‘Authors in the West don’t worry about whether Africa will understand them’—Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi discusses Kintu at Wits

Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi visited Wits University in August, for a discussion around her debut novel, Kintu.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Bloomsbury, 2018

Makumbi was in conversation with Wits lecturer in African literature Danai Mupotsa, and a group of engaged and thoughtful students, who quizzed the author on language, the pitfalls of historical fiction, Ugandans’ reaction to the homosexuality in the novel, and the novel’s interrogation of the Kintu myth’s intense masculinity.

Makumbi began with a short speech, in which she said her formative reading years were influenced by South African fiction, and that her early political consciousness was shaped by the country’s political situation.

‘It’s wonderful to be in South Africa, finally,’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting for the day I could visit this wonderful country. Unbeknown to you, those of us who were not born here grew up studying South Africa, big time. It was a major project. I remember as a child, the first serious book I ever read was Peter Abrahams’s Mine Boy, and in school we were so involved in South African history and literature, reading Dennis Brutus, Alan Paton. My parents were also so involved in what was happening in South Africa, you have no idea the kind of anger that was going on in Uganda about what was happening here.’

Part of her project in writing Kintu, Makumbi said, was to bring Uganda’s history to the world’s consciousness.

‘The first thing I wanted to do was to tell the world about Uganda,’ she said. ‘When you tell most people, “I’m Ugandan”, especially when I went to Britain, the first thing they say is, “Ah, Idi Amin!” or, more recently, “Ah, homophobia!” And you want to say, look, they’re not the major exports of Uganda. There are other aspects of Uganda. But out there, there was nothing good to say or hear about Uganda. At least you guys have Nelson Mandela, you know? 

‘But we are just as beautiful as you, as we are just as ugly. I wanted the world to know that there’s more to Uganda. At the same time, I wanted to have a conversation with Ugandans, and say, look, this is where we came from, this is what we’ve done. Where are we going?’

Two of the main aspects of Ugandan culture that Makumbi wanted to address in her novel were considerable: homosexuality and religion.

‘I wrote the book to answer quite a few questions,’ she said. ‘For example, there’s this feeling that homosexuality came with colonisation, and we were very, very sure whites sat us down and taught us how to behave in this way. But then we found out in our history books, which are written by Ugandan historians, that homosexuality had been there before. So which foreigners came before the whites? The Arabs. So now we say, oh, it’s the Arabs. They taught us. However, if you look in our language, the words that describe homosexuality are extremely old, so that tells you that it originally had no negative connotations. So I thought, let’s address this.’

Makumbi was asked how members of the Ugandan royalty, who still hold a lot of influence in the cultural conversation, have reacted to this aspect of the novel.

‘There’s silence, there’s absolute silence,’ she said. ‘They don’t know what to do with me. I think in the past they would have taken me aside and given me a few whips. But I think there’s a discomfort. I think at one moment they are very happy to have this history unearthed; even though the treatment of it is not all positive, there is a happiness that the history is becoming more visible. But on the other hand they are thinking, “But, goodness me, couldn’t she have left the homosexuality out?” I can’t tell you how many people have told me this.

‘But I think I have been given leeway because I am based in Britain. Because I’ve not been called out to say “What have you done?”, because no one has stood up and said horrible things to me, because I’ve not been censored, I think that is the best reaction I could have got.’

Makumbi added that she wanted to address a ‘certain kind’ of Christianity that is sweeping Uganda at the moment.

‘This type of Christianity is very intolerant of traditional religions, it is very entrepreneurial, money-making, and it is very predatory. I thought we needed to look at how Christianity arrived, how our grandfathers practised it, how our parents practised it, and what we are doing with it.’

Another of Makumbi’s motivations, she said, was to enrich the African literary canon.

‘For a long time, Things Fall Apart and Chinua Achebe have carried the weight of the rest of Africa, so whenever people read Things Fall Apart they said, oh, this is the moment that Africa fell apart. I really don’t think so. We were not colonised the same way,’ she said. ‘Uganda has been around as a kingdom since the twelfth century. I thought, God, you don’t know what you’re missing.’

Mupotsa asked Makumbi about the kinds of archives she used for the novel, which spans Ugandan history from the eighteenth-century to the present.

‘It took me ten years to finish the book, although perhaps I was writing it for four and a half,’ Makumbi said. ‘I did a lot of research. But I would write a piece and then I would go and research it. So I didn’t go out and do research the way other people do, research first and then sit down and write, because I noticed that when you do research like that sometimes it takes you in directions you don’t want to go. You find all this information and you think, the world needs to know this, the world needs to know that, oh, I must include that, and somehow that takes you away from the story. So what I did was to write the story and whenever I came across aspects that needed research, I then went and researched.’

