As avid AiW readers will know, last Autumn at the African Studies Association of the UK Biennial Conference, Katie Reid and I co-convened a series of panels on ‘The “post-millennial context” and African writing in English: Writing, production and reception since 2000‘. As part of this, I was lucky enough to interview Ugandan writer Goretti Kyomuhendo.
Goretti is the founder and director of African Writers Trust, a body that coordinates and links African writers in the Diaspora and writers on the continent. She was one of the founding members of the Ugandan Women Writers’ Association and Publishing House – FEMRITE, where she worked as the Programme Coordinator for ten years (1997-2007). She is the author of the novels The First Daughter, Secrets No More and Waiting.
One of the things Katie and I wanted to explore and question through these panels was the idea that since 2000 developments in the publishing industry have substantially changed the conditions for the production and reception of African writing. Central to the methodology and approach of my own PhD research on contemporary African writing and cultural memory is a piecing together of publication histories informed by interviews with writers and publishers. I’m interested in writing and the creation of literature as a public act. I draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and the way in which he shows the idea of the writer as a sole artistic creator operating in a bubble is an illusion, and that literature is created through a complex network of ‘relations of exchange’ between writer, publishers and critics through which texts accumulate cultural value (Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996. The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of a Literary Field, trans. by Susan Emmanuel. Stanford: Stanford University Press). I also draw on more recent critical frameworks from book history and specifically the history of the book in Africa – from Claire Squires on ‘marketing’ as the ‘making of contemporary literature’ (Squires, Claire. 2007. Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) to Isobel Hofmeyr’s assertion that ‘we have to uncover empirically the complexity of circuits along which texts are marshaled’ (Hofmeyr, Isabel. 2004. The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press). I’ve now conducted nearly 40 original interviews with writers, publishers and critics for my research, and this as well as working as an editor/publisher myself alongside my PhD, makes me keen to think more about and to find different ways to position other voices and the publishing histories they reveal in the context of and alongside theoretical frameworks and critical approaches.
It was with this in mind, that I wanted my paper at ASAUK to take the form of an interview. Goretti published three novels between 1996 and 2007 with publishers in Uganda and the US, and I was interested in exploring and documenting her experiences of publishing and the ways in which these might have shifted and altered across the decade. Her answers, as I’d hoped, provided a fascinating and articulate insight into issues of writing, production, readership and circulation in a post-millennial context and I’m delighted to be able to share an extract from our conversation with Africa in Words.
Kate Haines: Your first novel The First Daughter was published in 1996 by Fountain Publishers. Could you start by telling us a bit about how that came about?
Goretti Kyomuhendo: At the time there was only one mainstream publishing house in Uganda and so there was no choice. So, I just walked in there with my handwritten manuscript and handed it over. It was the only copy I had! They liked it, they reviewed it, they had readers go through it, but they didn’t have the money to publish it. This would have been their third novel to publish in their whole publishing history. The last two they had published hadn’t done too well. So they were not going to invest in any more fiction.
They said, ‘You are going to have to put up half the money we require to publish it’. Half the money was $2500. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have even $100. I think, my fundraising skills – maybe I was born with them, because I then went to a donor agency which was funding women’s projects in the country. I told them, ‘I have a project and I’m a woman and I’m Ugandan’. So they said, what kind of project? I said, ‘I have a manuscript’ and they said ‘No, we fund projects that can benefit the bigger community – like bricklaying’ or something like that. So I said, ‘I don’t know how to lay bricks, but I can write’. It took me about 2 years to get the money from them, I remember that, and that is how The First Daughter was published.
And then your second novel Secrets No More was published in 1999 by FEMRITE. Again could you talk us through how this came about?
So from my experience of having to struggle to publish The First Daughter, I just knew there must be other people out there who were struggling. The First Daughter came at a time when there was literally nothing happening in the publishing industry in Uganda and so it was received very well. I think it is still my most popular novel in Uganda today. That was at the time we were thinking of starting FEMRITE, because FEMRITE started in 1997 and The First Daughter had come out in 1996. And so, when we started FEMRITE, which was a gender defined writers support group, our first goal was to try and publish women writers, especially given the experience I had gone through. So we put out a call and said: ‘If you have a manuscript, if you want to write, if you’ve been thinking of writing, can you please come’. At that time there were just about 3 or 4 of us, and we got a response from maybe 50 women. Some of them had been writing and keeping their manuscripts under their pillows. Some of them said, ‘Well I have written three manuscripts’. We said ‘Wow – where are they?’ And they said ‘They are all here, in my head’. So, we needed to facilitate them to write those manuscripts. Secrets No More was among the first batch of manuscripts that we published.
And so were you directly involved in the publication process?
Everything. Because at FEMRITE, the core group was less than 10. So, we were the editors, we were the producers, we were the marketing officers, we were everything.
Could tell us a bit about the cover design for the book?
