Interviews

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Folklore tells us so much about our history and explains so much of what remains of our culture

When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize this year, most of us asked, “Isn’t that the lady from the Kwani? Manuscript Project last year?”

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

Yes, she is. When she won last year, we had no idea that she would be back this year to win the Commonwealth Short Story Prize-Africa Region. And now, here we are crossing our fingers hoping she wins the overall prize!

Congratulations, Jennifer. Thank you for being the reason we are walking with a spring in our step this year!

Jennifer and I had a chat. Here is what we talked about:

Last year you won the Kwani? Manuscript Project for your manuscript, The Kintu Saga. How far have you gone with the novel?

Oh Kintu the novel is ready: it will be launched in Uganda at The National Theatre on June 18. I am so lucky that Kwani? has been working tirelessly to make sure that Kintu is launched in June. And it is quite a fantastic coincidence that I have won the Regional Commonwealth Prize and the award ceremony will be taking place in Uganda. The two occasions will be held in Uganda back to back; how good is that?

It’s awesome! You have said that Kintu came from your father’s mental illness and the anxieties surrounding the heredity of such a condition. How hard was it to confront these anxieties and write about them?

It was very hard first of all to acknowledge that I had these anxieties, let alone write about them. I think I first became aware when I saw the first draft of the novel and realised what was going on at a subconscious level. You must realise that I did not say to myself that, ‘Oh let me write a novel dealing with mental illness.’ I started writing but when I read through and realised what was going on, I thought, ‘Well you might as well do a good job of it,’ rather than burying it again. Perhaps it was even good for me. However I did not write about my father; that was a bit too painful. Instead I did research and at the time, I worked as a support worker for people with mental illness and got all sorts training and sensitisation towards the illness. That was very helpful.

 How did you manage to make it more than just about you?

Firstly, I did not write myself into the text. Secondly, the novel had a mind of its own. It soon moved away from my father and focused on a clan. Then it became so big it was a nation and then Africa. By the end, I had forgotten that it all started with my father. Indeed if I had not mentioned my dad, no one would tell by reading the novel except members of my family.

 You have also said that in Western media, you have noticed that Africa is portrayed as a place of insanity. How so?

You have to come to Europe first to see what I mean. When I first arrived here, I was shocked by the things they wrote about Uganda. The Western media has an uncanny way of finding the worst parts of your world to report back to their people (and the best part of themselves to promote to the rest of the world). They never tell or show the beautiful aspects of Africa except wild life or nature. Otherwise it is the ugly side of poverty (their idea of poverty) and everything is perverted and it is so bad you want to bite yourself in anger. They have been so successful that out here being African is just not advisable.

 But I have noted that in the West, people have acknowledged all types of insanity and have even made room for dealing with it whereas that is not the case in Africa. Being bipolar or having OCD is not our reality. The naked man that runs in the streets is the mad man and not the woman who kills her three children because they have no food to eat. What do you think of this?

 Africa has no time for or patience with the nuanced aspects of mental illness. In fact, Africa has no time for any illness that has not been diagnosed with a lot of research and history behind it in our communities. So a woman who kills her children is not sick: she is just evil and bipolar is just an unbelievable hypocrisy, pretence, bunanfusi, and if they find out really that something is wrong, then you are bewitched. Sad, but that is the result of weak economies, hence no research.

For how long have you written Kintu? Any other work you have written while waiting for that novel to get finished?

I have been working on Kintu since August 2003 but if you look at the real time I have spent working on the novel it is about four years.

I have been working on other things as well – a few other ideas for books and short stories. I also started a critical PhD on Yvonne Vera’s novels and abandoned it, then started another on Hybridity (the African novel as a hybrid form) which I submitted together with Kintu.

 How do you know when a novel isn’t working and that you need to walk away from it? How do you know that you must keep at it even if it takes you more than five years?

The thing is, all authors are readers firstly, then writers secondly. As a reader you know what you enjoy, you know what works for you in terms of a story. And though sometimes you can be blind to the weaknesses in your own writing – a plot can run out of hand, you can go on and on about inconsequential things – but mostly a writer is her own worst critique. So you do know when a piece is not working.

