Keeping The Bird Alive: A Dialogue with Lillian Akampurira Aujo

KEEPING THE BIRD ALIVE

A DIALOGUE WITH LILLIAN AKAMPURIRA AUJO

Lillian Akampurira Aujo is a Ugandan poet and short fiction writer. She won the 2015 Jalada Prize for Literature and the inaugural Babishai-Niwe Poetry Award. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Gerald Kraak Award and the 2018 Brittle Paper Anniversary Award, and longlisted for the 2018 Nommo Award (from the African Speculative Fiction Society).

She was a fellow at the Ebedi Residency in Nigeria in 2017, and in the same year performed her poetry at the GIMAC (Gender Is My Agenda Campaign) meeting in Ethiopia.

Her writing has been published by New Internationalist, Prairie Schooner, Transition Magazine, Jalada Africa, Jacana Literary Foundation, Babishai-Niwe Poetry Foundation, Bahati Books, Omenana Magazine, Enkare Review, Brittle Paper Magazine, and 20:35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry.  

Some of her poetry has been translated or is set to be translated into Malayalam and Italian.

She was one of the mentors assigned to the WritivismAt5 Online Mentoring Program in 2017, and co-facilitated a creative writing workshop for South Sudanese women with Oxfam Kampala in 2019.

She was one of three editors of Go Tell Home, a 2019 poetry-poster anthology published by FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association.

Davina Philomena Kawuma

BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation started, continued, and ended along the distance between the bottom and top of the so-called first wave of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Davina: What a time to be living in! Who would have thought that it would come to this? That things would escalate so quickly? That in less than a few weeks we’d go from movie nights every last Friday of the month to lockdowns and quarantines?

Lillian: Maybe a hundred years from now this will be spoken of as the time dystopia turned into reality, or reality became dystopia. Before 2020, history seemed to me something that happened at a leisurely pace, giving me time to breathe and absorb things as they happened.

But, these days, events are like hailstones in the tropics; sporadic, rapid, intense and seemingly unending. When we wake up tomorrow, will there be fish and squid falling from the sky?

Davina: This has happened in a Haruki Murakami novel whose title now escapes me, if I’m not mistaken. Fish have fallen from the sky before.

Lillian: Ahhh! Writers and artists have always been ahead of everyone else in imagining the bizarre. We used to be able to console ourselves with the thought that the bizarre would remain shut in a book in a mouldy run-down library. And yet here we are now.

Davina: Yes, indeed, here we now are under curfews enforced by the police and the military.

Lillian: In Uganda’s past, curfew was enforced in times of freedom struggles and insurgencies to ‘keep the peace.’ Now, though, it’s to reduce the spread of Covid-19, and inevitably we find ourselves traversing the murky ground of state policing. Security agents using excessive force on civilians has become commonplace.

Woman burnt with hot cooking oil; women forced to frogmarch and roll in mud; boy killed by stray bullet. These are some of the stories told by the way curfew is being enforced in this Covid-19 era. I am not saying curfew should be banned; I am saying its enforcement should be reasonable. The point is to save lives, isn’t it?

The result of such state policing is likely the same as it was in colonial Uganda: it has curtailed freedom and instilled fear in people. Even during a pandemic, the important work of decolonization must continue.

Davina: There’s an anecdote from a section in Prof. Sylvia Tamale’s Decolonization and Afrofeminism that I’m sure will interest you; the title of said section is Decolonization & Decoloniality: Science Fiction or Present Fact? Here it is:

“In the process of developing this book, I met a White American academic at a workshop in Nairobi. She asked what the book was about. “Decolonizing Africa,” I responded. “Ah, you’re writing science fiction,” she quipped half-jokingly. Her response raises many hard and disturbing questions: Is decolonization/decoloniality a pipe dream, a fantasy? Are Africans capable of reclaiming their dignity and respect? Is a “Renaissance” realistically achievable? If it is, what would it take? If not, why not, and what would be the alternatives?”

The half-joking idea that decolonization is the stuff of science fiction… How does it make you feel; what thoughts does it birth?

Lillian: Sad. The legacy of colonialism seems essential to our definition of self. Colonialism implanted itself in the African conscience so thoroughly. Can Africans imagine themselves without Christianity and capitalism? I wonder.

