Jennifer Makumbi is a Ugandan novelist and short story writer. She won the African Region and the overall Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014 as well as the Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013 for her novel Kintu.
What are you doing in the Nairobi?
I was invited by the Goethe Institut for their Literary Crossroads series to talk about my work as an African writer. I am quite excited to be back in Nairobi because this is one of my favourite cities in Africa and this is where it all started for me. It is wonderful for me to be back here, especially now that my book has been around for some time and people know me.
How did it all start here in Nairobi as you say?
I wrote a novel that at the time was called The Kintu Saga while in Britain. I tried to get it published in Britain and failed. Then there was the manuscript project that Kwani? was running. I sent my script through and, luckily, I won the prize. Part of the prize was for the publication of the manuscript into a book. That was my first novel and it got published in Kenya, which is close to Uganda.
There is a following here in Kenya that is very close to my heart because I did not expect Kenyans to take to the book the way they did and I am so thankful for that. I may refuse to go to the US or other places but anytime I am invited back to Kenya, I am keen. I feel that it is a privilege to be here.
What is the book Kintu about?
It goes back to the 1700s when a chief in the Buganda Kingdom inadvertently kills his adoptive son and fails to go to the biological father and confess what he has unfortunately done. The biological father, who is non-Bugandan, suspecting that something has happened, goes back to his master and asks for his son back but does not get the truth. So he tells the chief that if his boy is dead, then his children and children’s children would pay. The curse is passed down the family throughout the ages, mirroring the curse that Eve carries in the Bible. The story is brought to the present, where four of Kintu’s descendants show the manifestation of the curse in their lives.
What did this book do to your career when it was published?
It was surprisingly well received in Africa; I just did not expect that. In a way it was a relief because sometimes a writer writes a book and it is received well in the West and you come to Africa and you ask if people have read this book and everyone is “What? Which one are you talking about?” I was so lucky that I got to be known in Africa first. The West got to know about me much later. The book thus travelled from Africa to America and not the other way round. There is also a lot of interest from Germany, from France, and Britain (where I initially could not find a publisher) at the moment.
You say that you have been now published in the US. How did you get a publisher there?
(Blogger) Magunga (Williams) here gave the book to an American guy called Aaron Bady and told him that this was one of the most exciting books to come out of Africa recently. Bady told me that he read it on the flight back and he loved it so much that when he arrived in the US, he couldn’t stop talking about it. He contacted Transit Books, an American publishing house, who then approached me. At that point, Ohio University Press had also approached me to publish it and they were offering the book to mainly a university audience. They were good as I was assured of universities teaching it but I wanted the book to get to the streets, to the people, rather than just to students.
So I chose Transit Books as they promised that they would also get access to the students market. I also picked them because they are a small publisher. You want a small publisher who is passionate about selling your book rather than these big publishers who are churning out many books that sometimes get lost under the pile.
Is the book out in the US already? How has the response been?
The book is out and they did a limited print of 3,000 copies and within two weeks they were back to the press. It was incredible; they don’t know how it happened. The thing with Kintu is that it has been word of mouth and African bloggers and I am incredibly indebted to those two. Most of the Americans that read it, the first thing they do is Google and they find all these blogs saying wonderful things.
You took part the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014 for your story ‘Let’s Tell the Story Properly.’ You won in the African category and later the overall prize, making you the first and only African to do so.
I can’t explain the feeling. When I submitted the story, I did not even expect it to get shortlisted. It got shortlisted then when it won the African prize I said to myself, “Yes this is it, I have made it.” Then later they sent me an e-mail telling me that I had won it (the overall prize) but should not tell anybody. When they announced my win, they put me on a plane to receive it in Uganda.
It was wonderful for me because my family had no idea that I was writing. I had told them that I was doing a literature degree. When I finished my MA then I told them, “I am doing a PHD now.” My mum asked when I finished with my PHD what that meant in terms of jobs and I said, “I’ll start teaching at the university,” and she saw that that made sense. It was only when I arrived back in Uganda and I told them that I won this prize that they turned around and said, “So this is what she has been doing?”
What can we expect next from you?
There will be a collection of short stories based in Uganda and in Manchester, where I live, published by Transit Books in the US. They should be coming out in 2019.
Do you feel like there is a new age in African writing? Do you feel like something has been happening in the last 10 or 15 years?
Oh yeah. As much as I am a writer, I was a student and a teacher of literature. When I went to study creative writing in Britain, I did literature along the way and I had to do research on who was coming up in 2001. Nothing was happening.
You would find people were presenting papers saying that nothing was happening in African literature. Ben Okri happened in 1990, but what happened after that? Nothing much apart from, perhaps, Yvonne Vera from Zimbabwe. Then (Chimamanda) Adichie happened and (Helen) Oyeyemi happened and Helon Habila happened and now everybody started happening. And we were all like where have you been all this time?
It’s so big what is happening that now I can’t afford to read other literature. I am one of those people who must read every book that I know of that has come out of Africa to see what is going on. As a writer I don’t want to duplicate what’s out there. If something has been done and it interests me, I want to be able to do it differently. So it is so exciting, people are doing exciting things. It’s a fantastic time to be an African writer right now.