Decolonizing History and Its Telling: A Conversation with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
By Bhakti ShringarpureSeptember 12, 2022
I had the pleasure of spending several hours with Owuor in the lush garden of a unique Nairobi establishment called Pallet Cafe that employs deaf staff only and encourages customers to use sign language. Intensely engaged, effusive, and generous, Owuor has a charm that is infectious, and you find yourself lulled into immediate intimacy. She also delivers scathing critiques of empire and observations about issues major and mundane in dense and lavishly poetic prose. By this I mean that she speaks the way her books read, and it’s an intimidating but absorbing experience. On the day we met, Owuor was reminiscing about Pate Island, the setting of The Dragonfly Sea, a novel that redraws the map of maritime journeys through the young protagonist, Ayaana, whose story begins in Kenya’s Swahili coastline and takes her to China, Turkey, and back again to Kenya. In the edited conversation that follows, Owuor speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic that has further divided the world, how to historicize the ocean, her love of Lusophone literatures, and what it means to be East African.
BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: You have been very vocal on social media and in lectures about how the COVID-19 pandemic on the African continent has been covered by news outlets. It seems that colonial ways and colonial language have returned as the pandemic has unfolded. Do you want to say more about this?
YVONNE ADHIAMBO OWUOR: I think the pandemic will probably be a story, mostly, of losses and what we have missed. I guess the idealists that this cynical veneer hides imagined that it would be an incredible opportunity for the world to get together, have solidarity. After all, it’s a common existential threat. And they assumed that the petty tribalisms, the grandstandings, would be put aside because of life and humanity. And there has also been rhetoric that’s come before regarding climate change and how much solidarity we need and how climate is a common fate. What has happened instead is that the pandemic is like the canary down the mine. I’ve got no faith whatsoever in any of our global systems right now to overcome or even to mobilize humanity to overcome the great existential crisis. It’s a travesty and a tragedy.
But regardless, I think there are a lot of other spaces that have been created. In the early days, the West was just appalling. They were almost like the witches of Macbeth. It was this whole array of bad-hearted individuals who under the veneer of philanthropy were predicting mayhem, death, horror, and disappearance within the African continent. I don’t think one would ever dare to look at that rhetoric within their own world.
They’re necromancers! What is so fascinating was how kind and tender they were for themselves when the scars and horrors unfolded within their own worlds. And I say that with tenderness and not to score any points. There’s no point in doing that and there has been such immense human suffering. But one would have imagined that there were lessons from those home tragedies, including the capacity to confront the failures of the systems that they had touted would last forever. I remember there was that first map in the early days that showed the countries that will perish and the countries that are likely to overcome it. Of course, the West gives themselves such high accolades without any sense of irony.
But we’re not surprised, right?
I am. Really, I am.
What surprised you? Was it the journalism about Africa or the behavior of governments?
The behavior of human beings. I guess it was a combination of things. It’s one thing to have evolved a habit of stereotyping Brown and Black people as being a certain way or projecting horror and things like that. But it’s another thing when it becomes so overt even in the face of tragedy at home. Your house is burning, and your preoccupation is why aren’t Africans dying? Who does that?
Yeah. The death wish is surprising.
The death wish in the face of being around people who are falling apart. Why not look within and see what is what, and what is within our system? What has failed?
And you know I was thinking that I love fantasy fiction and wondering if it is the only way of dealing with this time, as a writer. I always thought of myself as a “writer of only literary fiction” type. Yet in order to make sense of all this, not necessarily only for me, but also for the generations to come, I’m most tempted to “right it” through fantasy fiction, just to lay it out.
I like to sometimes say I’m Ibn Battuta. Just walking by, a passerby-witness to the world. I’m walking the peripheries. I like to pretend that I have no dog in the race, but I have a lot of dogs in every race. Yet I feel my role is to observe, to watch, to sense, to feel, and to write, to make note of that experience. So, walking almost both from within but also along the margins of this whole COVID-19 visitation. If I were to write the gospel of this visitation, it will say that there is not very much that is good about humanity. And the heroes are hidden away, poor things.
Both Dust and The Dragonfly Sea are novels that make interventions into history. Why are you drawn to this genre? Are you interested in how history is written or perhaps to the idea of excavating palimpsests?
