice of God’ status, in a story-world where the dreaded coffee berry infection is on a devastating march. The quest becomes both an unravelling and an uncovering, a chance to not only enquire into human engagement with desire that becomes covetous and greedy, but also a window to re-tell coffee’s history as biography, its living aesthetics from within its source in Eastern African montane forests. The project at EXC 2020 explores aspects of African coffee patrimony in order to make sense of some questions emerging around the restitution of appropriated African hereditaments. By re-entering the world of coffee at the sites of origin, including the Kingdom of Kaffa (Jeff Koehler 2017), might a more accurate grammar, philosophy, and lexicon of our relationship with coffee emerge? What would a poetic enquiry into coffee as (art) form yield? What is repaired? What is liberated? It is true that coffee like language is a mutable entity. What does it become? The content of this story is informed by existing literature, but insight will be drawn from sites of older coffee memory obtained empirically among those who have kept its original expression and meaning alive. The artists will treat coffee as myth, metaphor, artefact; a lost work, and a crime victim.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Image Credit: Alvin Pang

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is an author and bespoke event developer based in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds an MPhil from the University of Queensland, Australia. After working in assorted corporate positions in different countries, she embarked on a literary career after the then avant-garde literary magazine Kwani?, founded by Binyavanga Wainaina, published her short story, “The Weight of Whispers,” which earned her the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003. Her debut novel, Dust (2014), was also well received and shortlisted for numerous prizes. Owuor’s second novel, The Dragonfly Sea, published in 2019, is a coming-of-age story of a girl named Ayaana, who lives with her mother on Pate, an island off the coast of Kenya. Yvonne Owuor’s many short stories and essays have been published in various magazines, anthologies, and journals, including Granta. Owuor has been honoured by her country for her artistic and cultural contributions, and she received a Head of State Commendation in 2018. In 2005 she was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and again in 2017, when she returned as the first IWP Grinnell Fellow. In 2018/19 Owuor was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and, later, at the Institute d’études avancées de Nantes. She is a founder-member of The Elephant, Eastern Africa’s foremost digital newspaper. She is involved in creative content development initiatives, arts event production, and is part of an African-Asian Futures Dialogue initiative.