An interview with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Read an introduction to her work here.
I’ve read that Kintu began as a story about mental illness, or that you began writing it to make sense of your father’s mental illness. Could you talk about the genesis of the project, and how it developed as you worked on it?
It started out as an exploration of my father’s mental illness and the anxiety that comes with having such illness in the family. The ideas must have been knocking about in my head for three or four years before I actually started to write. But when I travelled to the UK and saw that the Africa in Western media was a place of madness, this image overrode my father’s mental illness.
I love that about the novel, that it operates on multiple registers at the same time, layered over each other. You never forget that it’s a story spanning centuries, and is continental in its scope, but it’s also deeply personal, intimate, focused on a particular family.
Yes, it allows people to read it at whatever level they wish. Later, I incorporated the biblical myth of Ham, a Western account of the ‘deplorable state’ of Africa. Ham wonderfully reinforced the idea of African madness as he also works with a curse. But I never lost sight of mental illness; all the ideas about the family, the Ganda, Africans or even the Black race were to be mediated through mental illness.
How does the “myth of Ham” play into the novel? You mean, because the family line is cursed?
Ham is the eldest son of Noah who was cursed by Noah. Biblically, Africans descend from Ham, or at least this was a belief held by Jews, Muslims and Christians for some time. After the floods Noah planted a vineyard. One day he made wine and got drunk. While sleeping, Noah exposed himself and Ham saw his nakedness and laughed. But his younger brother, Shem (Asia) and Japheth (Europe) covered their father. When Noah woke up, he cursed Ham to become a slave to his younger brothers. This myth justified slave trade and slavery to Jews Muslims and Christians.
In fact for a long time, it was believed that the blackening of the skin was the physical manifestation of Ham’s curse, that we were all once white. When I was young, we were taught in history about African groupings like Hamites, Nilo-Hamites, Nilotics, Semites. (See H.M. Speke’s Hamitic Hypothesis, for example). And one time while I was still a Christian, a church member who worked as a housemaid for a white family in Uganda and was disgusted by all the failings of Africa, stood up and said Ham made perfect sense to her.
The novel seems to reflect a continuing engagement with African Christianity, though; we can know that the myth of Ham is a myth, but it’s a myth that still has power, as that example demonstrates.
Oh, yes, and nowhere is the belief in “myths” played out more than in Africa. Especially in view of the current re-evangelization which is sweeping across the continent, I wanted to highlight the fact that when it comes to the creation of race and racism, Christianity is not innocent. The novel is especially interested in the syncretic processes in Africa, where Christianity is becoming indigenized by absorbing traditional forms of worship like falling into trances, like clapping and dancing, being possessed (by the Holy Spirit) and bringing money to the priest or pastor to be healed, to be blessed and at the moment in Uganda there are pastor who are feared because of the mystical powers they possess. Popular Christianity in Africa seems more like an indigenous religion of Africa than a western import. I have seen Africans on the streets of Manchester trying to re-Christianise the British! This is how seriously Africa takes Christianity as its own.
But at the same time, indigenous worship in Uganda is at the moment imbibing Christian elements in order to survive total annihilation by Christianity. So now traditional beliefs are written, not oral, there is baptism and traditional priests even perform wedding ceremonies. To me as an author this present is an incredible moment. We are witnessing syncretic processes of African culture, as a result of clashing with Europe, is in the process of reorganising its structures by absorbing what is relevant from Europe, by discarding redundant aspects of its past, and by rejecting certain aspects of Europe that do not suit it. This Aaron, is cultural evolution. I am watching and documenting.
What did you learn about mental illness in the process of writing the novel?
One of the major things I discovered while writing this novel were the numerous types of mental illness. There are so many forms of manifestation of mental health that sometime I wonder who is not mentally ill. Back in Uganda, mental illness was limited to the loss of touch with reality. Everything else was behavioural. No one had the time, patience or even sympathy for that kind of thing.
You mean that what scans as “behavioural” has other causes?
Sometimes, people were believed to be under a spell, sometimes they could be just acting up, other times, if the condition is convincing, they were suspected to be possessed. This is where the churches step in, especially the new churches. It is seen as ‘backward’ to go to the traditional doctor in a shrine. So in Kintu, young Isaac shakes himself out of whatever afflicted him and faces the world. His grandmother reacts like he has been sulking.
Do you mean to leave the question ambiguous about whether Kintu’s curse is real?
