On the early morning that I interview Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi about her latest book, Kampala is rainy and wet but it instantly gets warmer when Makumbi walks smilingly into the hotel lobby. Clad in a sleeveless cream top and flowered slacks, she could easily pass for a holiday maker, but I am hardly fooled, for I have read her award-winning debut novel Kintu and I am well aware that I am in the presence of one of East Africa’s finest writers.
Once we settle down, I am spellbound and for the next 75 minutes, I listen to Makumbi talk about writing, editing, travelling and her latest book, Manchester Happened, a collection of short stories, which was launched at the Africa Writers Trust conference in Kampala.
Tell us a little about the stories in your new collection 'Manchester Happened’.
The stories in the collection are all inspired by me moving from Uganda and settling in Britain. I always say that when I travelled to Britain to write, I carried all the stories I was going to write. It is different with this collection, though. I didn’t carry any of these stories; instead, they are from what I saw, heard, imagined and created about the Ugandan community in Britain.
However, I didn’t just write about being in Manchester, I wrote about what happens to the family and the shifting place of women, men and children once they move away from home.
In the first story, you find the children taking on a parent relationship and being protective of their parents. There’s another story where you find a girl being a parent to her younger sister. I do all this because I wanted to write back home and tell our people, “Can you imagine that this happens?”
In the story ‘Christmas Is Coming’, a 13-year-old boy is obsessed with going back to Uganda. Can we assume that you grappled with similar issues when you first moved to the UK?
Not really, because I didn’t grow up in the UK, I went when I was 34. Of course I missed home, sometimes I even miss the dust and the boda-boda — which I hate — and I guess that’s because I went as an older person rather than as a young person.
Luzinda, the boy in that story, wants to go home for a different reason. For me, it was the food and the sun, Luganda and the familiarity of being with people that looked like me. When I arrive in Uganda, I just fit in.
There are so many people with my shape, so many people of my shade, of my colour, I arrive and I disappear. There, I stand out. I stick out.
Do you consider identities to be fluid?
Yeah! Absolutely. It’s only when moved out of your comfort zone that you realise that identity is a fluid thing. Identities seem to be stagnant for people who have not moved. If you’re a Muganda in Buganda, you imagine that the whole world is like you but when you move into a place like London with its centrality in finances, the arts and culture, you meet a lot of people from all over the world then realise that people can be British without being English, Scottish or Irish. Most people who have immigrated and acquired status in different countries do have fluid identities.
I met Ugandans in South Africa who were born in South Africa and speak Afrikaans or Xhosa, yet they identify as Baganda because their parents are Ugandan.
Out there, there are ways in which identities stretch and move. I have just come back from Washington, DC, and while there, I mostly gravitated towards British people and would talk about Britain as ‘back home’. Of course I wasn’t talking as a Ugandan but like a Brit. That is how we move in and out of identities, taking on new ones without even realising it.
In choosing to write about home, you take on a big risk because the home crowd is usually hard to please. How come you do it with such courage?
All I know is that when I’m writing in my mind, I’m talking to a Ugandan. That affects the way I write, my language, the subject matter, attitude and the tone. I write the way we talk. I first published the second story in this collection, “Our Allies the Colonies”, as a piece of research for black British people. Back then, I wrote it in a particular way because the black British were going to read it. Once I decided to put it in the collection, it changed.
The title changed and I had to make decisions on what to include and what to exclude.
Now that I was writing to people back home, I started imagining what they would want to know about that Ugandan who left in the 40s.
What was he looking for? How did he get to the UK? It’s very interesting how the story changes when you think of a specific audience.
I did study audiences and became aware of how when you anticipate a particular audience, you leave gaps for them to fill in because readers are not passive, they are creating along the way.
Do you feel as though prizes are important in propelling writers?
Yes they are. Winning a prize makes a huge difference, not only the money but in terms of recognition. Suddenly, people are talking about you and your name is becoming familiar and people start looking up what you have written.
Kintu travelled by word of mouth in the beginning but once the Windham-Campbell happened, it changed everything. I haven’t stopped travelling since then; in fact, there are months when I just come home, change and go away. That’s what a prize does to one.
I once read an article that said that there’s only one place for an African writer in the West. That there can only be one ‘Achebe’ at a time. Your thoughts?
I didn’t read that article but that is definitely not true. The West will hype because hyping is a Western thing. But I don’t think it is Chimamanda’s fault that they are hyping her. Achebe was very uncomfortable about it. He would say, “Excuse me, there’s so and so …” he kept on reminding them.
Perhaps the person who wrote that meant that they could only pronounce one African name or perhaps they still look at Africa as a country. However, there is space for everybody.
I must add, though, that Chimamanda has moved out of a certain realm as far as authors go and become a celebrity. Authors are rarely celebrities.
I don’t think Achebe got to where Chimamanda is. No other African author has gone to where she has gone. I’m also worried that those who have taken her up there have also the power to bring her down as they’ve done to white people they once hyped.
So I’m wary, and wouldn’t advise any African author to go up there. They were taking Binyavanga up there and I think that wasn’t good for him. But this idea that Adichie is there because of writing isn’t exactly right.
I think she is where she is now because of the TED talks and because she is talking about Trump. She has transcended writing and she has become an icon so that she can talk about Trump and feminism and anything else.
Do you think Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) degrees help writers grow their writing?
Yes I do and it is because one acquires writing skills. It would be great if African universities started creative writing departments.
It is outrageous that they can see there’s a need for it but they are not doing so. A lot of Africans are going to Europe and paying a lot of money to do MFAs.
Also, if we had the courses here, they would be tailored to our way of writing and African writers can study texts by other African writers.
Please share with us your writing habits.
I’m not very disciplined as a writer, I must confess. However, when there is something to come out of me, I will sit at my desk at 5am and will stay there until my husband gets back home at 7pm and finds me with stiff and swollen feet. To change that, I have decided to write within the university. So I behave like students; I wake up in the morning, catch my rucksack and go to the library so that when they say it is time to close the library, I have to leave and go home.
I urge those who, like me, write compulsively, to find a space away from home rather than writing in your house.
Back to my routine, there are moments when I run out of things to say so I go back to what I have written, print it out then I start editing. As I edit, I put in more flesh and research on areas that need research. There is no particular order in which I write; often a story is knocking about in my head for almost four years before I put it down. I write a lot in my head but also try out my story ideas on people orally.
There is a notion that editors in the west want a particular narrative on Africa. Does this bother you and do you factor that in when writing?
That is a huge fight I have with my editor. It was so bad that I withdrew my book and took it to an African editor, who then asked for an earlier version of the book. We ended up putting back some of the things that had been cut out.
Interestingly, the three stories that had been removed turned out to be the most popular.
Though editors in the West claim to like African stories, they mostly end up editing for the West because they don’t understand our audiences back home. They also don’t understand our social, cultural and political elements.
How then would they edit a book dealing with these very issues? In the end, I withdrew the book from the American editor and gave it to a Shona editor, who understood the text better. I must quickly add, though, that I was only able to afford that editor because of the Windham-Campbell prize. It is very expensive to hire an editor and so many writers end up accepting the changes that they shouldn’t because of the high cost of hiring editors.
Gloria Mwaniga’s new children’s books are published by Longhorn Publishers as part of the Read and Discover readers series for the Competency-Based Curriculum.