Born in the near aftermath of Uganda’s third civil war, Surumani Manzi is a poet – who infrequently assays into prose. He completed his high school education in Mbarara, matriculating to Makerere and Kyambogo Universities, where he studied Construction.
Surumani is a member of The Lantern Meet of Poets, a Kampala-based literary congress of reckonable repute where he discusses, peer-reviews, and occasionally publishes his work. In 2013, he featured in Writivism’s pioneer cohort of emerging African writers and his labours have since appeared in Prairie Schooner, Ibua Journal, The Black Monday Newsletter, The Observer, Daily Monitor, Femrite anthologies, and other publications. They Were Ugandan is his debut short story collection.
BY CHARITY NGABIRANO
This conversation took place in Kampala, via WhatsApp.
Charity: Hello Manzi. I have known you mostly for poetry, and then I came across your eye-catching, attention-grabbing and dynamic short story collection, They Were Ugandan. What inspired you to slide to this side, and what genre do you like most?
Manzi: What a way to describe the book, Charity! You are as kind as you are disarming. That said, the decision to publish first in prose before poetry was induced by two considerations. First, the need to be responsive to the reading flavours and literary palettes of most Ugandans. While poetry was and remains my first love, it is a rather erudite art form demanding conscious interest to be enjoyed casually. Thanks to an army of emerging national poets, local mind sets and attitudes toward poetry are improving, but I fear this is a long-term shot. Prose seemed a safer bet for publishing a book that would not simply have great aesthetics, but prove readable to large sections of our thinking public. Second, and perhaps not too flatteringly, decent stories are a lot easier to write than ‘good’ poems are! Poetry can be spontaneous, though it presents greater technical difficulties because its cadences and ‘meter’ aren’t necessarily intuitive.
Charity: Congratulations on the publication of your debut short-story collection. At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?
Manzi: Thank you for the heart-warming congratulations. Regarding the label ‘writer’, I’d say it can apply equally to different contexts and stages of a creative career. One could adopt the name first and then strive to earn it, or one could wait to be christened as such by convinced readers and not-too-unkind literary critics who are the unofficial gatekeepers of the industry. Whichever way one looks at it, a writer worth their salt should produce short works regularly, longer works irregularly, or a mix of both.
Charity: The stories in They Were Ugandan are indeed a ‘keen observation of workday Ugandan life’. Having lived here all my life, I identify with many characters and scenes, especially the taxi chronicles in ‘Mumaso Awo’ and ‘Please extend’. Also, I was able to point out a number of political stories with a little ‘touch up’, of course. I am sure many people from different parts of the world will see their stories in yours. What is the most difficult thing about writing politically in Uganda?
Manzi: I feel reassured to hear that though the stories were written in English, they were able to transcend that colonial conduit and relay authentically native narratives. It delights me to hear that from somebody else. Now, Uganda is unequivocally a police state. The ruling class has draped the facade of neo-liberal economics over the steel gauntlet of a classical, failed-state despotism. Regular elections are held, but they’re designed to be unfree and unfair. The army and its paramilitaries have pacified the population into impotence, but the seeds of ethnic inequity, tribal animosity, and civil unrest are alive and well. In this sort of milieu, writers either parrot regime orthodoxies and stay safe; or they present counter-narratives and risk jail time, torture, and worse. In this unfortunate regard, Ugandan literature’s most famed poster children are activist and poet Stella Nyanzi and Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who have faced Museveni’s brutal, blunt censorial machete. This is nothing new because our greatest literary exports, namely Ugandan poet Okot P’Bitek, and the Transition Magazine team, were treated rather roughly and exiled by successive regimes in the in the late sixties and seventies.
“When Uganda eventually has more people willing to debate their opponents, than those prepared to slaughter perceived enemies, the pen will have defeated the sword.“
Charity: It is true that poetry has a somewhat better reception today, going by the increased publicity shots I run into every now and then. Sadly, this pandemic slowed things down, but it was great to see poets still engaging audiences online. Now that we are back to public gatherings, the numerous calls for performances cannot be missed. People like Nigerian writers Helon Habila and Wole Soyinka write poetry and fiction, and they have won awards for both genres. Very soon it will be our own Manzi Surumani, poet and novelist. This being your first book, I imagine that you have had a series of lessons from writing the drafts, through to the publishing stage, and finally the sales. What advice would you have for a writer working on their first book?
Manzi: Oh yes, Charity. Audiences love a good show, and poetry is ideal for that because it is short enough to entertain, inform, or provoke in a matter of seconds—with crafty one-liners and profound punchlines. Prose calls for engagement at a deeper, more reflective level, and at a less hurried pace. For a writer to become equally effective in both genres is a creative triumph. I can only hope I’ll be fortunate enough to fit the bill. For writers penning their maiden works, I’d advise tenacity. The creative process correlates with the universal principles of nature—in that, consistent labour and untiring effort invariably pay off. Creativity is something that gets better with repetition, practice and iterative exertion. Essentially, I’d say ‘keep writing’, no matter the reviews or feedback.
Charity: Although the Constitution provides for freedom of speech and expression, what is happening on the ground is different. We are at a point where censorship’s arrows strike so sharp and deep that statements such as “Let me keep quiet for the sake of my kids” have replaced what should have been stern statements calling out the ones who drafted these laws, as a reminder that they’re drifting away from them. From the recent misfortunes that befell Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and Stella Nyanzi, there are very few writers (especially those residing in Uganda) who may consider coming out to use their craft for the good of the people.