I loved the fact that I could leave that question to the reader. I worked hard to sustain the ambiguity. In parts where the novel deals with characters that believe in the curse, no doubt is left to the reader that the curse is real. But at the same time it was critical to make sure that a sceptic does not lose his/her disbelief. This where Miisi, a Westernized intellectual who is curious in such matters, reinforces and sustains scepticism. He experiences some of these mystical aspects and is able to intervene with logical explanations. Miisi sustains scepticism right up to the end of the novel. My answer when it comes to the reality of mysticism or spiritual elements is that I don’t know the truth. I find it difficult to believe in them but at the same time I can’t dismiss them entirely. Neither does the novel.
I couldn’t help but think of Achebe’s two pre-colonial novels when I was reading Kintu, especially in the first part. There’s a point later in the novel where Things Fall Apart is even explicitly mentioned. But the story of the familial curse that haunts Kintu’s descendants is also very reminiscent of Okonkwo’s killing of Ikemefuna, itself a kind of Isaac story (as Miisi notes). Were you conscious of writing in that tradition?
In the past I have reluctant to acknowledge this because I prefer to anchor my novel in oral traditions. However this question keeps coming back and I have been forced to take a second look. Looking back now, there must have been influences from Achebe; after all, I grew up on his novels. The relationship between Kintu and Baale reminds me of Ezeulu and Obika in Arrow of God, one of my favourite novels (and Ezeulu is my favourite character). But I was not conscious of echoes from Things Fall Apart until I read your question. Now I can see that everything Okonkwo did was driven by the fear of inheriting his father, Unoka’s ‘weakness’. And while inheritance was not Achebe’s main concern in the novel, it is clear that he was aware of it. Unoka’s ‘weakness’ resurfaces in Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye. As he puts it, “too much of his grandfather in that boy.”
I guess I’ll never be fully aware of all the influences out there. It is hard to be alert to these connections as I write. On the other hand, readers pick on them quite effortlessly.
Maybe it’s better not to be aware, though! For me, the comparison with Achebe is interesting because you’re doing something different. For example, Achebe’s novels are built around the clash between traditional societies and colonialism. But colonialism is almost completely absent from Kintu. Was that intentional?
Yes, the almost complete lack of colonization was deliberate. However, I tried to address it with Miisi, who spends time in Britain, but to a limited extent.
I once started to do a PhD in African literature—in the UK—and I was told that I could only discuss African literature meaningfully using the postcolonial paradigm. I must point out that I was surprised when I came to Europe and found that there is still such intense focus on colonization within the academia. To me colonization was my grandfather’s quarrel. My concern was post-independence demoralization. That does not mean that I am not aware of the colonial reverberations in our time, but at that point in 2005 this kind of intense focus seemed anachronistic. I soon became resentful of post-coloniality, the way it seemed to impose itself on my study, the way the study draws you into that period and limits your attention to Europe’s action in Africa and Africa’s reaction to it, the way it encourages reactionary literature, the way Africans could not be held responsible for their misadventures. To me, the insistence on piling responsibility for all things wrong in Africa on Europe seems to agree with Albert Schweitzer’s comment that “The African is my brother but he is my younger brother by several centuries.” The older brother takes the blame for our mischief. Besides, it seems to me that any focus on coloniality is a focus on Europe. When I said that what I was being told to do did not make sense, my supervisor surmised “perhaps it’s because you don’t know how to read.”
To me it is of limited importance that 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. There is something not right about that for me. I am not saying that postcolonial study should be abandoned; on the contrary, it has given a lot of researchers from the margins visibility, it has brought attention to the colonized’s side of the story or what is referred to as writing back to the empire. However to me, at the moment, this postcolonial study is more essential to Europe than it is to me. I fear that this overemphasis on coloniality would lead to the production of African stories limited to the colonial time and its aftermaths. This effectively cordons off the re-imagination of Africa before Europe arrived just because the West offers a steady market for it. Remember Hegel’s idea that Africa has no historical part of the world; that it has no movement or development to exhibit? To me a failure to bring that past to the present seems to agree with Hegel.
You mean the failure to move beyond colonialism lets Hegel win the argument?
I mean that we have not brought the Africa before colonization into our creativity, forcefully. We have not brought it to the attention of African readers or world readers. In the West it would be politically incorrect to say it but there remains sympathy or understanding for Hegel’s argument.
When you talk about the ways Americans and Europeans read Africa, and how the overemphasis on colonialism (or neo-colonialism) allows African literature to still be about the West, it reminds me of how a movie like The Last King of Scotland has to have a white guy at the center of the narrative.
