Kintu’s ‘Africaness’ pays off for Jennifer Makumbi

Saturday March 17 2018

Tears of joy: Jennifer Makumbi in 2014 accepting the overall Commonwealth Short Story Prize in Kampala for her story Let’s Tell This Story Properly.  PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

Tears of joy: Jennifer Makumbi in 2014 accepting the overall Commonwealth Short Story Prize in Kampala for her story Let’s Tell This Story Properly. PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI  

By BAMUTARAKI MUSINGUZI
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Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi summed up her winning of $165,000 for the 2018 Windham Campbell Literature Prize thus: “This is like having worked without pay for a long time and then someone comes along and says, ‘Will a salary for the past 10 years do?’ I am speechless.”

Makumbi, a novelist and short story writer, won the prize for her debut novel, Kintu, published by Transit Books (US) and Oneworld Publications (UK/Commonwealth) this past January.

The Windham Campbell Prize for Literature is one of the world’s richest and most prestigious literary prizes. The Man Booker Prize winner gets $69,230, while the Nobel Prize for Literature laureate receives $1.4 million.

The EastAfrican conducted an e-mail interview with the author, with questions ranging from her reaction to the win to how she will spend the prize money.

“It is a wonderful feeling, quite unbelievable actually, but they give you time to get used to it before you receive the money in September,” said Makumbi.

Not one to be sitting on her laurels, she added, “I have started working on a new novel that needs a lot of research and travelling around Africa. That is mainly what I am going to do with the money. It will be also nice to help my husband pay the bills. He has been struggling alone while I write bringing in nothing really.”

Makumbi may not be a bestselling author yet, but she is not new to winning having also won the Kwani? Manuscript Project Award in 2013 with Kintu, and her short story, Lets Tell This Story Properly (Granta, 2014), and the regional (Africa) and overall Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2014.

Rejection

Of the cash prizes she said: “They mean that you get that rare pay cheque which, as an author, you are not sure would ever come through. It means getting time to write without guilt. It means your book getting to reach more readers in places you had not expected.”

Ironically, British publishers had rejected her manuscript for Kintu for being “too African.” It was finally released in England in January.

“It was heart-breaking, but again, Kintu is a very African novel. I started getting used to having my manuscripts rejected and started thinking of ways to get my books read widely in Africa and beyond, in the developing world,” she said.

“I am opinionated and writing allows me to express my views without interruption or being challenged. I love being on my own, doing my thing, playing with ideas and making up stories. I love telling stories too,” she said, explaining why she finds creative writing exciting.

But her journey as an author has not been smooth sailing. “Being broke is a big challenge, and it takes a long time to acquire writing skills; it takes a while to write, edit and get a book published. And sometimes you get rejected by publishers and even when you get published, you worry about not being bought or reviewed.”

Her advice to young people interested in creative writing is rather disheartening: “Don’t come to writing if you are interested in making money.”

Of course anyone who aspires to be a writer has to have a lot of inspiration or look up to others for it. Makumbi said her inspiration and influences are varied. “This changes most of the time, but Tony Morrison, Sembene Ousmane and Yvonne Vera are standard.”

Copies of Kintu as published by Oneworld Publications (UK/ Commonwealth) this January. An earlier edition was published by Kwani? in Kenya in 2014.  PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

Copies of Kintu as published by Oneworld Publications (UK/ Commonwealth) this January. An earlier edition was published by Kwani? in Kenya in 2014. PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

Oral literature

Makumbi has a PhD in African Literature from Lancaster University,  a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education in English and Literature from the Islamic University in Uganda.

She has taught creative writing at colleges and universities around the UK.

Makumbi has established herself as a short story writer and describes the genre as “the small bite especially in this busy world where everything is in a hurry. A busy person will grab a short story and read it in a moment. For people who are not big readers, the short story is encouraging.”

Her stories rely heavily on Ganda oral traditions, especially myths, legends, folktales and sayings.

“Oral literature has tremendously and greatly influenced my writing. When I have a story idea for a novel or short story I tend to look back to oral traditions to make a frame.”

“The problem is that myths, legends, folktales and sayings are strong, and when you employ them they can overpower the rest of the story and suck the life out of it. If you put them in your story, you have to be careful how you use them. In other words, they should not tell your story,” she cautioned.

“I tend to look at oral tradition as our literature. Other people wrote their literature. I have never considered oral tales to have a downside. When they are transferred to my son they are retold afresh. They are not static. They are like chameleons changing colour every now and then,” Makumbi said.

“Moving from the oral tradition to the written word is a huge transition. The oral traditions are surviving. Some things are going to remain oral, encouraging creativity all the time. To me, these are the strengths of the oral tradition,” she added.

