Is Life Better in the West?
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's short story collection spotlights the lives of Ugandans in Manchester
Before Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s first novel, Kintu, was published to sustained acclaim, the book had multiple rejections from British publishers who dismissed it as “too African” for their taste. The publishers feared the difficult-to-pronounce names of characters and places would jar the jaws of Western readers. What counts as African or “authentically African” is yet to hit the ground, but whatever it lands out to be will likely have no input from British publishers.
Makumbi’s writing is largely inspired by the oral tradition of Ugandan storytelling. Her latest work, Let’s Tell This Story Properly, spins characters with stories that trek from Uganda to the United Kingdom and back. Revolving around Ugandans living in Britain, the twelve stories question the assumptions of better life that many immigrants associate with the West. To serve the book’s truths properly, Makumbi relies on humor, which is a vital element of Ugandan oral storytelling.
A lecturer of Creative Writing at Lancaster University, Jennifer Makumbi won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her short story “Let’s Tell This Story Properly,” and the 2018 Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction.
I spoke to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi about the perceptions and misperceptions of life in the West, finding inspiration in the street dogs of Kampala, and why she doesn’t write for a Western audience.
Kenechi Uzor: I’d like to begin with my favorite story in the collection, “Memoirs of a Namaaso.” I don’t think we can discuss this book properly without this story, without talking about Stow, the dog from whose perspective the story is told. It is still an immigrant story, but this time an immigrant story of a dog moving from Uganda to the UK, moving from being a pariah to a pet. Could you talk about the thoughts and intentions you had while crafting the story?
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Kenechi, you have no idea how happy I am that “Memoirs of a Namaaso” is your favorite story, that it works. I enjoyed writing it most. I was just laughing all the way. I did not worry about political correctness or offending any dogs! It was all from imagination. When I came to Britain and saw how the British love and pamper their dogs, I thought about the street dogs in Kampala; how would it feel if one of them came and it was treated like this? The possibilities were too enormous, too crazy to pass up on. I decided on a proud pariah, used to roaming the city at will, arriving in Britain and becoming a pet, limited to the house space, being neutered.
It is a fun story, it is not tasked by issues of what is the story doing, what is it trying to achieve? I made certain that anyone interpreting it does so at their own peril. The streets dogs in Kampala are unfortunately classified as pests by the city council. Often, they poison them to cull them off. However, Kampala street dogs are like the hyacinth weed on Lake Victoria: you kill these today and tomorrow new ones appear.
KU: Can you talk about the origins of the book? Where did this book begin for you creatively? Generally, what’s your process to create and write?
JNM: The obvious origin of the collection is my coming to Britain and settling in Manchester. But the major origin is the innate desire to write home and say, You people. I am out here but you have no idea of the reality. It comes from the knowledge of how Ugandans perceive Europe vs the reality. This is why I included an author’s note, to speak directly to people back home, to say that this is a letter and I have enclosed my pictures, like we used to do before email and mobile phones. The other origin is in a writing group I joined in 2013 that asked for a new short story every month. Creatively, I started with “Malik’s Door,” then “Our Allies the Colonies.”
In terms of process, I tend to create in my head first. I start with a character and her problem and let the story grow in my head for some time. When I cannot put it off any longer, I write. It took me a very long time to get the short story form worked out. I found it very difficult to pin down; it is rather slippery. I still cannot write micro fiction. One story took me four years to get right, another took me six months.
KU: Some of the stories in the collection deal with this real or imagined differences in blackness and the complicated relationship blacks have with other blacks, especially when they meet abroad. Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty, also touches on this uneasy tension among, for instance, black Africans versus African Americans versus Caribbean blacks versus Africans of mixed parenthood, etc. This tension exists even between newly immigrated blacks and blacks who’ve been immigrants for decades. What are your thoughts on this? How has this been in your experience?
JNM: It is a very complicated relationship. At the center of it is culture. While we’re all black we are culturally diverse. However, when we meet in the white world, we Africans tend to forget the cultural differences and imagine that we would all gel, just like that, in our blackness. It is worse with Africans who are born in the West but have similar names to ours. We see them as “acting” British or American at us until we realize that culturally they are not African.
