This month, Africa Book Club interviews Julius Ocwinyo, a Ugandan author and poet, whose novels include Fate of the Banished (1997), The Unfulfilled Dream (2002), and Footprints of the Outsider (2003). He is also currently an editor for Fountain Publishers, one of the leading indigenous publishing houses in East Africa.
Born in 1961 in Teboke village in Apac District, Ocwinyo studied at Aboke Junior Seminary and Lango College, before joining the Institute of Teacher Education at Kyambogo, where he earned a Diploma in Education. He later studied at Makerere University, where he received a Bachelor of Education. Ocwinyo taught at various educational institutions before joining Fountain Publishers in March 1997.
Tell us about your early years.
I was born in 1961 in Lango, North-Central Uganda. My father worked in the Uganda Prisons Service and my mother was a housewife. Before joining the Prisons Service my father had served in the King’s African Rifles and had been deployed to Misr (Egypt) towards the end of World War II.
I went to a Catholic seminary because I really wanted to become a priest. However, this was not to be. Instead I ended up losing all interest in the doctrines and practice of religion and became an “I-don’t-give-a-hoot-what-happens-in-the-afterlife agnostic.”
At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t think that there was a point at which I told myself: ‘Julius, now is the time to start writing’. I just found myself occasionally seized by the craving to write. At first it was mostly poetry, then it was drama. In fact, between puberty and the age of 30 I wrote mostly poetry (some of which was later to be published) and a few plays (two of which were staged by my students to the great delight of my superiors).
How did you get your first break, and what was your first published work?
I think my break came in the same way some miracles happen. I had worked on Fate of the Banished for slightly more than one year, during which I had planned, drafted, written out and re-worked it. Note that I had done all this in longhand, and fortunately for everyone who came in contact with the book then, my handwriting was still impeccable. Then when I felt that the manuscript was good enough, I came to Kampala to look for a publisher. This was in 1993 – December 1993. A friend of mine directed me to Fountain Publishers, where I sought out the chief editor and handed my manuscript over to him. I don’t think I believed anybody would take it seriously enough to want to publish it. I was actually ready for its rejection; I didn’t need to brace myself for it. In fact, if the book had been rejected I don’t think I would have suffered a heart attack or anything of the sort though I believe that rejection would have effectively put paid to my literary ambitions.
Exactly three years later, I was surprised to hear that I was being sought by Fountain Publishers in connection with that book. An Oxford-trained English editor, Ms Patricia Haward, had read through it and strongly recommended it for publication. In fact, she had called it ‘the best Ugandan novel ever’. In addition to offering to publish my book, Fountain also offered me the position of editor on the basis of the quality – literary and otherwise – of the book.
Where do you draw your inspiration to write?
From many sources – books and other reading materials, my own experiences, from observing people. One of my favorite themes is drunkenness, which I have dealt with in both Fate of the Banished and Footprints of the Outsider. I do watch drunks quite closely, and doing that provides me with an indispensable window into the raw, primeval nature of man, man as uninhibited by moral and behavioral constraints imposed by society.
You are both a writer and a poet. What appeals to you more, and why?
Prose appeals to me more. You can do more with prose as a writer than you can with poetry. You have greater scope to say what you want to say since prose takes up more space and requires looser construction. Compare that with poetry, which not only telescopes and condenses ideas into the tiniest space possible, but also distils feeling to the point where it becomes all but sublime.
Unlike many other contemporary African writers, you are based at home and on the continent. Has this helped or restricted your success? In what ways?
My continued stay here has both helped and curtailed my success. Helped because it has afforded me the opportunity to stay in touch with my most important constituency – the schools. Limited my success in that I have not been able to achieve the kind of visibility outside Uganda that I’d probably have attained by now if I’d left the country.
In addition to being a writer, you are also an editor for a publishing company. How do you juggle writing, work and your personal life?
It’s tough juggling my various responsibilities. Time seems to always be short. In addition I’ve got financial obligations to take care of – putting food on the table, paying the kids’ fees etc. That means one can’t give up one’s job, and one can’t risk being sacked either. So you have to try as best you can to be an effective and competent editor. And since the returns on writing are slow in coming – compare this with music, for instance – you have to always try to strike that delicate balance between your own needs as a writer and those of your spouse and children, otherwise you could easily turn your home into a veritable war zone. So in some way you’re caught up in the middle – between the demands of your family – and I’m referring here not to the nuclear family but the extended one –, the demands of your job and the demands of your cherished writing career.
We are not seeing as many writers emerging from East Africa as before. Is creative writing dying out as an art form in the region?
I think that the Ngugi wa Thiongo’s and Okot p’Biteks were luckier than we are. There was a lot of euphoria then about what we could achieve in all areas of human endeavour, there was this ‘can-do’ attitude…And the writer also tended to attract a lot of attention, for he was also frequently an academic, thus a member of the rarefied intellectual elite of his country, or a radio or TV personality. Furthermore, publishers were scouring Africa for literary talent then…there was Heinemann and its African Writers Series imprint; there was the East African Literature Bureau, for example. As a result the writers were highly motivated. Today the situation is quite different, so for you to continue writing means that you should be quite tough, you must be absolutely sure that writing is precisely what you want to do, with or without recognition. And not many young people are ready to wrestle with that state of affairs, especially in the light of this madness about celebrity: you do something today – however mediocre – and want to be tagged a celebrity instantly! However, quite a lot of writing is taking place, but not much of it gets to see the light of day. The main reason is that publishers are wary about publishing creative literature, for the market for it is smaller now than it was then.
What do you consider to be your proudest achievements as a writer?
The fact that there are lots of school going children reading my books, especially the two fictional works I wrote on HIV/Aids – The Unfulfilled Dream and The Price of Grandma’s Love. It’s gratifying to visit schools and get instantly recognized as a writer who cares about the welfare of the youth.
Some of my works have been recognized nationally. Fate of the Banished won the 1997 Uganda Publishers and Booksellers Association (UPABA) award for best adult fiction. In 2004, Footprints of the Outsider won the Kinyara Award for best adult fiction (sponsored by the British Council).
A few years ago, Fate of the Banished, was selected as one of the study texts for the A-level Literature syllabus. That was quite an achievement considering there was no lobbying involved!
What writers do you admire, and why?
Chinua Achebe, for the simplicity and originality with which he handles complex issues, and also for showing that English can be made to work in a variety of cultural environments. Wole Soyinka, for his expert fusing of western mythology and Yoruba traditional beliefs and practices, and for his literary exuberance. Then there are writers such as William Faulkner, who literally floored me with his exquisite and no-holds-barred use of language. I can’t mention all of them, but there are quite a number, some of them French.