I like to joke that as much as England left Victorianism in the Victorian era, in Uganda it is the beginning of ‘good manners.’ How dare you laugh too loud, wear skimpy clothes, be ‘too educated,’ aspire too much, be more educated than your husband? How dare you not be a Christian, how dare you not marry? Or, if you marry, how dare you not submit to your husband? God forbid that you remain with your ‘maiden name!’

I think of status and strata; how it is considered sacrilegious for a Ugandan woman to fail to aspire to the stratifications of marriage and motherhood; Ugandan women that question western traditions that many mistakenly believe to be ‘African,’ those that wish to rethink pre-set ways of acquiring status, are outliers.

Obviously, it would be easier to navigate life without the constant othering by family and friends for one’s feminist leanings. But there’s no way around it; women’s liberalization requires the decolonization of a huge chunk of the Victorianism(s) that infiltrated Africa and Africans.

Not every African tradition was/is good en masse… There were/are cruelties that need/ed to be done away with, but Africa is not the only civilization that bears such stains. As a child I remember being embarrassed by my non-English name because it was considered ‘uncool.’ ‘Speaking vernacular’ was for people who wanted to assassinate their social careers. It was cool to speak English; if your English had ‘an accent,’ you got an extra cherry…everyone envied you…you became the ‘it’ child…you were therefore intelligent…you got preferential treatment even from teachers. Imagine that! Many people in my generation grew up framed by this sly toxicity…this erasure of our African-ness at every level.

It is imperative that we unlearn all this colonial brainwashing. Personal life, family life, community life, even national institutions, are now all bed-ridden with neo-colonialism. So, books like Prof. Tamale’s Decolonization and Afro-Feminism are important for Africans that wish to redefine the fabric of their identity and self-confidence

Davina: There are many calls now for poetry and fiction, with themes like ‘isolation’; I tried to respond to a few but found that I couldn’t concentrate on anything that required more than a few hundred words; my SARS-CoV-2 slash novel coronavirus slash Covid-19 story is one of extended episodes of experimenting with flash fiction—mocking, cynical, and irreverent things—most of it bordering on the absurd.

Lillian: I expect to see more pandemic-related stories, poems, films, plays; Covid-19 and relatives are creative fodder. That said, I think I am still shell-shocked by the gravity of it. So, I am not in a good enough place to write about it. I have scraps and sketches and drafts. But, like you, I freeze when I get into it because it’s too much. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s like that oxymoron…describing ice as fiery hot.

There are already many pandemic-related poems and stories. Ben Okri’s Shaved Head Poem, up on the Commonwealth Writer’s Adda website, in which the choral narrator cautions against the material and ideological excess that breed disasters like this, is one of them. The second stanza opens with the irony of humanity needing to survive without contact. But when has humanity ever thrived without contact, I wonder? The medicine man in Mia Couto’s short story on the same website is perplexed by how the national salutation ‘we are together’ has been transposed to ‘together, but separate.’

It’s bewildering, frankly, and maybe that is part of the angst I feel, not only as a writer but also as a human, about this pandemic. The words to describe the feelings associated with everything that has happened…this is something I am yet to familiarize myself with.

Language should feel familiar. But right now it doesn’t. Like Mario Mabasso in Invisible Language, I feel helpless because I cannot reconcile life in the context of Covid-19 to life as I knew it.

There are things I’m sure of. Our mortality, for instance. The immortality of the universe. I like to think that the universe is a force that regenerates repeatedly. It will outlive us; it may hibernate, as in previous ice ages, but it will thrive again.”

Davina: I read Okri’s poem. It is ironic, to say nothing of nightmarish, for human survival to depend on less human contact; at the pro-creation level, alone, that could prove, well, disastrous.

The idea that “if it hadn’t been this catastrophe it would’ve been another,” that “we’re overdue an apocalypse,” is however not new. Humans have been predicting the end of the world since the world as humans know it began. There are millions of dead people who strongly believed that the world would end in their time. And, yet, here we are still. Does the idea of a world without end fill you with relief or dread?

Lillian: How simple if we could only feel two emotions about something as grave as the possibility of the world ending! I have so many questions! Have we fooled ourselves into believing we are in control? Are we even half as important as we believe we are? And so on.