KU: Franz Fanon wrote about the psychological trauma that many blacks suffer when they first come in contact with whites, a condition of profound distress that lead many blacks to wrestle and sometimes reject their Africanness. Katassi’s existential shock in “Manchester Happened” typifies this condition. Is it possible for an African to move to Europe/the West and not be changed, either like Katassi or like the intellectual types who, according to Nambassa in the same story, “turn aggressively African… in your face African”?
JNM: What can I say, Kenechi? I don’t know. Maybe if one has not been subjected to the colonial lies about the nature of whiteness and their world. Then there is the internalization of our apparent “ineptness”. But things are changing. With the internet, Africans are beginning to see things.
In 2017, my sister came to Britain on holiday and I took her on a bus ride. When we alighted, she was silent for a long time, then she burst out, How can you stay here, Jennifer? I said, why? She said, They don’t like us! They looked at me with disgust! I said what we say to every new arrival, Nooo, you misunderstood them! In my experience it is one, two, three people out of ten – especially in the cities – who do that. Most British people try to compensate for that by smiling and being nice. But then it takes one disgusted look to make you chew yourself for the rest of the day.
KU: You’ve won some major literary awards. You mentioned somewhere that winning the Windham-Campbell Prize for you “is like having been working without pay for a long time and then someone comes along and says, ‘Will a salary for the past ten years do?’ Then you’re left speechless.” Can I assume you hold a favorable view of literary awards and the role they can play in a writer’s career? How has the award affected your writing?
JNM: I know of the ability of literary prizes to transform a career, especially for literary writers like me who, without a prize would sell only a few copies. But I am not unaware of the problems prizes create, especially when authors start to chase them. Often, choices made by judges don’t make sense, especially when we see a book we consider “more worthy” of highlighting being left out. It would also help if Africa had its own prizes with a global reach.
But as I have said before, winning a prize is someone saying, I like what you do, let me help you along the way. That does not mean you are the best writer in the world. A writer that takes themselves seriously after winning a prize does so at their own peril. Prizes have not affected my writing process. I still have many insecurities as an author. In fact, now that I have won some prizes, I am so worried about the reception of the collection and the second novel (if it comes out). With Kintu, my first book, I did not worry so much.
KU: I find it also interesting how the collection alluded to the often-neglected fact that many in Africa are not exactly poor and lead better lives in Africa than many people overseas.
JNM: Isn’t that the irony! A lot of middle-class Africans do not realize that they are far better off in Africa. But of course, it does not matter how much you tell them, no one will believe you. Same with people in the West; don’t bother talking about middle class issues in Africa or anything that indicates that you were well off in Africa – they’ll look at you sadly, like, why lie like a child? And so middle-class Africans keep coming to the West and find out too late they should have remained in Africa.
And of course, we who are out here don’t help matters when we go home and flash borrowed money and perpetuate the lie. And then in the West images of skeletal, fly-infested babies or skinny children drinking dirty water are flashed on screens by charity organizations. In Africa, you are bombarded with images of a perfect life in the West, life of waste and no want. Because the West is in control of the media, they never talk about their poverty.
KU: The stories are humorous. I found many of the book’s characters hilarious. What are your thoughts on humor in literature and how did you think about humor as a vehicle in terms of this collection?
JNM: I think of humor as something I inherited culturally. Ugandan stories, the way we tell them to each other, tend to be humorous, even when talking about death or suffering. I think we have had so much pain as a nation that we learnt to find humor in anything. The stories are critical of both the Ugandan and British societies. Criticism is best dispensed with humor and irony. lt is a tool that helps us talk about difficult subjects.
KU: There are very concrete details in the stories. I am thinking now about “Something Inside So Strong,” wondering how much research went into crafting Poonah the Aviation Security Officer, and all that vivid enactments of airport security drama.
JNM: Oh, I worked as an Aviation Security officer for a long time. And let me tell you, I have not written the outrageous things that happened on the search area; they read unbelievable. But Poonah is not me and Namuli is a figment of my imagination. What is not fiction is the fact that there are stories of middle-class Ugandans who have arrived in Britain, got jobs in a supermarket or cleaning, only to find their former maid, shamba boy, working as their team leader. Picture it right there! In fact, that is what the story was about in the beginning and it was called “Britain the Leveler” but in the end I shied away from it in case it had happened to someone I know.
