Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, our first guest on this section of our forums, is a Ugandan novelist, short story writer and has a PhD from Lancaster University. Woot woot!
Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2013 and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. She was awarded the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story Lets Tell This Story Properly. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was awarded the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction 2018 to support her writing.
Her first full story collection, Manchester Happened/Let’s Tell This Story Properly (US), was released recently and she is on a crazy tour schedule to promote the book. We are happy to host her here for the online leg of her tour on Friday 7th June 2019, 12 NOON GMT +3 so as to give more readers that might not be able to interact with her at the physical locations a chance to engage her.
Procedure for participation is simple:
Makumbi will enter the conversation at 12 noon EAT and exit after 2 hours/when we run out of questions/when she is tired, whichever comes first. But you can leave your question before the session starts and she will answer when the session starts.
Would you advise one to do self publishing?
Thanks for your question. About self publication I cannot tell you whether to do it or not what I can do is tell how it works.
The thing about it is you put in your own money all the way and when the book is done, you market it yourself. But what that means is that all the money you make is yours; you don’t have to pay anyone.
However, your writing does not go through the wringer. So for me before I send work off to my agent, I send it to a personal editor who I pay and they edit and tell me what is working and what is not. This is quite expensive. Then I send it to the agent who again looks at it and tells me what works and what does not. Then it goes to the publisher. When they accept it, they edit it too. Then the major editor and these are done a few time, the copy editor, then the proofreader. By the time the book comes out it has been checked and questioned. This does not mean that mistakes are not made, but they are brought down to a minimum. This is what I mean by going through the wringer. When you self publish, this process is not as rigorous.
I have a good collection of poems that could use a publisher. Poetry is not very much appreciated, in my opinion, in African literary publishing yet it is a form of communication and expression of ideas and thoughts.
Any leads on how to go about this?
Thank you for your question.
Unfortunately, your observation is spot on. Poetry publication is very small. I wonder whether this is because poetry by nature is more performative than read. Very few people buy poetry books. Because of this, publishers, who are business enterprises, rarely invest in then. This is true even here in Britain. However, there are still a few publishers out there who are persisting. You need to do your research very well, you need to get in touch with fellow poets. So for you, Nick Makhoha would be very useful. But also put yourself out there, whenever there is a performance make sure you are there, put out your work, and submit to competitions, it does not matter how much you are rejected just keep editing make better, experiment, write and read a lot of poetry books from around the world. It is the people who persist, who believe in themselves, and who have this stubborn belief in their work that make it to the top. I know someone who was looking for African poets and I passed on a few Uganda names but he was picky – you really have to be very good and different from what is out there.
Despite literature being what it is, a lot of African writers are frowned upon especially when they tackle/address controversial topics like sexuality in Africa. As an emerging writer, I have faced a few challenges as for some of the pieces I have written on my blog, some people think are too revealing. and I have received comments like, ‘you must be brave if you wrote about that.’ ‘Doesn’t it make you shy?’ ‘It’s is unbelievable to believe that someone who boldly writes about such and such a topic could even believe in God’ etcetera. Yet, the literature is good, these topics should be addressed, but everyone is afraid of being associated with particular stories. Especially in Uganda, where being controversial at some times, can be life-threatening. How do we comfortably share our work with editors without feeling too controversial? Or like our morality is under intense scrutiny? This is for even cases where a just creates a character who puts across exactly what they would love to say. Please; I’m interested in hearing your take on this. Cheers!
This is the moment you are going to make up your mind who are your audience/readers. Also, what is your intention for writing? If you are speaking to a few friends and relatives whose opinion and love you value then writing this sort of thing is not for you. If you are writing to get respect and admiration, those subjects are not for you. But if you are reaching out to the wider audience, national and international, if these issues you wish to address are close to your heart, if you feel they must be addressed, then get serious and stop listening to provincial minds. The problem here is not the people who ‘talk’, the problem is your confidence and your urgency to talk about these issues. All authors get this sort of reception but we brush it off, (I revel in it, actually) because our audiences are wider than our circle of friends. Now if an editor or publisher is also of that ilk – run. You writing is not going to get far with them. You are not going to change minds by complaining about reactions to you, you are going to change minds by writing beautifully, powerfully, with knowledge and conviction. Good luck to you.
