“Tales from Here and There”: On Uganda’s Literary Culture

In March, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a 2018 recipient of the $165,000 Windham Campbell Prize, one of the world’s most generous writing awards. Five years ago, when the Ugandan-born author completed her doctoral thesis, the novel Kintu, at the University of Lancaster in the U.K., she was unable to find a publisher in in the UK willing to publish it. Makumbi’s novel makes a fine ambassador for her bookish compatriots in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. Kintu follows one Ugandan family across centuries of Ugandan history. It doesn’t stray into other lands or continents. It skips right over Uganda’s British colonial experience. It doesn’t dwell on the most internationally famous aspects of Ugandan contemporary history. The first book of Kintu opens with the lines: It was odd the relief that Kintu felt as he stepped out of his house. A long and perilous journey lay ahead. A half-century ago, Uganda was an African literary powerhouse. In 1961, a 22-year-old Rajat Neogy established Transition Magazine: An International Review, arguably sub-Saharan Africa’s all-time most influential literary journal, in Kampala. The great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o  says in his 2016 memoir, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer's Awakening, that the time he spent from 1959 to 1964 as a student at Makerere University, Uganda’s premiere seat of higher education, made him the writer he is today. Makerere hosted, in 1962, the first major international gathering of writers and critics of African literature in Africa. Held right as many African nations were breaking free from colonialism and attracting participants such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Langston Hughes (although as a non-African Hughes could only be an “observer”), the First African Writers Conference is often said to have cemented the concept of an “African” writer. It’s also where the young Ngũgĩ slipped the manuscript of what would become his first published novel, Weep Not, Child, to Achebe who, duly impressed, passed it along to his editors at Heinemann in London. All of this pioneering activity in Kampala might seem to have laid fertile ground for the emergence already in the 1960s and 1970s of a powerful Ugandan writerly tradition. Certainly, the Ugandan landscape offers rich poetic inspiration and its history a surfeit of dramatic material. But politics can both feed literary output and obstruct it. Before becoming a British protectorate in 1894, modern-day Uganda was split among separate but interrelating kingdoms and chieftaincies; Kintu, which reaches back into the 1750s, offers a vibrant depiction of how this worked. After achieving independence in 1962, these kingdoms struggled to find a peaceable alliance again. For a while, Transition continued to print work by Achebe, James Baldwin, and Julius Nyerere. At Makerere, visiting scholar Paul Theroux and writer-in-residence V.S. Naipaul began the great friendship that would eventually give way to their infamous feud. Under the second president, Milton Obote, however, political strings began tightening. Then came the 1970s and the power grab of Idi Amin, a professional soldier with a sixth-grade education and a profound distrust of intellectuals. During Amin’s eight years from 1971 to 1979 as Ugandan president, the country’s established literati for the most part either fled or went silent. A fractious reappearance by Obote in the early 1980s did nothing to encourage their return. That doesn’t mean storytelling stopped altogether. “What I don’t agree with,” popular Ugandan poet Ngobi Kagayi says, “is the idea that because people stopped producing literature, literature died. Literature doesn’t belong to the writers.” Uganda’s oral tradition persisted, something that plays an integral part in Kintu. It also informs Kagayi’s poetry. Kagayi’s broad-ranging and consistently clear-voiced debut collection, The Headline That Morning, published under the name Peter Kagayi, contained a CD on its back flap; fittingly, the opening poem in the collection is entitled “Listening to Poetry”: Today we shall listen to poetry While seated comfortably Yesterday we listened to guns coughing And wails of pain as blood was gushing While we hide our heads in our beds. Tomorrow we shall have what to do after the election campaigns But today? Today we shall listen to poetry While seated comfortably. Nayana Kakoma, whose all-Ugandan Sooo Many Stories (tagline: "Tales from Here and There") published The Headline That Morning, recognized a Ugandan audience as accustomed to listening to its literature as to reading it. Kakoma is a member of FEMWRITE, an NGO established in Kampala in 1995 by parliamentarian Mary Karooro Okurut with the goal of helping Ugandan women make gains in literacy, as well as to show them a way in which literacy could be of value to them. Literacy in Uganda has steadily risen over the last two decades, although women still lag behind men. At the time of FEMRITE’s inception, the rate for women was at less than 50 percent. Through workshops and a publishing arm, FEMRITE has encouraged Ugandan women of all levels of education to believe they too can be writers. “I met writers I had read and admired,” Beatrice Lamwaka, the current general secretary of PEN/Uganda, says, “and I noticed that they were not any different from me.”  In 2011, Lamwaka’s short story, “Butterfly Dreams,” inspired by her late brother’s experience as child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army, was shortlisted for the coveted Caine Prize for African Writing. [millions_ad] A marked success, FEMRITE now works with women all over Africa. Members Goretti Kyomuhendo and Beverley Nambozo have gone on to establish, respectively, the African Writers Trust, which facilitates collaboration between writers in Africa and its diaspora, and the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, an annual poetry competition initially for Ugandan women but now open to all Africans of any gender. Kagayi’s introduction both to being a poet and a literary activist began through a different grassroots group, The Lantern Meet for Poets, a collaborative writing workshop begun in a dorm room in Kampala in 2007.  