I can’t say. I’m just drawn to history and have been since childhood. My parents, especially my father, raised us with a sense of the continuity of time and the continuity of what we imagine as history. If we went up to our late father and asked what that star is, he would tell us it’s Orion, but he would ask us to get our encyclopedias and read about how stars are formed. The idea was that everything has a long origin and part of our responsibility was to learn it. That was part of, if you want, my language.
He was a teacher?
No, he was an executive director and a major player in global industrial relations. But he was a polymath and curious about the world, and curious about people. That becomes part of my grammar, and so when the gift of fiction or storytelling finds me, it becomes absolutely natural to start to look within. And this becomes linked to personal histories. The first time I went to England was for my master’s degree. And I went to England imagining England to be one thing.
Yeah. I understand that from having come to the United States. You get an impression from TV or books or something …
… And in the subtle ways in which the country and its people and its artists market themselves. And you land into a sense of profound disappointment, and you think, “Oh gosh, this looks exactly like our Kenyatta Avenue.” [Laughs.]
So, when I was in the British Museum, I realized that there are these mythologies that are linked to the retelling of stories in English. Looking at the artifacts of the continent, my African continent, those stolen goods, you realize these museums are laundromats where you cleanse atrocities. You put things away, shed a little light on them, and add a little note that conceals the violence and brutality behind the acquisition. Right? There’s kind of a brief visceral rejection and a reaction to the point that I’m confused. I cannot go into these ethnological museums for the simple reason that these are not just stolen goods but also an overt and spiritual reminder of our losses and failures as a continent. But then again, when you see these exquisite items of art, of immense civilizations, you know these things were created out of a great awareness of the bigger things of life. These are centuries-old items, but the rhetoric of history is that there was no civilization in this part of the world until these idiots came along, right?
That our people were savages and barbarians, right? Do you remember Sarkozy’s statements, when he went to Burkina Faso and Senegal, that Africans have not actually entered history? You can actually think like that. Your serial killers, your psychopaths and sociopaths, went around looting the treasures of our continent and you cling to them as if they are yours, these things of high value, and yet you dare call us “uncivilized”? History is seen as sacrosanct, that which is written in truth. But I had the horrible confrontation with the idea that history is told according to a single prism. There’s nothing to stop the telling of the histories from others’ prisms so that a complexity can emerge. And if not for my generation, because this is a generation’s work, then at least for the generation after to understand how people are imagined. And when you learn a history that is not true to who you are, not only do you disgrace your own ancestors, but you also disgrace your future. Maybe that’s why I became fascinated with history, a bit like a crime scene investigator. And history has now become a delicious palette and I love the idea of the (re)discovery of things that one thought one knew.
A thought on the idea of palimpsests? To me, that’s how your novels feel.
Really? Okay. They’re sites of investigation. They are archaeological sites. It depends on who shows up to excavate the layers and what they retrieve from each layer. And which layer can be seen, who sees, and how and what is seen. How is the story told of that which is seen? And then, how much further do you dare to dig?
How does one historicize the ocean? Sometimes history writing has to be a palimpsest; a parchment where you see the old layers and the new ones over them. I see your work doing that, but when it’s the ocean, the water is washing it away.
I’ve got a good story for you about the ocean. After The Dragonfly Sea was published and launched in Germany, I was asked to go to Pate Island, the book’s setting. Apparently, the producers in Germany specifically wanted proof that Pate Island exists.
They read the book and loved it, but they did not believe Pate Island existed. They asked many times if this place was real or a fantasy. The Kenyan filmmaker and crew who were tasked with this project wanted to experience it themselves, and for them too, the journey was perspective-changing. And to go deeper into this project, we also brought in an underwater archeologist, Caesar Bita, and serendipitously, Doctor Mwamaka Sharifu, whose life story is the inspiration for the book, also happened to be in the country. We were joined by Professor Omar Bwana, who was a renowned marine archeologist, and his daughter. They are from Pate Island and had been trying to amplify their experience of Pate as this incredible crucible of and for the world.
I have been to Lamu, and while I do recall there are boats that take you to Pate, it is Lamu that dominates the conversations.
