Let's Tell This Story

The point is not that colonialism didn’t happen, or was inconsequential; the point is that colonialism wasn’t the only thing of consequence that did.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is one of the most fresh and important African writers that you—if you are a reader in the United States or the United Kingdom, or any other part of the Anglophone world that isn’t East Africa—have not been able to read. Her novel, Kintu, is not available on Amazon.com, or Amazon.co.uk, or any of the other arms of the imperial octopus bookseller that brings the spoils of world literature to your door. I had to get mine directly from the publishers (he says, smugly); the director of Kwani Trust, Angela Wachuka, handed me a copy when I came to visit their offices in Nairobi, and if you want a copy, I’m not sure what to tell you. I guess you could go to Kenya.

Kintu was the winner of the “Kwani Manuscript Project” the first novel to be published in what promises to be a really exciting series. I can give you the address of the Kwani Trust’s offices, though it’s kind of tough to explain to a cab driver how to get there. Also, watch out for the monkeys that have taken a proprietorial interest in the garden space; they’ve apparently gotten very aggressive as of late, and a few months ago, the editor of Kwani?, Billy Kahora, injured his shoulder running away from them when they decided that the picnic table was their space.

I don’t want to read too much into the fact that you cannot get your hands on this book, just like I don’t want to read too much into the fact that the first copy Kwani mailed to me, months earlier, never arrived. Sometimes things get lost in the mail, and that’s probably all that happened. And sometimes really great books don’t get published. It probably happens constantly, in fact; the unwritten list of great novels that agents, publishers, or readers never took a chance on, especially in this age of austerity capitalism, is a lost Library of Alexandria burning down around us.

Yet Kintu is a novel I would recommend people read, and I’m frustrated that I can’t tell you to purchase it, oh, Anglophone reader in the US and or UK. It’s a very good novel. And if you want, you can skip right past this introduction and read my interview with the author below, or you can read her short story, “Let’s Tell This Story Properly,” which recently won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. But I want to first tell you a little bit about why it’s unfortunate that you can’t read this novel , what it is that we non-residents of East Africa are deprived of by our provincial publishing industry.

First and foremost, it’s a novel that deserves a place in any story about “African Literature.” It manages to be a faithful Ugandan re-interpretation of Chinua Achebe’s hyper-canonical sequence of novels, telling a story about a pre-colonial patriarch and his post-independence descendants that cannot help but remind you of Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease.

As a reader at Heinemann’s African Writers Series, for example, Gikandi recalled being presented with the manuscript of Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, and found himself self-consciously comparing it to Achebe, the novelist whose novels he understood to define what African literature was: “My first thought was to react against this tendency to equate African literature with Achebe's works, a tendency that had produced what I felt were many poor imitators in the Heinemann African Writers Series, books about village life and the crisis of change whose titles we no longer need to mention. My first impulse was to read Marechera's manuscript as an attempt to break out of what I then thought was an ill-advised overdetermination of the series by its first—and most important—writer. But as soon as I started reading The House of Hunger, I realized that the question of overdetermination was more complicated than I initially thought. Marechera's "avant-garde" fiction could not simply be juxtaposed against Achebe's works; on the contrary, it existed in a productive relation to it, so much so that one could not argue for the newness of the title story or novella ("The House of Hunger") without invoking its relationship with Achebe's project. Even a cursory reading of Marechera's fiction indicated that his protagonists had been reading Achebe and other African writers…What was even more remarkable about Marechera's subjects was the fact that they took the existence of this African literature for granted and considered it inseparable from the idea of an African identity and a Pan-African culture. Like many Africans of my generation, Marechera's characters paid homage to African literature by taking it for granted as something that didn't need to be rationalized or justified; more importantly they were leading their lives according to the dictates of a Pan-African, rather than, or in addition to, the colonial, library.” —Simon Gikandi, “Chinua Achebe and the Invention of African Culture”
I bet you’ve read at least the former novel; if there’s one African novel that someone who has read only one African novel has read, it’s Things Fall Apart. Yet Makumbi’s careful fidelity to the Achebean tradition is also quietly subversive. For example, she brings a very subtle feminist undercurrent in Achebe’s work to the surface, something I always tell my students to look for—but which you really do have to look for—and she writes about sex with a zest that makes a writer like Achebe seem positively Victorian by comparison. Kintu is a “masculinist” novel, as she told me, but its written by a feminist, and it shows: just as women sometimes know men much better than men know themselves, Makumbi understands Achebe’s novels in ways that Achebe, himself, did not always seem to.

