Interview with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

In 1750 while making his way to the capital, Kintu Kidda unleashes a curse that will plague his family for generations. Kintu tells the story of Kintu Kidda and his descendants who find themselves caught up in the struggle to break free from the curse and escape the burden of their family’s past.

Jennifer, could you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the story of Kintu?

There were many inspirations for Kintu. The earliest inspiration came from mental health problems in the family. My father was unwell and there were whispers that it ran in the family, although it was triggered when he was brutalised by Idi Amin’s men. Then I came to Britain and saw how, in Western media, Africa was presented as ‘mental’ and the idea of a ‘mad’ family, mad nation and mad race was formed. But along the way, the inspiration to write Uganda before Europe occurred. Later, I made the decision to shift my focus away from colonisation.

Folklore is a fundamental part of the story, with the initial book becoming the foundation that drives the subsequent events in the modern storyline. Where did your interest in folklore come from?

While Western writing has its literary ancestry in Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare and others, my creative ancestry is in oral traditions. As a child I was introduced to Ganda folktales, myths, legends, and other forms. In primary school we were introduced to the different myths that inform our diverse ethnicities. But I also read European fairy tales and Eastern myths. For my first degree, as an introduction to African literature, we did a module in African oral traditions where I explored them as complex coded forms and deposits of history. From this point, folktales lost their innocence. I am still fascinated by their scope and how they keep evolving. Thus my writing, starting with Kintu, the first man on earth in the Ganda creationist myth, was not only to right the wrongs of oral traditions, especially the claim that Nnambi, Kintu’s wife, brought death to humanity, but it was an extension of my ancestral creativity.

Through the use of a narrative interwoven with Luganda vocabulary, not only do you piece together interesting characters, you also render the culture that surrounds them. What was the motivation behind writing this representation of Uganda?

Aside from the fact that English is not only limited, but can be obstinate when articulating a Ugandan experience, the use of Luganda in my writing and the way I adapt English to Luganda is a result of focusing on Ugandan readers as my primary audience. Having studied the nature of reception and readerships and how the anticipation of a certain audience affects how you write, I made the decision to write for Ugandans, specifically for the teenager I was, desperately impoverished of stories and characters like me or of my world, in the novels I read. I aspire for a Ugandan reader to pick up my book and immediately feel at home, as if Uganda is at the centre of the world, the way British or American books do. I need the Ugandan reader not only to feel comfortable in the landscape, but most of all in the language. I write to me, to the Ugandan, but when I step away, the story must make whoever reads it, feel Ugandan. And the more focused I am on myself as a Ugandan reader, the better I locate my characters authentically in their environment and the more comfortably any reader inhabits this world. But it starts with language.

As a writer based in the Manchester, do you feel moving to the North of England has influenced your writing?

Living in the North West has influenced my writing in three ways I’m aware of:

Firstly, I’ve written about the North West. I’ve just completed a collection of short stories called Love Made in Manchester which are set both in Manchester and in Kampala. They explore the history of Ugandans in England from the 1950s to today. The stories look at the changing reasons and attitudes to travel and the evolving reception of Africans by the British.

Secondly and perhaps most profoundly, the North West played a role in the way I use English in my writing. In Uganda, I was brought up to speak ‘proper English’. Later, I became an English teacher and had this colonial relationship with the language where I had to speak and write the Queen’s English. Then I came to Manchester, where people do not care for grammar, where to speak English the way I was taught in Uganda was to be pretentious. I thought, if this is how native speakers handle their language, why the hell am I bleeding my tongue to speak it properly? I threw everything away and learned to write English in a Ugandan way.

Lastly, living in Britain, away from home, gives me that distance from Uganda which allows me to look at my culture, my country, through another cultural lens. The contrast is stark. Ironically, here in the North West, I see clearly what I did not see at home. I see what I took for granted and Britain has given me that objectivity that comes with distance.

And finally, one question everyone will certainly have after finishing this novel, are you currently working on anything at the moment we could perhaps look forward to?

Apart from the short stories, I am currently working on my second novel, which will be my third book, where I explore some overlooked aspects of feminism. I am writing at a time when trailblazers like Emecheta, Nwapa, Ba Aidoo, and contemporaries like Kyomuhendo, Vera, Dangarembga, Adichie have done the most arduous work. I have the luxury of looking back on what has been achieved so far with a critical eye.

KINTU by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is published by Oneworld on 25 January 2018, hardback £12.99. Available here.