AiW Guests: Brittany Willis and Catrin Williams
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan writer currently living in Manchester. Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani 2013 Manuscript Project and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. Her most recent short story collection, Manchester Happened, was published 2019 and included her 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winning story ‘Lets Tell This Story Properly’. Her second novel, The First Woman, is publishing in August 2020. Makumbi lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University in Creative Writing.
Brittany Willis and Catrin Williams for AiW: What was your experience of writing Manchester Happened and what sources of inspiration did you draw on?
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Manchester Happened came mostly from my experiences in Britain. I was born in Uganda and I came to Britain in 2001 to study Creative Writing. It was such a shock moving from Uganda because Britain was so different from what I expected. So, this book was me writing back to people in Uganda and saying ‘you think this, but this is what I’ve seen’. I also like writing about place. Manchester is the city that has adopted me so I felt like I should write it for my people in Uganda.
I did a lot of research. There is a part of Manchester that is called Moss Side, which is mainly a black area. This is where the story ‘Our Allies, The Colonies’ is set. I did research in libraries about Manchester canal, wrote from oral interviews and from photographs and visited areas such as Princess Road. That way I imagined what Moss Side looked seventy years ago. At one point, I had to walk down Oxford Street because that is where the story opens; I looked at pictures to see which buildings were there, what was going on and read about how they spoke at the time. Because it is a historical story I tried as much as possible to stay close to the truth.
I also looked at when Africans started moving to Manchester. Moss Side was first inhabited mainly by the Irish fleeing the Potato Famine, who were treated terribly by the English. So when Africans who fought in WWI and WWII arrived, it was the Irish who were friendly to them and always ready to let out their houses. As time went on, more black people came and settled in and the Irish migrated to other parts of Britain and it became a black area.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the danger of the single story. In Manchester Happened, you provide various stories of people moving from Uganda to Manchester and home again. Was it important for you to provide such a variety of stories in your collection?
Yes it was. As you can imagine there are people in the West who receive books on migration from ‘Africa’ and imagine that those stories tell the whole African migration experience – but Africa is huge. There are 54 countries! There is no single story that can tell it all. Besides, there is no migration book written by a Ugandan. Mine was the first. The risk is that someone reads Adichie who is from Nigeria, and Bulawayo from Zimbabwe and they believe they have read the African migration story. But migration is unique to each person. We could be twins sent on the same plane, live in the same house and go to the same school but our experience could still be very varied.
Stories in Manchester Happened are mainly about family and family structures. Back in Uganda, we have a specific structure: there is Dad, the head of the family; there is Mum; then there are the children, and we all occupy specific positions and behave in particular ways. And then you bring your family to Britain and Britain will fracture these structures. Children in this country occupy a very different space. This is why the family starts to fall apart. Look at the two sisters in ‘Manchester Happened’; one is older, one is younger. The younger one, who would have had a little less power in Uganda, comes here and rejects that structure. Look at the children in the very first story in the Prologue: ‘Christmas is Coming’. They take on a parent-like role. Their dad is a good father; he works hard and looks after them while their mother is falling apart. But still, they protect him and they also protect mum. They are trying to take them back to Uganda.
‘The Aftertaste of Success’ is about going back home. Most of us who come here plan to go home. No-one wants to stay in a country that is not their own. My idea was to study and publish my book, be given a huge advance and return home, buy a big house and a car, then travel to Europe to promote my books. But I’m still here so it just doesn’t work out that way.
We found ‘The Aftertaste of Success’ one of the most moving stories in the collection. The parents want success for their children so send them overseas, but this comes at a price. Their children haven’t forgotten them but because they don’t return home, they have left a gap.
Yes. That was a very heart-breaking story for me to write. Those parents are my generation’s parents. They were middle class and had just come out of the war and realised Uganda had nothing to offer, so they sent their children to study in Europe or America. Then the children didn’t return to Uganda. The problem isn’t necessarily not returning; it’s not having the grandchildren. It is very important for them to see that there is a new generation being born to take on the family line and the family properties. Culturally, if you have a child you don’t really die. You survive in your children. But these grandchildren don’t belong to them. They belong to Britain, and that is absolutely frightening for Ugandan parents.
Manchester Happened is dedicated to the Uganda diaspora, so we wondered if there are any reading or writing communities that influenced your writing?
The collection was dedicated to Ugandans in the diaspora because after my experiences in Britain I developed such respect for any Ugandan thriving in the west.
