Weaving the Diaspora Experience: A Dialogue with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan fiction writer. Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2013. Her short story, ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’ won the regional (Africa) and Global Commonwealth Short story prize 2014.
Her collection of short stories, Manchester Happened (for the UK/Commonwealth) and Let’s Tell This Story Properly (for US Publication), came out in Spring 2019 and has been shortlisted for The Big Book prize: Harper’s Bazaar. She is a Cheuse International Writing Fellow (2019).
She has a PhD from Lancaster University and is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Jennifer is a recipient of the WindhamCampbell prize for Literature.
BY BARAKAT AKINSIKU
This conversation took place between the city of Lagos and Manchester via email.
Barakat: Thank you for joining me Jennifer. Your short story collection, Manchester Happened, is an engaging read. I still chuckle when I remember some of the scenes. I particularly liked the dose of humour and your usage of local Ugandan lingo. I have even picked up quite a few like kdto, ayii and matooki. I also have mental pictures of women ‘ariring’ during Masaaba’s circumcision in the last story of the collection, ‘Love Made in Manchester’. The engagement of the five senses and injections of local colour create an all-round African feel in the stories. Was this deliberate on your part?
Jennifer: Thank you Barakat. Yes, all of this is deliberate. Literature for me is a cultural product and often culturally specific. My books are products of a Ugandan culture and therefore come with a Ugandan way of being. That includes language, mannerism, ways of thinking, biases and all those things that make us Ugandan. You should hear the way we speak English. We speak it the way it suits us. And often we are unaware. Someone like me becomes aware after travelling and returning. It can be an informative experience.
And yes, I am big on the senses because that is how I experience the world – through sense and sensing.
Barakat: I certainly would love to hear it because I had a very distinct accent pictured in my head. Indeed, you captured the Ugandan way of life superbly. In the first story, ‘Christmas is Coming’ we meet Luzinda a thirteen-year-old whose birthday heralds the arrival of Christmas and the unpleasant scenario it brings with it. The complexities of his emotions and his desire to return home to Uganda with his parents are well conveyed. We find in him a self-aware teenager trying hard to fix all that was wrong with his family. What was the intention behind this story?
Jennifer: ‘Christmas is Coming’ is a hardworking story. It works as a prologue where you meet most of the characters in the story and the kind of community Ugandans have recreated in Manchester or away from home. Christmas is a family affair in Uganda and in the absence of our family structures (what they call extended family in the West) Ugandans have created new ones.
The whole collection is about family structure and relationships and how movement from Uganda to Manchester not only fractures but often recreates this structure. In the story, the nuclear structure of family has fractured because of migration, especially in the absence of the wider family. Luzinda, in his mind, has taken on the role of protector of his family and he wants to restore the family by returning it to Uganda. Also, he and his brother work hard not only to protect Dad but Mum too.
Barakat: Yes, I observed all that. And the snippets of adult conversation at the Christmas party in the story are amusing and almost read like what you would find in any African gathering in the diaspora. Perhaps, this is what makes the book fascinating ─the fact that the experiences of Ugandans as a subset of Africans in the diaspora can be translated to that of the whole. The comparisons on parenting, discussion of politics back home and the conversation about the importance of ensuring children spoke the local languages are all well-grounded. When you write, do you draw inspiration from scenarios around you?
Jennifer: Yes, largely, I draw from what I see, hear in rumours, the fear we hold in the diaspora, I draw from my experiences but mostly I do research. These are the places I find ideas but the development of these ideas into stories that you read, relies heavily on imagination and creativity. The last story is wholly imagined. I wanted to look at the character of Heather in ‘Our Allies the Colonies’ from the 1950s and see what she would be in 2018. There is a ‘sense of time passing’ and what has happened to Manchester as a place Africans come to. How has it received Africans throughout time? These notions come from people who were there early telling us that things have improved, ‘You people have seen nothing: England was rough for us in them days.’ I rely on imagination to recreate that time.
“Literature for me is a cultural product and often culturally specific. My books are products of a Ugandan culture and therefore come with a Ugandan way of being. That includes language, mannerism, ways of thinking, biases and all those things that make us Ugandan. “
Barakat: Indeed, there is a stark contrast between Heather’s acceptance of her African partner in ‘Our Allies the Colonies’ and that of Kayla in ‘Love made in Manchester’ which shows an improvement in the acceptance of Africans and inter- racial marriages over the years.
The next story in the collection, ‘Memoirs of a Namaaso’ reminds me of the movie, ‘The Secret Life of Pets’. I’ve always found it interesting viewing the antics of humans from the perspective of pets, aliens, or otherworldly beings. It was clever writing the diaspora experience from the point of view of a stray dog. Was it surprising that the culture shock experienced by Stow upon arrival in Manchester was almost like that experienced by Abbey in ‘Our Allies the Colonies’?
Jennifer: Culture shock is one of the major themes, but it is mostly heightened in ‘Manchester Happened’, in Katassi’s experience. With Stow, I was having fun. It is a story written without the weight of politics of race or developed/developing nations. When I first arrived in Manchester and saw how the British treated their dogs, I thought about the street dogs in Uganda and how they would react if they came to Britain. Unfortunately, Stow could not call herself a street dog: could she? I was not surprised that most Africans on the continent enjoyed it most.
