Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is the author of Kintu, which The New York Times Book Review calls “magisterial” and The Guardian describes as “a novel that is inventive in scope, masterful in execution….she does for Ugandan literature what Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian writing,” and Let’s Tell This Story Properly, a collection of short fiction which Publishers Weekly calls “thoughtful, eloquent.” Her newest novel, A Girl Is a Body of Water, is a fascinating, sweeping, and compelling family portrait, centering on Kirabo, a young girl growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in Uganda. It is also a thoughtful exploration of girlhood, womanhood, and feminism, featuring a cast of strong and vivid aunts, grandmothers, and friends. Kirabo doesn’t know who or where her mother is, and enlists Nsuuta, a witch who is entangled with Kirabo’s family, to try and find answers. She also wants to get rid of her emerging secret self, which is causing her to fly. As Kirabo grows older, her relationships with her family, friends, and herself deepen, alter, and grow, and her understanding — and the reader’s — of the world around her, and the past and the stories from which she comes, is vastly enriched. In a starred review, Kirkus raves, “A magnificent blend of Ugandan folklore and more modern notions of feminism….This book is a jewel.” And Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King, writes, “[C]aptivating, wise, humorous and tender….[M]ost of all, this is a book about the stories that define us, and those we tell to redefine ourselves. A riveting read.” We’re excited to present A Girl Is a Body of Water as Indiespensable Volume 88.
Jill Owens: I read in a Publishers Weekly article about you that you’ve been working on A Girl Is a Body of Water for 20 years. How did the book begin, and what are some of the ways that it’s transformed over that time?
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Well, the book started back in ’98 when I was a teacher. I had a headmaster. He had come from Kent, England. He had started the school in a rural suburb of Kampala. Kampala, at the time, was such a small city.
He started to live over there. He noticed that people woke up in the morning and went to work. They were not sitting being lazy. He said, “Jennifer, people are working.” I said, “Yeah, that’s what people do.” He said, “Well, people in England think that all Africans don’t work. They sit and wait for aid.” Then he said to me, “You must write. You must write and tell the world that Africans are not sitting here waiting for aid.”
It didn’t make sense to me. I just did not understand what it is like to imagine someone not working and sitting there waiting for aid. He had no idea that aid doesn’t come down to the common man. It stops somewhere in the corridors of the big guns.
Anyway, later I started writing, but I wasn’t writing to tell the world that we are not lazy. And what came out were these characters. I think I wrote for two weeks nonstop. I remember getting a scab on one of my fingers because I was writing with a pencil.
Afterwards, I read it through and I didn’t like what I’d written, so I threw it away. A friend who was working on her keyboard skills asked me to give it to her and she put it on a floppy disk. At the time, they were floppy.
She said, “Oh, I enjoyed it. Can you write some more?” I wrote a little bit more, but again, I lost interest because I found out that she didn’t understand literature very well. She was telling me that Orwell’s Animal Farm was about the French Revolution. I thought, OK. If that’s what she thinks, then I can’t trust her reading. I put it away.
The same girl came to Britain and she saw Manchester Metropolitan advertising a writing course at MA level. She enrolled me, and after three years, I decided, OK. I’ll do it. I came and started working on the novel then. I was actually writing a novel, and I finished it in 2003, but it was rejected. I worked on it, sent it back in 2005, it was rejected. Worked on it again, sent it back in 2008. When it was rejected, I put it away.
When I came back to the same story after my first novel was published, of course I was an older writer, older in years but also in maturity and in confidence in the way I write. So I rewrote the novel again. It didn’t change very much. At this point, I incorporated the element of the first woman as coming from the sea. That was an aspect I was handling in my PhD, which didn’t work out, so I decided to incorporate it into the novel.
That’s how it started. That’s how it changed along the way.
Jill: One of the things that I loved about it is that it does so many different things. It’s a coming-of-age story, and an examination of storytelling, and feminism, but it’s also this wonderful giant family saga. I was really interested in how all those different pieces wound together.
I want to tell stories that no one has ever told.
Makumbi: What I did was tell the story, really. In the beginning, I just concentrated on the story. What happened to this girl? What happened to her mother? Who is this woman’s suitor? Who is her grandmother?
I was interested in women and how we make friends and how we keep those friends through the years. I had Kirabo and her best friend, Giibwa. At that time, I had her mother also and her best friend, and of course, her grandmother and Nsuuta. How women love women through their lives.
I was interested in the grandmother’s life. I was interested in the mother’s life. I was interested in Kirabo’s life. It’s only much later as the novel developed that I decided, OK, I’m going to focus on this theme. I’m going to focus on this idea. I’m going to focus on that idea.
For me, the story is key, and it must be interesting. It’s out of that story that all the themes emerged organically rather than setting out and saying, OK, I’m going to write about this theme or this idea. No, I set out to write a story and write about a certain character.
Perhaps that’s why it takes me a long time. After writing the story, then I start to unpack what is going on and see: Where can I fit the idea of childhood and traditional childhood in Africa? Where can I fit the idea of traditional African feminism? Where can I fit the idea of women as oppressed beings and how they relate to each other?
All of the themes that I was handling, I had to check whether they can fit into this story. Otherwise, they’re left out.
Jill: The novel starts with Kirabo looking for her missing mother. That absence continues to be a central part of the book that the story circles around.
What interested you in creating a strong female character who is missing, arguably, the most important female role model or connection in her life?
Makumbi: I didn’t say, I’m going to create a strong character. Kirabo turned out that way. The circumstances I put her in made her.
The fact that she was loved and she was worshiped by her grandmother and her grandfather gave her a certain level of strength. The absence of her mother gave her a certain level of strength. Of course, then Nsuuta, who had noticed something in the girl, built it up. Kirabo was not aware at the time that she was being built up or being groomed in a positive way.