At FEMRITE, we’d look at a story and decide what kind of cover. So, we’d talk to each other and ask ‘What is the rationale behind this story?’ In my culture if you want to keep a secret, you keep it in a calabash. So I worked with an artist to produce the cover for Secrets No More and you can see it shows that the secrets have spilled. Because a calabash isn’t a safe thing to keep secrets in, if you think about it. It can break easily. So on the cover, that is why the calabashes are not whole, they are broken, they are scattered.
And how were these first two novels received in Uganda?
As I said, The First Daughter came at a time when there was nothing happening and so it was received very well. There was a lot of excitement about it and it was immediately adopted for use in schools.
Then Secrets No More, maybe because of the subject matter – there are a lot of graphic sex scenes in it – the reception was quite mixed. When it came out there was a group of people who were concerned that I was talking too much about sex and in a very open way. Women are not supposed to do that and so there was a lot of debate revolving around it. And because The First Daughter was being used in schools, there was a debate around whether schools should also use it. Some schools did adopt it and it is used up to today.
I know Secrets No More won the Uganda National Literary Award for the best novel – could you tell us a bit about this and how significant it was for the book?
The award was set up by a combination of literary bodies in Uganda, concerned that there was nothing, there was no reward at all for writers. I think it was the first or maybe the second winner of that prize. So it was just really in recognition of what the Ugandan writers were doing. I don’t even remember how much money it was, most probably very little. So financially it wasn’t significant at all and I don’t think it was significant outside Uganda, because it was a local award for Ugandan writers.
I know you were obviously working for FEMRITE at the time Secrets No More was published – do you remember how many copies you printed?
I think 2000; that is what we used to print.
To what extent were these two novels able to circulate outside of Uganda?
At that time at FEMRITE, we were working with an international distributor based in the UK, in Oxford. It is called African Books Collective. So African Books Collective would buy books from African publishers and then distribute on our behalf in Europe and America. So actually yes, they did manage to get out, to go to other places outside Uganda.
In terms of the percentage of your readership, where was the larger market?
We used to sell more books abroad than in Uganda. On average if we published a new book and took it to the bookshops, the bookshops would take 15 copies – between 15 and 20 copies. And it would take them at least 1 year to sell 15 or 20 copies. We would sell through other avenues – schools, public readings – but, we sold more copies abroad than we sold in Uganda.
Then in 2007 Waiting was published by The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Can you talk us through how that came about?
The Feminist Press is a very small press and usually they solicit for manuscripts – you can’t just send a manuscript. So, at that time, I think I submitted it around 2005, the novel was the dissertation for my MA. My supervisor was connected to the Feminist Press and knew they had just started an African writers series. They had contacted her and other outlets and networks to look for an African woman writer from the continent. However, actually they hadn’t published any African black woman from East Africa, they had only published the Kenyan writer Marjorie Olude Macgoye. So now they were looking to publish an African black woman from East Africa. My supervisor thought Waiting stood a chance if we submitted it, so we did and they accepted it.
For this book were you involved in the cover design?
Yes, I was actually. When they sent me the first design, it had cows and some tall looking Africans – nomads. So, I told them – ‘Where this book is set has nothing to do with cows!’ In my culture we don’t keep cows and we are not nomads! I said, ‘I can’t accept that kind of cover.’ So they said, ‘Can you send us a sample cover?’ As a result I commissioned a Ugandan artist and then those are the colours of the Ugandan flag – yellow, black and red.
Were the colours your suggestion too?
Yes, because I think the original painting wasn’t in those colours, but I thought it should reflect something Ugandan and so the artist made it those colours.
And what was it particularly about this image?
The narrator in that novel is a young girl of about 14 years and so I wanted an image of that on the cover.
For you as a writer what were the differences between publishing in the US for the first time, compared with your experience of publishing in Uganda?
As I said, for the first novel there was only one publishing house, so I knew them well and they knew me. FEMRITE as well, I was working there, so we knew each other. However, when I submitted Waiting, I never actually got to meet them, so I don’t know the faces behind the names I dealt with. I never got to meet my editors or my publisher. So for me, that was a new experience. In the beginning I didn’t know how that would work, because I was used to walking to the publishers and then working with the editor. In the beginning I thought it wouldn’t work and then later I realized the advantage of it. The advantage was, they didn’t know me at all, so whatever comments they were making were not to do with me as a person, they were to do with the manuscript. They were meeting me through the manuscript, only. And then the other advantage I realized was they made me think more about what I was trying to communicate, because they didn’t know about the culture at all I was writing about, so they made me think and go back. They said ‘What do you mean here?’, yet for a Ugandan editor, they know, because they are from the same culture. So they made me think harder about what I was writing, and that for me was a big advantage. I had to go back and think about almost everything I was trying to talk about.
Do you think publishing in the US enabled you to reach more readers with your work?