Barakat: That is true. Regarding Katassi, it was a bit tragic watching her relationship with her sister break down. Do you think it was a difference in cultural experience that was responsible for her entitled behaviour or that she was just an epitome of a generation that believed everything should be handed down to them?
Jennifer: It was the difference between what she had expected Britain to be and what Britain was. It was facing racism for the first time. And she is a teenager with raging hormones. All this is a perfect storm in the absence of family structures. She had no parameters, there was no one with experiences to draw from. To me she was a girl who had a meltdown. But her sister is not so forgiving either. She did not know how to act or react.
Barakat: Yes, Nnambassa could have handled things in a much better way being the older sibling. Let’s look at another story, ‘The Nod’ where you raise the question of blackness and the perceived differences between blacks of different origins viz African, Caribbean, and African American. This conundrum was also alluded to in the story ‘Christmas is Coming’ where we find one of Luzinda’s classmates beaten up for referring to a Caribbean kid as African. In your opinion, what does it mean to be truly black by way of identity?
Jennifer: In my opinion, the idea of ‘truly black’ does not arise. It is a dangerous notion, which plays into ideas of purity. These ideas are bandied about within blackness without being aware of their toxicity. On the other side of that coin is colourism, which has led to rampant skin bleaching. Having said that, the idea of African blackness where it is seen as bush, savage, undesirable, frightening, dumb, ugly is something I wanted to address and you find it in many stories because this has been my experience in Britain until recently. I think Achilles Mbembe addressed this effectively in On Postcolony but I don’t have it here to quote him.
Barakat: Like you rightly mentioned, colourism is a huge problem in Africa and the continent is currently one of the largest markets for skin bleaching products. What do you think fueled this negative self-image among Africans, and should there really be a distinction between Blacks of different origins?
Jennifer: Culturally, we are different but whenever we confront our common enemy, which is racism, these differences disappear. When I write as a black person in Britain, my writing would not be different for the Black Caribbean experience. But when I write as an African, the differences start to emerge.
Regarding negative self-image, to a considerable extent, all societies tend to envy something of which they are not. There is an ethnic group in Uganda which used to idolize very dark skin, dark gums, and tongue because they tended to be light skinned. There royal families tend to be very dark. They don’t anymore. White people love tanning to a degree. However, this hate for Blackness has its roots in slavery and colonization, which put blackness at the bottom of humanity. The darkest Negro worked in the plantation. The mixed-race slave worked in the house. Whiteness in all its forms became beautiful, clever, human and what was normal. Blackness was the extreme of the abnormal. This was enforced in films, literature, in art. The black woman grows up with the picture of the white woman rubbed in her face as the epitome of feminine beauty. At a point, the mixed-race Black woman became the most beautiful black. The African Black woman remains trounced at the bottom of ugliness. Our men behave like that towards us too. They can’t have enough of light-skinned women. A light-skinned baby is delightful. A light skinned bride – oooooh! So, the light-skinned African woman has occupied that place of beauty. In fact, for a long time, the light-skinned African woman has been entitled to beauty. You cannot ask why African women bleach.
Barakat: Indeed. ‘She is Our Stupid’ serves as a poignant reminder of the age-old African tradition of caring for our own and putting family above all else. Unlike in the West, old people’s home and care facilities are a rarity in Africa and demised loved ones are still flown home for burial. Do you find this changing anytime soon?
Jennifer: Large families, cultures that worship old age, the fact that our cultures frown at individualism and the sheer availability of cheap labour might keep the nursing homes at bay in Africa for some time. But as people begin to have fewer children and the family shrinks and if more people live longer all of this might be erased. It is the same with flying the dead back home. In Uganda, we still have clan cemeteries. You grow up knowing where you are going to be buried and there is the joy of joining the loved ones and the ancestors who went before you. Also, the fear of what the dead are capable of (in case they are not treated properly) might keep this going but I doubt it will be for long.
Barakat: And that is the fear; that Westernization and all those other factors you mentioned might prevent this age-old practice of ours from being sustained. Another story in the collection, ‘Let’s Tell this Story Properly’ won both the African regional prize and overall prize of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014. The story deals with a woman’s pain upon discovering her late husband’s deception. The next story ‘The Aftertaste of Success’ shares an almost similar theme of ‘double lives’. We find Kitone, our protagonist receiving an indecent proposal from a married colleague’s parents. This suggests extended families sometimes play a role in facilitating these deceptions. Should the desire for grandchildren be enough reason for families to facilitate such or are there other significant reasons?
Jennifer: This is not a question I should have an opinion on as an author. All I know is that culturally, most Ugandans would like to know that when they die their names, clan, family and properties will carry on in future. It is more existentialist than just seeing grandchildren. If you think about Ugandan family structures, you can’t call grandparents extended family. Also, Kayita was not pushed by his family to keep his Ugandan family; he chose to swindle Nnam, his wife.
