Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Additions to a new African narrative

Clara Molot
2017-06-29 00:00:00

Clara Molot, who will be attending Yale in the fall, wrote the following essay after attending the African Literature Association’s 2017 Annual Conference hosted by Yale University June 14-17.

The first real conversation I had with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was about Adichie. She asked me over lunch which of Chimamanda’s works was my favorite. Proudly, I responded Americanah. Makumbi was unimpressed. 

“That’s my least favorite,” she replied. 

Makumbi explained that her disenchantment with Americanah was, in large part, due to what she described as Adichie’s brilliance as a writer, but lack of strength as a blogger. To Makumbi, Adichie was unable to effectively harness and work through the anger of the blog posts which fill the novel.

Quickly, Makumbi offered me other novels to read—Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names was the first on her list of texts I needed to read.

I had not truly understood the extent to which this initial conversation with Makumbi mattered until I attended a session the following day on Chimmamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was still curious as to where I went wrong in responding Americanah. It only took five minutes of that session to see the ignorance in my answer—it was the classic American student’s response. Although remaining a pivotal text, Americanah feels more acceptable to Western audiences, taking place largely in the United States and possibly over-simplifying American race relations. Adichie’s novels Purple Hibiscus and Half a Yellow Sun on the other hand, often feel farther away to American readers, being set fully in Nigeria in the 1990’s and then during the Biafran war.

One woman on the panel explained that, if a student reads Americanah, she then will offer him or her another African text, as it demonstrates a readiness to explore African literature. I had personally read more African authors than just Adichie, yet besides some of greats such as Achebe and Soyinka, most of the works I had read were diasporic—essentially, I was behind and Makumbi could see it. 

The conversation during this particular panel often revolved around the Adichie’s idea about the “single story” of African literature in her famous TedTalk on the “Danger of a Single Story.” Within this discussion, most agreed that her work had been pivotal in insuring that Western audiences have the opportunity to explore African texts.  Yet, it is essential that Adichie, and Americanah in particular, do not remain the only story of African literature.  As the delegates discussed whose voices must be added to the tale, the conversation turned to Jennifer Makumbi—her debut novel Kintu was the greatest African work of the moment according to many at the table. 

Kintu is an incredible piece of literature and one that fortifies Makumbi’s voice within the expanding story of African literature. The novel follows Uganda’s Kintu clan and the family’s curse, commencing in 1750 and moving to the present. Ugandans recognize that the name “Kintu” references Uganda’s creation story, as Kintu was the first man.

Over my time with Makumbi—both one-on-one and as she spoke to an audience—I came to appreciate the true weight of Kintu. It is a work that both celebrates and critiques Uganda, yet its power reaches past the borders of the East African country. Makumbi seems to break rules as she writes, yet, as she spoke, it became clear to what extent those decisions were purposeful.

There were two central themes to Makumbi’s rebellion: the book’s role as an “African” text and the book’s stance on gender. 

The novel was first published in Kenya in 2014, but did not come to the United States until May of this year, and in many ways this is the result of Makumbi’s rejection of Western influences within her novel. 

Most often, African literature revolves around its “post-colonial identity.” Yet, as Makumbi explained, “When you limit African Literature to post-coloniality, there’s nothing else.” It is limiting to write a “post-colonial” work, and a feat that revolves around Europe within Africa. And, so, Makumbi purposefully wrote a novel that skips over colonization and even Idi Amin’s rule—the two most common aspects of most Ugandan literature. Telling a story that begins far before European presence within Uganda and then one that describes a rich and multifaceted present day Uganda that functions entirely separately from European influence, Makumbi redefines her country’s narrative in her own terms. 

“If you are reading my novel looking for Europeans, you won’t find any” she laughed in a panel. Down to the style of writing, Makumbi crafted a novel in which the West will not see itself.  

She wanted an authentic, Ugandan voice to tell the tale.  She had been taught to write as a British academic, yet Makumbi explained to me that, in her view, the strict voice of an academic so often lacks depth and readership.  Her novel would not have reached as many people if it had been written in such a way. So, Makumbi was obsessed with creating her “fingerprint”—a style of writing uniquely her own. Her fingerprint is one in touch with other Ugandans. 

