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An interview with.... Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

December 4th 2021


We absolutely adored The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. This is a book about women: their strengths, their flaws, their futures. Jessica Nansubuga Makumbi finds in Ugandan mythology the perfect vehicle to talk about women in a way that’s purposeful and moving. Her depiction of the child Kirabo, is masterful.

The reader feels the strength of her character and stumbles through with her as she arrives at adulthood. This is a book brimming with energy and life. It’s educational not because the writer preaches but because she lays before us what there is to preach about.

Atmospheric, engaging and beautiful. A completely intoxicating read. LoveMyRead was lucky enough to sit down the the wonderful author and pick her brain about this work. Here's what she had to say..


Author's Note

Kirabo is a happy, twelve-year-old girl growing up with her doting grandma and grandpa in rural Uganda. Her dad, who lives in the city, visits whenever he can and showers her with gifts. And he worships her too. Unfortunately, this is enough to provoke jealousy among her teenage uncles and aunts, who feel that Kirabo is hogging all the love in the family.

There are still two tiny little problems in Kirabo’s life though. First and foremost, who is her mother? What is her name, and why does she never visit Kirabo like her father does? Kirabo is too scared to tell anyone about her other problem. The truth is that her spirit has started to fly out of her body in moments of distress.

Kirabo starts to suspect that this dark secret might be why her mother abandoned her. Is she really a witch child? She decides she has to find her mother and stop the flying once and for all. But when she enlists the local witch to help her, she discovers so much more than she had bargained for.

Is her grandpa really the perfect man she loves? What about her quiet grandmother? Is Giibwa, her childhood best friend, still her friend after Sio, a local boy, enters their lives? Does Kirabo’s father belong to her alone?

As she gets older, Kirabo discovers that the world of grown-ups is complex and riddled with landmines. But all of that is nothing compared to the business of growing up. Because as Kirabo changes from a curious but carefree young girl to an inquisitive teenager, she starts to become what her friends and family most fear: a strong, independent young woman.



Q&A

Set during Idi Admin’s dictatorship, your novel manages to show the effects of political changes on the grass roots & everyday life. Why did you choose to set your story in this era?

Actually, I did not set out to write about Uganda under Idi Amin. It was the World Conference on Women in 1975, held Mexico City, that set the time for the story. Kirabo had to be twelve years old at the time of the conference. The event was key because it was the first time ordinary Ugandan women became aware of Western feminism, and feminism as a movement, because an envoy from Uganda was sent to represent the nation. It was important for me to start the action of my novel at that time, because it would form the backdrop against which I would explore indigenous feminism. And the minute the opening was set in June 1975, Amin’s regime became an inevitable part of the story.

This was around the same time that anti-feminist sentiments started to arise as women in Uganda began to agitate for equality as a collective. The story had to be true to that time in terms of lived experiences. It is a very specific time in our history and it is not the kind of history you can distort or play around with to suit your story. I dug deep into family history, into lived experiences, things I had heard of, some recorded in songs and other oral forms.

Did it feel like a weighty responsibility to do justice to the lived experiences of people under that regime?

Yes, once it was set during Amin’s regime, it became a weighty responsibility. In Uganda at the time of writing this novel, Idi Amin’s children had started to campaign against existing views of our country’s history in terms of Idi

Amin’s regime, saying it was Eurocentric, distorted and untrue. You have to remember that for a long time, life expectancy in Uganda was around forty-six years, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, first because of war and then because of HIV/AIDS. With most of the people who experienced Idi Amin’s regime no longer with us, and the younger generation impatient to move on, it was easy for Idi Amin’s children to start to rewrite history. Realising what was happening, it became critical for me to write some of people’s lived experiences as truthfully as I could in this novel.

The novel explores ancient Ugandan folklore and modern feminism. How have African concepts of womanhood informed your views of feminism today? What power do you find in it, versus European feminism?