In the past, I was part of a reading group called ARG! started and run by Geoff Ryman. We mainly read obscure African novels which did not make a splash on the international scene. The idea was to put back money in the hands of publishers who try to publish these books. I was also part of the Commonword short story writing group which was led by Martin De Mello. In 2014 for more than half a year we met once a month and each had to produce a new story. Most of the stories in the collection are result of that writing group.
‘Something Inside So Strong’ was our favourite story because the airport scenes are so funny and detailed.
Oh, really? I’m glad to hear that. I struggled with that one. In Uganda, they like ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’ a lot. In US, I think they preferred ‘She Is Our Stupid’. It’s funny how people read in terms of regions. ‘Memoirs Of A Namaaso’ is popular in Nigeria. Actually, the dog story is very popular in Africa because we have this phenomenon of street dogs. In Britain people don’t understand it. Until you’ve travelled to developing countries and seen dogs that are born and grow up on the streets. But Africans can imagine the dog’s experiences. I just had to write this story when I came here and looked at how the British were treating their dogs.
With ‘Memoirs Of A Namaaso’, even though it’s about painful experiences such as culture shock and grief, there is also a lot of humour. We noticed that throughout your collection, even though you write about characters leaving people behind and struggling to adapt, there are many funny moments, such as the vibrator at the airport and Stow the dog being embarrassed at his owner picking up his dog poo. How is humour important to you when telling these stories?
I think humour is very important. My country has been at war since I was born and the last war ended in 1986 in Kampala where I lived, although it carried on in the north of Uganda. There is a lot of pain with that. The only way that we have to deal with that kind of history is through humour. Most of our plays are humorous. Traditionally, we hardly do tragedies because we’ve lived the tragedies.
Also, I believe in giving a reader some relief, especially when I am writing about painful experiences. It is for comic relief. It is important for the reader who is holding their breath to laugh before building the tension again. It’s a writing technique that I use because my books normally deal with very painful experiences. I was culturally trained by what is going on in Uganda.
What differences did you find in the short story form in comparison to your first novel, Kintu, and what opportunities did this medium allow?
When I was writing Kintu, I was mentored by author Sara Maitland. She recommended I write short stories because they have a beginning, middle and ending, and it doesn’t matter where you start. So I started to write short stories imagining they were easier than novels. But right now I am actually in the mindset that I may not write a short story again. They are very difficult. When a story worked, it just clicked and I knew that it was done. But I couldn’t tell you what I did. I can’t tell you how to write a short story, but I could for a novel. All these twelve short stories were like novels to me; they had characters, they had conflict, and they had a sense of place. By the time I finished, I was so exhausted.
There is also a snobbery around short stories, especially on the European continent. The short story is very difficult to write, yet soon after its publication people will ask ‘when is your next novel; we know of the short stories but we are waiting for the novel!’ It can be frustrating. My publishers who published Kintu on the European continent, have not even touched the short stories – they don’t make money out of them. Apparently, this is because there are also no awards for short story collections. America seems to respect short stories for some reason, and often American publishers expect a new author to start out with a short story collection – I guess they imagine that they are easier to write. But at the same time they do not expect you to write collection after collection. They expect you to move on to the novel. However, at the moment, the short story is starting to pick up in Britain. I don’t know if young writers who are on the go and read on their phones are finding the short story easier, but in Africa the short story is popular because of that. They are concise and can be read in a day, so a lot of people download and read them on their phones. I guess the form allowed me to take tiny moments and examine them in depth; it also allowed me to collapse time.
In ‘Malik’s Door’, Katula comments on how her name comes from a berry which looks innocuous but is actually bitter, symbolising how something small can be underestimated. In ‘She is Our Stupid’, Nnakimuli changes her name to Flower in the UK, but this gets mispronounced in Uganda. Could you speak about the significance of your characters’ names?
I come from a country where names mean a lot. Twins are named in a particular way, parents are renamed and siblings will rename themselves. Usually the circumstances of your birth leads to your name. In the collection I didn’t take names for granted. That is the advantage Ugandan readers have compared to British readers – they know that names say something about each character. It might be ironic; it might be symbolic.