History has proved that life is a series of apocalypses, hasn’t it? I agree with Okri; it would be something else bringing the world to its knees if it wasn’t Covid-19.

There are things I’m sure of. Our mortality, for instance. The immortality of the universe. I like to think that the universe is a force that regenerates repeatedly. It will outlive us; it may hibernate, as in previous ice ages, but it will thrive again. I am thinking of the universe as an organism whose peculiarities science has not fully figured out.

Davina: I’ve been making a conscious effort, these days, to read differently (more imaginatively, as it were). We talk often about creative writing but seldom about creative reading. Why do you suppose this is?

Lillian: Maybe because the default setting for most reading is to enjoy the story. At least that’s why I started reading, long before I dreamed of writing; it was all about the superstructure, the finished product. I had only a vague idea of the foundation and processes of creative writing. But when I started writing, it occurred to me that I had to know what the foundation looked like…what it was made of and how it was made.

Creative reading, I think, is one of many skills necessary for creative writing; like many skills, it improves over time. I did not know I was doing it, reading creatively, until I started reading and editing other people’s work. I’m making it sound so mechanical, aren’t I?

It’s an organic process that improves with practice, and as a writer you need to make it a deliberate habit to know how to approach your own work. So, many times, when I am reading, my mind becomes open to other creative ways of expressing things I see, feel, or think about.

Davina: What about when there isn’t an immediate opening? Or when you find yourself faced with both opening and closing—joy at discovering other ways of expressing yourself and sorrow from the realization that you’ll never be as brilliant as another writer?

I loved The God of Small Things; it affected me deeply. But after I read it, it was very difficult for me to write. I kept thinking: “If I can’t write like this, what’s the point of writing at all?” Then came Our Lady of the Lost and Found, which merely increased my feelings of incompetence. Why couldn’t I think of such storylines? Why didn’t it occur to me to write about the budding friendship between the Mother of God and a writer?

What have you read that left you feeling as if everything you’d ever written was shabby, pointless? And made you question the efficacy of your imagination? Something so moving that it temporarily blocked you?

Lillian: Ahhh! Arundhati Roy has that effect on me, too. The God of Small Things remains one of my favourites. And then there’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a different sort of book; it was hard for me to get into but when I did I could not forget Anjum and her two voices speaking to each other.

Namwali Serpell! When I read The Old Drift my mind was blown. What writing! After reading it, I was blocked from enjoying several other books!

The Bluest Eye made me wonder why the hell I wanted to become a writer because there was no way I could write with Toni Morrison’s soul. There are scenes in her books which still haunt me; Violet walking into the church and stabbing Dorcas’ body in Jazz, and the tree on Sethe’s back in Beloved. Her novels are brief but dense things that leave me in constant awe.

Davina: You spoke earlier about deliberateness of habit, knowing how to approach your own writing, which made me think for some reason about technique. Now I’m wondering if there’s a technique that you favour.

Lillian: I have to think about this. Most things I write about dance round a simple image that I want to touch and feel and spread out. When I read, I’m more attuned to things that trigger my five senses, so I figure that’s what would appeal to people reading my work. For example, the cracks on Kaaka’s heels in one of my poems and how they represent hardship and resilience.

Davina: It’s always struck me as fitting how a huge chunk of becoming (and remaining) a writer involves reading. But reading another person’s writing for purposes unrelated to enjoyment can be tricky. When another writer says “What do you think? Be brutal,” they could be saying a dozen different things.

In the past, I assumed that they were all saying one thing, so my response was typically “Well, fine, then, I’ll tell you what I think.” But these days my go-to understanding is “What could be improved?” Which isn’t necessarily the best approach but which leaves me feeling less guilty.

There have been times when it has occurred to me that, perhaps, in suggesting a change in how a story should be told, I’ve inadvertently contributed to a conspiracy or culture of silence. Does this worry you—how what we often think of as a ‘well-meaning critique’ can sometimes silence others?

Lillian Akampurira Aujo
Lillian Akampurira Aujo

Lillian: Yes, absolutely. And so far I have refrained from giving feedback to people with whom I have no relationship; they will likely take serious offence, at the very least.

I’ve also learned that the first thing to do is commend the writer for the positives, the successes. No matter how unclear the writing initially is, it helps to take time to inhabit the ideas therein; to try to understand the writer’s intention.