He also belongs to yet another grassroots group, Writivism, an ambitious six-step program dedicated to creating a future generation of writers. “Writivism was established not so much as an infrastructure, because you can’t do everything,” explains its co-founder Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire. “It is a community that is doing activism for these things.” Cultivating a new generation of writers and readers in Uganda, rated the 25th-poorest country in the world by the IMF in 2016, is a complex task. Public primary schools average 43 students to every teacher, and sometimes many more, and with Ugandan women giving birth to an average of 5.7 children, private schools necessitate a financial outlay beyond the reach of many families. Meanwhile, curricula remains rooted in outdated models from British colonialism. In addition, bookstores are few and, in a country where homes typically do not have street addresses, a door-to-door postal delivery system doesn’t exist. Writivism members go into schools, run workshops, and hold contests, encouraging both writing and reading. Turn the Page, a Kampala-based online book club run by Alex Twinokwesiga, has added a distribution wing to tackle the problem of getting books to readers around Uganda. In establishing Sooo Many Stories, Kakoma hoped also to offer Ugandan writers—who rely largely on the Internet (Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress) to share their work—the possibility of seeing their work on paper and maybe to earn money from it without having to join the African literary diaspora. Here too the task has not been simple; with a lack of local resources as basic as suitable paper, Kakoma had to turn to Nairobi to print Kagayi’s collection. In 2017, however, Kakoma managed to print Sooo Many Stories' second offering, an East African edition of Flame and Song, a genre-transcending poetry-and-prose-blending memoir of privileged childhood in Uganda and subsequent exile by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa: I made friends with Silas and Paul, who lived up the road, and Charlie, who lived across the road. We rode bicycles up and down the hill every day. I even learnt to ride without holding my handlebars. I had cropped hair then and was often in shorts or trousers, and I was always with the boys. Once, riding past some ladies, I heard them debate my gender. ‘You see that one, she is a girl.’ ‘No, it’s a boy. What girl would ride a bicycle like that?’ This spring, Writivism put out Odokonyero: A Writivism Anthology of Short Fiction by Emerging Ugandan Writers, showcasing the work of 18 young up-and-coming Ugandan writers, in cooperation with South-African publisher Black Letter Media. Mwesigire and Madhu Krishnan, a senior lecturer in post-colonial writing at the University of Bristol, co-edited. Up in northwestern England, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has seen good things for her book. An early East African edition of Kintu came out from the Kwani Trust in Kenya in 2014; in 2017 Transit Books published a U.S. edition. Oneworld Publications released a U.K. edition this January. Having won the Windham Campbell Prize should allow Makumbi to concentrate on her writing; her next book, the short story collection Love Made in Manchester, is forthcoming in 2019 from Transit Books. The collection looks at the life of Ugandans in the U.K., which Makumbi pointedly refers to as “expat experiences” rather than “migrant stories.” Makumbi’s success offers evidence that the literary culture envisioned by the likes of Kagayi, Kakoma, and Mwesigire has begun to coalesce not only abroad but, as intended, in Uganda. Like Achebe’s African trilogy, Kintu examines the power of myth without mythologizing its subject. Both it and Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir represent uniquely Ugandan voices, in conversation with their people. It’s not necessary to know anything about Uganda to appreciate either, but their story, world, and language will be specifically familiar and meaningful to readers from Uganda. Both books also have repeatedly sold out at Aristoc, Kampala’s main bookstore. “I feel,” poet Kagayi says, “like the distance between here and New York and here and the person across the street—the person across the street is longer.” Ugandan writers, whether abroad or at home, are making that journey.

Finding an Audience Abroad: Who’s Read in France

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Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table. With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities. But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America? In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans. During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor's note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.] Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia). Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places - U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia - they might normally never visit. But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples. The New Yorker During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.” The Expat Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe -- is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone. The Soul Mate Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations? The Autobiographer Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency. The Poet Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris -- like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year. The Cowboy Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating. The Philosopher-Poets According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces... of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry -- a sort of win-win, all things considered. Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac. Image via christine zenino/Flickr