You also have to remember that because of racism in Britain many Africans come and change their names. So you find many people called Gift. The name is either Kirabo or Karabo depending on what country they come from. But because British people will stumble on their name, and because their name will bring attention to their Africanness, people change them. In ‘She Is Our Stupid’, Flower has not only changed herself physically but her name as well in order to fit in. When she loses her mind she goes back to Flower, as it makes her not easily identifiable. She could be African, but she could be Caribbean or African American. It bothered me when I first arrived in Manchester and I’d find that Ugandans had distorted or anglicised their names. I would say ‘no, that’s not your name! Your name is this!’ So in Manchester Happened it was important for me to tell people back home that there is a specific position that an African occupies here, a position that leads some people to deny their Africanness, while other people might become fanatically African instead.
We see you have a new novel coming out soon called The First Woman. We were wondering if you could tell us a bit about it? What can readers expect?
So this one is set in Uganda 1933-1982 – and it’s a feminist novel, but one that looks at oral stories, how they are recorded and how they shape our lives. In Buganda, Kintu is the first man on earth and Nnambi is the first woman – like how Christianity has Adam and Eve. But while my first novel was called Kintu, this novel is not called Nnambi – it’s called The First Woman. In the USA it is called A Girl is a Body of of Water. And it digs deep into oral traditions and the ways they turned Ganda women into oppressed and suppressed bodies.
On the surface, it is the story of Kirabo, a 12-year-old girl living with her grandparents who spoil her rotten, but she wants to know who her mother is and so she goes on a journey. Along the way, she discovers quite a lot about women – her ancestors, but also about herself and how women who are oppressed relate to each other.
There is a blind woman who Kirabo thinks is a witch. The blind woman knows everything going on in the village and she is a well of knowledge – which is why people call her a witch because how else does she know all this stuff? When the witch realises that Kirabo has a wild streak, she thinks to herself: ‘I’m going to mould this girl into a rebel!’ So, she tells the girl stories. You know how you might tell ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ to a child – and for them it’s about a grandma, a girl and a wolf? But when she gets older she starts to think … hmm maybe this story is about paedophiles or burglary instead? This is what I try to do in the book. I work with the folk stories from Buganda but I also hint at mythical figures from the west. I want the story to say that this happens to women all around the world.
We just have one last question to ask. Linked to what you were saying about how stories from the past can speak to stories in the present – and how you can learn things about yourself by digging into folklore – what do you think origin stories can tell us about our contemporary moment?
Now, every culture has a different story of origin. With the Biblical story about Adam and Eve, the first thing that comes to mind is feminine guilt. And it’s incredible – look around the world, most cultures have that sort of origin story, where almost always a woman is to blame for the wrongs in society. I don’t know why. When I came to Britain I first thought that here we don’t need feminism, because everyone seemed equal but then as I got used to the culture I saw the cracks. But recently this idea that women are different is creeping back or people are becoming bold. It’s the Trumpquake, and Boris Johnson riding on the back of it. But these tendencies go back further than you think. They are universal. Look what is happening to India. India had a female prime minister long before Britain had Margaret Thatcher but its record on women is atrocious. What about Hillary Clinton? I am not saying we should be blind to her faults, but there was a certain hysteria about her faults. When you put her and Trump together in terms of their faults, you are thinking, seriously? I blame feminine guilt.
The journey to maturity, whether it’s a country or a culture is not linear. Sometimes people can take leaps forward, then something happens that pushes society back. I think that is what’s happening in America. In the 70s the Republicans were passing laws about abortion and legislation about women earning the same as men. Then something happened. They took steps back. Many countries in the Third World are moving fast in terms of women’s rights. For example, in Uganda after the last war, the ratio of men to women was about 56% women and 44% men. We had our first woman vice-president then. There were a lot of programmes to emancipate women: girls were given points to help them get into university, there were programmes to help girls who were getting pregnant and women started to inherit properties. Sometimes, it seems as if things are moving forwards faster for women in Third World countries than in the West. I wonder whether in some western countries women hit a glass ceiling.
Manchester Happened was published on 23 May 2019 and is available to purchase here.
Makumbi’s second novel, The First Woman, is due to release 6 August 2020. Information can be found here.
Brittany Willis is a final year undergraduate at University of Exeter studying literature. Brittany was co-editor of the University’s careers magazine In The Zone and writes on her own blog: Book Ramblings. She can be found engaging with the publishing industry on Twitter.
Catrin Williams is a third year undergraduate studying English at the University of Exeter. Her areas of study range from Critical Approaches to Colonialism and Decolonisation, to African Narratives. Catrin has a passion for teaching and runs science clubs in primary schools across Devon.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A
Beautiful, I met Jennifer Makumbi at Ake Festival 2019. She facilitated a creative writing class. She is a good one.