Barakat: Yes, that’s correct. It is unclear if Kayita’s Ugandan wife and his family members knew about Nnam’s existence until Kayita’s demise. In this case, it almost seems like a deception solely conducted by Kayita where he not only deceived Nnam, but also his parents and Ugandan wife. Little wonder Nnam remembered the fabled practice where Ganda women searched for property documents to hide and keep out of sight as soon as a spouse passed on.
In ‘The Aftertaste of Success’, you described Kitone’s mother as the ideal Ganda female because she had the Ganda feminine strength of enduring marital abuse. Is it ironic that Ganda feminine strength (and indeed the African feminine strength) is often equated with the ability to endure marital abuse? How can this mentality be changed?
Jennifer: I cannot comment on other cultures but I know that within Buganda, girls are told to ‘put up with’, that actually putting up with is strength and moral and that in the end they would be vindicated. There is a sense that men will be men and to run away from a marriage is failure. In Uganda you’ll hear ‘putting up’ with or ‘being strong’ in sayings, in songs, all the time that some women take it up as their mantra. I have had a lot of women say, I came to cook I will not go home whatever he does. And they say this publicly and proudly. But this is a result of the belief that all men cheat. It is instilled in them right from childhood. So, a woman will send a message to young women who might want to take her place in marriage that she has no intention to divorce the cheating husband. The problem with this is that men continue being men and we have buried a lot of those strong women in the last thirty years.
Barakat: That is a sad situation right there. In trying to stave off competition, the women end up enabling bad behaviour and paying the price for it. Hopefully, this is a trend that changes soon as more women get empowered and learn to stand up against all forms of abuse. Getting back to the collection, one thing that stands out is how you touch on so many aspects of life for Ugandans living within Uganda, and for those in the diaspora. You take on the issue of foreign investments and the economy in ‘My brother Bwemage’ by way of China’s economic expansion in Uganda. Do you find direct foreign investments improving the lot of Uganda and Africa overall?
Jennifer: All nations have foreign investors. The Chinese own a lot of British companies but out here it is not obvious. In the end, the question is how the locals are being impacted by the foreign investment and what it means in the long run, that is, are the foreigners going to hold our cultural and political structures hostage because they run the economy? Often, investment is a good thing, but the locals must be in control.
Barakat: Words of wisdom right there. Putting locals in control is definitely very important. Now to my favourite pick of the collection, ‘The Airport Diaries’; Poonah is such a captivating character and her narrations of events at the airport security check are a delight to read. In her we find a focused, strong female whose chequered past seem to drive her ambitions to succeed in Britain. How did you come up with her character?
Jennifer: I worked at the airport but also, I have heard of people arriving in Britain, middle class women, only to find their former house helps working as team leaders in jobs these women apply for. I thought I should explore that although I did not use a housemaid for a character.
Barakat: Using a housemaid character would have been extremely funny. In ‘Love Made in Manchester’, Poonah accompanies a dear friend who is British to Uganda for her son’s circumcision (the imbalu). The descriptions of the ceremony are fascinating. How well have such practices persisted in Uganda today and are children born in the diaspora encouraged to come back home for such rites of passage?
Jennifer: The practice has persisted in Uganda. I think it is still practiced but I have never heard of one from the diaspora. My intention was to explore the possibilities. At the same time in ‘Our Allies the Colonies’, in the 1950s, you had a white woman who gets pregnant and is ashamed of her Black child. In 2018, you have a white woman who is not only married to an African but to his culture. In the previous story, I wanted to show how racism affected whites who attempted to have relations with Africans like Heather and its implications on the offspring. Then you come to 2018 and see what happens when racism is relaxed a little bit. This was not so much about Imbalu but how far the British have come in embracing the culture of their African spouses.
Barakat: There certainly has been an improvement over the years. This shows people have become more open minded and accepting of other cultures. You seem to have mastered the short story form. Do you find it the best medium for storytelling?
Jennifer: Not at all. I worked very hard at these stories. I find the form extremely difficult. I am sure it is the best medium for some authors, but I am yet to work easily with it. Those stories are like photographs I took in Britain and sent back to Uganda for people to see what life is like.
Barakat: That’s some revelation! But the stories did come out beautifully and serve the intended purpose. Before we go, any words of advice for up and coming writers?
Jennifer: Read a lot, especially the authors you admire. Be patient; make sure the book is at the best it will ever be before you publish it. Try to bring something new to your subject. Thus, read extensively about your subject and see what other authors have written about it.
Barakat: Concise and helpful. Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing your insights and for joining me in this dialogue.
Jennifer: My pleasure, Barakat. Thank you for your interest in my writing.
Barakat Akinsiku is a writer and author based in Lagos, Nigeria. She writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Her writing has appeared in the Fair Observer Journal, the Truth and various other publications while her creative non-fiction piece Growing Pains was included in Freedom Magazine’s ‘Burn’ anthology. When she’s not writing her own stories, Barakat edits work for others. She also doubles as narrative designer for Lagos based indie game developer, Gbrossoft. Barakat is the author of a novel The Surrogacy Deal and her favorite past-times are relaxing with a good book and watching documentaries.