Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan novelist, short story writer, and poet. In 2014, Makumbi won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story, Let’s Tell This Story Properly. Her doctoral novel, The Kintu Saga, won the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2013 and was published in 2014 under the title Kintu. In this interview with Africa Book Club, she talks about the importance of African traditions in writing and what it takes to be a successful writer.
Although you began writing at an early age, it is only recently that you emerged on the global stage. Where have you been hiding all these years?
Oh Diane, I was not hiding, I was writing while finding my way into and through the intricate and formidable maze that is the publishing world for a long time. I did my early writing at home in Uganda but in 2001 I came to Britain to study writing seriously thinking that I would complete myfirst novel and get published immediately. I found out the hardest way possible that you do not get on a plane out of Africa and glide into the writing world just like that. I know that some writers have done it but I found it difficult. My first novel was rejected so thoroughly that I lost confidence. I put it away and I started a second one. In the process, I did a doctoral degree and wrote lots of short stories on the side but I was not publishing anything. I first published in 2012. Commonword/Cultureword, which was familiar with my writing, commissioned me to write about the history of Moss side, a part of Manchester where black people first settled. I wrote the ‘The Accidental Seaman’. With its publication, I gained confidence and submitted The Kintu Saga. Winning the Kwani Manuscript Project gave me more confidence to submit, ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’ to the Commonwealth Short story Prize and wham, those eleven years of struggle disappeared.
As a winner of both the Kwani! Manuscript Project (2013) and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2014), would you say that the last two years have marked a turning point in your writing career?
Absolutely! While all the material I have published so far has been with me for a while, no one knew about it or me. It was the Kwani Manuscript Project, which first brought attention to my writing especially on the African continent. Recently, The Commonwealth Prize has brought the wider world attention. So yes these two years have been a turning point in my career. I even started to describe myself as a writer! I would not dare call myself that before because I had nothing to show for my claims. Now the pressure is to use this turning point and make it an opportunity to showcase the rest of my writing.
Reading any of your work, it is evident that you like using African oral traditions, especially in the Ganda culture. How important are these traditions to you as a writer?
To me, Ganda oral traditions are the history of my creativity. They show that long before the arrival of the novel, the Ganda were storytelling in so many different forms and at many levels – simple and complex, conscious and subconscious. If you look carefully, Ganda oral traditions are stunning in what they reveal about us and about human nature as a whole.I think that they have not been fully explored or appreciated at a critical level and their potential has not been fully realized. Before I allow my storytelling to take me anywhere else, I am going to find out what was going on in the past. I can’t say how important oral traditions are to African literature or to other writers of African literature because that is a huge undertaking and everyone writes the way they wish. However to me, Ganda oral traditions are a window through which I can gaze at the past and see how the baganda recorded themselves and what they chose to record. They anchor my writing into a tradition. I use some of their devices to reimagine that past, to write my present and to imagine my future.
As a reader, I always expect to find that African traditional touch (sayings, myths) in books written by African authors and I get
disappointed when I don’t. Do you think some African authors are shying away from or are not proud of their traditions and cultures?
I think that for a long time, especially in early African writing, oral traditions were used in literature as an aspect that ‘Africanised’ the novel because the novel was seen as a European form. Basically, orature (written forms of African oral traditions) became an identity marker and readers around the world came to love and expect it in African literature. However, lately, perhaps because of the growing confidence of the African novel as a form in its own right, there has been a kind of moving away from oral traditions because after all, all societies have their oral traditions. I think that the African novel is now adventurous and is boldly exploring all forms of possibilities. To me the absence of orature is not a question of shying away or not being proud of oral traditions; it is a question of choice, of confidence and of interest. Likewise, my using them is also a question of confidence, choice and interest. I was lucky to study oral traditions at university at a critical level and I fell in love.
You grew up being ‘fed on a diet’ of Ganda Oral storytelling and reading English literature classics. Is this what encouraged you to pursue writing as a career?
Unlike most authors, I did not dream of pursuing a writing career from childhood. I sort of drifted into it. As a child, I was a story teller telling folktales or retelling stories I had read in books to friends and family but I did not dream of becoming a writer. Even when I wrote plays, I did not see myself as a writer. Actually, I wanted to be a lawyer (it is terrible to remember because it was all about vanity) and take on all those clever lawyers in court the way I saw it on TV. It seemed as though the courtroom was the arena where clever people went to show off. But then I became a teacher and my storytelling skills came in handy during English language lessons. At one time, I wrote diary entries in poems but again that was just because I was literature teacher. I did not consider my action as writing until I wrote a piece of fiction in 1998.
Tell us about your new novel, Kintu.
Kintu a provincial governor in Buganda Kingdom inadvertently kills his adoptive son but fails to tell the lad’s biological father, who is his servant. The biological father finds out and curses Kintu. Most of the story shows how this curse manifests itself in modern times among Kintu’s descendants.
The Kintu Saga was your doctoral novel and now it has become a big success in the literary world. Are you surprised by its success so far?
Yes, it is surprising how readers at home and around the world have embraced it. Because it was published in Kenya, it keeps selling out in Uganda and Ugandans are quite impatient with the Kenyan publisher. There has been a lot of media attention which was a wonderful thing to see.
What was the inspiration behind it?
Initially Kintu was about me dealing with my father’s mental illness. Then it grew wider to incorporate ideas of the Ganda, Uganda and parts of Africa that have had similar experiences.
What inspires your creativity in writing? Where/how do you get your ideas? Any special preferences on where you do your writing?
I am inspired to tell Ugandan stories. I am inspired to tell the world about Uganda. About where ideas come from I don’t know – memory, imagination, and creativity perhaps. I could be falling asleep and I get an idea, I could be on the bus, I could be reading, teaching, talking to someone, listening to a song and something is sparked. I have no idea where that spark come from. I write anywhere any time when I get the space because sparks come in the most inconvenient places. I don’t have a schedule or any rituals though sometimes, I scribble things on my hand, my phone or say to people, “give me a moment: I need scribble something down.” There are times when I wake up and I have all these ideas and write all day. There are times when I am listless all day and I google things, go to Facebook and eat and turn on the TV.
Were there African authors you looked to as an up and coming writer?
Of course, I grew up on Achebe, on Ngugi, Soyinka and all those early African writers but Yvonne Vera, Ayi Kwei Armah, (later I discovered James Baldwin and Toni Morrison) are some of those that I look up to.
What books would you recommend to readers out there who are looking to discover African literature?
I would recommend NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly, One Day I Will Write About This Place (by Binyavanga Wainaina), and all Chimamanda Adichie novels.
What is your favourite genre – short stories or novels?
In the beginning it was novels, but I am not sure anymore. I have published three short stories and about to publish a fourth and I have enjoyed writing them.
Any advice to young people out there who dream of becoming successful writers, just like you?
Firstly, you are lucky to start dreaming about writing at a young age. Read a lot. Listen to the way people tell stories in everyday life, “You can imagine what has just happened…” there is an interesting rhythm in the way we do this in terms of opening, middle, ending and the way we write stories. Play with words on a page even when you are not writing seriously. Then read a lot and read some more. Watch films, documentaries and the news. Watch people around you, their body language and listen to how they speak, (without creeping them out): this is important to creating life like characters in your stories. Remember, living is research. Mostly, when you start writing, make sure you enjoy your own stories.