Was Waiting available in Uganda?
No actually, even now it is not available in Uganda. Because, what happens is that copies would only become available if a Ugandan publisher bought rights from the Feminist Press and there isn’t a Ugandan publisher – not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t afford it. When the book was published, I imported 100 copies from my publisher and we sold them within less than 2 weeks. But then you know there are the issues that the shipping is very expensive and it is priced in dollars, so when you convert it in Ugandan shillings few people can afford it. So the 100 copies I brought were bought by my close friends and people who knew me already. So, it is not available even now, which is a shame.
Both FEMRITE and the Women Writing Africa series that Waiting was part of obviously have an emphasis on the voice of women. How important is this to you as a writer?
As I mentioned when we started FEMRITE in 1996, there were about 5 or 6 women in the whole country who had been published. When we put out a call, we got nearly 50 women who had been trying to write and publish, but they couldn’t because of various reasons including self-empowerment – the fear to go out to a publisher. So for us, our main aim at that time was to give those women the platform, the opportunities, the space to write and publish their stories. And I still think it is very important, because personal empowerment is being able to tell that story in your heart. And for most women what we realized was that in our Ugandan culture, the identity of a woman is constructed using the identity of another person. For example Kate has a new baby and her name is Ella, so they would refer to you as ‘Mama Ella’ and you’d lose your identity completely, nobody would call you Kate anymore. So, if you start writing, you have to think of Ella – ‘If I use the ‘f’ word, what will Ella think when she grows up?’ Your whole thinking is about the acquired identity – if you get married, you lose your identity, so they will refer to you as ‘the wife of’; if you are a daughter of somebody, they will refer to you as ‘the daughter of’. So, when women start writing they think of all those identities, ‘What will my father think?’ ‘What will my son think?’ ‘What will my husband think?’ and we realized that was a big problem.
One of the women who came to us had a very beautiful manuscript written in the first person and I remember the first line. I still remember it because it caught my attention. The first line read ‘I was raped on my wedding night’. So I remember saying ‘Wow, I want to read this’. But the next time she came back she had changed it to something like ‘Angela was raped on her wedding night.’ I said ‘No – why?’ and she said ‘My husband said I can’t do that. People will think it was me who was raped’. And she changed the whole manuscript to third person. So me, I thought if this women was empowered, she would have stuck to the first person. That is what we worked on at the beginning. What does it mean to be a writer? How can you push those boundaries? What does it mean to be a woman writer? What does it mean to be an African woman writer, who has to carry all these identities? For us, giving a woman a voice was very very important and through personal empowerment, so it was important to me as well.
African Writers Trust could be described as a literary network and similarly so could Femrite. Would you say that since 2000 there are more and stronger literary networks running across Africa and for you which have been the most significant?
Yes. For example there is Kwani Trust in Kenya – that is a new initiative. Then, there is Farafina in Nigeria and there are a couple of others in Uganda that have come up since 2000. For me what is significant about these initiatives is the idea that finally African writers and literary practitioners are saying ‘We are tired of having other people organize our writing and publishing activities. We can organize our writing, our publishing, our production, our outlets. We can organize writing workshops, we can produce good literature.’ For me, that is very significant.
I guess for my final question, given that this panel is thinking about the ‘post-millennial context’, I’d be interested in your perspective on to what extent you would say the publishing conditions for and the reception of African writing has changed since 2000?
It has changed a lot, because when I describe my own story of trying to publish The First Daughter, there was only one publishing house in Uganda. Now there are about 18 publishing houses in the country. There was no Caine Prize, for example, when I started writing. There was no understanding of African literature. If you asked the audience at an event what they were reading, they would say Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe or Ama Ata Aidoo. Now it is different; there are many new writers coming up.
Kate’s interview with Goretti Kyomuhendo was part of the first of two panels in the ‘The “post-millennial context” and African writing in English: Writing, production and reception since 2000‘ series, co-convened by Kate with Katie Reid. This first panel was chaired by James Graham (Middlesex) who shares an interest in textual production and literary networks in Africa, and Katie (Reid) also presented a paper, ‘Defining the ‘post-‘ in the post-millennial context: Ivan Vladislavic and the South African literary marketplace’.
The second panel in the post-millennial context series hosted papers, also from PhD scholars: Paulina Grzeda (University of Warsaw), ‘‘Towards a New ‘South Africanness’: Autobiographical Writing in the Post-Millennial South Africa’; Nmachika Nwokeabia (University of Wisconsin), ‘‘A Perfect Storm’: New Mediums, New Audiences, and Nigerian Writing of the 21st Century’; and Rebecca Jones (Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham), ‘“Nigeria is my playground”: Post-millennial Nigerian travel writing’. Rebecca has shared her reflections on the experience of ASAUK12 for Africa in Words as one of our guests in our ASAUK series – see Reflections.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A