KU: I noticed how, throughout the collection, Ugandan phrases and words aren’t italicized and certain cultural practices like the traditional marriage of Nnaava in “My brother, Bwemage” and Masaaba’s, circumcision in “Love Made in Manchester” aren’t overly explained. I know some authors face this dilemma of explaining or not explaining stuff to foreign readers. What do you think about this? Did you get any pushback from non-Ugandan first readers or editors about this?
JNM: In Kintu I did not explain things a lot and relied on context. I did not worry about it in this collection. If readers understood Kintu, this collection is even easier. There is always google. The problem is that nothing kills the rhythm and the flow of the story like explanations. Once Africans see them, they presume you write for the West, especially as the West never explains its fiction to us. Besides, most readers find pleasure in working things out for themselves.
I did not italicize this time because of a discussion that happened a while ago. Personally, to italicize is to highlight. I would like my language to stand out on the page, but if most readers I write for are suspicious of it, so be it. Editors and proofreaders did not push back about my none use of italics. My collection was read by a British African editor who is gifted with “double-vision” so to speak. She would say, I am thinking of non-Bantu, non-African readers here; how do they understand this? This was a major process of this collection. And I could only afford this editor because of the Windham-Campbell prize. After her edits, I was able to push back to other editors.
KU: In terms of the book and also generally, how do you think about audience in your writing?
JNM: I write for a Ugandan audience. However, Uganda is diverse. We have over forty languages and such diverse cultures that if I can reach those diverse Ugandans, then I have covered the whole of Africa. This is not about marketing – I sell more books outside Uganda – this is about form. Writing for a Ugandan audience helps me focus, it determines the tone, the subject matter, the attitude, the diction, events I include and what I leave out.
The second story, “Our Allies the Colonies” was first written for a British audience. I rewrote it for a Ugandan audience and even gave it a new title. The difference between the two stories is staggering and shows the effects an anticipated audience can have on a story. Authors from the West never think about African readers, whether we would understand them, they write for themselves, but we still do. I am just doing the same.
The problem is that Western readers have been spoilt by glossaries, by certain aesthetics and have learnt to demand for them. But we can change that. And from my experience, most readers are up for the challenge. They would rather not be patronized. I suspect that if I wrote for the world, my writing would be all over the place, disorganized. And how can I please the whole world? Best to focus on the Ugandan readers who I know and understand. Then I can speak to the world like a Ugandan.
KU: It’s not uncommon for the same book published in the UK to sometimes have a different title in its US edition. Your collection will be known in the UK as Manchester Happened and as Let’s Tell This Story Properly in the US, what informed this choice?
JNM: That was down to publishers. I wrote the book under “Love Made in Manchester” the final story. The American publisher preferred Let’s Tell This Story Properly and that made sense because it is a title that says something about the Ugandan immigration experience being told properly because we perform success when we go home. However, that particular story is old in Africa. As a title it does not promise anything new to the readers back home. Manchester Happened is not only new but it highlights Manchester, my adopted city, as a character.
KU: What challenges have you faced with this book both in terms of the writing and getting it published?
JNM: I started writing it back in 2009 when I was so broke and had given up the possibility of being published. I was prepared for a life of a failed author and so I wrote what I enjoyed, and writing kept me sane too. I also hoped to get a few of them published in magazines and journals to create a literary footprint. But as soon as Kintu was published in Kenya, I started to work on it as a collection. When Kintu found an American publisher, they took the collection too. Same happened with the British publisher. Basically, the collection did not face the kind of rejection that Kintu and my first novel were subjected to. The major problems happened towards the end. Some of the stories were rejected and I had to consult with a few readers and editors about this. I was reassured that the stories were fine. And then, towards the end, with the intense scrutiny of editing, each story started to read like a novel. It was as if I was editing 12 novels. It was so exhausting I swore never to write a collection again.
KU: What about the joys?
JNM: Putting the dog story aside, it was a joy to create so many characters, especially the women. I fell in love with Nnakazaana and Nnalongo, I begun to understand Heather within history. I enjoyed discovering first Irish migration, then black people into Manchester. How the Irish and Africans came together under English prejudice and racism. It began to make sense why back then, Africans tended to marry Irish women. How Africans came to settle in Manchester after WWI. But I also suffered the anxiety of the two boys, Luzinda and Bakka, in “Christmas is Coming” and how claustrophobic their home was. I derived a twisted pleasure in taking Kayla the Scottish wife of a Ugandan to Mbale in Uganda and subjecting her son to adult circumcision in public.