“The dark person is coming.” Author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi talks to Northern Soul
Jennifer Makumbi’s father was a bank manager in Kampala. It was 1978, at the height of Idi Amin’s reign of terror, when her family’s lives were changed forever.
To get a fix on what happened when ‘Manchester Happened’ – the title of her recent short story collection – we might bear in mind what took place that day in the Ugandan capital.
“He worked at Standard Chartered,” says Makumbi. “So, this army general comes in and writes a cheque – what my dad describes as a rubber cheque. The teller fears to tell him, you don’t have enough money so it passes to another person, and then another person, and then it comes to my dad. Now my dad, bless him, he was a straight arrow. Someone people would say was without self-awareness. He said, ‘What is wrong? Tell him!’ And everyone looked at him. So, he came down and spoke to the man. He said, ‘You’ve asked for this amount of money, but you have this amount of money, so you can’t.’ And the man said, ‘No, you’ve got to give me my money.’ My dad said, ‘No, write it out again and we will give you that amount. That is what you have.’ And the man left.
“When my dad finished work, he always left the bank much later than he closed. As soon as he stepped outside, he was grabbed. He was thrown in the boot of a car and taken away. They took him to the barracks, and he was brutalized. He was badly beaten. We had an uncle in the army, so he started going around, and that’s the only reason we got him back. He was away for a month, and when they brought him back, I’d never seen my dad like that. He would squat in the corner and yet no one was hitting him. They’d cut off his hair. Two months later he started losing his mind. He never recovered.”
Makumbi was ten. Reanimated now in the swelter of an Oldham Street publishing office in Manchester – we meet on a stifling city centre day in July – such a memory is a wound which can never adequately be dressed. Can fiction transcend such things? When last year the author made her debut with the epic Kintu, its great sweep ranging freely across centuries and social strata of that comparatively small, United Kingdom-sized African nation on the banks of Lake Victoria, critics were moved to ask: is this the great Ugandan novel? Will it do for that country what Chinua Achebe did for Nigeria with Things Fall Apart?
As if drawing a line beneath such grandiose notions, the new collection narrows the canvas to examine the lives of a cast of characters who fetch up in the city Makumbi now calls home (she teaches at Manchester Metropolitan University having arrived in the city to study creative writing in 2001). Included in it is Let’s Tell This Story Properly, her tart histoire du coeur of a woman who discovers on her husband’s death that he has a second family. That story was the winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize back in 2014, setting the author on a trajectory which ultimately led her to receive last year’s Windham-Campbell award, a whopping $165,000 grant bestowed annually by Yale University to writers of outstanding promise.
So, with the literary world potentially at her feet, will Makumbi be training her eye on Amin and the terrors of her youth?
As a writer, she insists that isn’t necessarily where she’s coming from.
“In Kintu I address it from a working class point of view. The working class were not affected. In my next novel I address it from a middle class point of view. But even then, I don’t take on Idi Amin. Because Amin in my time has been written about and written about and written about, and there has been very racist writing about him, in which I felt I was implicated as a Ugandan. That he was a madman. That he was a cannibal. When you hear that he was a cannibal, and you know for a fact that in the past we were considered cannibals, you know that that’s racism coming from the colonialist. So, I thought no no no…I’m going to separate myself from all that. The idea that Amin was a monster is a very European thing. For us, Amin wasn’t a monster. Amin was human.”
The looking glass for liberal westerners
The hair is corn-rowed, the voice earnest, the vowels chiseled, few syllables unstressed – the mid-life intellectual with the academic armoury. As a product of Kampala’s Islamic University she says she’s conscious of how the dictator – associated in popular memory with 70s news footage of the tens of thousands of Indians and other ethnic Asians who were expelled from the country – was responsible also for the rehabilitation of Muslim society, following the suppression of that community under British rule. To her own mind, likewise, her work forges stubbornly against the grain of how African literature has been conceived until now.
“The writer’s gaze has been outward,” she says. “I want to turn it inward. We write our books like we’re writing for the western world, so we gloss. We make it easy for them to understand. When these books travel back to Africa everybody reads them. People say: ‘You’re writing to us like we don’t have a brain, like we don’t know our culture.’”
There’s been encouragement in the emergence of other voices. NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-shortlisted novel We Need New Names concerns a girl who uproots from her Zimbabwean shanty town to live in the States; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing follows the descendants of an Asante woman across generations. Both writers advance the decolonization of African literature, writing to the vernacular and foregrounding the group at the expense of the individual. “By the time I read Noviolet’s book mine was also with the publisher,” Makumbi recalls. “I thought, ‘Ah! This makes perfect sense!’ And it gave me a lot of confidence.”
There’s a whole politics here, of course. While it’s commonly said that the defining masterpiece to emerge from the continent is Achebe’s 1958 classic – concerning the arrival of European settlers in the late 19th century – to Makumbi’s way of thinking the novel nevertheless remains a looking glass for liberal westerners to seek themselves in the text.
“He wrote it by hand, put it in the post and sent it to London to have it typed, along with £30. Apparently, the typists put it away and took the money until he sent someone and said, ‘can you go to this typing pool?’ Now I’m sure along the way the typing pool corrected him. And you can imagine how much input his agent, Alan Hill, put into it. And then finally the publishers, Heinemann. Achebe was back in Nigeria, what could he do?
“Uganda’s troubles began post-independence, when we realised that the people taking up the reins were merely imitating their masters. And yet the writing kept coming back to the empire to be published.”
Kintu is a whole different kettle of ekyennyanja. An epic in many senses, its six books trace the cursed bloodline of one man: the eponymous Kintu Kidda, a provincial governor in the days of the old kingdom whose pilgrimage to greet a new ruler is marred by the accidental slaying of his son. Generations down the line, a fragile young girl finds work in the house of a wealthy family, a young disc jockey’s life is wracked by the shadow of HIV, an old man wrestles with the ghosts of a family decimated by war…but is there a patterning in the chromosomes of the tale, an echo in the fates which sees the narrative renew itself across the ages?
It’s a mode of storytelling rooted in history, folklore and oral tradition (Kintu is the name of the first man according to the Gandan creation myth; oral tradition retains strong roots among the culture) holding a looking glass to a nation – if you’re drawn to that kind of perspective – while at the same time largely disdaining to foreground western preoccupations with the ‘mad dictator’ or the colonial period which preceded him. Just as Bulawayo’s novel sees its young narrator Darling’s favored pronoun – ‘we’ – give way to a tell-tale western ‘I’ as she relocates to America, so Makumbi refuses to conceive of her own as the tale of a lone protagonist at large in the world. “A person is a person because of other people,” reads a famous South African poem, a sentiment reinforced both in African culture and the literature of Makumbi’s emerging generation.
“I’m not so broke now,” she smiles, when asked about the success the novel has brought her. “That was a huge thing. And I know a lot of people in the literary world don’t talk about the money but hey you know I have been doing certain jobs for a long time, then I didn’t have a job at all, and then somebody came and gave me this money and it was, ‘oh I can do this job and someone can look after me’.”’
Scanning the frontiers of racism at Manchester Airport
Published this year, Manchester Happened explores from a Ugandan perspective the experience of migration to the land of mizzle, Moss Side drinking dens and Man United. “Everybody that comes intends to return,” says Makumbi. Except it doesn’t always happen that way, of course. Some do, some don’t, but most – as we begin to appreciate over the course of 12 finely nuanced tales – become alienated from themselves in some way. There are stories of Departing and stories of Returning, preceded by a prologue (Christmas Is Coming) in which we glimpse several of the characters at a curdling house party – albeit through the eyes of a boy whose mother is succumbing to the indignities of alcoholism.
Between the arrival at Salford docks of seaman Abbey on a 50s merchant ship (in Our Allies The Colonies) and teenager Masaaba’s Twitter-fuelled quest for traditional circumcision in the land of his fathers (Love Made In Manchester), the stories paint in a cast of displaced and distracted figures: two colleagues navigate the frontiers of racial tension while scanning passengers at a Ringway airport security gate (Something Inside So Strong); a Stockport family pick up the pieces of the broken home they left behind when returning for a wedding in the old country (My Brother, Bwemage); while in the title story a young woman watches helplessly as her teenage sister acts out a wrenching parody of assimilation.
“The British don’t give your culture a visa,” says Makumbi. “So, I talk about immigration in terms of family. People back home don’t understand the whole idea of ‘immigrants’. It doesn’t make sense to them. Because we have migrants…Sudanese, Congolese, Kenyans, Nigerians…but that’s what they are, Sudanese, Congolese, Kenyans, they’re not ‘immigrants’.”
If the culture at large in this country is forbidding, then the culture in letters is one which can be self-deluding. However many years on we may find ourselves from those feelgood summer hits White Teeth and Brick Lane there are those who would still decry the ‘multi-racial’ metropolitan novel, familiarly London-set, in which the alienation and homesickness experienced by first or second generation migrants slowly but surely gives way to a sense of belonging. In recent years, Manchester has inspired works which both reflect and reject that formulation: Sorayah, the young businesswoman in Zahid Hussain’s The Curry Mile finds herself in fearsome conflict with the Rusholme patriarchy in a punchily-plotted drama of the popular stripe; James, the nine-year-old boy at the centre of Joe Pemberton’s Forever and Ever, Amen is half-wise to the dark secrets of a ‘60s Moss Side household in a more challenging take on the ‘multi-cultural’ novel.
Makumbi’s pessimism goes deeper, to stand the metropolitan model on its head. As she says: “Everybody that comes from Uganda to this place intends to return, but as you see they’re false returns, non-returns. So, there’s that thing…yeah, we come back but look how we come back. How we come back home and find that the world we left behind has gone. How they don’t understand us. How we don’t understand them. That part is very important for me.”
As with Kintu, the stories of Manchester Happened can seem at times almost incomplete in the way they require the reader to work, to fill in gaps in order to discern how and why the characters rub against each other in the ways that they do. In that sense, of course, they’re psychologically real and true to life. In the layered, perfectly realised scenarios and carpented prose can be spied glimpses of the research, the thinking, the autobiography bound up in a writing style which betrays as much graft as effortless gift. The lamplight expended on them – some of it in tandem with Manchester’s celebrated writers’ development agency Commonword – reflects the years Makumbi spent toiling in nursing homes as a support worker for the disabled and mentally ill, or wielding a wand at airport security gates at all hours of the night. She’d imagined before she arrived in Britain that she’d be able to teach in order to support her studies – back home there’s a vague conception of western society, she says, of how a white person can be poor, or how a middle class status in Uganda does not translate to a middle class berth in the UK. In order to hold up that mirror to the Ugandan nation, then, she had to spend years in North West England looking after people unable to look after themselves.
The dark person
She hadn’t, she says, understood the experiences of her cousin, who settled in London in the 1980s.
“I was supposed to join her. She was always writing me, always calling me, always telling me what was going on. Always on the phone. ‘I hear the police downstairs! My visa’s expired!” I had no idea what she was talking about. And then when I came, I finally saw what she was talking about. I have a very bad relationship with London.
“She died there. Her name was Naji. She died of HIV. I think she dated to get a visa and this gentleman woke up one morning and told her ‘I have HIV’ and left her. When she died, she died of heartbreak rather than the disease itself.”
How we process our differences goes to the heart of who we are, both as individuals and as a people – no less so than today, with the country in the grip of a toxic culture war. If we demonise the other, see the world in terms of monsters, madmen, cannibals and projections of our fears then we stoke up conflict for the future, unaware that we ourselves may be the ones to unleash it.
Why write about monsters when mice lead such difficult lives?
All of which begs the question, how does Makumbi view the Brexit debacle in light of her experiences on these shores?
“There’s a mid-life crisis for this country,” she says. “The West has enjoyed a long time where it had the power, the knowledge, the everything, and the people who are in power right now are absolutely frightened. It’s the idea that they’re going to be annihilated. They don’t know how to be dominated. They don’t know how to not be in power…the ruling class, the ruling race.
“Their grandparents were slavers. There’s always that fear that the dark person is coming. [Nobel prize-winning South African author] Coetzee writes it very well in Waiting For The Barbarians: ‘They are coming…’ This is where the far right are coming from, but of course their fear is not only race it’s also gender. Women are coming, the gays, the transsexuals. We’re dead!”
Photos of Jennifer Makumbi by Danny Moran.
Manchester Happened is available to buy now. For more information, click here.
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