On winning the Windham-Campbell Prize: An Interview with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The first time I met Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, I spent a copious amount of time telling myself to keep my cool, and not betray by nervousness in the presence of celebrity. I had read Kintu in my adolescence, and was struck by Jennifer’s ability to so wonderfully paint a community, an ability I had barely encountered elsewhere. However, I need not have worried, as Jennifer Makumbi possesses that rare gift to make one feel like they are in the presence of a dear friend they had forgotten, but have now met again. And so, as we walked down the streets of Nairobi, talking about my own writing and about the community we were, and still are, building at Enkare Review, I felt, for a brief moment, like Kintu Kidda at the beginning of his walk across o Lwera to the capital.

On 7th March 2018, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the author of Kintu, was announced as one of the eight winners of the 2018 Windham-Campbell Prize. Here, I talk to her about what winning the prize means to her, and to her writing.

INTERVIEWER

First off, a word of congratulations to you for winning the Windham-Campbell Prize. Does winning the prize change your identity as a writer? Are you now Jennifer Makumbi, Windham-Campbell winner, rather than Jennifer Makumbi, writer of Kintu? And does that distinction matter?

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI 

No, hilarious! Winning a prize does not change my identity at all. Not even the publication of Kintu changed my identity. I am Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi author, or African author or African woman author. Remember, Carey, I won the Kwani? Manuscript Prize first and that is still dear to me, but it does not define me even though it was an African Prize. Neither does the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Thus, the Windham-Campbell will not. First, you’ve got to realise that an author does not write to win prizes the way sportspeople win medals. We set out on a journey to write books, but on the way someone applauds, someone says we like what you do, or gives us something to help with the journey. For me, that is what prizes do, they ease the journey but they don’t define us, it is journalists and readers who define us according to prizes.

INTERVIEWER

Immediately after the news of your win filtered through, the BBC did a profile of you where they described you as “A Manchester-based author whose debut novel was initially rejected by British publishers.” While this statement is factually incorrect (seeing as it was published by a Kenyan publisher before being offered to publishers elsewhere), why this sudden need by the Western publishing world to claim you as “Manchester-based” and “British-publisher-reject”?

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

This is the fact of writing a news for a specific audience. It must get those markers which will interest British readers to click on it, especially when it is run on a website. Perhaps this explains why journalists use awards to describe authors and other artists. They are click baits. The equivalent of eye candy to compete with the other stories. As long as it is not factually wrong. I am Manchester-based and even after winning both the Kwani? and Commonwealth prizes, the British rejected Kintu. The sequence of the events doesn’t matter. I imagine that is how journalism works online.

INTERVIEWER

Kintu was first written as a thesis for your Ph.D. in creative writing. You have spoken about the struggles you faced in academia, especially with how African novels were read in the West. And then, of course, having to transfer to another university because of your refusal to “write a thesis which parroted Western views of African audiences.” With all this in mind, what does it mean that Kintu, which is now being lauded with an award from a Western institution, was written in this background of hostile academia?

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

Let’s say, Carey, that it is immensely satisfying. I can’t deny the sense of vindication now that Kintu has received such good reviews in major British papers and then the prizes. In fact, now I feel a bit smug talking about that experience so, I have dropped it unless someone asks. My argument had been that I write for African readers, so I know what I am doing. But, with the reviews I think, actually, readers everywhere don’t mind it.

INTERVIEWER

Last year, when Kintu was published in the US, Ellah Allfrey protested the decision to have a white male American write the introduction for a book that a black female African had written, a book that had already been published three years prior. But in retrospect, seeing that you have been awarded an important award less than a year after this introduction was written, can we say that the decision to have the introduction paid off?

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

Truthfully, I doubt that the introduction contributed to the award. I would like to think that it was just the novel and only the novel’s merits. Judges of an award tend to be very skilled readers, writers, critics and sometimes lecturers.  The introduction was meant for American readers who would not pick up an African novel ordinarily. Americans, because their country is huge, rarely look outside their world.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spoken of your introduction to literature, and how because your father was obsessed with D. H. Lawrence, Shakespeare, and other Western writers, you grew up reading mostly Western canon. Yet here we are, with Kintu being heralded as the great Ugandan novel, the novel that was deemed too African to be published in the West. So, in the end, does it really matter what our formative reading is? Can’t one forge a different writing ability from one’s beginnings?

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

You forget that it was Ganda folk stories and other forms of oral traditions that first informed my storytelling. My father was of that ilk — his influence cannot be denied — but I also consumed a lot of African novels when I was growing up. Recently, I picked up God’s Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane and realised the way Kintu imitates its structure. I taught that book for a long time and it was once my favourite novel and I thought, here is an influence I had not realised.

Thus, no, it does not matter what you grew up reading. What matters is that you grew up reading and telling and listening to stories. You can forge any kind of writing from any background. Problems arise only if you don’t read at all. In fact, I talked about my father to show how colonial his reading list was. I was keen to show that my grandfather balanced it out with oral traditions. I’ll always be curious, now that he’s not with us anymore, what he would have made of Kintu since it strived to be so African.

INTERVIEWER

You are releasing a short story collection next year. You are also working on a second novel, The Woman was Fish. Tell us a little about these two projects.

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

The short stories are written with Let’s Tell This Story Properly in mind. They are about Ugandans in Manchester. They rotate around relationships within the family – basically how Ugandan family relationships morph, get stretched and sometimes die once you come to Britain. They are written in a kind of novel form. They have a prologue, they go back to the 1950s to show how Ugandans related to Britain then, before coming to the present. The book is divided into two parts: arrivals and returns.

My second novel (its title changes every day) is now called The Women. I am sure tomorrow it will be something else. Can you believe I first completed that novel in 2003? When it was rejected, I started Kintu and when that got published in 2014, I went back to this novel and finished it in 2016. But then my American publisher, Transit Books, heard about the short stories first, which I had started writing, and bought them. By that time, it had become clear that Kwani?, which had begun restructuring, was not in a position to publish my second novel, so everyone agreed that I put out the short stories after Kintu, then the second novel.

I swear I started that novel back in 1998, wrote it in two weeks, and after reading it through, I threw it away because it was utter drivel. I came back to it in 2001 and finished it in 2003 for my MA. My supervisor told me that British publishers would fall over themselves bidding for it. Wapi! Let me laugh. Poor thing, twenty years later, it’s still lying on my computer while newer books get published, tsk.

It is about a girl looking for her mother who abandoned her.


Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan novelist and short story writer living in Manchester. She has a PhD from Lancaster University. Jennifer has taught Creative Writing and English for ten years in British Universities, though at the moment she is concentrating on writing. Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013. It was published in 2014 by Kwani?, Transit (USA) 2017, Oneworld (UK/Commonwealth) Jan 2018. Jennifer’s short story, Let’s Tell This Story Properly won the regional (Africa) and overall Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014. Her collection of short stories, Love Made In Manchester will be published by Transit (USA) in January 2019. In 2015 she won an Arts Council Grant to research her second novel, The Women. Jennifer is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize 2018.  She has started working on a new novel.

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