“My intentions in using oral tradition in fiction are not conservationist as is often presumed in African writing — that oral tradition needs to be preserved. I draw on oral forms because they anchor my writing in Ganda culture. At the same time, because these oral forms are rooted in my first language, I am confident using them. Most of all, I celebrate them,” Makumbi said.

Accolades

Her collection of short stories, Love Made in Manchester, published by Transit Books, will be released in January next year.

She says Love Made in Manchester is a collection of short stories about Ugandans in Britain. “It’s about how we [Ugandans in Britain] change and how this affects relationships within the family.”

Her short story, Lets Tell This Story Properly (Granta, 2014), is about Nnameya, a grieving widow who arrives at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda from Manchester with her husband Kayita’s coffin, but events take such a dramatic turn that she must for a while forget she is a widow and fight for her matrimonial home.

Jennifer Makumbi, left, at a recent literature event in Manchester, UK. PHOTO | COURTESY

Jennifer Makumbi, left, at a recent literature event in Manchester, UK. PHOTO | COURTESY

In 2012, her book of short stories The Joys of Fatherhood, was published by African Writing Online and Commonword, and The Accidental Sea Man was published in Moss Side Stories by Crocus Books.

In 2013, her poems Free Range and Father Cried in the Kitchen were published in Sweet Tongues, by Crocus Books.

She was longlisted for the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature in Nigeria.

In 2015, she won an Arts Council Grant in England to research her second novel, The Women. She is currently completing this book.

She also runs the African Reading Group in Manchester, which focuses on unknown African writers.

The future

Makumbi is optimistic about the publishing industry. “It is picking up. When I was growing up there wasn’t anything like a publishing industry in Uganda. There are quite a few books being published by the Uganda women writers’ association Femrite. If they are publishing novels then there must be people reading them,” she said.

Born in Uganda, she moved to the UK 17 years ago and lives in Manchester with her husband Damian and son, Jordan, of whom she says, “they are my life.”

Her mother, Evelyn Nnakalembe lives in Uganda. Her father Anthony Kizito Makumbi, a banker, died in 2011, after losing his mind following his arrest and brutalisation during the Idi Amin regime. While the ordeal did not kill him, he never recovered mentally from the torture.

“It broke my family and destroyed our lives because he was not able to support his children. It happened when I was eight years old.”

She says her father encouraged her to speak and read “proper” English from a young age. “His influence has stayed with me,” Makumbi recalled.

His efforts have cleared paid off. “God bless him. He would be proud now. I am grateful because I am in the business of teaching and working with the English language so I have to speak and write it well.”

The Windham Campbell prize

Makumbi was among eight winners of the prestigious 2018 Windham Campbell Literature Prize awarded every year in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama, announced on March 1.

Each writer will receive a grant of $165,000 to support their writing. The awards will be conferred in September at an international literary festival at Yale University in the US, where the committee for the prize is based. This will be followed by a week-long celebration.

This year’s recipients are in drama, Lucas Hnath (US) and Suzan-Lori Parks (US); in nonfiction, Sarah Bakewell (UK) and Olivia Laing (UK); in fiction, John Keene (US) and Makumbi; and in poetry, Lorna Goodison (Jamaica) and Cathy Park Hong (US).

The award was established in 2013 by Donald Windham (now late) in memory of his partner of 40 years, Sandy M. Campbell, to “provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns.”

Programme director Michael Kelleher said: “The day I make the call to notify award recipients is the highlight of the year, as each cycle I hear how much of a difference it will make for them. Six years on, we can now see the impact the prizes have on these writers’ lives, careers, and their work. The feeling is magical.”

According to a statement by the prize organisers, “Makumbi opens up a bold and innovatory vista in African letters, encompassing ancient wounds that disquiet the present, and offering the restitution to be found in memory and ritual.

Kintu tells the parallel stories of the fall of a cursed bloodline — the titular Kintu clan — and the rise of modern Uganda. With an extraordinarily ambitious and agile narrative voice that blends traditional oral storytelling with folk tales, mythology, and biblical elements, Makumbi delivers an incisive critique of contemporary Ugandan class, politics, and religion,” they add.  

Critic Aaron Bady says that Kintu is a novel about how “all families are built out of silences and fictions.”

Kintu traces the lineages of these lacunae, in the process charting new possibilities for the future of the African novel.

Kintu has been listed as one of the best forthcoming books of 2018 by The Guardian newspaper in the UK.

Past African recipients of the Windham Campbell Prize include Helon Habila, Teju Cole, Aminatta Forna and Ivan Vladislavic.