During the course of her research, Makumbi used both the archive of written history and oral tradition. She emphasised that it is important to bear in mind the motives of the originators of written African history.

‘The first archives that I went to were the journals and the diaries written by missionaries and explorers,’ she said. ‘Now, they were terrible people, but wherever they went, they drew pictures or what they had seen, they would describe people. Of course I considered that it was written with a Eurocentric mind, sometimes actually racist, but it was a question of blowing away that chaff on the top and you would find a gem there.

‘One of the things I discovered was that in Uganda women used to shave their heads, while men would grow their hair. The men would grow a long dread and it would come all the way down. In Uganda today, people say that men growing their hair is sissy and feminine, but actually traditionally men should grow their hair. So I came across a lot of things like that and I was desperate to put them in the book, but again, it had to fit with the story.’

As Mupotsa pointed out, often the way Africans come to understand the present is through a study of colonialism as a main historical event. However, Makumbi avoids all mention of colonialism in Kintu. She said the seed for this was planted during her postgraduate studies in England, where she was discouraged from writing a PhD on the work of Yvonne Vera, being told ‘you can’t do any African studies except within the postcolonial paradigm’.

‘I felt locked in the postcolonial,’ she said. ‘And I started to look at how books were studied in Europe. So if you look at Things Fall Apart, they only look at the colonial element. When I was in Uganda studying Things Fall Apart, we looked at Okonkwo. Okonkwo as a father, Okonkwo as a son and Okonkwo as a family man, as a husband. And I remember the emphasis put on Okonkwo as a frightened man, and how that fear raised him to great heights and at the same time cut him down and brought him down.

‘In Europe, on the other hand, they skip all of that and go straight to the arrival of Europeans, and they go, “Oh my god look what we did, look how we destroyed Africa, how terrible.”

‘I realised that if you put Europe in your book, they will peripherise your culture and just focus on Europe. Even if you look at the areas of study, they are called “precolonial”, “colonial” and “postcolonial”. It is as if Africa does not exist outside of the colonial experience. I was not going to give them that chance of coming to my book and looking for themselves. Why, sixty years later after colonisation ended, would I focus on colonisation? Ngũgĩ does it for East Africa, Achebe did it, and all these wonderful people have done it, what more was I going to bring to the table? I just wanted to talk about Uganda. But now I’m being told that the more something is absent, the more it springs out. So you just can’t win.

‘So in a way it was to force the world to move away from the colonial. And in a way we Africans have a tendency to blame Europe for everything that goes wrong in Africa. That is crippling us. Yes, they are to blame to a certain extent. But we must also take our faults and look at them. So I thought, Europe, you’re out of my book.’

Despite this, Makumbi wrote Kintu in English, a choice, she said, that was not taken lightly. In fact, she decided to employ English in a very Ugandan way.

‘English comes from a culture, and we all know that language is that thing that carries culture, and the novel also is a cultural production,’ she said. ‘So when you write your novel about your culture in a different language, there is a conflict there. There are tensions between what you are doing and how you are doing it.

‘The English language can be—perhaps at times it can be racist, but also sometimes it just refuses to bend. This is why you have some of the words in Kintu in Luganda, because I just could not find an equivalent. For example, in the first part, which is set in the seventeen-hundreds, I tried to write the English very close to way we speak Luganda, because that was precolonial, so I don’t want the language to remind you, I don’t want the language to intrude on the idea that I have created a past.

‘When I come into the present, of course Ugandan people are speaking English, but it’s a very Ugandan English. I am lucky to write at a time when Africans are doing things with the English language. If you are from Uganda you’ll hear we have an English called Uglish, and I hear you have Zinglish in Zimbabwe, there are all sorts of Englishes. Africans are saying, “You brought this language to us, now watch us do things with it.”

An audience member asked Makumbi if she had a reader in mind while she was writing the novel.

‘Yes, I did. I was writing for Ugandans,’ she said. ‘Whenever I thought of a person reading the book—actually usually I imagined them listening—they were a younger version of me: fifteen, sixteen, looking for something in which they find themselves, where the landscape is so familiar, the way the British read Jane Austen, or the way they read Ian McEwan now.

‘What I found out about audiences when I did my PhD was that when authors in the West write their books, they don’t think about Africa and worry about whether we will understand them. I grew up on Shakespeare—I grew up on the equator, and I was reading about the ‘winter of our discontent’. The sun rises at the same time every day, I didn’t know what snow looked like, I had no idea what winter was, and nobody explained, and I understood Shakespeare quite well, actually. So why should I make it easy for the West? Tell me a Western author that thinks, Oh my God, Africans may not understand me, so let me make it easy for them. And when my book was rejected by publishers in the West, there was satisfaction in that, for a long time, until it was published in Africa, and Africans reviewed it and they said it was a good book, and then the Americans said: Maybe. But I wasn’t going to help Westerners. There’s Google. Go to Google and find out what kabaka means.’

