Still being talked about in literary circles after bagging £5,000 (about sh20m) for winning a literary contest a few months ago, Jennifer Makumbi, shares her passion for the literary world
Still being talked about in literary circles after bagging £5,000 (about sh20m) for winning a literary contest a few months ago, Jennifer Makumbi, shares her passion for the literary world with Richard Wetaya.
As I was returning from Mbale on Sunday, June 22, I was caught up by the arts hour show on the BBC. The host announced that she would be hosting Jennifer Makumbi, an award winning Ugandan novelist and short story writer.
Born and bred in Uganda, but now living and working in England, Makumbi, an associate creative writing lecturer at Lancaster University in the UK, had just won the 2014 Commonwealth short story contest, for her short narrative entitled Let’s Tell This Story Properly. Makumbi was pitted against over 4,000 other authors from the five Commonwealth regions, bagging £5,000 (about sh20m).
Her writing journey
Makumbi started writing at age 15 in her secondary school days, first at Trinity College Nabingo, where she wrote, directed and produced a play that came third in an inter-house competition. She later joined Kings College Budo.
“I first wrote when I was pretty young, but I did not start to write consistently until 2001. My grandfather, Elieza Makumbi, taught me how to tell stories orally. I have so far written three plays, one novel and published three short stories. I am about to publish a fourth short story,” Makumbi says.
After Budo, she joined the Islamic University in Uganda and qualified with a Bachelors of Arts degree, majoring in English and Literature. In 2001, she joined Manchester Metropolitan University for a master’s in creative writing. In 2012, she completed her PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University.
trueMakumbi after autographing copies of Kintu for her fans in Uganda recently
Telling entertaining stories that rely heavily on Kiganda oral traditions and legends is Makumbi’s stock in trade.
“I love telling stories but I also have strong views about life and I have no other platform to share them. Story telling is where people like me attempt to entertain people but sneak ideas,questions, suggestions and views into the tale without seeking to preach.
Part of my motivation is the desire to tell the stories from Uganda and from my immigration experience the way I know them. Oral traditions are the history and reference for my literary creativity,” Makumbi says.
“I try to know my characters intimately. I try to spend time with them to such an extent that sometimes I even see them beyond the novel. For example, in my mind, Kusi (Miisi’s daughter) in Kintu gets pregnant a year or two later, after the story has ended, for that is what her father once wished for. While writing I try to see, feel, smell, touch and taste the aspects of the story, as if I am right there in the story, as if I am the character,” Makumbi says.
Though Makumbi’s writing star has been rising, she reveals she has struggled to fight off an inconvenient disorder.
“I have mild amnesia.
It is part of a larger problem but it is the amnesia that is most irritating because I forget names, faces; I forget what I am about to do; I forget promises; and sometimes it is so bad that I forget what I am about to say and hesitate, or take long to answer questions.
Sometimes I walk past people I have met and they think I am being haughty. It is terrible when I forget what I promised to do or what I said because I just come across as a liar.
Normally, I ask people I have made promises to, to remind me in an email. The worst is when I stop mid-sentence as I am teaching because I have forgotten the next word. This leads to apologising that the word I was about to say has gone, which is terrible for oral interviews. Normally students, because I warn them in the first class, are very sympathetic,” Makumbi says.
“I am confident enough to confess that I am ignorant when I am. I will take back my words if they are indefensible, I will confess that I am a bag of contradictions when I contradict myself; I will say this today because that is what I think now, but tomorrow I say the other because that is what I think then. I also will confess that I am insecure when my insecurities strike as they sometimes do,” Makumbi adds.
For Makumbi, it has also been hard to dispense of one sad memory about her late dad.
“The first challenge was to come to terms with the fact that my father had lost his mind. I lost him at a point in my childhood when I still thought he was super dad. It is hard at that age to change the mindset. Mostly as a teenager you start to see weaknesses in your parents and you accept and love them as flawed beings.
I never had that chance. It took me a long time to accept that that handsome, clever, kind, basically perfect person was gone. As a teenager I did not want friends to know about him. So I never mentioned him even though I still loved him deeply,” Makumbi says.
Makumbi’s father, a banker then, was arrested and tortured during Idi Amin’s regime. Though he survived, the torment gravely affected him mentally, to the extent of losing his job.