Davina: When you spoke about the helplessness you feel, your inability to find a language within which to navigate life within the context of a global pandemic, I instantly thought of Cathy Park Hong’s How Words Fail. Hong writes of “an anxiety about language,” an anxiety “that grew more pronounced” when she began writing poetry.

I’ve had a similar experience, incidentally; I only started to worry about finding ‘the right words,’ about all the ways in which words will fail me despite my best efforts, when I started writing poetry. Short stories hardly make me feel this way. But poetry? Poetry always leaves me feeling anxious and helpless.

Unlike you, my helplessness preceded this pandemic. My idea of the beginning of a solution is to begin to look at language as something apart from a report of what is (or isn’t) compressed by a moment (or a series of moments).

Lillian: Isn’t it to familiarize (seemingly) unfamiliar language? In effect we are not creating new languages from scrap; we are building on already existent languages to describe Covid-19 times. The question is: shall we find the most apt language?

I understand the unease of feeling alienated from language, especially when it fails to convey what I hope to articulate. But is that a fault of language, my own, or life’s inexplicableness? To refer to Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Lecture, I think writers are charged to keep the bird in the young posse’s hands alive; there is no question of not holding the bird.

Thank you for introducing me to Cathy Park Hong. Her essay in context explores language, author’s voice and syntactical choices as experiment or as a means of protest. I prefer to think of all these as different ways to hold and keep the bird alive. I don’t know if there will ever be language enough for everything, but we have whichever languages we have, and we keep trying.

Davina: What private experiments and public protests have helped you find your voice?

Lillian: Privately, thinking about my personal history has given me lots to write about. I don’t know if I can say that it’s helped me ‘find’ my voice per se, though.

I think of public protests frequently; there’s always so much of that happening around me; with the internet, so much of what is far in the world comes closer. Africans in the diaspora are asserting themselves against white supremacy, but there are so many Africans whitewashing their own existence here. It’s so sad and ironic that the machinations of slavery and colonialism continue to split Africans like that.

Such thoughts occupy me; we will see what they will breed.

Davina: You spoke about keeping the bird alive—how there’s no question of not holding the bird. I recently stumbled upon Where Is The Bird?, an ‘immersive multimedia storybook’ that promotes sign language as a language for deaf and hearing children alike.

“Deaf children can often find books uninspiring as the written word is a static, sonic, linear language – separate to the visual, dynamic language of BSL. We were inspired to fill this gap in the market and enrich the learning experience by using digital materials as a solution,” Emma Nuttall writes.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a typical technophile but I’m amazed at what technology is doing for story-tellers, the story-telling process, and audiences.  

Are there any multimedia or digital storytelling initiatives that have filled you with wonder lately?

Lillian: Immersive multimedia storytelling. That sounds interesting. Unfortunately, I have not been actively looking out for non-traditional ways of storytelling.

I have been trying to get into the habit of listening to literary podcasts; that’s probably the closest I’ve come to trying something outside the norm. But even that has proved difficult. For now, literary magazines remain my main source of story.

Davina: What are your favourite literary forums on and off the continent?

Lillian: Down River Road, Lolwe, Isele… These are some of the literary magazines I like to read. 20.35 Africa has released a new poetry series. Then there is the Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction series curated by Basit Jamiu. So much to read. I enjoy Literary Hub and the Commonwealth Writers’ Adda. I also love Lucy Chihandae’s podcast Storyzfromyhair.

Davina: Let’s go back a bit to when you asked whether it is the fault of language, of the language user, or life’s inexplicableness. Maybe this is in a way what Mia Couto’s story, which you referenced earlier, is speaking to.

“There is nothing in his gregarious and physically tactile culture that suggests confinement or social distancing.”

“In fact, in none of the languages of Mozambique is there a word for ‘nature.'”

There was a time when I could only express myself [lucidly] in English. That sort of arrangement comes inbuilt with particular legacies of shame and alienation. But I think the worst part for me was the realization that there were so many systems of thought that I couldn’t access because I could only speak English. The ludicrousness of that condition shocked me into teaching myself how to read and write in Luganda.

Lillian: Of course, the more languages one speaks and writes in, the better. We should always take steps to learn and think and write in more languages than one, if we can.