Makumbi tells the story of having her young niece get a hold of a copy of her book. After having locked herself in her room for hours, her niece emerged having finished the novel. “What did you think?” Makumbi asked. 

“When is the next one coming out, Auntie?” was all that her niece replied. She had understood it. So, while Kintu explores topics that may be inappropriate for young readers, such as sex, HIV, and violence, its language​—Makumbi’s fingerprint—is accessible to a fourteen-year-old girl in Uganda.

Makumbi similarly made the decision not to change any names in the novel to satisfy a Western, or even just non-Ugandan, audience. She explained her logic, saying that as a young girl, she had to struggle through Western names as she read Shakespeare and Dickens, so why couldn’t a Western student do the same? 

Why is it the burden of an African author to make her Western readership feel comfortable?

As a Western reader, part of the experience of reading Kintu is an experience of relearning. The novel’s title “Kintu” is pronounced “chintu,” but without having read the introduction or having spent time with the author herself, I would not have known that. And, so I find myself from the first moments of being in contact with her work, needing to constantly check what I know and what I think I know. 

As Makumbi confronts the subject of gender, this same relearning is necessary. The most common disagreement about her work was one on whether Kintu was a feminist text.  Makumbi argues no. In fact, she believes her work is “masculinist.” While many at the conference disagreed with the author, citing strong female characters within the narrative and Makumbi’s own self-proclaimed role as a feminist as reasons for Kintu’s being a feminist work, Makumbi worked to explain herself to her dogged readership. 

“That’s not my version of feminism,” Makumbi said, rebutting readers who believed that Kintu is feminist because women step in when men no longer can do their work. Indeed, she maintained that, “If I wanted to write a feminist text, I would have had all but one of my central figures be women, not the opposite.”

To her, Kintu explores the ways in which the African patriarchy hurts men. So often, she explained, people discuss the negative ramifications of sexism and such a patriarchy on women, but what about the men? Cornered by their masculine roles, many of Makumbi’s central characters are toppled by the patriarchy. As Makumbi said, “There is a lot of oppression in the patriarchy to African men, a lot of performance of masculinity.”

Even in this masculinist text, Makumbi’s feminist voice shines through. She adjusted the traditional telling of the “Kintu” creation story to remove the female guilt. Makumbi explained that, as is typical in creation tales worldwide, it is the first woman who is accompanied by sin, and in this case, the curse of death and suffering.  Yet, in Makumbi’s retelling of events, it is a man who brings with him such a curse, not a woman. Thus, she plays with and questions the roles that gender provides within the patriarchy.

Kintu is undoubtedly essential to expanding the narrative of African literature for both Western and non-Western audiences. After closely following Makumbi during my time at the African Literature Associations conference at Yale, however, I realized that most significantly, Kintu is essential to Ugandans. 

Makumbi’s Ugandan fans see the author as a hero, flocking to her with accolades and thanks. Kintu tells a uniquely Ugandan tale, largely devoid of Western interruption. While such a telling may feel uncomfortable for Western readers, it was not written for such a population. 

As one Ugandan explained, reading Kintu was a deeply personal and visceral experience. Manically reading, she could not put the novel down until she had finished one of its six sections.

It is easy to underestimate the importance of seeing oneself within literature. The West wants to see itself within the postcolonial and diasporic works that have dominated what it means to be an African text. So, while Kintu may feel uncomfortable or “too African,” I come back to Makumbi’s earlier claim—why is it the job of an African writer to make the West feel at ease? Kintu was an homage to Ugandans. However, in the process of working through discomfort, questioning, and relearning, anyone, anywhere can take away an immense amount from Makumbi’s novel.

Makumbi explained to me that diasporic African literature is currently in vogue and she had been urged to write such a novel by publishers because it would sell. But, Makumbi wrote Kintu anyway. Trends pass and date books, she explained. There is a permanence to Kintu that solidifies its standing as the “great Ugandan novel” that it is.