The conversation then turned to Kintu‘s publication journey, and whether Makumbi had felt any pressure to change the text for an international audience. The book won the Kenya-based Kwani? Manuscript Project Prize in 2013, and was first published by Kwani? in 2014. As Makumbi alludes to above, it was famously pronounced ‘too African’ to be published in the United Kingdom or United States. After receiving critical praise in Africa, however, the book was eventually published in the US in 2017 by Transit Books—although it was deemed necessary to add an explanatory introduction to the text, written by Aaron Bady, which caused something of a controversy. The UK edition was released in January 2018 from Oneworld Publications, without the introduction.

‘I was very lucky,’ Makumbi said. ‘Kwani? put out a call for the prize, but at first I didn’t send in my manuscript, because the prize closed the day after I found out about it. But then they put out another call, and that time I sent it.

‘When it won, part of the prize was that you were going to be edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey—she’s up there, and I celebrated that more than winning the award, because it was going to be edited by her and then published in Africa. And she handled this book like a baby. So after that, there was no way anybody could turn around and change anything. Besides, it had been reviewed in Africa, and in a way it was owned more by the society than by me, so much so that even the Americans wouldn’t dare change anything at all. So no one touched it, the way it was published in Africa is the way it was published in America.

‘I had dreamt that the rest of my books would take that journey, but that has not happened. And the process of editing now, the short stories I am currently working on, is very different. For example, I have haggled a lot over the title, because the Americans are thinking of their market.

‘What was important to me was that Ellah edited not only the language but the culture as well. Now my publisher in America doesn’t know my culture, so I have my fingers crossed; these stories are going back to Uganda, and Ugandans are going to say, This woman, what does she think this is? Because, you know, you can’t know your culture entirely.

‘Speaking about [Bady’s introduction], oh my God, the Kenyans, every time I go back there they say “How could you allow that?!”, and they get very angry with me. So when the British published it they removed the preface.’

When it was first published, Kintu was at the vanguard of a wave of historical fiction that is now cresting throughout the continent, and Makumbi had some advice for aspiring historical novelists—albeit open-ended:

‘If you’re bringing history into a novel you have to be quite careful. What I have found is that people tend to believe history they read in novels more than they believe history they find in history books. When you write a historical figure you breathe life into that figure. You give him fears, you give him traits, you give him gestures, he becomes real rather than a historical figure, and people relate to that. So a lot of historical novelists say that as an author you ought to stay very close to the truth. British people have their history written, it has been recorded for a long time, they know it, but they prefer to believe in the Richard III that Shakespeare made up in his bed. Then there are other authors who say, well, history is unreliable, do not put fences on me, I’m going to tear things apart, to hell with whatever people want to believe about history.’

The discussion came to a close with a discussion of Kintu‘s ‘maleness’—the creation myth that the novel derives from centres on the actions of ‘the father of all people’—with an audience member saying she was pleasantly surprised by the powerful roles women play in Kintu, but asking Makumbi what prompted her to tell the story from the perspective of a male protagonist.

‘First of all, I confess, I am a feminist,’ Makumbi said. ‘However, “Kintu” is a very masculine myth. And oral traditions are very masculinist. And feminism is not making headway in Uganda for some reason. So I thought, you know what, let’s start with masculinity, here, before I go into feminism. In my second novel I go all the way feminist.

‘But also, what I have discovered is that the patriarchy does not only repress women. I’m not speaking for all cultures, but my culture is very patriarchal, and within the privilege that men have in Uganda is repression. I was shocked to find this out. That perhaps is not the case for masculinities such as queer masculinities, but I believe it is for everything within heterosexuality.

‘You will see in my novel, there is this Ppookino, he’s a governor, he has power, but our culture forces him to marry woman after woman after woman after woman. And every ambitious bride was a beautiful virgin, she thought she would love this guy, but the minute she arrives the head wife, who he wanted to marry, who he loves, will then find a place to put that young woman. And then she will write a roster for him—two weeks with that wife, two weeks with that wife, two weeks with that wife. And if he fails, she will come up with potion. So he feels he has to perform this idea of being a man, where you have to be strong. And you see it when he’s sending his son into marriage, he’s so careful to prepare him, because it’s no joke, being a man.

‘Later in the book, you find a man marrying a wife who cannot cook to save her life. He can cook, but not in Uganda: a man does not enter a kitchen. So he eats bad food for forty years.

‘So I felt I needed to talk about the repression of men within masculinities, but also I was working within a myth that is so masculine, and so I handled all the issues that I thought I could within masculinity in this novel. I set myself free. Now I can go and write my feminist novel.’


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