To what extent can we undo the circumstances in which we came by English or English came by us? I think about this. We speak a certain English. We also have access to our local languages. For me it comes down to how effectively one or the other or both or several help me communicate. What interests me as a writer, as a millennial, as an artist of our times, is the hybridity that English and our local languages have grown.

Uganda has Uglish and Kenya has Sheng and Swahili is a mishmash of Bantu languages and Arabic. We’re all these things and I think my texts as a writer will be all these things. I encourage linguists and translators to carry on from where writers stop. 

Davina: It interests me that the representatives of the Association of Traditional Doctors of Mozambique would say “Our ancestors, whom we consult in order to receive the fruits of their knowledge, do not know anything about this matter, and cannot help us.” This reminds me of a similar sentiment attributed to Ugandan traditional healers here:

 

“The witch doctors know they can’t do anything for their patients when they have the plague,” Hayden adds.

It’s uncanny to read about a medical anthropologist training traditional healers to keep watch for plagues when there’s a pandemic afoot, isn’t it?

The idea of the old working with the new, of incorporating ‘indigenous’ science and knowledge into foreign, alien, and exotic systems of knowledge has become quite sexy. We do this, too, of course, as writers; make stories ‘sexier’ by underscoring their appeal to and rootedness in different worlds.

Lillian Akampurira Aujo
Lillian Akampurira Aujo

Lillian: My reading of the article suggests symbiosis. In a setting where traditional healers enjoy a demi-god-like status, it is usually hard for people to entrust white doctors with their illnesses. After all, said illnesses are understood to be not only physical but spiritual. How then would the white doctors proceed to find and diagnose patients without the mediation of the traditional healers?

Similarly, the Association of Traditional Doctors of Mozambique in Mia Couto’s story is playing a mediator role between the laypeople and the Ministry of Health, which is a symbol of western-oriented science and modernity.

A tangential question: is African traditional healing mere hodgepodge and conjecture, or does it also lean on some things science-like?

Hybridity is sexy, yes; we are realizing the huskiness of divorcing things from their contexts. You cannot understand Uganda or Ugandanness without the advent of foreign trade, religion, and colonialism, all of which merged with already existing nations and cultures to create the Uganda that appears on modern maps.

In Runyankore, I think of present-day Uganda as akatogo, which loosely translates to ‘different types of food cooked in one pot but presented as a single dish.’ And what color, what varied tastes, for the palate akatogo offers! As a writer I inhabit the complexity of tastes born of ideas that may one day be in opposition and the next day be in harmony.

Davina: These days I enjoy the self-editing process much more than the writing itself, by which I mean the typing (I no longer take notes with an HB #2 pencil), which I find tedious. Sometimes, I cut huge chunks of text out of works-in-progress because they ‘don’t sit right’—they are well written, they are pulling their weight of the plot, they aren’t inflating the word count, and yet somewhere in the proverbial gut there’s a feeling that they are misplaced.

I have folders on my desktop where all the cut-outs are kept. Interestingly, bits of a paragraph that didn’t make it into short story A might end up in poem B, and a line that was rejected by poem C might end up in short story D. What happens to the texts you cut out?

Lillian: I grow a bank of darlings (scraps) as I write. This process is unending, but every once in a while, I will go back and try to trace the cerebral and emotional process that prompted those words as I try to reassign them to something else. Usually I do not succeed in reusing them and keep them in a folder.

I suppose the beauty of the sixth sense lies in its stealth. I am not aware that I am using it until after the fact, when a reason why I did ABCD will be teased out in conversation with a friend much like it is being done now. It is not something I had given conscious thought to before this interview, especially its connection to my writing process.

I like to think the more general creative decisions are informed by logic. But arriving there is a process because I find that I have to wade through the emotion first, and then make (logical) sense of it. An example would be the fact that I cannot write about something I do not feel strongly about. During the self-editing, I then tinker with the mechanics the best way I can while staying as true to the emotion of the story as I can.

Davina: Five or so years ago I struggled to find ideas for stories; it frustrated me to learn how easy some other writer friends were having it. I’d listen to them talk about how they wrote an entire poem while eating breakfast, and despair. “What am I doing wrong?” I always wondered.