Congratulations on both your works, which have done so well. I hope they’ll continue penetrating every corner of the earth until the world stands in awe of this Ugandan literary giant :-). I’m looking to add both Kintu and Manchester Happened to the pile of books I have gathered, which I’m knocking down one by one — yes, I haven’t read your works — not because I don’t want to, but because of the aforementioned pile of books, and just because I haven’t stumbled on them yet because of the nature of my life, but I’m itching to do a double swoop on them!
That said, what makes it easier for African writers in the diaspora to write and shine more than the ones on the continent (and this is not to say African writers haven’t shone bright right here at home … Binyavanga did all his writing here). It just seems that a lot of Africans who get shortlisted for or win big prizes are either in the US or in the UK. I have a rough idea, but would like to hear from you, as I don’t think I’m informed enough.
Secondly, and this can be picked up by anyone else on the forum: What is the plight of drama? No publisher wants to publish drama, unless it’s commissioned as a school literature set book. In the end, kids in schools are stuck with colonial and (immediate) post-colonial drama. What happens to the future of this literary genre? Also, it seems that in Uganda, if one must write a play, they have to write it for the expat of mzungu audience because Ugandans just don’t have a pay-to-enter theatre culture, even though theatre is a part of every African culture. How do you reconcile the challenge of writing for your people (Ugandans in this case) while catering for the needs of those who pay?
Thanks for your interest.
It is true that more Africans in the diaspora tend to get published out here. This is because of the facilities out here.
1. There are so many universities doing creative Writing courses at all sorts of academic levels. This includes understanding the publishing industry. Hardly any universities in Africa (apart from one in S. Africa) do this and this gives us out here an advantage. I’ve read somewhere that Binyavanga too did a creative writing course out here. When you write to an agent and say I did a writing course somewhere it counts.
2. The number of libraries and writing space is immense and there is a lot of encouragement. People on the continent have this in limited numbers and there is a lot of pulling from family and issues. Over here even though we are often very poor, we can lock all the ‘noise’ which pull you away from focusing, but not at home where if someone dies, someone is unwell, contribute to this weeding and all those things that make us busy on the continent.
3. There are more publishers and lately there has been complaints that they are not publishing enough black people. So there is a push to get more black writers out there and African are included in that.
4. There are a lot of prizes out here but Publishers pay a lot of money to submit to them. If you are a small publisher African you cannot afford that is why a book is shortlisted and you think but I think this book is better but it is because one book was not submitted to the competition because of money.
5. Also, when it comes to promotion, if you are based on the continent, publishers are not going to spend so much money to fly you here, put you in a hotel, feed you and then take you to venues to promote it. Binyavanga was a crowd puller, they could afford to bring him because they would sell tickets expensively. So, it helps if you live here. My books have not done well in the USA and that is largely because I am based in Britain and I am not there to promote them. I have been advised to relocate to America because it is a larger market.
I am not sure about plays but I suspect that because plays belong on stage and their audience is immediate, they are rarely published. The public does not buy scripts to read for pleasure: only schools do that, for teaching. This, I think, could be why publishers don’t put their money into it.
Anyone else who is informed can join help us here. Hope this is helpful
Hope that is helpful
Family obligations, the black tax and an environment that does not exactly encourage literature. And I don’t think African writers know about book agents and all. It is generally easier to get your book published if you have an education in Creative Writing. I don’t know how true this is, but I have heard that the universities have strong connections to publishing houses or have publishing houses themselves.
I’m Zimbabwean.i have read one of your short stories online and got to like your writings. I have heard of your many writings online as well. How can I get your books in Zim as a hard copy fan
What does it really take to be your kind of writer? How are you so good with all your works?
Dear Ann Marie,
It took sheer craziness and selfishness on my part. The ability to take a plunge and risk all and then work as mad as if family is not screaming she is a failure. I gave up a career in Uganda, came to Britain without sponsorship, worked the most degrading jobs, locked my family’s needs out, and spent I1 years writing and being rejected but keeping going back to it until I got something out of it. I read like mad, I write like there is no tomorrow and I invest a lot of money in each book I write. Not everyone has to go through that. For some people they can make it the easy way – sponsorship and they have incredible talents, I have found it very difficult. I hope it is easier for you and you don’t have to go through all that. But I suggest that you get into the discipline of hard work.
Hi Jennifer. Welcome to the conversation. My first of many questions has to do with the most recent titles you have read and why those particular ones.
Maybe also related is your all-time favorite reads. What made them stand out?
1. I have read Lives of Great Men by Chike Frankie Edozien and was happy to find a very incisive record of an African upper-middle class, queer, local and international and all its upheavals. It is informative, incisive and an intervention into understanding Africa.
