Goretti Kyomuhendo is one of Uganda’s leading novelists and founding director of the African Writers Trust. Her novels include The First Daughter (1996), Secrets No More (1999), which won the Uganda National Literary Award for Best Novel in the same year, and Waiting (2007), which was published in New York by the Feminist Press and translated into Spanish in 2022.
In 2014, she published The Essential Handbook for African Creative Writers. She has also published several children’s books and short stories, including Lost and Found, which was published in New Daughters of Africa (2019), an international anthology by women of African descent that was edited by Margaret Busby.
She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where she taught creative writing in 2004. She was the first Ugandan woman to receive The International Writing Program Fellowship at the University of Iowa, has received national and international recognition for her work as a writer and literary activist, and has participated in numerous forums worldwide.
In 2021, she was appointed Chair of judges for The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. She also served as one of five international judges for The Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012. In 2019, she was featured among the 100 most influential Africans by the bestselling, UK-based, Pan-African Magazine, New African. From 2019-2022, she served as a member of The Commonwealth Foundation’s Civil Society Advisory Governors.
She is a founding member of FEMRITE, a Uganda Women Writers’ Association and publishing house, where she served as its first director for ten years (1997-2007).
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between London and Kampala via email.
Davina: What prompted the republication of Whispers from Vera, from both a reader’s and writer’s perspective? Why now, and how did it affect decision-making at the African Writers Trust?
Goretti: Three main reasons motivated me to re-issue my novel. First, incessant requests from readers, who had enjoyed reading it, to make it available again. It had been out of print for twenty years; Monitor Publications Ltd., the novel’s first publisher, sold the rights for their Monitor Books section to Netmedia, which closed in 2004.
I’d also received similar requests from institutions of higher learning, such as Makerere University, which included the novel on their literature curricula when it was first published in 2002.
Finally, I wanted to make the novel available to a new audience of readers who had come of age in the last twenty years; I believe there’s a gap in the African market for literature that is light, humorous, and entertaining in its presentation and exploration of big issues.
This project had been at the back of my mind for years, but I needed to put aside time and other resources to focus on it; I think what made it more difficult to do this was that, after Netmedia closed, we couldn’t trace the soft copy of the novel.
One of my fans, who had for a long time pestered me for a re-issue, offered to retype the entire novel. Initially, my excuse was that I couldn’t find the soft copy. After she finished typing it, she emailed me to ask, “Now, what is your excuse?”
An opportunity to stop making excuses presented itself when the world went into lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic; at African Writers Trust, we had to suspend most of our programmes; suddenly, I had plenty of time on my hands, including to focus on the republication of my novel.
Reissuing my novel under the imprint of the African Writers Trust Limited, an organisation and publishing outfit which I direct, did feel a bit like self-publishing, which made it challenging to make certain decisions. On the other hand, because the novel already had a readership, some decisions were very easy to make.
Regarding the production process, which included editing, text layout, cover design, etc., I worked with an editorial and production team, which challenged my views on a number of different aspects.
For example, my editorial team was tasked with reading the manuscript not only to advise on character development, narrative voice, plot, pacing, and grammar but also ensure that the content was suitable for the intended audience, which is primarily people within the range of 25-40 years. I was worried that some of the issues I’d raised were no longer as valid or relevant. I asked my editorial team to consider the ways in which perceptions, about what is important to young people within that age bracket, may have changed. What are romantic relationships like now? What about career ambitions and aspirations? And societal expectations?
I was curious about whether my editorial team identified with Vera – whether she represented their aspirations, hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, etc. I used a lot of colloquial language in the novel, and since I’m no longer within the age group that usually uses such language, I wanted the editorial team to assess its suitability.
I also used non-English words that require contextual translations. For this, one of my editors was a non-Ugandan whose task was to determine if the non-English words interfered with her reading and comprehension.
Of course, I had moments of doubt as a writer and publisher, despite the fact that the novel already existed, and an independent publisher had endorsed it. I think the moment of truth was when I received ten blurbs endorsing the novel as worthy of re-issuing.
“I believe there’s a gap in the African market for literature that is light, humorous, and entertaining in its presentation and exploration of big issues.“
Davina: Why didn’t you just write something new?
Goretti: I was very tempted to do that! Over the years, my style has evolved, so I was itching to write as I write now rather than how I wrote at the beginning of my career. But I also knew that, for the sake of my fans, I had to remain faithful to the story as it read back then – this meant maintaining the perspectives and opinions of Vera, the novel’s protagonist, including those which may not be as pertinent anymore.
