AUGUST 31, 2017
JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI’S novel Kintu, about a cursed family confronting the vicissitudes of a changing Uganda, is a highly engrossing read. To some, apparently, this may come as a surprise. Kintu (pronounced “Chintu”) was published in Kenya in 2014; Makumbi won the Kwani? Manuscript Project award, the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and she was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature. But her substantial 443-page novel was roundly rejected by British publishers for being “too African” — full of too many characters with difficult-to-pronounce names, not focused on the colonial experience, and generally inaccessible to Western readers. Suffice it to say that this is a ridiculous assertion. Makumbi’s clear and compelling prose combines oral history and East African oral storytelling techniques (Kintu is the name of the legendary first man, a reference to the creation myth of the Baganda) while keeping one eye fixed on the reality of modern day Uganda, a place where the seemingly solid ground of clan and family divisions can quickly give way to shifting sand. Makumbi, who grew up in Kampala, spoke with me by Skype from her current home in Manchester.
ALEXIA UNDERWOOD: You’ve said in the past that you wrote this book for Ugandans. What did you want them to take away from it?
JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI: I wanted Ugandans to start looking at the history of Uganda before colonization — how Uganda was organized before Christianity and before Europe arrived — and to compare that with what we have at the moment. We need to start having those conversations. I also wanted to talk about homosexuality, because Uganda is perceived as the most homophobic country in the world, because of the bill [the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014] that was passed. There is an idea that homosexuality came with colonization, and that before that, Africans never engaged with homosexuality. I thought, let’s go back to the past and see. It wasn’t homosexuality that Europe brought, it was homophobia. In addition, I wanted to talk about family, the beginning of the nation, how we transitioned in the Buganda Kingdom to Uganda, as a country. I wanted to talk about the painful years after independence, and how the British made some ethnic groups more important than others, and the implications of that. Basically, how we relate to each other within Uganda. I thought that to write directly about that would come across as preaching, so I used the idea of mental illness that runs in families, and the idea of a curse that appears both in traditional myths about the first man and the first woman, Kintu and Nambi, and in Christianity via Adam and Eve. This [creation myth] is not just about the beginning of society, but also the beginning of a society’s creativity. It’s the kingdom of Buganda’s beginning, in terms of storytelling. I know that when the British look back on creation and creativity, they look back on Shakespeare. I didn’t have a figure like that, so I looked back to Kintu and Nambi and thought I should start there.
In regard to the reaction to the book in Uganda, do you feel like you achieved what you hoped to achieve?
Yes, more than I had dreamed of, actually. I remember that when I took the book back home, there was a 14-year-old girl who picked it up and read it in two days. When she finished, she came to me and gave me back the book, and said, “When is the next one?” It wasn’t like, “Oh, I loved it,” or anything like that, she just asked, “When is the next one?” just in case I thought I’d written a fantastic book. I thought back on the British publishers telling me that the British would not understand the book because it’s too difficult, and I looked at this 14-year-old, and thought, god, how patronizing can they be.
The book included supernatural elements, like having a son come back from the dead to speak to his father. It struck me that this wasn’t treated as a surprising event in any way — it was seamlessly folded into the narrative. Talk a little about that.
Well, in a way, this isn’t surprising, in traditional Uganda — this idea that the dead are not with us but are still with us. But that’s the kind of question that Ugandans would not ask me, here’s what I mean. For them, it just makes sense. It was important to be aware that Ugandans would read it this way, but I was writing it in Britain, and I know that books travel, and that there would be Western readers who would struggle to understand that. I thought that the character of Miisi played that role — he had issues with understanding that kind of knowledge — but for me, like other Ugandan readers, that’s the way things happen. We are aware of another world that exists. Perhaps we’ve tried to show the rest of the world that we have gotten rid of this way of thinking, because it’s seen as unintelligent, but I felt that this is part of my world, and I’m going to write it. I think that I am in a better position to write about it than a Western scholar, and I also hope that Africans will start to open up more, and talk about it.
Continuing along that vein, fate also played a very strong role.
Yeah, true. New nations being born and failing is also fate. They are trapped in this childhood of nationhood that is going to last a while until we learn to live in a body that is both white and African — that was the major driving force behind the whole idea of fate. Also, Ugandans consider themselves a Christian nation, and fate to a certain extent guides them. You grow up with this idea that when your time comes, you’re going to die whether you like it or not, and most of the things that happened to us are ordained to happen. Remember that in Uganda, mental illness has always been looked at as a curse, because it runs in families. Again, it was important for me to have the character of Miisi there, who kept saying, hang on a minute, no, there’s also the possibility of coincidence.
When I read Kintu, I didn’t see it as a political novel. Is it a political novel?
I would not say that, but I didn’t consider it a feminist novel and people say it’s a feminist novel as well. In a way I’ve just let go, because what I say most of the time does not make a difference. People will believe what they will believe, and in a way that’s a very good thing; the book is doing its own thing, independent of what I intended it to do.
