Frank Schulze-Engler

From British Lake to Afrasian Sea: Recalibrations of the Indian Ocean in Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea 

During the last two decades, the Indian Ocean has re-emerged as a major arena of interest not only for historians, political scientists and economists interested in the dynamics of what is arguably the powerhouse of global trade connecting Africa, the Middle East, West and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia, but also for proponents of cultural and literary studies fascinated by the long history and intriguing present of African-Arab-Asian relations and entanglements. The Indian Ocean has been apostrophied as a counter model to the “Black Atlantic”, but Indian Ocean Studies have also criticized the Indocentric bias of the very idea of an “Indian Ocean”.

Against this background, Yvonne Owuor’s new novel The Dragonfly Sea (to be published in March 2019) provides a fascinating recalibration of Indian Ocean thinking: the novel goes back in time to the Ming Dynasty explorations of the “Dragonfly Sea” and Admiral Zheng He’s famous 15th century voyages and explores the legacies of China’s oceanic past for the contemporary world. China’s new bid for world power is centrally connected to this (from a European perspective) seemingly quaint and exotic history, and Owuor postulates the idea of the “return” of Zheng He as a key concept to understand the dynamics of contemporary China-Africa relations. At the same time The Dragonfly Sea challenges readers to consider the limits of the “aquatic epistemology” contained in the concept of the “Indian Ocean”, since contemporary Afrasian relations extend from “Atlantic” West Africa right to “Pacific” China. As I hope to show, the multipolar imagination at work in Owuor’s novel can no longer be explained in ‘postcolonial’ or ‘decolonial’ terms, but invites readers to critically engage with a “new world order”, in which histories, geographies and cultures are re-evaluated and remixed in unexpected and often puzzling ways.