Keeping to the original tone and style was more difficult than I’d anticipated. Some of the issues and language that seemed fresh back then sound cliché now! A phrase like “my prince charming”…I wonder how often young people use it these days.
Davina: “My prince charming” may not be as popular as “my ride or die,” but the idea behind it is: that there is someone out there, a.k.a. your soulmate, a human that was put on this earth for the sole purpose of completing you (à la Jerry Maguire), who is perfectly compatible with you and will always know what you need without you having to say anything. This idealistic view of lifelong companionship is often romanticised, and I believe that one of the novel’s preoccupations is dismantling it.
Goretti: (Laughs.) Davina! I think this is your own take on the ‘my prince charming and forever after’ paradigm! I firmly believe in the redemptive power of stories, and I usually strive to provide hope in my fiction. But my fiction also draws from facets of reality so, yes, Vera soon realises that her perception and expectation of Eric as ‘Mr Right’ is quite different to what is realistically possible. But this is not to say that we should lose hope; I think it is simply a matter of managing our expectations.
Davina: Now that we’re talking about managing expectations, let’s discuss the fan who retyped your novel. I’m a big fan myself, but I don’t think I would ever offer to do that! Write a couple of encouraging emails to you, telling you to stay the course? No problem. But retype a novel?! Eh! Oba ku ddiiru ki?! Typing my own stories feels like a chore!
I’m curious about your current relationships with your fans. Do you remain as accessible to them now as you were twenty years ago? Or do they have to go through your agent now?
I have several favourite authors whose books have touched me deeply, but I can’t contact them directly. I could leave a message on their website, but it’s unlikely I’ll receive a response, and I don’t feel comfortable contacting their agents with such personal and heartfelt messages.
Goretti: About the fan who retyped the whole novel, yeah, she is a real fan, isn’t she?! I think she’s better placed to answer your question about why one would go to all that trouble…
On accessibility of writers to their fans, I understand why many writers prefer that their literary agents manage their communication and calendars. As one gets busier, one has less time to dedicate to fans who would wish you to engage with them.
When I first published The First Daughter, I used to visit many schools and universities where the novel was taught, a few of which were based outside Kampala. Later, I think after publishing Waiting, I travelled a lot abroad to participate in international literary events. But these activities take a toll on a writer and sometimes make it hard to focus on what is really important, which is writing.
Sometimes, you’ll receive competing invitations to participate in events or, as is usually the case, you’re required to make a presentation, give a talk, read from your work, etc. Many writers charge a fee for these undertakings, which may require getting into negotiations with hosts. This is where literary agents come in; in addition to representing writers’ interests, they act as writers’ publicists.
Davina: You said you wanted to offer your fans a faithful copy of the original. But you also received a lot of feedback, and I’m curious about the tension between these two things. There must have been times when you had to make tough decisions about what to change and what to leave as is.
How did you balance your evolution as a writer with your desire to retain your fans’ goodwill? Were there times when you insisted on a change, even though your editorial team advised against it or you knew it wouldn’t make sense to readers of the first edition? What considerations took precedence in those cases?
While I have no trouble imagining that someone in your editorial team had something to with a sentence like “He wants us to take our time, get to know each other bulungi,” I’m sold on the idea that the event of a sentence like “…I’ll wear my Amin nvaako skirt…” was mostly planned by you.
Goretti: The main message of the story, including the central characters, remained the same. While reworking the novel, I majorly focused on making it ‘more of a novel’ than it was in the first edition, if that makes sense!
Over the years, I’ve learnt the importance of details. So, for instance, whereas in the first edition Eric’s siblings are not named, I assigned names and other details to them in the new edition. Also, I didn’t provide the details of Vera’s job in the first edition; she was just referred to as “a corporate woman”; I have now included her job title, what her job entails, and what is important about her job.
You’re right about me having to make the final decision on what to include and what to leave out. This is one of the hardest decisions a writer has to make. Readers and editors will provide feedback, suggest changes to be made, but, ultimately, as the writer, you have to choose what to take on board and what not to. Moreover, for every decision you make, there are consequences.
One scene that was in the first edition, which I decided to remove from the second edition, involves Vera and her husband, Eric, visiting the latter’s ancestral village for Christmas. That is a very common occurrence in Uganda, and my editors wanted me to keep that scene, but I argued that travelling to the village for Christmas is a dated culture for young couples. I imagined that, nowadays, most young couples prefer to spend their Christmas holidays in exotic places like Dubai. My editors didn’t agree with my reasoning, but I stood my ground. My consolation is that I’m working on a sequel. Perhaps I will consider including, in it, some of the sections I removed.