Aaron, we tend to look for ourselves in a story. In fact, we read ourselves in a text. We Africans got used to reading stories about others, stories without ourselves because books came from somewhere else. For a short time reading about other people was normal until African writing started. Even then, we are still comfortable reading about others because this is what we have grown up with. And we associated good books with the West. However Europe and America are not used to this so The Last King of Scotland would only sell in western cinemas only when a white person occupies the centre stage. No one would see the movie in the cinema otherwise.
Look at Half a Yellow Sun: it had two major black stars and it was released strategically on the back of 12 Years a Slave’s success but here in Britain, it did not make it to any cinemas in Manchester. It was shown in two or three cinemas in London. Basically British cinema goers were not interested. Kintu has been rejected by all the major publishers in Britain (with glowing rejection letters) even though it won an award. 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 guess the next question, then, is what kinds of stories need to be told? Particularly in terms of telling a particularly Ugandan story. This is an African novel, certainly, but it’s very much a novel about Uganda. (I wonder if moving away from “colonialism” means moving away from the idea that writers in Uganda and writers in Nigeria are necessarily doing the same kinds of things.) Could you speak to that context?
I believe that all stories that can be told well should be told. That way, stories emerge spontaneously and perhaps stories from Africa would not seem the same regardless where they come from. Having said that, spontaneity has led to trends in the West. For example, the West has just put a decade of vampire stories behind it. I guess it is such trends that give rise to the idea of stories that ‘need’ to be told. Still, I am reluctant to say that this story needs to be told and that one does not. At the moment writers in in Africa seem to be doing the same thing because for a long time their publishers, the influential readers, the distributors of their writing and the researchers do it in the same world – the West. (Let’s not even ponder on the possibility that western tastes in African writing has implication of the African cannon.) I suspect that once African publishers get the ability to distribute their novels as effectively as the western publishers do, trends in African writing will change. Even if it was to tell the colonial story; Kenya was not colonized the same way as Uganda. The Ganda attempted to use the British to overrun all the other kingdoms. So if you publish the colonization stories from around Africa, Things Fall Apart could become a uniquely Nigerian story.
Do you feel any particular affinity for categories like African writer, Ugandan writer, or Ganda writer? Or would you prefer to just be called a writer?
You know what, Aaron, I have never really worried about being categorized. That might be largely because I am not a successful writer. I mean, being categorized is a form of recognition. I am an African writer, especially when I am outside Africa. I am a Ugandan writer when I am in Africa. I think that ‘Ganda writer’ is taking it too far at the moment. This is because in Uganda writers have not identified themselves along ethnic lines, thankfully. Ethnicity has been a painful subject in Uganda for some time even though in certain ways ethnic identities still run deep. I think this would only happen when Ugandan writing is so successful that every ethnic group is writing itself rather than the national story. But I am an African woman writer. Overall I think that categories are dangerous in as far as they limit the reach of an author in terms of readerships. I am aware that any person that sees my name on a cover of a book outside Africa and still picks it up to read it will have made a conscious decision to read an African writer. So I don’t mind how I am described, yet.
Were you thinking about the fight over anti-homosexual legislation in Uganda when you wrote this novel? When you wrote the character of Ssentalo, for example?)
I was thinking of the view that homosexuality was brought to Uganda by the West or by the Arabs. Ssentalo was created in 2003. The anti-homosexual legislation had not started then but discussions about homosexuality had started. I felt at the time that this view should be questioned, especially as I once held the same view when I was a Christian. I was ware at the time of writing, that the Ganda word for homosexuality, okulya ebisiyaga was not a new word as the case of all things that came with colonization. Ironically, the term had no judgemental connotations. Traditionally among the Ganda, all sexuality was concealed from public view. In public, a husband and wife would not even hint that they touch each other in private. As a child, for example, I did not realise that my grandmother was my grandfather’s wife; nothing between the two suggested they were husband and wife. I think this is why sexuality was expressed in dancing quite overtly.
I believe that it is this censoring of all things sexual that led to homosexuality to be largely unknown to society, especially after the arrival of Christianity. I first became aware of it on TV and then in movies as a teenager. And perhaps the visibility in Western TV programmes led to its perception as a Western import. However in the last two decades there has been a shift in attitudes towards ‘overt’ sexual expression, especially among middle class couples. They hold hands and some couples dare even to kiss in public! But this overt expression is not without resistance. A new Luganda word has been coined for this new public display of love – okujanjawaza – which has connotations of irritating exhibitionism. I suspect that when heterosexuality started to kujanjawaza itself, gay sexuality became bold and surfaced. The public was outraged.