It’s a long history of conversations because Pate and Lamu are old feuding states. Pate used to be the coveted center of erudition, arbiter of taste and trends, the fashion-forward site of the Swahili Seas, like Manhattan in New York, and the nostalgia of that past lingers. Lamu was kind of the place you went to because you had not been admitted into Pate society. Pate, and you can see the vestiges of its ancient grace, was the place of desire and cosmopolitan engagement, known to those who were then the people of the world. A gem of the ocean. But the 20th and 21st centuries favored Lamu, and the colonial and postcolonial regimes subsumed Pate into Lamu. And yet, when you visit, you get the sense of old immensities, and a beauty that shines in the lives of people for whom these latter centuries have been most unfairly cruel.
And how was Lamu made to ascend?
Colonial conveniences. Victories over Pate. And in the post-colony, the convergence of mostly British stragglers and European aristocrats who made it into home and have amplified its presence to others. When Lamu collaborates with the Omanis to take down Pate, Pate collaborates with the Turks to take down Lamu. Or collaborates with the Portuguese. The old worlds are fascinating, and when you visit, it is as if the shadows from these old battles almost show up. And somehow, you are compelled to choose sides; needless to say, I’m with Pate.
Yeah, that’s clear. And what happened when you went under the sea?
I wanted to lay out the geography of it. So, we all lined up there and ended up on the island. And we’re with Caesar Bita, this devoted underwater archeologist, who says to us that it is never about the treasures but about the story that will be told after the dive. We were not fully equipped to go underwater, so we stayed on the boat as witnesses. The quest was for the likely resting place of the wreckage from Admiral Zheng’s seventh voyage, the one that spilled a community of survivors into Pate Island.
What is the story of this site?
It was the great admiral’s last voyage out of East Africa. A terrible storm. He lost a third of his fleet. The search for the wreckage has been underway for a while. The story of the monsoon and the tides informs the environment. He’s essential now in the retelling of our past and current history. This last voyage happened in the time of a changing of the political climate in the Middle Kingdom. The Ming dynasty emperor, his benefactor, had died. There was a regime change, and with that, a turning inward, away from the world. China turned its back on the ocean. Many think that was a fatal mistake and made the empire vulnerable to later incursions by unpalatable strangers.
But you didn’t know that the quest for the site was underway. It’s almost like your book predicted it.
I did know that a lot of people were doing all manner of underwater archaeological expeditions. I was also struck by so many anecdotal denials, mostly by Western scholars, as if the idea of a discovery was just impossible, as if Admiral Zheng’s East African visits were mere anecdotes. Still, these are the same researchers that the islanders say have over the years stripped the tombs and robbed the graves. This was before the National Museums of Kenya intervened to protect the sites, by which time most of the valuables had been carted away. But it is all worth visiting, especially for people of non-European descent who are seeking to make new sense of long histories, of maritime imaginaries, and cosmopolitanisms. The evidence of transtemporal lives is so palpable there.
And that’s how you historicize an ocean.
The stories, our stories and the stories of the world, are all located within us, around us, and also, importantly, under our waters. We traveled twice to the site that the venerable Caesar believes will yield some clues. He is also very determined that, when that happens, he will dive with a community of African witnesses. A beautiful, knowledgeable man who is so very tender about his ocean.
Many of these characters — or, rather, character types — are in your book. But you didn’t know them when you were writing it. You composed the book from a deep intuition and many of the events actually unfolded after.
I think books come to you. Stories come to you. And it’s funny when some of the crew members would go in and say they found “Fundi Mehdi,” or they found some other character from the book on the island. Our boat captain, Nahodha Ali, was pure Muhidin. I could have written Muhidin just from this character. The final thing I’m going to say is that the ocean is about immersion. We cannot theorize about the ocean without feeling it on our skin, breathing it, tasting its salt, and glimpsing aspects of the worlds it shelters/hides.
Absolutely. And feeling the water and feeling it washing away too.
Yes. For those of us whose histories have been written over by strangers, we have to learn again — and have to be the ones to go down, to dive into the depths, as Caesar says. Even if it means we have to train ourselves, our bodies and our minds, differently so that we can do the seeing, sensing, unlayering, uncovering, and announcing.