Makumbi was born to the late Anthony Kizito Makumbi and Evelyn Nakalembe. Her parents separated when she was only two years old. For two years Makumbi stayed with her grandfather, the late Elieza Makumbi.
“My father, the few years I spent with him, made me read abridged forms of the English canon. He believed in Western literature. He used to tell me that I was smart, that if I put my mind to it, I could do anything. He would show my reports to his friends which made me work harder so that I did not embarrass him.
Even when his mind was gone, he would ask whether I was doing literature at university, whether I had mastered Shakespeare’s sonnets, tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies. He was instrumental in nurturing me as a writer and I am so lucky to have known him,” says Makumbi.
The wife, mother
Makumbi lives in Manchester with her husband, Damian Morris, a British man of Jamaican origin, and her son, Jordan Kiggundu Bamundaga.
On how she balances her roles as a mother and lecturer, Makumbi says: “I don’t look at myself as performing all those roles. I doubt that anyone does, really. I guess those roles merge into each other or overlap as the day goes on.
I have a diary. I write down what needs to be done for the day but it is not compartmentalized into what I’ll do today as wife, as mother, as this or that. I am just me,” Makumbi says.
“I don’t have a typical day really. Sometimes I get up in the morning, sit on the computer and then look up later and ask where the day has gone. Sometimes I wake up and go straight to the pool and do things according to plan.
Sometimes I don’t get to do much, just dawdling about. I then apologise to my son and my partner when they come home because I have been in the house all day, yet I have done nothing.
A good day is when I keep to the plan in the diary or do much more than I had anticipated,” Makumbi says.
Life away from work
“I love eating out. We go out to restaurants a lot with my family. I love Chinese food. Me and Damian love going to the movies. I watch most of the movies that come out when I have the time because there is a sense of story in a film.
I spend a lot of time swimming because I cannot do any other forms of exercise. I also spend time in the sauna, jacuzzi and steam room.
These are my me-time and they help me de-stress and are helpful with my health issues, especially in winter.
Sometimes my husband takes me to big shows and to the theatre,” Makumbi says.
Nostalgic about home
“I am proud of my culture despite all its imperfections. I am proud of the food and how we prepare it traditionally, the music and dance, the traditional architecture, our dress and, of course, our oral traditions.
Perhaps this has something to do with being away from my home country; you start to appreciate and long for things you once took for granted,” Makumbi says.
On Uganda's reading culture
I think this is a misconception.
Ugandans read but not necessarily Ugandan fiction.”
The consumption of newspapers and non-fiction is very high. In my view, the question is, how do we get these same readers to read and enjoy Ugandan fiction and how do we sustain their interest in local writing?” Makumbi says.
In this, she has a word for upcoming writers.
“My advice to Ugandan writers is firstly to enjoy the writing process of their stories.
Chances are that the readers will enjoy them too. Write about things that are relevant to Ugandans. Be bold, say things that people only say in their houses or in their hearts.
Say these things interestingly.
Do not preach: Ugandans get a lot of preaching in churches.
They come to the novel to seek suggestions.
Share your drafts with other writers. Listen when they say something is not working.
For me things like becoming a household name are for musicians and film stars. There are a few author celebrities like Chimamanda Adichie and Ben Okri, but that does not come to all authors,” Makumbi points out.
Inevitably, with the attention of the media, Makumbi has not escaped the scrutiny of critics and cynics.
“I have only had a few reviews of my novel, Kintu.
Thankfully so far, most of them have been positive.
One review by Tom Odhiambo of Kenya’s Daily Nation was largely positive but what he highlighted as the weaknesses of the novel, namely the presentation of masculinities, took me by surprise and I thought, ‘hm, I could not have seen that coming!’
All along, I had expected feminists to pick on the presentation of women, after all the most evil character, Kulata, is a woman. I did not expect a man to complain about the presentation of men in a novel where the point of view is majorly from a male perspective and there was no attempt to shake the status quo of the patriarchy.
However, I walked away with respect for his way of reading the novel: I had learnt something about the way people read.
There was, however, a peculiar article by New Vision’s Kalungi Kabuye. He seemed pretty angry at what he saw as me coming from Britain and proclaiming myself the literary messiah.
It was a very distressing experience.
To his credit, Kabuye did not pretend to review the novel.
He confessed that he had neither read it, nor met me.
Nonetheless, the experience taught me something about the media,” Makumbi notes.
Makumbi lives, breathes writing