When I was reading the first part of the novel, in particular, I was really struck by how well you write about sex, which I mean as a very serious compliment. It’s hard to write about sex! So often it either gets fetishized into a kind of empty titillation, or it becomes something that’s just ethnography, where sex is so meaningful that it stops being sexy. But Baale’s sexual education is both a fascinating story, and makes me remember when I was young, and sex was an exciting mystery, but also frightening, scary. There’s something about the way the novel walks that line, opening the door without going all the way in, that preserves the mystery along with the reality.
Thank you; that is a relief. I was worried about writing sex. I have read sex scenes in novels and walked away thinking that sex must be an individual thing, or it is cultural because I did not relate to what I read. I wrote about sex in order to document the changes in attitudes towards it. It was important that sex came across as just another aspect of life. It is true that the Ganda took sex education very serious but this tradition has been overtaken by modernity and now the TV, literature, music and pornography have taken over. There is currently a scramble in Uganda to hold sex education programmes on radio in the night to talk to couples and the youth which I feel is fantastic. I thought that I could add my voice to it. But at the same time, because of the polygamous family structures, African sexuality has been misrepresented and misunderstood in the West. In fact, the so called African hyper-sexuality, is still a fascination for the West. I have across people in Britain who believed that African men held orgies with their multiple wives. This was quite disturbing for me having grown up seeing polygamous families.
What are you working on now? After a saga like this one, what do you do for a second novel?
I am working on two projects: a book of short stories about immigration and my second novel. I am not going to attempt to write anything similar to Kintu. I wrote Kintu as a masculinist novel, though a few readers in Africa seem to disagree with me. The novel I am working on is feminist. But I doubt that I can ever write a novel like Kintu again whether in form or subject matter. What the two novels have in common is the use of oral traditions.
That’s interesting to hear you call it a “masculinist” novel, though I think I know what you mean. But I’m curious about the debate you’re alluding to; what has the response been?
I call it a masculinist novel because Kintu is majorly written from a male point of view. Five out of the six major characters are men, and the major female character is passive: things happen to her, and she cannot wait to have her identity to be overwritten by a husband’s. Her resistance is minimal, not dying during the day and not belonging to the clan. Only three female character resist the patriarchy but even their resistance is ‘safe’. It does not disrupt the order. None of the female characters says, ‘right, things are not right to women and I am going to put them right.’ Meanwhile, the men do things: whether good or bad is immaterial to me. The first book of the novel is very sympathetic to men: it shows that men are to a certain extent also trapped by the patriarchy. Miisi is an admirable character and in my view the most evil character is a woman.
I am consciously feminist, and my first impulse is to foreground women and their experiences. The only aspect that is feminist that I did was to make Kintu, the adamic figure, responsible for the curse rather than his wife as it is in the Ganda and biblical creationist myths. I also resurrected two historic women from being written out of Ganda history. However Tom Odhiambo seems to think otherwise.
[In his review for the Kenyan Daily Nation, Tom Odhiambo speculates that “feminists will find a story to re-tell and celebrate in Kintu” because “it is women who end up as redeemers of the clan, and the future of the lineage.” He speculates that “some men won’t like this kind of ending at all. They will ask: why present so many men as violent, mad and killers; and why kill many of the men in the story? They will wonder if this is another story laden with a feminist agenda to sort out the supposed longstanding gender inequality.”]
If I wanted to make the novel feminist, the men would not just drop dead, they would be eliminated by the women. I do not write passive women and then call them feminist. The women would make a conscious move against the patriarchy, they would want to take over the clan. Men dying is not an issue for me; living passively is. Being active while you are alive, determining your destiny and changing the world that is living. All the elders that die have ‘achieved’ their role. And I feel that we need to move away from bad men + good women = feminist novel. My favourite women, the queen mothers, the princess Nnassolo, Kulata, Kusi and Faisi are not necessarily good people. In fact, women in Kintu actually do not flinch from murder people. As for women ending up as redeemers of the clan, women have always been the custodians of clans, lineages and the culture that oppresses them by protecting the status quo. When Nnassolo overthrows her brother, she does not take the crown, she installs her brother! There are lots of younger men in the clan to step into the elders’ shoes. The women like Kusi are going to bring up the boys and prepare them to take over the clan. Actually, I expected feminists in Africa to be livid about this but it is men complaining – unbelievable!