Both your books have a way of complicating Kenyan identity. Dust is a complex narrative where we have Somalis, Indians, and British, all within Kenya. In The Dragonfly Sea, there is the arc of Islamic history and Chinese history as well as Swahili identity. Academics may call this a depiction of hybridity. Would you say that yours is a Kenyan project that complicates Kenya?
Perhaps it is. I hadn’t seen it that way. You’re right. It is a Kenyan project. I’m sure you experience it here: the mélange of worlds. And if you’re coming into Kenya as an outsider, you think you want one thing, but Kenya sets out to prove to you how many selves you really are. Some people love it; others are discomfited by this. I write as one fed by Kenya, and then I realize that this little country is sometimes much bigger than the world and the myopic ways and absurd binaries in which it tries to frame itself.
My perception of Kenyan identity is one that was shaped by internal African migration, among other migrations (Somali, Sudanese, for example), but I don’t see enough of this reflected in the literature. Where is the figure of the migrant in Kenyan writing?
You have run into what is called The Official Historical Narrative that serves a particular purpose. This is the story of Kenya that starts only with the Mau Mau, and so the trajectory has to be very particular and very oriented towards a particular direction. It does not admit to the range, depth, length, and complexities of Kenyan histories. Again, I must thank my parents for exposing me to the idea of our Kenyan pluralities, bequeathing to me the many ways of our being. The ideological Kenya to which they fiercely subscribed was this, the plural being. There must have been others who felt that way, but unfortunately, we lost so much of the sense of that along the way. So, wherever we found ourselves in this country will be at home. And the school I went to, the nuns did amplify that sense of all the world in this one place, and we would acknowledge Diwali and Id-ul-fitr even though this was a Catholic school.
I’m also aware that the quintessential Swahili ethos (and also Maasai ethos) that underscores the collective Kenyan identity is something that, for whatever reasons, is mostly obscured. Yet this is what this country is. We are the many. To be Kenyan is not to be one thing. Maybe that is why it is one of the countries of the world where the alien, no matter where they are from, as long as they do not try to project their baggage upon us, quite easily find themselves “at home.” It is one of our superpowers — which, unfortunately, our many mediocre politicians do not seem to be able to grasp. Whereas before the refugees would be incorporated into society, Ugandans and others now, and of course informed by the appallingly limited lenses of the multilateral agencies involved, the refugees, these human exiles, are contained in distant camps. This is the prism through which the stranger-in-distress now experiences a country that throughout history had been an open-hearted shelter for the many.
I have heard you say that you see yourself as East African. This is not something people say often. It’s very interesting to me and makes me think that East African literature is fundamentally a kind of migrant literature. This is because of its neighbors — Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, and the many wars and all the displacement. East Africa has such a particularity of movement.
East Africa has a particularity of movement. There are several nomadic nations for whom this is also home. We have not done enough with that particular character of our being as we try to squeeze our peculiar immensities into a terrifyingly myopic yet unfortunately dominant way of reading and experiencing the world, a world that hierarchizes, criminalizes, and pathologizes the human migrant. We are all the lesser because of this.
How can this be refracted through the prism of literature? Do you predict there will be more literary production on this?
It will emerge as more and more start to look within rather than fall into the never-ending whorl of debating the Occident. There is nothing that needs to be proven, I think. But I understand the previous need; the brutal, violent, and pathological deletion of our historicity needed to be challenged, and voices were needed to inhabit the imagined blank space. I think such a production is inevitable. In this time of the falling away of old veneers, and the emergence of a shift towards multipolarism, there is, I sense, an ease with the idea of our pluralities, about which we do not have to explain anything to anyone. We will find a lexicon of us that can contain the worlds within and without. There will perhaps be new categorizations that gesture to our complexities and varieties, words that the world right now has been able to summon, rooted as they are in a culture that still treats heterogeneity as a threat. I experienced this possibility when our all-Kenyan crew from different parts of the country ended up on Pate Island and entered the space with ease and respect, and without judging the things that people from the West usually question at once. Once Pate allowed us in, allowed us into its heart — and no, it was not demanded, we waited — we knew that, when we return, we will return as family, and should our hosts visit our part of the country, we will welcome them in as intimates. We experienced, in this, that ongoing yet rarely acknowledged process of “Kenya becoming.”