It is the limitations of Western feminisms, the fact that they could not address some of the Ugandan lived experiences, that forced me to explore indigenous concepts of feminism. This is because oppression is often culturally specific. Not all women were oppressed similarly. Firstly, because Western feminism came from the West, it was written and articulated in a colonial language, so the idea of theory was at the forefront, and it therefore alienated the majority of uneducated women in Uganda and became a middle-class preoccupation. Inevitably, the patriarchy jumped on the idea that feminism was not African and distorted the whole notion. Thise feminist movement was doomed from the start. But I knew that wherever women were oppressed, there was feminist thought and action. It is just that in Africa feminist thought and action was not expressed in movements or written in manifestos. For me, the only texts left behind by women of old were oral texts. But being oppressed people, their texts were coded. It was then that I started to retrieve folklore to decode and find the ideas they left behind.

In terms of the power I find in indigenous versus Western conceptions of feminisms, I am reluctant to pit one against another. European feminism was not totally unusable. It has the underlying principle of equality and it has made feminism a global movement to reckon with. The power I find in oral traditional texts is the ability to hold them high and ask, who said feminism is not African? There is power in ancestral texts. They withstand scrutiny because most people tend to be familiar with them. However the most important thing is that they address those aspects that Western feminism might be inadequate to handle. For example the act of paying a dowry for women in Uganda has extensive implications for both women and men beyond the commodification and objectification of women. However, Iindigenous feminisms are part of the wider global movement.


Kirabo’s strength to rebel and claim her voice when others might silence her is breath-taking. How did you find her courage when writing the novel?

Kirabo’s courage was located in many places. The major place was in herself; she was born with that essence that sees and feels the wrongs of society and fights back. She can’t help herself. But she is also lucky that this innate sense of rebellion is identified when she is quite young by an indigenous feminist who is crazy enough to nurture it. What’s more, she is born into a family where the patriarchs are enabling. Her grandfather believes a girl must have an education to be self-reliant. At the same time, the love that she has been given by not only her grandparents, but by the wider family and community in her village gives her a sense of who she is, a sense of worth. In a way, looking back on all of this as an author, I set her up to succeed.

How did it feel to win the Jhalak Prize?

Oh, the Jhalak prize was enoooormous, it still is. I felt validated and appreciated, and because it is a prize by and for people in the margins, I was reassured that I had communicated effectively. I am so glad that Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla and Media Diversified came up with this idea of shining a light on writing in the margins which would otherwise not be considered by mainstream awards. I am so grateful to them. It has brought a lot of attention to the book and to my writing in general. Booksellers, bookshops, radio shows, reading groups and festivals have been very supportive. I pray that the prize grows from strength to strength.

What’s the biggest lesson you learnt from writing this book?

Ironically, the biggest lessons have been about the publishing industry. I finished the novel back in 2003. It was rejected by agents that year. One agent told me, ‘we’re looking for books that straddle both Africa and Europe, ‘like The Icarus Girl or Brick Lane.’ At the time I had no idea about trends. Immigration Writing was just starting to become a trend and that was what they were looking for.

The novel was rejected again in 2005 after I rewrote it, and then again in 2008. When Kintu, my second novel, was also rejected even when it won an African award I realised that the publishing industry was not yet ready for novels which do not centre Western readerships. At the moment, the mainstream is slowly starting to become curious about other ways of writing, although it is a slow process. My publisher, Oneworld is incredibly good at sourcing such writing. Nonetheless, Aa novel completed in 2003 but published in 2020 is a long time to wait for the world to change.

But there were lessons in this experience. Firstly, when a book is rejected it is not necessarily that something is wrong with it. Often it is the publishing industry – specifically the marketing departments – which are not sure they would make money out of it. They are too careful and therefore patronising to readers. So they stick to existing trends because they have been tested and sell.