2. I have been catching up my Zukiswa Wanner reading, especially The Madams and Men of the South which are (again) focused on Middle class Africa and all its contradictions and shenanigans. Wanner is breath of fresh air as she, unlike me who goes on a little too heavy on issues, expects her readers to ‘get’ it without labouring the point.
3. Freshwater by Akweake Emezi I felt is an exciting expansion on the Ogbanje/Abiku phenomenon as a literary paradigm.
4. Season of the Shadow by Leonora Maino – Incredible historical fiction from Cameroon
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpel. Just excited about this rule-breaking tome. Nothing is sacred for Namwali.
6. The Hundred Wells of Salaga Ayesha Harruna Attah – Another historical novel this time out of Ghana.
7. Protection, Patronage or Plunder by Apollo N. Makubuya – this is (B)Uganda’s history in its most naked, outrageous and painful form. The way it was never taught in school. Makes me wish I was just starting out.
I am stopping now because I have piles and piles of books from last year I have not touched. I focus mainly on African writing to see what people are up to and what new tricks they have come up with. I do read other literatures but not as much. What I can tell you is that if you have access to books coming out of Africa, people are doing wonderful things: these are exciting times for lovers of African writing.
What I can tell you is that if you have access to books coming out of Africa, people are doing wonderful things: these are exciting times for lovers of African writing.
These are exciting times for lovers of African literature. Nnedi Okorafor and Dilman Dila’s Afrofuturism, Work by A. Igoni Barrett, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Pettinah Gappah, Panashe Chigumadzi, Zukwisa Wanner, Jennifer Makumbi and SOOOO many more. As a lover of African Literature, I am excited!
What I can tell you is that if you have access to books coming out of Africa, people are doing wonderful things: these are exciting times for lovers of African writing.
Word!! Can’t wait to get my hands on some of the titles you’ve listed. Thank you for the notes on each
Welcome to the very first In Conversation session. My first question would be, what does literary success look like to you?
What does literary success look like?
So far it is not worrying so much whether you’ll find a publisher for your new manuscript.
It is being invited to festivals/talks/conferences all year round.
It is globetrotting, hotel rooms and flights almost every week.
It is fear that it might be you next book which will sink you.
It is people expecting you to write another Kintu.
It is spending half the day responding to emails.
It is not knowing what to do with people who have known you for a long time suddenly treating you differently.
It is people in Uganda not knowing what to do with your lack of airs.
It is people expecting you to be rich.
It is rewarding, it has not ceased to surprise me, it is feeling appreciated and vindicated.
That and more is success to me, thank you.
My other question is non-writing related. Or is it? Anyway, how does Jennifer Makumbi spend her downtime? How do you recharge and rejuvenate?
Byagaba, what can I say? I need to slow down right now and recharge. Your question has just brought out all the fatigue.
Normally, I swim and do jacuzzi and steaming. I am not even doing that. I watch a lot of movies. I dine out with friends and family, theatre and other shows too. But my hubby is booking a holiday to Europe. Holidays in Uganda are not holiday at all. Sometimes I can turn on the music loudly and just dance alone in the house like mad: it is therapeutic. Sometimes I get to the computer with all the intention of working hard but end up doing nothing. When that happens I take a walk if I am in the city or if I am at home, I turn on the TV and stare.
Ha! I know all about that sitting at a computer and doing nothing. I don’t know if yours is like mine where it also has my entertainment as well as my work so when the brain blanks out, *cue movies. Anyway, we can’t be 100% all the time.
I hope you are well. Congratulations on the release of Manchester Happened.
My question is more like a proposition.
Would you be interested in making a TV series adaptation of Kintu?
Thanks for your preposition. Of course I am open to the serialisation of Kintu. But you have to contact my agent about this.
I am glad you are open to it. I’m still a student right now but I hope i get a chance to visualise it. Its the first story, out if the many books I have read, that reasonated with me to the prospect of visualisation. It seems impossible now, but i know that one day, it will be. One day.
Your books, Kintu and Manchester Happened, are very Ugandan in their nature, which is absolutely awesome. Did you, at one point, consider making the more, for lack of better word, palatable to the western market?
No Mable, I have never tried to make my books more palatable for Western Market. I think that by now, the fact that I write for a Ugandan audience is pretty established. Normally, it is editors and publishers who push your writing into a different direction because that is where they make most money but I am pretty stubborn and I know what I am doing and why I am doing it. I had some trouble with the collection but I put up a good fight and I was left alone. Of course this attitude does not endear me to publishers or editors but often in Britain, they understand my motivation. They are also finding out that serious readers love to discover, they feel patronized when we make things easy for them.