Does a novel about men have to be “masculinist,” though, as opposed to feminist? Are the two mutually exclusive? Chinua Achebe’s novels are certainly masculinist, but the way he takes apart the patriarchy—in the deaths of Okonkwo, or Ezeulu—you could certainly something of a feminist agenda. But I guess the more interesting question to me, then, is why you wanted to tell a “masculinist” story? You certainly don’t need to defend that choice to me, but given that you are a feminist, why did you want to write such a male-centered story?
The novel is masculinist because it is told largely from a male point of view. This was unavoidable. I think I said this because in my mind it should have been written from a feminist point of view. It is as if I wrote against myself. But the novel is about a Kintu, the first man on earth. Kintu is the “adamic” figure in Buganda. All humans come from him. The novel was was a nod towards the Ganda creationist myth. The first king of Buganda was also Kintu, so the title suggests a beginning and this is steeped in the patriarchy. I also feel that what women are, the way we behave is an artefact of the patriarchy. I felt that I should explore the masculinities that created the artifact first in order to take on women as an artifact later. It was also important for me to put it out there that masculinities are to a certain extent also entangled in their “privilege”. So Kanani wants to eat good food but can’t cook it himself because the patriarchy would not allow it. By setting this up, I feel that it will be easy to discuss femininity in my second novel. This will make so much sense when my second novel is published.
Would you tell me more about the book of short stories about immigrants? Will it be set in England? Or more broadly?
The book of short stories will be largely set in Manchester, UK but with characters nipping down to Uganda occasionally. Most of them, at least at the moment are in transit, always leaving or arriving. It focuses mainly on the experiences of Ugandan women in Britain, especially in matters of family relationships, marriage, children and earning. Look at “Let’s Tell This Story Properly,” that is what my short stories are like.
I have! It’s a marvellous story. But I wonder about calling it an “immigrant” story. For example, that story really highlights how a Ugandan woman in Britain is almost more Ugandan as a result. In lines like “In Britain grief is private – you know how women throw themselves about howling this, screaming that back home?” (or “Leaving the hospital was the hardest. You know when you get those two namasasana bananas joined together by the skin and you rip them apart and eat one? That is how Nnam felt”), there’s an interesting way that being in Great Britain really clarifies the things that “you” know about what it’s like in Uganda. And the “you” being addressed must be a very Ugandan “you,” since that person knows about grief and bananas.
I never thought about the consciousness in the story or the ‘you’ as Ugandan. I just wrote. But it is absolutely true that Nnam is terribly Ugandan. And you are absolutely right that Britain has made her very Ugandan. This is because out here you are Ugandan. At home you are just human. Looking at myself, I go home and despair at how westernized Ugandans are. Having said that this is an immigration story because the main characters are immigrants and the story start in Britain goes to Uganda and returns to Britain. And of course the writer is an immigrant. I guess I write with a Ugandan mind. You are convincing in the way you unpick consciousness and aspects of audience, Aaron, but I will still call it an immigration story in view of the charaters’ experiences and place.
About that short story, though, I wonder: one unsettling question I had, at the end, was how to feel about Nnam’s victory over the other wife. In first reading it, you feel 100% sympathetic to Nnam, and when she “wins” the vigil, you feel almost exhilarated. But then I started feeling a bit uncomfortable; the hints of class—the way they call the other wife a “peasant”—and the fact that only her son can be a heir, because only sons can be heirs, left me feeling less certain that her way of telling the story is the “correct” one. Even Nnam has a moment where she’s recalling “how people used to say that we Ganda women are property-minded” and there’s a kind of… self-scrutiny in that.
Oh yeah! Firstly, Nnam does not win at all. The patriarchy, in form of Nnam’s own father, steps in and order is restored. The other family stays in her house: Kayita wins. That is where all her anger comes from. Note that she sends her children back for the last funeral rites without going herself. Her son is heir but he is inheriting the responsibility of the other family. Can he throw them out of the house? Class too is supposed to be disturbing. Nnam is supposed to be class unconscious for she marries ‘beneath’ her class. Nnam hates her father’s snobbery but in moments of great distress, her own prejudices surface and she celebrates the sexism. The ‘correct’ story supposes that there is a wrong story being told, the one where Kayita’s father knows of ‘a woman’ living illicitly with his son, of Nnam as mistress rather than as a wife, of a husband who dies alone in the cold, the gang of women decides to correct this story.