Interview with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, shortlisted for her novel The Kintu Saga

Where and when did the idea for The Kintu Saga come from?

Initially, the idea for The Kintu Saga came from my father’s mental illness and the anxieties surrounding the heredity of such a condition. However, the idea quickly evolved into something bigger when I travelled to Britain and saw, in Western media, how Africa is portrayed as a place of insanity. Somehow, the two ideas merged as the novel took shape.

Can you tell us a bit about place or places you wrote The Kintu Saga from?

I write everywhere! On the settee in the living room, in bed (I have a notebook on the bedside), on the bus (I use the phone) – ideas don’t wait until you are seated at the table to come to you; idea come everywhere and anywhere and I can’t afford to lose them just because I am in an inconvenient place. I carry yellow stickers and note down the ideas in short form. There are yellow stickers and pens in every handbag. When I go to the cinema and the film does not start immediately, I wonder off to the sitting area and pull out a chapter that needs editing. I carry a chapter print-off because I am always waiting in lounges – hospitals, offices and train stations. Last December my husband put his foot down and said that in the week leading to Christmas and the week leading to New Year’s Day there would be ‘no writing, no reading: put your books away!’ That was the only time I switched off. Mostly, I write in libraries. I have a library card for most of the libraries in Central Manchester. So The Kintu Saga was written in all sorts of places.

What inspires you to write?

I tell stories to entertain – to laugh, to cry, to gasp, to wonder. I try to share triumphs and heartbreaks, pain and joy, love, life and death. The most important element in a novel for me is enjoyment. But I also write to debate, to discuss, to provoke and to questions things: I especially love to poke at ‘truths’. All these things, in my view, contribute to pleasure.

Tell us about 3 writers you admire and why?

Chinua Achebe – I have found that it is not easy to write with Achebe’s simplicity and ease. His prose is so taut it bounces. You will not find a redundant phrase in Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God. But most of all, when it comes to evoking an Africa before Europe, Achebe is a wizard.

Yvonne Vera – On the surface Vera is intimidating because of her often lyrical and dense and minimalist language. However take a bite into her prose and you will be hit by waves of flavour after flavour. There is so much to discover beneath the surface and the pleasure is immeasurable. I was lucky to study her novels and I discovered that there are so many ways of writing.

Binyavanga Wainana – It was a pleasure to discover One Day I will Write About this Place. I had not enjoyed a book the way I did this one for a long time. For some reason, Wainana evokes childhood the way I know it - yet I am Ugandan. His language does acrobats on the page too. Most of all, his memoir is a pleasurable way to take a walk through Kenya’s recent history,

How did you hear about the Kwani? Manuscript Project?

I found the call to submit on the African Writers Trust website but at the time the earlier deadline was expiring and it was too late for me to read my manuscript and submit it. But then later I noticed that the deadline had been extended, my tutor too sent me a link confirming the extension. I printed the novel off and edited hurriedly. I was excited that someone on the continent was going to read my manuscript.

If you had to describe The Kintu Saga as a cross between two other novels, what would they be?

The closest that The Kintu Saga comes to being a cross between two novels is perhaps (and this is tenuous) between Achebe’s Arrow of God – the relationship between Ezeulu and Obika is somewhat similar to that of Kintu Kidda and his son Baale – and Patrick Neate’s Twelve Bar Blue set in a fictitious African country that sounds suspiciously like Zimbabwe. Twelve Bar Blue is an epic that spans centuries. It is about fate, family, friendship and jazz.

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