Hello Jennifer,kindly advice me on the easiest way to publish
Hi Martin Mandela,
Kindly, if there was an easy way to publish, we would all take it. I don’t know it. Perhaps self publication is easy. However look at my responses to Kafeero Herbaert about self publication.
What comes first, the plot or characters?
For me plot and character tend to come together. But perhaps the story is more pronounced than the character initially then it is the events that form the character.
With Kintu it was a man kills a boy and gets cursed. It was ‘a’ man at first, unformed, anonymous, but the story is there even though it is a ‘stick’ story. However once the idea germinates, I spend more time getting to know the character than the story. That way, when I start to write, the character tends to inform the story.
A question that I have received some interesting answers to, that I would love to ask you as well; do you believe in writer’s block?
No, for me blockage means there are ideas out there in my head and something is stopping them, standing in the way. Sounds frightening. Often when it happens to me either I have run out of ideas or I am exhausted and my body is saying stop, it my mind is no longer creative and I am not imaginative. But I can only speak for myself.
Do you have a favourite character that you have written? If so, who? And what makes them so special? My personal favourite from Manchester Happened is Stow.
Mable, Stow is very popular. That was once my favourite story.
However, recently, I am finding myself gravitating towards Nakazaana. I love Bweeza in Kintu. I get her inconsistencies. Then a character you’ll find in my next novel called Nsuuta. They are all grandmother types. I am beginning to questioning myself whether I have hang-ups in that direction.
Said too much!
Can you give us a teaser of your next book? (she asks while looking and biting her teeth)
First piece of yours I read was Let’s Tell This Story Properly. At the time I was writing a story for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I found out that it took you quite some time writing that wonderful story. Honestly, I felt a little disadvantaged because I’d written mine in just a month, haha.
My question is is it absolutely necessary to write a story over years? What would you say is the recommended time period between the start of writing a story and publishing it or stopping the writing?
You are hilarious!
I have never completed a story in one month. That does not mean other people will not. That is because the story takes a long time to reveal what it is doing beside what I intend it to. My quickest story is She is our Stupid. It took me six months. Longest is Malik’s Door my very first story, took me four years. But I was working on Kintu at the time. It took me a long while to get the structure of the short story right. I would suspect that after the first draft, give the story at least a month before you go back to it. You’ll read it differently. It will reveal things you had not seen before.
Wow. Thank you!
Going to pull these stories out and have another look at them.
Wait. Do you ever get impostor syndrome (feeling like a fluke) when you go back to read the story??
I do and often that feeling that I’m a fraud of sorts keeps me from looking at anything more than twice 😅.
If you have or do, how do you just remind yourself that this is something you were made to do?
What do you think makes someone qualified to be a writer, and then to teach writing. Who have been some of your best teachers for your writing, and what were there qualifications and if you have the time, any lessons you keep them from them. ( thank you for taking the time out to answer questions, its very generous and we appreciate it).
What qualifies someone to write?
There is a certain desire, forceful, to tell stories, to deal with certain issues. You love language, you paly with words, writing conventional sentences is boring, you have wild imagination, you are creative, dreamy, some people say you are weird or don’t understand you, but most of all you read like mad.
You must publish to teach Creative Writing. Studying it academically helps a great deal. Tragically, not all good writers are good teachers. My first lecturer, Michael Schmidt of Carcanet was fantastic, but so was Abbas Kiyimba (Prof) who taught me a course on African oral traditions, but the best way to learn about writing is to help those who are just starting out. I honed my writing skills through teaching it.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Jennifer, and answering all our questions. You have been awesome! Personally, I will be watching out for Kirabo.
It has been my pleasure, Mable.
Thanks for hosting me, Mable.
I have enjoyed it thoroughly.
I think this platform is a wonderful venture. Very useful to keep the dialogue between writer and reader open.
Good luck to you, Roland and anyone else you work with.
Hello Jennifer. Its Nakitto here 😀
How do you make time for writing? I also teach and just too much on my plate. My head thinks too much too.
Also do you ever ask yourself questions when writing like, who will even read this, is this worth it(my writing)_what will happen to it 20 or so years from now (when l am writing it), Will it still matter, will i be proud that I wrote???
Please come back and answer mine then leave. Please 😕😕
This is a demo online book shop for testing purposes — no orders shall be fulfilled. Dismiss