Another scene that’s been added to the second edition involves Vera signing up for a professional marketing course, referred to as CIM – The Chartered Institute of Marketing. This suggestion came from my editors, who argued that, nowadays, many young people are pushing themselves to have more than one qualification in order to advance their careers.
The sentences you quote, above, in which I use Luganda (bulungi and nvaako) are there at my discretion. In the first edition, I had a glossary to explain non-English words, but I decided against it since I believed that they would be understood by readers within the context in which they are used.
Davina: It’s interesting that you mentioned wanting to make your book more novelistic. This is a perfect segue to the first part of my next question, which is about your attitude towards the novel in our rapidly changing reading and writing cultures (such as the new world of BookTok influencing). I’m also interested in the writers and books that have shaped your ideas about novelistic ambition.
Goretti: When I was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1997, I didn’t know much about what a writers residency entails. It was my first residency. (I was informed by the US embassy in Uganda – which had nominated me – that for the past ten years, no Ugandan had been accepted into the program.) So, I arrived in Iowa unsure about what to expect.
I had planned to complete my second novel, Secrets no More, but suffered from writers’ block. It was so frustrating! I was going to spend three months in Iowa, so I needed a plan. I knew about Peter Nazareth through his work, particularly In a Brown Mantel, so I turned to him for advice. He invited me to audit a class for a literature course he was teaching, which gave me an opportunity to interact with texts by writers such as Yvonne Vera, Bessie Head, Ayi Kwei Armah, and many others. It was an illuminating experience on the protocols of novel writing.
Davina: The second part of my question is about how you see your novel in comparison to more academic views. I’m thinking of an extract from Lynda Gichanda Spencer’s ‘In defence of chick-lit’: refashioning feminine subjectivities in Ugandan and South African contemporary women’s writing:
“Following on from Boyce Davies and Newell, I argue that in Uganda and South Africa, chick-lit is often written by women writers who attempt to resist, undermine, renew and rethink mainstream chick-lit. These ‘uprising genres’ are saturated with local content that speaks to and about the intimate lives of middle class women in contemporary society.
“Goretti Kyomuhendo’s Whispers from Vera (2002) is written in the form of a letter. Set in Kampala, the narrative is reminiscent of Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter (1981) set in Dakar. The narrator Vera writes to her deceased friend Jane and gives an account of her everyday life, her marriage and children, her infidelity, her relationship with her girlfriends and her work. The reader feels as if they are eavesdropping on a private conversation between close friends. Vera is married to Eric, she has a stepdaughter, Martina, and two sons, Kenny and Arthur. Her other confidantes are her best friend Sheila and other girls in the ‘sisterhood’. Like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City, Whispers from Vera first appeared in serialised form – in this case in The Monitor, one of Uganda’s leading newspapers.”
Do you think the term “chick lit” accurately and fairly describes your novel?
Goretti: I’m usually reluctant to assign genres to my work, or to other writers’ works for that matter. I feel it’s a futile effort, really. As a reader, I want to decide for myself – or not at all – the genre of the book I’m reading. To me, it’s more important to decide if the book I’m reading speaks to me, if the central character(s) is/are relatable, if I’m going to remember the storyline – or aspects of it – ten years later, if I’ve learnt something, if my reading experience was enjoyable, etc. Similarly, as a writer, I strive to create the same experiences for my readers. To me, all this is more important than affixing a genre to a particular book.
In any case, some books, like Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy: Or, Reflections from a Black-eyed Squint, are genre-fluid.
Further, genre-definitions are ever evolving, growing and expanding. Take the term chick-lit, for instance, which was first popularised in the 1990s by books such as Sex and the City, which Spencer mentions, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, which sold high volumes. About ten years later, the term had lost its appeal to most publishers; some of the books published as chick-lit were recategorised as ‘women’s popular fiction.’
Now, we’re seeing a resurgence of chick-lit, if you may refer to it that way, in such books as The Dating Plan and The Singles Table by Sara Desai. Yet, I also see some of the newer books, like Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah’s The Sex Lives of African Women and Angela Makholwa’s The Blessed Girl, being categorised as ‘chick-lit’ in some quarters and ‘commercial fiction’ in other quarters.
I didn’t set out to write chick-lit; I address a number of other themes, such as politics, cultural dynamics, and patriarchal structures – all told from the perspective of a Ugandan woman – in addition to romance, female relationships, and workplace intrigue.
However, I understand why, as a publisher, it’s crucial to designate a genre to the book you’re publishing. This is largely for marketing purposes, and other requirements from booksellers and distributors.