And maybe in the process of answering this question, you have to experience the ocean — the journey into experiencing the ocean, preparing yourself and your body psychologically and your mind into becoming a witness. And in a way that converges, also, our belonging … my Indian origin self. Because of this ocean that is ours.
That is beautiful, Yvonne. And you make me realize how much I am shaped by the ocean. I come from the coastal part of Maharashtra in India. And some things are very deeply ingrained. For example, I’m often judgmental if people cannot eat fish properly, the bone, all of it. Just enter the fish!
[Laughs.] Yes, enter the fish. I get goosebumps when you say that!
I don’t want to insert myself into this, but I’m so drawn to everything you’re saying about the ocean and belonging.
And that’s important because we’re members of the prism. The prism of our multiple ways of belonging but also the layers of history that speak to each one of us and under that sea. Under that water are the histories of us all.
And the history of the West is not found there. Not in the way that it forces itself into history and demands attention. In the history of our shared cosmopolitanisms, it is not there because it is not an important enough place.
Let me pivot to something else. Do you feel that there has come about an NGO-ization of arts and literature? I say this because we see this in Kenya with a proliferation of NGOs. For example, some of the migrant and refugee culture is produced within the NGO structures in the refugee camps. Some of the writings that came from the Lost Boys of Sudan originated in refugee camps and were encouraged by NGO programs. Nairobi appears to be a key location for the NGO-industrial-savior complex.
Who wouldn’t want to virtue signal in Nairobi? You can perform “do-good” while living it up in a temperate climate with access to the mod-cons, while writing back home that you are in “Africa.” Nairobi is NGO-industrial-complex central. It is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, as you can see. But the presence of NGOs serves multiple roles, including as sites of intelligence gathering. The advent of China as an infrastructure contributor has muddied those waters a lot. I believe the new trend will be venture capital and startup culture. What’s the trending term — social enterprises? No nation has ever progressed through so-called NGOs, and I have to wonder why we have tolerated that Ponzi scheme for so long.
When the late Binyavanga Wainaina appeared, and stimulated an artistic renaissance, so much of what had been cannibalized by the worthies was salvaged. Some diehard unreformed types linger, especially in the world of conservation, but in time even these will be replaced by more accurate engagements and storying.
Tell me what he did.
Once upon a time, because these types were guardians of the threshold, we could only express our art if we told the story that they paid for, one that was about how really cool and necessary said NGO was. It was the time when stories contained phrases like “empowerment,” “participatory,” “girl-child” and “boy-child.” And the NGO world wanted, you know, the AIDS, tuberculosis, the weeping mother of a dead child, the victim, and, of course, the corrupt politician. The government was disengaged from the arts, and any funding in this area was through these types of organizations. We were so naïve, and we would write some disempowering things about our societies, selves, and mothers. Madness! If people like Binya hadn’t appeared like Ganesh to smash the nonsense many of us thought we were locked into, what a disaster everything would have been.
Binya, the remover of obstacles.
The remover of obstacles. Just, “Pwaaah!” When Kwani? burst onto the scene, the NGO-ers mostly beat a hasty retreat from our story worlds.
Let’s zoom out further from Kenya and East Africa and speak about this behemoth category called African literature.
I would say it’s writing from Africa or literatures of Africa. And it’s a constant work in progress, but it’s also constantly evolving. It can be very hard to say if it is this or that.
That’s very true, and it is constantly evolving. I know you co-organize the Macondo Literary Festival, so it must necessitate some thinking about these matters.
Most of these questions run into one another; they find their trajectory. What we do know is that something is brewing, something splendid and uncontained. We may not have the words for it now, but that’s quite fine. Now, I’ll go back to referencing Swahili culture as a coagulation of worlds. And that is its power. That is its strength. Its profligate hospitality is its power. And that hospitality is something that we are able to do with our shapeshifting characters. We can be this or the other. To turn it into an advantage without falling into the trap of limiting typologies. This is our path. This is our way. And maybe it’s for another generation to find the definitions. The process of creation right now will probably expand in every direction before it settles into something that can be named.
Do you think publishing structures on the continent need to be strengthened?