Kintu also inverts the “post-colonial” paradigm to which African historical fiction has so often—and so relentlessly and tediously—been expected to adhere. Things Fall Apart tells the story of how colonialism uprooted traditional African culture—narrating African modernity through the clash of cultures between the British empire and the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria—and this was the pattern which the first generation of post-independence African writers tended to follow in writing their historical fiction, not only placing “the colonial encounter” at the center of the African literary scene, but establishing that clash as the central trope for the most canonical works of the literary tradition. As a result, “African literature” has tended to be rather relentlessly fixated on Europe: the story of African modernity could seem to begin and end with colonialism and the heroic struggle to throw it off.

As Makumbi told me, when she wanted to do a PhD in African literature, in the UK, she was told that she “could only discuss African literature meaningfully using the postcolonial paradigm.” She was surprised, then she was resentful of the way “the postcolonial paradigm” seemed to impose itself on her study, limiting her attention to Europe’s action in Africa and Africa’s reaction to it.

As she put it, “the postcolonial focus on Europe is a censorious gaze; what matters is that Europe remains at the centre of African creative production, it still occupies centre stage.”
 She did not, therefore, do a PhD. She wrote Kintu instead, a novel which tells an Achebean story of Uganda—from the fall of a precolonial patriarch to the demoralization of his post-colonial descendants—with colonialism, simply and neatly, absent. The first hundred pages of the novel are set in the 18th century, long before any European had heard of Buganda, or vice versa; the rest of the book is set in a post-Idi Amin present. If Achebe tells the history of the colonial encounter, Kintu is an incredibly faithful Achebean story, with the colonial encounter neatly excised. But the point is not that colonialism didn’t happen, or was inconsequential; her point is that colonialism wasn’t the only thing of consequence that did. Colonialism is a thing that happened, and can be taken for granted. But other stories are worth telling, too.

In this sense, it makes perfect sense that you—my dear North American, British, or Australasian Anglophone—cannot purchase this novel. It’s a very African novel, even a very Ugandan novel. And what would you want with something like that? No, you want to read a story like The Last King of Scotland, where a white guy can still be the center of attention. Or if you’re going to read a contemporary novel by a contemporary African writer, it’s more likely that you’ll read Taiye Selasi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chris Abani, or Teju Cole, or another of the “New Wave of African Writers with an Internationalist Bent” that the New York Times noticed the other day, African writers whose perspectives are decidedly global and internationalist. I love those writers, too—don’t get me wrong—and it would be silly to position Jennifer Makumbi, who lives in the UK, as anything but internationalist. But the Ugandan writer Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire complained the other day that Kampala bookstores had run out of copies of Kintu, and that reading it had become a social imperative; “If one has not read Kintu, in Kampala-speak,” he said, “they are a laughing stone.”

I know a lot about European colonialism in East Africa, but I don’t know what a “laughing stone” means, and I expect that you don’t either. Kintu is a little bit like that. It’s not really written for Europeans or Americans who want to hear the story about how terrible white people in Africa were, nor is it for people whose egos still need white people to be at the center of every story. It’s also not for people that want to read cosmopolitan fiction about Africans in the world, a distinct and interesting genre of Africanist writing—and one I’m personally very invested in—but only one way of telling stories about African modernity. And it’s worth reflecting on how provincial the world of Anglophone publishing is, if we are only interested in “world” fiction that's really about us. “Kintu has been rejected by all the major publishers in Britain (with glowing rejection letters) even though it won an award,” Makumbi told me; “We thought that winning the Commonwealth prize would give publishers the confidence to take a risk on it, but no”:

“The reality is that Europe is absent in the novel and publishers are not sure British readers would like it. As a writer I understand that that is the nature of market forces. I knew this when I wrote it. I was once told, back in 2004, when I was looking for an agent for my first novel, that the novel was too African. That publishers were looking for novels that straddle both worlds – the West and the Third World – like Brick Lane or The Icarus Girl but I went on to write Kintu anyway. Meanwhile, my immigration short stories which are set both in Manchester and Uganda are more successful. And I only started writing them recently but I have published three in anthologies and the fourth is coming out in January 2015. The bottom line is that publishing is a business, what sells gets published. Post-coloniality sells.”

I asked the Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana if she thought Kintu would be published outside of East Africa, and she was optimistic; “It will eventually; it's too good not to,” she said. But she acknowledged that while its focus isn’t narrow, it isn’t your typical African diasporan novel, a kind of novel which—as the New York Times has noticed—really has become a type: “Kintu's perspective is Ganda-centric (the ethnic group, not the country), which to me is a plus. But perhaps not for mainstream UK/US presses.”

Read the interview.