My other lesson was the realisation that when agents and publishers say they are looking for something unique, something new, it is not true. They are looking for something slightly different from the trend, a different take or angle on the old. In fact, one of the questions you are asked by publishers and agents is ‘which books on the market are similar to yours?’ Often, I pull out my hair in frustration, screaming ‘Nonething! I wrote this book because I’ve not read it,’ especially with Kintu and The First Woman. I wonder what would happens to a book if the author said that, ‘This is nothing like anything on the market.’

If there’s one thing that your readers take away from the novel, what would you like it to be?

It would be about the way the book is written in terms of audience and readership. Readers in the West do not realise that many books written in the English language and published in the West – whether they are from Africa or elsewhere in the Commonwealth – are written as if the whole world is the West. They imagine that we all read the same way. This is at once a wonderful but also a crippling thing that the empire did for readers in the West. Those of us from other parts of the world have to read Western texts as outsiders. No one cares whether we understand their texts. Does Ian McEwan care whether African readers understand his idioms? Does J.K. Rowling worry about African kids getting her books? No, it is presumed that they will. And it is a wonderful thing that they presume.

This anomaly is facilitated by the agenting, editing, marketing, reviewing and criticism processes. All these processes align texts with readers in the West. Those that don’t conform are whittled out. Or they are described as experimental. Western publishers know the market is in the West and they prepare our books for you. My books go against this and it is the reason why my books were rejected for such a long time. I centre Ugandan and African audiences in my books, thus making Western audiences the outsiders. It was a bold move but I know that when Western readers realise what they have been missing, they will embrace it. This is how I’ve read Western texts and I have enjoyed them. Because you see when I write to Western audiences, I censor myself in unimaginable ways, since I know what they want to read about Africa and stage that kind of writing. However, if I am talking to my people, nothing is off the table. The subject matter changes, the language changes, the tone, the attitude changes, and it gives the Western reader a chance to listen in to what we get up to instead of the veneers we set up for them.


What’s next?

At the moment I am working on two projects. The first one is a crossover novel about three girls who go back in time to see why some animals ended up becoming domesticated while others remained in ‘wild’ spaces. It is focused on the ecosystem and environmental responsibility, but it is informed by African oral traditions. I want to write a book which can be read by children and adults alike, and can be discussed by the family at the dinner table or in a traffic jam. It would also introduce my writing to young readers early on. The second is an adult novel which also focuses on climate change, but is largely about Pan-Africanism. I am trying to explore Africa and its worlds. I want to examine ideas of self-awareness, self-repair and self-sustenance.


Extract

Kirabo wanted storytelling, but the teenagers were engrossed in gossip. They lounged on three bunk beds in the girls’ bedroom. Some lay, some sat, legs dangling, others cross-legged, squeezed cosily, two or three to a bed. They had gathered as usual, after supper, to chatter before going off to sleep. Kirabo was not welcome.

For a while she had watched them, waiting to catch a pause, a breath, a tick of silence in their babble, to wedge in her call to storytelling – nothing.

Finally, she gritted her teeth and called ‘Once, a day came…’ but her voice carried too far above the teenagers’ heads and rang impatient in the rafters.

The hush that fell could have brought down trees. Teenagers’ heads turned, eyes glaring (But who does this child think she is?), some seething (What makes you think we want to hear your stories?). None answered her call. Another twelve-year-old would have been intimidated – there were ten teenagers in the room – but not Kirabo. Not visibly, anyway. She stared straight ahead, lips pouting. She was the kabejja of her grandparents, which meant that all the love in the house belonged to her, and whether they liked it or not, the teenagers, her aunts and uncles, would sit quietly and suffer her story. But Kirabo’s eyes – the first thing you saw on her skinny frame, with eyelids darker than shadows and lashes as long as brush bristles – betrayed her. They blinked rapidly, a sign that she was not immune to the angry silence.

Unfortunately, tradition was that she could not start her story until the audience granted her permission, but she had begun by annoying them.



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Happy reading!

Vicki & The LoveMyRead Team x



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