Absolutely, the publishing structures must be strengthened, the whole value chain needs to be established and strengthened. It is the era of the content economy, so doing this is necessary as part of inscribing our worlds into the future. In the absence of that for now (and this is the artist in me speaking), I gratefully receive what is offered so that those for whom I create, my precious readers and audience, can access the art, the work. If I have to sign a contract with Venusians or Martians for my work to reach the galaxies, I will without blinking.
I also want the Venusians to read more African literature. [Laughs.] But tell me more about Macondo. What I find interesting about you is that you’re not just singularly sitting in your room and writing, but you do all this work building things like Kwani? and the Festival of the Dhow Countries in Zanzibar. And, of course, the Macondo Book Society and its festival, which I have attended. It has a very unique kind of focus: Lusophone writing. I wondered if the festival was attempting to resolve something with this choice.
It was very simple. Bring the truly fabulous Afro-Lusophones into Nairobi where worlds meet; let others encounter these stories and hear the voices and meet the authors. It had not been done before. But now it has become a trend elsewhere.
Why them, though?
Because they were absent in core spaces where there was an engagement with the literatures of Africa. Language was the excuse. And those that I spoke to said they felt neglected. Both Anja Bengelstorff, the event convenor, and I are diehard fanatics of “Lusophone” literatures. So, yes, there was an element of self-indulgence to this too.
Yes, it opens up another world. I see why you like it. It’s all the magicality. I’m thinking of Mia Couto or Ondjaki.
Yes, there is a magicality — it’s a gorgeous way of seeing, of sensing “us.” The “languaging” too. I read Brazilian and European literature also, but this reading is a very distinct experience, and it gives so much energy to the diversity of African literary worlds. It has been easier to access (I hate these terms) Francophone or Arabophone literatures here in Nairobi, but for some reason the Lusophone works were missing. Both Anja and I made the assumption that language should not be an excuse for not making the literature and its authors accessible to readers here. Anyway, the inspirational origin of Macondo will remain, but we will layer it with more worlds until it becomes a true confluence of the many, many literatures of Africa, including those from the global Afro-diaspora.
What are you currently working on?
Researching a new novel, a story called The Coffee Mistress. It metaphorically and literally brings coffee back to its home, its culture, and its people, seizes it back from its global coffee appropriators. I was inspired by a story one of the wardens of Mount Marsabit Park told me, of having to guard wild coffee seedlings from so-called tourists who show up and uproot them, trying to smuggle them out.
It’s a long story. And one of the mysteries goes back to 1968 when FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] supposedly did a survey of all the coffee plants in Ethiopia, Northern Kenya, and the South of Sudan. The report says that they collected over 4,000 different coffee seedling samples. After the report was done, nothing else was heard from this project. But where did the seedlings go? I do not know why there has been no follow-up to this report. But the story starting in the Kaffa Kingdom, now Southern Ethiopia, might gesture to this mystery, and the idea of coffee biopiracy.
Why is it called The Coffee Mistress?
The main character is a woman. The delivery of the coffee liturgy was in the hands of women.
So, coffee is gendered?
Yes, it is. There’s a layer of history to this. In the course of its appropriation by the Europeans, it starts to wear the face of men: it is Juan Valdez, the Colombian face of coffee; it is George Clooney’s Nespresso. Now, the major baristas are also male. I wish to explore this a little more in the writing of this story.
That is absolutely fascinating. I am looking forward to this book.
Now our standard questions. First, what would you DECOLONIZE?
History and its telling.
What would you DEFUND?
All the Bretton Woods institutions.
What would you ABOLISH?
The Global Economic Matrix, including its idiotic GDP that is used to grade, rate, and put a price on the meaning of a human being (like, really?) in a country.
We also want to know the soundtrack to your struggle. You can pick three songs.
First, the Symphony no. 1 in G major, Op. 11, by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
Second, “Lágrimas Negras” by Bebo Valdés and Diego El Cigala.
And third, “Wend Peke” by Ogoya Nengo and the Dodo Women’s Group.
Bhakti Shringarpure is a writer, academic, and co-founder of the Radical Books Collective. She is the author of Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital and also the editor of a short-books series for OR Books titled Decolonize That! Handbooks for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Embedded Colonial Ideas.
Author image courtesy of Marco Giugliarelli and Civitella Ranieri.
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