When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi began writing her ambitious novel A Girl Is a Body of Water in 1998, she knew it would center on a young woman’s coming of age in Uganda. What she didn’t anticipate is that she would revise the novel on and off for 20 years, perfecting the sweeping multigenerational tale while working full-time in nursing homes and airport security.
“I was so close to giving up,” says Makumbi, grinning, her yellow knit head wrap matching the cheery yellow walls of her living room in Manchester, England, where she also works as an adjunct professor. Behind her are stacks of books growing up like trees from the floor. That she can’t stop smiling on this Zoom call isn’t surprising: A Girl Is a Body of Water is giving Makumbi her starring moment, with the novel attracting buzz in publishing circles and drawing raves in early reviews.
“When I left Uganda, I sold everything I had,” Makumbi says. She had been teaching at an international school there but moved to Manchester in 2001 to enroll in a graduate program in creative writing. “All of the money I made, I put into my writing. I gave up on being wealthy, but I had to succeed.”
Makumbi continued to work on the novel after her MFA and sent it out to agents in 2003. She was devastated when it was rejected. Even after resubmitting new drafts in 2005 and 2008, multiple agents said no. She put the novel away in 2008 and didn’t pick it up again until eight years later. By then, she’d published her first novel, Kintu, which won her the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize. Feeling she was a much stronger writer, she began revising A Girl Is a Body of Water once more.
That willful sense of determination is familiar in the pages of A Girl Is a Body of Water. In the book, headstrong and whip-smart Kirabo Nnamiiro, a 12-year-old Ugandan girl living with her loving grandparents in a village, is determined to find her mother, whose identity is unknown to her. (Kirabo’s family won’t speak to her about her mother.) Kirabo’s journey first leads her to visit the local witch, Nsuuta, to ask for help in her quest. But a larger question emerges on the visit: why does Kirabo sometimes fly outside her own body and observe herself? Is it why her mother abandoned her?
The answer frames the beginning of Kirabo’s seven-year trek to empowered womanhood. “Listen,” Nsuuta tells her. “You fly out of your body because our original state is in you…The way women were in the beginning…We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.”
Makumbi, 52, has long been fascinated by creation myths—specifically the story of the first woman—and initially she attempted to write the novel around some variation of Eve, whose Ugandan counterpart is called Nnambi. She’d succeeded once on this front: Kintu, which The New York Times called “a sweeping portrait of Ugandan history,” centers on the story of the first man.
Still, Makumbi couldn’t find the right character to focus the first woman on, so instead Nnambi became Kirabo’s stepmother, a secondary character who encapsulates the darker side of the Ugandan version of the myth. Makumbi weaved Ugandan folklore and myth throughout the novel. She used Kirabo’s love of oral storytelling to demonstrate the girl’s changing perspectives as she leaves her sheltered rural existence to live with her father in Kampala and, later, at a private girls’ school. The book opens with her spinning a yarn that will mimic her journey—a clever way to set up the plot.
Many of the stories that Kirabo shares in the novel are stories that Makumbi heard growing up but reinvented on the page with a feminist slant. She says she realized in graduate school that her literary history didn’t lie with Shakespeare or Dante; it was in the oral tradition. “I wanted to take those stories that I’ve inherited from my ancestors into a new form,” she explains. “I want readers to see that oral histories may not have been written, but they can be very sophisticated.”
The author’s retelling of creation myths is in part what drew Maisie Cochran, editorial director at Tin House, to the 546-page manuscript when she read it, over the course of two days, last summer. Cochran highlights the moment when Nsuuta tells Kirabo that women come from the ocean and bring life, just as water does. This, Nsuuta explains, gives them majesty and power; in the telling, one woman is so strong that she’s able to squat and birth the Mayanja River, giving her people the gift of water.
“I immediately thought: I’m reading something I’ll never forget,” Cochran says. “The book is a reckoning with myth, of the very first stories that we have based our cultures on.” She adds that Makumbi’s decision to tackle the origin story from a feminist angle also grabbed her. “I’d never read anything like that.”
A Girl Is a Body of Water went to auction within two weeks of it being shopped in the U.S. last summer. Several large and small houses were competing for the book alongside Tin House. Veronica Goldstein, Makumbi’s American agent at Fletcher & Company, says she quickly began getting calls from editors who were extremely drawn to Kirabo. As different as the young Ugandan girl’s upbringing is—she straddles two worlds: the village and the city—she’s incredibly relatable. “You watch her grow up in the novel, and you can see a bit of yourself in her,” Goldstein says.
Still, A Girl Is a Body of Water is unapologetically African. Dialogue is written in patois—a mix of English and Luganda known as Uglish. At times, the back and forth between characters is so realistic that readers may need to reread lines to get their bearings. Makumbi and Cochran went through every line in the novel together, attempting to strike a balance in the use of authentic Luganda words, after copy editors expressed concern that certain passages might confuse a Western audience.
A Girl Is a Body of Water doesn’t explain Ugandan history or cultural mores to situate a potential Western reader, even though it’s set in the late 1970s, during one of the bloodiest periods in Ugandan history, when the country was ruled by Idi Amin. Makumbi simply invites the reader in. “I don’t think readers want everything explained to them,” she says. “You come into this world, you know it’s a different world, and you may have to work to understand it.” That is what makes reading interesting, she adds, and it’s how she grew up reading British and American novels. “Imagine a girl growing up at the equator, where it’s only hot or wet, reading about the harshness of winter, or snow. In Africa, we read Mark Twain and Austen and Dickens, but we figure it out.”
Makumbi wrote the novel with a Ugandan audience in mind, she says, to free herself from writing within the confines of what the West might expect of a Ugandan writer. She wasn’t going to tackle subjects like colonization or poverty. “I wanted to negate that image of the African childhood seen on Western television,” she says.
Instead, Makumbi tells the story of a child surrounded by love and a family who nurtured her and supported her, even as she hunted for her birth mother and grew into a strong feminist. “That cliché of the poor African child—it’s not how I grew up, and it’s not how most people I knew grew up,” she says.
In the end, Makumbi wanted a Ugandan woman to be able to read the book and relate to it just as much as a Western woman would. “The minute that I realized that I was writing for Ugandans, I didn’t have to be careful of what to say or how to write,” she says. “Everything was on the table.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.