But in a way, yes, because the book does recall the political history of Uganda, so it is political in that respect. I didn’t go out of my way to discuss politics, I just intervened with a few things that I thought would be important. For example, Idi Amin. I was a child during his regime and I saw the effects of his regime. My dad was arrested by his men. He was almost killed, and we were lucky we got him back, but he lost his mind after that, and in a way, the mental health element came from that — from handling my dad’s mental illness. Idi Amin is referred to as a monster. When we talk about our monster in Uganda, that’s fine with me, but when I came out to the West and the West was talking about Idi Amin in ways that were uncomplicated, unproblematized, I stepped back — hang on a minute. For example, I was aware that when Amin came into power, Muslims were far behind Christians in terms of education, wealth. They were not allowed to come to school. If they wanted to join schools they had to be baptized, and Muslims didn’t have their own schools. In the ’70s they were only allowed to do a few jobs, like be butchers or drivers. Then Amin came along and said we’re going to start schools for Muslims. He also allowed an Islamic university in Uganda, and I went to that Islamic university, though I’m a Christian, and this is how I discovered the Islamic history in Uganda. And even though I have this history with Idi Amin in terms of my dad, and my book is not going to be impartial, I wanted to talk about something that had not been talked about. So that was a political intervention. But no, I wouldn’t say that my novel was political.
What about the claim you mentioned earlier, that some thought it was feminist. You don’t agree?
It was the Kenyans, really. The response in Kenya was, you killed all the men, and the women survived, and you’ve got this woman who’s got a gun, et cetera. But I felt that I wrote this novel from a very male point of view. First of all, there were six main characters but only one was a woman. I am a feminist, and I would not do that under any circumstances if I’m writing a feminist novel. I knew that I was dealing with a myth that is very, very patriarchal and very masculinist, and oral traditions, which are, in a way, very masculinist. But the major thing for me was that feminism, for a very long time, has talked about the oppression of women by men, and then the repression of women by the patriarchy. While I read these African novels and agree with them, everything that [Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie is saying, there’s still this gap there. We have failed to see that the patriarchy also oppresses men, that there is oppression sometimes in privilege. I thought that I can’t start my feminist writing before I address this problem. So this is why I looked at Kintu, the patriarch, as oppressed in a way, especially in the arena of marriage. He’s forced to marry a twin sister that he didn’t want at all. And then, every other day someone is bringing him a virgin or someone is pushing a woman on him and saying, you’re a chief, you should have lots of women because it makes you look like a big man. But he doesn’t want them. And unfortunately, his wife has bought into the whole patriarchal concept and is a very good wife, and she allocates all the women into different regions, of the districts, and he would visit each one of them and spend a week with them and even when he can’t, when he says he’s physically exhausted, she will find him potions. People did not see this as oppression because men perform it, but actually, it’s repression. Another character is Kanani, who has been eating bad food for 40 years because in Buganda, men don’t go in the kitchen. He cannot talk about it because he will undermine his wife. I thought that these things would start a conversation. I mean, feminism in Uganda is still a very middle-class thing — working-class women are not buying into it. Why? I don’t think feminism is complete if it’s not looking at how men could be repressed or oppressed by the patriarchy as well.
In writing Kintu, who do you consider to be your influences?
The major influences were oral African traditions, because the book was modeled on them — the creation myth of Kintu and Nambi. I also pulled upon oral traditional history. As far as literary influences, of course there’s [Chinua Achebe’s] Things Fall Apart. I think I was influenced by God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène, in terms of the structuring of the book. I was not aware of it until I went back and read it, and thought, god, I thought I was doing something new. But that text was once my favorite novel. Also, I had read many feminist novels and I was aware of what they hadn’t done, so I was also influenced by feminist writers. And I read a lot of Toni Morrison novels just to remind myself not to take language for granted.
What other Ugandan writers should we be reading, and who should we be reading that we’re not right now in the United States?
Most Ugandan writers are not published in the West, unfortunately. Goretti Kyomuhendo’s Waiting would be interesting, in terms of what happens in different regions of Uganda that were waiting to be liberated from Idi Amin. I think Chinelo Okparanta is doing interesting things. At the moment, I’m reading this book, Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John. It took me by surprise, because it’s kind of writing Boko Haram — how such a phenomenon comes to happen in an African nation. I think he’s done a great job. So I would recommend that, though if you found Kintu hard to read, in terms of the pain of childhood … grit your teeth and read it. I recommend it.
I also think Bessie Head’s Maru is the most beautiful African novel. And I think The Famished Road by Ben Okri is the greatest African novel that people are forgetting. And if you want to understand the East African middle class, Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place is very useful. For, while it’s Kenyan, I was surprised to find that he was writing about my childhood. And of course I loved NoViolet [Bulawayo’s] We Need New Names. It also described a childhood that I recognized.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve finished a second novel, but I’m working on a collection of short stories at the moment. They’re all about Ugandan experiences in Manchester. I know we would usually say migrant stories, but I’m moving away from that and using the term expat experiences, because I’ve noticed that when the British are talking about their immigrants in Europe who are now being affected by Brexit, they don’t talk about them as immigrants, they call them expats. The book is mostly about those experiences. It’s like a letter to Ugandans — a letter that I wish someone had written to me before I immigrated to Britain.
Circling back to the book, the last lines of Kintu deal with different types of knowledge — scientific, rational, and more traditional knowledge that is passed down. Were you making the point that these things need to coexist?
There are so many ways of knowing. The West has imposed a cerebral way of knowing onto the world and will not accept other ways of knowing, things like intuition, premonition, dreams, that kind of thing has been bundled up and thrown away as old wives’ tales. But I think, wait. Do not dare throw away this way of knowing, because it has not been interrogated. The West has thrown it away, but we don’t have to.