These days, I have a different problem; now, I find ideas for stories everywhere. Do you ever feel over-stimulated, and if so how do you ensure that you’re not wasting precious time and energy chasing after every shiny story idea?

Lillian: Finding things to write about was hard for me, too, in the beginning. Earlier when you talked about creative reading I thought also of creative thinking; how the process of synthesizing ideas into stories or poems is a part of creative writing. It happens over time, usually subconsciously. Which I think is what informs what you call ‘over-stimulation.’

In my case though, I might need another word. Possibly because my experiences vary depending on a range of things. Sometimes, for instance, even when I am not writing, it is simply calming to think of events as prose or verse. In such cases, your over-stimulation will be my lull, my quiet moment, my breathing space. That quiet moment sometimes makes the actual writing much easier.

Davina: The initial mental work, calculating permutations, testing different scenarios, justifying the death or resurrection of a character to yourself, which may at turns precede or outlast the writing and self-editing process, definitely helps.

I can’t remember who it is that said every writer has two to three subjects that preoccupy them, themes they obsess over, and that no matter what form one’s writing or self-editing takes one is always in a sense exploring only those subjects.

Assuming you believe that this principle applies to you, what subjects would those be?

Lillian: Physical and metaphorical absences, presences, of people in relationships. The way gender and economic roles are split in homes and workplaces.

Lineage and origin because it is interesting how Ugandans view my ‘mixed-tribe’ status, which screams through both my given surnames. I never forget the term ‘mixed-tribe’ for long; it eventually re-members itself in me because it was what was casually thrown at me when I was a child, and it was what I leaned on to explain the inadequacy of my language(s) to playmates.

Capitalism and labour because I’m a die in this set up and it perplexes me that for all our advancement humanity has not come up with a better system than capitalism.

I think everything I’ve written or intend to write ends up in those broad categories; I’m not about to exhaust them.

Davina: Recently, I led a session in a beginners’ writing workshop. One of the participants was a high school student in her vacation, awaiting her form four results. The first question she asked, post-session, was “Where can I get published?”

And, look, I know what that’s about. I remember, with much embarrassment, how extremely eager I was to get published. Yet the first time I was published was such an anti-climax; the earth didn’t spin off its axis, and the trees didn’t change color to reflect my mood. In short, nobody seemed to care.

Was your first time everything you imagined it’d be? Did the world stop for you and others?

Lillian: I felt so exposed after being published! I thought, “Oh! My God! People are going to see exactly how stupid I am!” Imposter syndrome, which does not really go away. But before that I was convinced all I wanted was to be published. It’s a common romanticism. I understand the hurry to get published because it signals validation for the writer. Think of it as the test we all want to pass.

However, nowadays, I remind myself that once what I’ve written is out there, I cannot take it back. So that makes me more cautious.

Davina: We are lucky to be living in a time where every other month there’s an announcement of a new literary magazine. How do we focus more on craft? How do we get students in their form four vacation to slow down long enough to write what they’ll be proud to have published?

I worry that there are more young writers preoccupied with when they are going to be published than there are those obsessing about the quality of their writing. I’m always alarmed when the first thing someone asks isn’t “How can I improve my writing?”

Lillian: Writing as you know, is a deeply personal thing. There are choices that only the writer can make themselves. The best you and I can do is to sound the ‘better your craft’ drum as loud as we can to whoever is willing to listen.

I must say though that the new writer who cannot wait to get published has confidence in their ability. That’s a good thing, as long as it’s in moderation and is tempered by hard work.

The mushrooming of literary magazines means more space for more writers and that is a good thing. I imagine anyone who curates the content that goes into a literary magazine is constantly looking for quality writing, which should be an indication to new writers for what standards to strive towards.

That’s not to say that considerations of what good writing is are preserves of literary magazines; good writing may be rejected because it doesn’t lend itself to a particular theme, or some unmentioned politics. The solution to this is to send one’s writing to different outfits; you never know where your work will ‘find a home.’

Davina: I know what you mean. A few days after one of my short stories was rejected by one magazine, I sent it to another magazine. A day later, the editor of the second magazine emailed to say that he liked the story and would publish it. 

So, yes, sometimes you’re rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your writing. But it takes a while to get to a point where this becomes obvious; when you’re starting out it’s hard not to take things personally.