Davina: Having one’s novel included in school curricula is a major accomplishment, especially here where it’s perceived as a surefire way to boost sales.
Theoretically, could you have refused to have your novel added to curricula?
Goretti: All my novels are taught at different educational levels in and outside Uganda. I’m not familiar with how the process of adding a book to an institution’s curriculum works. I think the negotiations happen between publishers and institutions, rather than between writers and institutions.
In the case of Uganda, yes, it’s nice to have a wider readership from students but I’m not particularly keen to have my books taught in secondary schools and higher institutions of learning because of piracy. Unless we tighten our anti-piracy laws, and ensure the proper implementation and supervision of such laws, writers and publishers will continue to lose money through this horrible practice.
Once a novel becomes a set book for a given literature curriculum, many students and schools simply photocopy the book for their consumption; few bother to purchase copies from, say, a bookshop or a publisher.
Davina: Building on your earlier point about self-publishing, let’s discuss the stigma associated with it.
Goretti: I understand why, within certain quarters, self-publishing is not held with as much regard as mainstream publishing is. I know, for instance, that some fellowships, residencies, grants, and prizes prevent self-published writers from participating or receiving accolades.
I think the main reason why self-publishing is not acknowledged has to do with the fear that writers didn’t go through the rigorous processes that mainstream publishers use. An example is the manuscript development process, which involves assessment, structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading; some self-published authors may not go through the whole process because of the expenses involved. Other times, they are unaware that these processes exist. A self-published book, therefore, may be regarded as falling short of internationally acceptable publishing standards.
However, having said that, I believe that for a country like Uganda, and other low-income countries, where the publishing infrastructure is underdeveloped or non-existent, the self-publishing model should be encouraged and supported rather than stigmatised.
We should strive to create our own publishing models and centres of gravity, instead of waiting and looking to the west to publish us. I think we should aim to equip key players in our book industries with the prerequisite skill sets that enable them to deliver literature that adheres to international publishing standards. This, in my opinion, is what is lacking.
As a self-published author, you should ask yourself “what does a publisher do?” and then aim to do all those things. You also have to remember that you are now wearing the hats of a writer, publisher, producer, and bookseller. Do you have what it takes? Do you have the expertise and the resources to pull off a publishing project?
For reasons I’ve already mentioned, although republishing Whispers from Vera under the African Writers Trust imprint felt a bit like self-publishing, I didn’t question the validity of the project. Secondly, I felt I had acquired enough experience and expertise to handle a publishing project. I have been involved in the book sector for three decades – as a writer, editor, creative writing instructor, publisher, bookseller, and mentor. I have enough knowledge about the publishing process; I have, for instance, already sold the e- and audio-book rights of Whispers from Vera, and plan to sell the translation rights, as well.
Davina: I don’t think it’s true that all self-published books lack rigorous editing. Further, I’ve read mainstream published books that have had me wondering for days how they got past editors; some of those books could have used better editing, but they’re still selling well.
It seems to me that clever marketing can go a long way in determining what’s considered “internationally acceptable.” Is it possible that an average book could be hailed as the next big thing if enough buzz is created about it by the right people?
Goretti: You’re right about the power of marketing, particularly social media marketing to drive sales and influence the reception of a book with different audiences.
Increasingly, many mainstream publishers are applying the methods you mention, of using social media influencers and celebrity endorsements, to maximise sales and draw readers to books.
I’ve heard of publishers who require authors to provide statistical proof that they are ‘visible’ on social media; that their level of engagement on different social media channels is above a certain threshold. If the author is social-media averse, or shy, this might determine whether such a publisher signs them up.
I’m not discounting the risk of overrating a book based on aggressive social media ploys but, ultimately, readers decide whether such a book is worth the hype or not. Social media, as you know, is transient. A good book has to stand the test of time. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a classic with or without the hype of social media.
Davina: How does your republished novel fit in with other books that have been published (and/or will be published) under the African Writers Trust imprint?
Goretti: The African Writers Trust imprint is the publishing arm of African Writers Trust Limited. It was established in 2009 as a digital platform for the works produced by participants of the workshops we organise to provide training in the writing of fiction and poetry. We have so far published five short story and poetry anthologies: SUUBI (2010), Moonscapes (2016), Dear Nev (2018), and Threads and Faces (2022).
Whispers from Vera is the first novel to be published under the imprint. At the moment, we don’t have any others lined up for publication. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in the future.
Photo credit for featured image of Goretti Kyomuhendo: Fred Mubiru.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.