 I was also told by my MA tutor that if you feel that a piece is not working, perhaps it is really not working: get rid of it. Besides, it is not advisable to work on your own. I belong to a writing group in Manchester run by Commonword/Cultureword which supports budding Black writers. There, I take the worst pieces of my writing and man, they are ruthless! If you don’t know them you might be tempted not to return to the group, but they are good for me.

 I have read your short story The Joys of Manhood online. Is it an extract from Kintu?

Oh my God, you did not read that! It is an extract from Kintu from a long time ago; an old, old version when I first started writing. It was not well edited. The editor did not bother to send it to me when he edited it or tell me when he published it. I landed on it by chance one day on the internet and read it and I was horrified because the editing had changed it tremendously. I actually do not like it at all but it is on the web and there is nothing I can do about it. I consider The Accidental Seaman a better short story. It is available on my website, www.jennifermakumbi.net and I have also recently published a tongue-in-cheek very short story in Renagade (the alternative travel magazine) called Move Against Kenco Foiled.

The extract that I read is set in 1740. What drew you to that particular time in our history?

It is now set in 1750. I am just starting out as a writer; where else do you start but in the past? By past, I mean pre-colonial. In the past is our traditional storytelling and I always pay homage to that. Mostly, history at this time is oral therefore not set in ink. This gave me permission to reimagine, invent and subvert all I wanted without being constrained by history. But also culturally, in the beginning is Kintu so I was experimenting with myth and history.

 The relationship between Nnakato, Kintu and Babirye reminded me so much of Leah, Jacob and Rachel in the Bible. Did you draw any inspiration from that story?

No, no, no! I did not draw inspiration from the Bible. We told stories before the Bible came and yes I did look at biblical issues in the novel but only to subvert Christianity. So the whole ‘Ham’s curse’ thing I looked at because it is a European explanation of the ‘African madness’ but that does not inspire me, it saddens me. My aim is to show that Christianity is not innocent when it comes to Blackness. I hate it when African creativity is brought back to European forms as if we are incapable of imagination, or lack our own stories to inspire us. The story of Babirye and Nnakato is a Ganda cultural reality. What happens to them was what traditionally the Ganda used to do as a culture and I am interrogating that. I draw my inspiration from oral traditions.

 Your stories are deeply-rooted in Ugandan oral tradition and folklore. What in it inspires you? How do you think us Kampala-born-international-school-going-DSTV-watching generation can benefit from this?

Our traditional creativity and imagination is encoded within oral traditions. I love decoding these. They tell you so much about our history and explain so much of what remains of our culture. I call the culturally impoverished children of today ‘the pamper-generation’ who are impoverished culturally because their parents have chosen to go Western. There is nothing wrong with being born in Kampala; I was born in the city and grew up in a very westernised home reading western books. However I had to learn my culture like cooking traditionally, and I am talking about cooking luwombo in Kololo even though there were maids. I had a whole host of extended family all over Luwero district and I spent a lot of time in the rural village – my grandfather insisted on it – and learnt so much and I was fascinated. My siblings and cousins on the other hand were not as fascinated and so they are surprised by what I write even though we grew up in the same home and are of the same generation. The parents of the ‘pamper- generation can pass on what they know if the children are interested. I once rang home and talked to my three year old niece and she insisted on talking to me in English!

 You are the only person I know that has a PhD in Creative Writing. Most people who have a Masters in Creative Writing do it after a degree that they had to do to please their parents. If you had a moment to convince a parent to let their child to study Creative Writing or to even pursue their writing passion, what would you tell them?

Oh God, you know how snobbish we people from the Third World are when it comes to subjects that promote talent. It is the fear for the doubtful future and we all suffer from it as parents. A doctor, lawyer, teacher is ensured of a job but not a writer, a singer, actor or dancer. I would not embark on convincing parents with words; it is a waste of time. People are insecure because of our insecure economies. Look at the universities; how many of them offer Creative Writing as a stand-alone discipline? What I can do is to show the world, through my endeavours, that creative writing is worth the trouble.

 Thank you Jennifer for this interview. Hoping that you bring the overall prize home!

Look out for ‘Move Against Kenco Foiled’ in our #NowReading category.

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