Lillian: Yes, at first it is hard not to take things personally because you feel you’ve made an effort and it’s not been appreciated. Apart from the quality of the work, a publisher’s taste or subjectivity can influence their decision to accept or reject your work.

If it’s an anthology, it might be that they are looking for a certain cohesiveness with all the pieces they intend to publish and yours does not offer that. So, as in your experience, pitching to different publishers is good practice for a writer.

Davina: A novel always feels like ‘the next logical step,’ if you’ve been writing short stories, especially in spaces where it’s made to seem as if the short story form is insufficient and frivolous (unless of course it won a major continental or international award). Tell people that you’re a writer and they’ll usually say “What’s the title of your book and can I get it in Aristoc?”

Sometimes, I wonder if I want to write a novel because I’m genuinely interested in writing one or because I’m terrified that Ugandans will never take me seriously if I don’t.

Lillian: To attempt to discuss regression or progression of different forms of literature on the same plane is somewhat defeatist. Although they share elements, the poem, short story, and novel are each unique projects. I know writers for whom one form comes easier than the other. Yet, maybe because of interest or training, other writers have successfully written poetry and short story collections, as well as novels.

A poetry collection is considered full length, is it not? As is a short story collection. As is a novel. All of them can be adequate and serious in their expansiveness or brevity. But then of course sometimes the market dictates what is easier to make money from; hence the dictum that it is easier to make money from novels than from, let’s say, a collection of poems.  

Davina: Surely there are plenty of other things that a writer can do to make money? Get an MFA and teach creative writing at a university. Facilitate writing workshops. You know the drill.  

Lillian: Yes, you can do all that and more. But getting an MFA is not a guarantee that one will be a good teacher of writing. I know some very good teachers and writers who do not have MFAs, so again nothing is set in stone. You can facilitate workshops, yes, but the reality is that very few Ugandans would be willing or able to afford them right now.

The sad reality is that creative writing is not something many people here take seriously enough to invest in. Then the few that do may not have the resources to pay someone for lessons or mentorship. Our creative writing structures are still growing.  

Davina: Poetry in Uganda is currently enjoying a revival. In pre-covid-19 Kampala, for instance, there was a poetry-themed event almost every weekend; these events attracted a wide range of speakers, readers, and writers, everyone from so-called established writers, through the young and upcoming speaker, to well-wishing members of the general and specific reading publics.

That public interest in poetry is currently surging against public interest in say, fiction or creative non-fiction, especially among high school and university students, is encouraging. But some people I’ve spoken to think said interest is due to poetry being easier to write and understand than, say, short fiction.  

Lillian: It’s a good thing poetry in our public spaces is enjoying a revival. We need more poets and more readers if we want to grow communities that are self-aware but also conscious of what’s happening around them and why it’s happening. If a poet succeeds in making poetry look ‘easy’ to the listener or reader, then that is a good thing. Although I disagree with the notion that poetry is easy to write or understand. What I can say is that both readers and writers of poetry need to expose themselves to as many forms of poetry as possible. Then we can all discuss what’s easy, or what’s good or bad.

Davina: There’s an interesting blend of poetry and theatre here, of which I expect to see more of within the next 10 – 20 years. What other trends do you anticipate within the Ugandan writing scene?

Lillian: I hope that goes on—theatre pulling theatre-lovers into poetry loving—this widens the audience for poets as well. I don’t know how long it will take, but hopefully we’ll see Ugandan fiction being adapted to film.

Davina: Well, that’s already happening. Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki was adapted from Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Jambula Tree. And you, of course, have a poem titled Jambula Tree! So let’s hope that that will soon be adapted for theatre. 

Lillian: Ahhh! That would be sweet!

Davina: Wouldn’t it? But we need to end this here, otherwise the puns might continue well into next week.

Lillian: No good deed goes unpunished, I see!  

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina is a reader who happens to like writing. She writes in several forms (including poetry and essays) but is for some reason most drawn to the short story. Stories are how she makes sense of the world, and of her (imagined or otherwise) moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical place in it. She’s committed to the creation of a legacy that equalizes the telling of stories. Her range of interests include [eu]social media, the mothering of the tongue, and English which, despite our sincerest efforts to preserve it, keeps breaking (sometimes into more pieces than we can pick up).

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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