Manzi: The sad reality of human civilization is that governments have evolved to be so daunting and omnipotent, that the individual citizen is but a speck in their wake. Political theorist Thomas Hobbes metaphorized government as a ‘Leviathan’, a gigantic creature almost impossible to vanquish. What, therefore, can those who seek to change things do? Very little, I’m afraid. At the end of the day, censorship is a political problem calling for political solutions. For starters, the central government’s monopoly over violence must be constitutionally revoked through provisions for a functional federal system that redistributes power to society’s smaller constituencies, which are bound to interact with citizens at a more human level. A distant, impersonal, highly centralized state can always do whatever it wants to any of its citizens—and this isn’t just a Ugandan or African problem. For every Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, there is a Julian Assange. And for every Stella Nyanzi, there is an Edward Snowden. All this notwithstanding, the pen is mightier than the sword!
Charity: The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. The power that the written word carries can be more harmful and damaging than a sword. The written word is strong and influential, to the extent of giving rise to revolutions and agitations against unjust/unfair governance. As Chinua Achebe writes in Anthills of the Savannah, “Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control; they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom…” The written word can make or mar a person of reputation and character. It can build or bring down governments. Weapons and force can cause physical harm, but cannot change the minds of people. Organisations like PEN International have provided platforms for African writers to write without fear or favour, to strengthen the voice of African writers and promote freedom of expression. People in countries with liberal systems can easily call out dictators in other parts of the world, whereas those living under that dictatorship cannot. One thing I have confidence in is the power of language and writing.
Manzi: There is yet to be a book or document that has changed government in Uganda. Although I hope this will alter soon, the Ugandan sword remains stubbornly triumphant over the quill. What this country needs are a mass of critical readers and non-establishment intellectuals, with the willingness to question cultural dogma, as well as entrenched belief and value systems. When Uganda eventually has more people willing to debate their opponents, than those prepared to slaughter perceived enemies, the pen will have defeated the sword.
Charity: You are right. We still have a long way to go. Stories are often at the centre of resistance and revolution. Tell me about the stories in your collection. Do you think fiction can be used to liberate the minds of people? What are some of the perspectives or beliefs you seek to challenge with this work?
Manzi: I am not sure fiction is a great place to challenge perspectives anymore. Readers come to fiction seeking to escape reality. Fiction should provide a gentle, understanding place where the soul can take refuge. The characters I created in my book seek to embody the experiences of Ugandan life and take on the guilt and judgement—which would otherwise be the reader’s.
Of course, the stories traverse themes which may be dubbed ‘socio-conscious’—poverty, identity politics, the criminal justice system, religion and spirituality—the list goes on. But my aim was to glean and thresh out the human strands within the lives and experiential spheres of each character. People are inevitably influenced by the meta-themes of existence, but the gist of living is in the micro-sanctuaries outside these.
Charity: Black authors have seriously embraced self-editing and created a self-publishing renaissance. Did you engage an editor or did you self-edit? How important is professional editing to a book’s development?
Manzi: I self-edited the entire manuscript. It was a painstaking process, yet some copy errors still escaped my eyes in the end. I cannot overstate the importance of an autonomous editorial entity and workflow. Someone approaching a work of art with fresh eyes and an independent perspective offers resourceful insight and novel dimensionality.
Charity: Self-editing is a tedious yet important part of writing, and I could argue that it helps you to develop your language skills, rather than relying on others to correct your mistakes. Even if you pay a professional editor, you as an author ought to have the eye to spot glaring errors in your manuscript. However, like you said, it is hard to straighten out all the mistakes, so some escape unnoticed. How do you balance the demands of writing with other responsibilities like your construction work?
Manzi: Not too successfully, I’m afraid. The need to fill the dinner cauldron often wins the proverbial contest between duty and calling. I probably would be more prolific and have more titles to my name if not for the need to earn a living—but we live in the world as it is, and not as it should be. So I try to seek inspiration from my construction vocation, to feed the bellows of my literary avocation.
Charity: The work-write balance is a whole hustle. Even as a stay-at-home mom, I have often failed to find a fair balance. One side ends up suffering at the expense of the other. Bills have to be paid, and stories have to be written. I have a friend who jokes that the most blessed person is an unemployed writer. That’s a lie, of course. For many of us, our writing cannot support us financially. Also, having a day job alongside your writing career keeps you aware of what is going on in the world; what drives people, what engages them, and what upsets them. That way, these ideas bleed into your writing. In my experience, writers’ support groups and platforms have been a great help in pushing me from my comfort zone to continuously pen down stories even on those days when writers’ block competes with other events in my life. How has being a member of The Lantern Meet of Poets helped you as a writer?
Manzi: The Lantern Meet of Poets has been more helpful than I can say, Charity. They discovered, nurtured, and matured the writer in me. They also provided a galore of intellectual grounding and direction, at a time when my curiosity about the world was only fledgling. I owe any literary successes I have to them. For me, the Lantern Meet experience proves that human potential is best realised in environments of mutual aid, and systems of functional social support. With them, we were able to discredit the individualistic model of the ‘self-made’ man.
Charity: Lastly, morning person or night owl?
Manzi: Definitely night owl. My circadian rhythms have been recalibrated to contradict the solar cycle through a lifetime of late-night reading, research, and book worming. I am trying, with limited success thus far, to re-engineer this clockwork in order to fit neatly into the mould of working class living that an engineering career now demands. So far, I realise I’ll need all the alarm clocks money can buy!
Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the project coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. Her work has appeared in The Kampala Sun, Afreecan Read Magazine and is forthcoming in Sahifa magazine. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother.