Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1967, and now lives in Manchester. Her first novel, Kintu, was longlisted for the Etisalat prize in 2014 and she won the Commonwealth Short Story prize in the same year. Her first short story collection, Manchester Happened, was published in 2019. She was awarded the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize for fiction in 2018. Her new book, The First Woman, is a powerful feminist rendition of Ugandan origin tales, charting the young girl Kirabo’s journey to find her place in the world.
“How does it feel to have a mother?” is one of the questions at the core of the book.
I didn’t meet my mother until I was perhaps 10 and used to have to think about that question. As a child, I lived with my dad, but he was brutalised during Idi Amin’s regime and lost his mind, so I went to live with my aunt aged about 10. I wanted to explore the idea that if you don’t have a mother you create the idea of one yourself and turn her into a perfect goddess. When Kirabo meets her mother, she mourns the loss of the mother she had created. Those kind of losses I wanted to deal with.
In the acknowledgements, you thank your mother, Evelyn, “who shared her family history and the history of her villages”.
Kintu is mainly set in my father’s world; for this book, I set it where my mother was born. She won’t read the book as she doesn’t read English. She gave me a lot of details into how her ancestors suffered. All that history wasn’t taught to me at school so a lot of people [in Uganda] don’t know about their regions.
You unflinchingly show how Uganda was affected by brutal dictatorship.
The book starts in 1975, three years after Idi Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda. As a child, I was aware of Asians killing themselves during the expulsion, throwing themselves into the source of the Nile. People thought they could just go back to India but they were born in Uganda and it was their home – a lot of Asians were brought to Kenya and Uganda to work as indentured labourers. It’s important that that history is taught in schools.
The theme of home is powerful throughout your work.
I had to write about Manchester as it adopted me. I came to study creative writing as I knew I had stories but needed to learn the skill. The First Woman is the book I wrote for my MA. Writing about place is important for me and place then tells the story.
Much of your work has folklore at its heart.
As a child, I lived with my grandparents during holidays – they told stories in the evening, so I was introduced to storytelling early on. I decided that, even though my writing is literary, I’m going to focus on the idea of a story. That might be because I was introduced to storytelling from the oral traditions of folk tale and fairytale. The element of entertainment, of holding the reader, is as important as the message.
You introduce readers to indigenous feminism that predates western feminism.
This was a major intention on my part. It’s all recorded in our folk tales, our oral traditions. Feminism is failing to take hold in Uganda because of the discrepancy between middle-class and working-class women. If feminism isn’t making headway in Uganda, let’s go back and look at what our grandmothers left behind. In order to explore women’s oppression, I had to go back to the very beginning and explore how women had been repressed.
Kirabo learns about the power of myth.
Life is about making myth. We are constantly creating myths around ourselves as we want people to see us in a particular way. We create myths around individuals and also societies and tribes. The problem is that there are too many destructive myths used to put women down, such as that women lose bits of their brain when they have a baby. Myth-making is one tool to find a voice.
What kind of a reader were you as a child?
The kind who would miss meals to read – when cooking, food would burn. I remember at school being so into Mills & Boons around 12 or 13. I would immerse myself in other worlds. I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when I was very young and still living with my dad, as he had a lot of books; I would look for the thinnest volume and pick that up. It was so African, I could see these characters in my village.
What books are on your bedside table?
Now I’m working my way through Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James; I’m really loving it. I went down to my publisher and picked up a few books so I have Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness and Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Which writers have influenced you?
Growing up, I didn’t think I was going to be an author, but looking back I remember that Kintu was inspired by God’s Bits of Wood [by Senegalese writer and film-maker Ousmane Sembène]. Toni Morrison I discovered much later in life. She reminded me all the time that you just can’t throw a sentence on the page, it must earn its place. Alice Walker. Yvonne Vera was inspiring in terms of being bold and writing about the unsayable. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions.
Do you have a writing routine?
No. All of my stories tend to spend a lot of time in my head before I write them. They’re knocking about and I’m restructuring, so by the time I put pen to paper I’ve learned to draw a road I’m going to take. I tend to write compulsively. If I have something to write, I’ll put it down until I drop.
• The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15