All those experiences that she goes through, like going to her father’s house where she imagines that she owns her dad and her dad is hers alone, and she finds out that she shares him with two other children and another woman. Then the way that woman treats her.
All of those aspects create her character. I think that’s how we are made, in a way.
Of course, at the back of it is this idea that runs in the family, which she must have heard someone talking about, that the women in the family are the strong ones, that the men are silent. She might not have paid attention to it, but it was there in the back of her mind.
Jill: She is beloved by so many different people, and particularly women, within her family. There are many wonderful portrayals of different women, who all understand what it means to be a woman, and sometimes a feminist, very differently. That’s something I really love about the book as well. Was portraying that really rich variety of the experience of womanhood across generations and personalities something you wanted to do?
Makumbi: Yes. I intended it to show different strengths and different ideas of awareness of feminism.
The reason for this is that I grew up with women, whom now, looking back, I would say were feminists, but they would never, ever describe themselves as feminists. [Laughter] But their actions, the way they were, for me speak to feminism.
Indeed, I don’t go out of my way to say that so-and-so is a feminist, because that word also is foreign, and to a certain extent we don’t fully understand what it’s doing. That’s why I came up with a local word, mwenkanonkano.
Auntie Abi is probably a feminist, but she doesn’t see herself as such. She’s just a woman who is making sure that she lives her life the way that fits her. Even Great Aunt Nsangi is a feminist, but I don’t know, her kind of feminism is ridiculous. [Laughter] She is only feminist when it suits her, and she’s oppressive when it suits her.
Again, that’s the way she’s chosen to live comfortably. It’s all about people being comfortable rather than forming a movement and saying, Ooh, we’re women.
For me — and this is how I have experienced feminism — it is not necessarily people going out and talking about it. It’s everyday women waking up in the morning and finding ways to survive. These women tend to push, and they push against the patriarchy or oppression. When it gets too hard, they compromise, they cajole, they pretend to be weak, and then they push again.
Those are the women I know, and those are the women that I wanted to write about, rather than these “I’m a feminist and I’m ta-da” people, because that’s not the life I’ve lived. Those are not the people I’ve seen.
Nsuuta is the only character like that, but that comes out of the fact that she had grandmothers who were captured as slaves. And most of all, she started to search herself, her inner self, when she lost her sight. That does something to you, and it is understandable that after acquiring all this knowledge, she wants to pass it on to somebody. She suspects that Kirabo is probably the right one.
All of those women, including Grandmother, who is the most docile, are all surviving. They’re all pushing and then pulling, and waiting for a moment when they feel like, OK. I can be.
How else do you handle pain except with humor?
Jill: That’s exactly how I read it, and it’s great to see that variety. They’re all using all of the tools in their arsenal, and they’re trying to make their lives better for themselves and their families.
Makumbi: Absolutely. I think the one that I had problems with was her eldest aunt, who was all, “A girl kneels. A girl does this.” But again, you can see that she’s married to a very insecure man. This is how she handles his insecurities. You can see her strength when she’s not with her husband. That is very common where I come from.
Jill: She’s considered male in her brother’s house.
Makumbi: Oh, absolutely.
Jill: Nsuuta and Kirabo have such a wonderful relationship. As you were just saying, during the first section of the book, Nsuuta is trying to pass down this knowledge to Kirabo about the importance of storytelling and the original state. Where did the idea for the original state of womanhood come from, and what did you want to explore about the creation myths there and the story of women?
Makumbi: The idea of the first woman… of course, we have the creationist myth. Kintu was the first man and Nnambi was his wife. In the beginning, because I had written Kintu, I was intending to write Nnambi.
But for some reason, that is one thing I failed to push into this story. I tried with the four main characters: Kirabo, Nsuuta, Grandmother, and even Kirabo’s stepmother. None of these characters could carry the weight of Nnambi, who is the mother of the nation, so I abandoned that.
As I have told you before, I was already looking at the idea of woman as perceived as coming from the sea. Because the oldest oral traditions are actually from my culture, and when I was doing my first degree, I did oral tradition as literature, and how to look at those stories — because they are coded stories and all you have to do is to unpack, decode, and find out what they are doing — I had already worked out that most of them were pointing to the idea that the first woman came from the sea. And so I connected that to the way women were being treated.
I wanted to explore two things. One was the idea that feminism comes from the West, and therefore, feminism is destroying our culture. So I needed to locate feminism in my culture. For me, I had to start from the beginning. When did women start to get oppressed? I needed to look at my people, my culture, from the moment it happened: Why did it happen, and how did it happen?
That’s when I start to show that not only being big, tall, loud, strong, and whatever became ugly, but that we started to persecute it out of ourselves. Then I bring it into the present to show we are still doing it.
The idea came out of my PhD, but I could link it to the oral tradition, and I could put it into this story. I needed to tell the Ugandans, the Africans, and the world that this is where it started, this is how it started, and this is how we are perpetuating it. Therefore, we have a way to undo it.
All of that is geared towards showing my culture that we had feminist thought before the Western feminism came. If you think Western feminism is wrong, OK, let’s get rid of it, but let’s look at what we have here. In the end, you’re going to find that they intersect.
Jill: From the very beginning, feminism was already there.
Makumbi: Yes. Maybe Western feminism does not deal with myth and how it happened, but here’s the thing: most women, most of our lives, and most of what we are is enshrouded in myth that men have created. I am going to get my own myth that suits me and explains my situation.
Jill: It’s interesting that when Kirabo and Nsuuta have the storytelling contest, Kirabo can find very few stories about men, because all of the stories are about women, about controlling women, but also about women pushing back.
Makumbi: Yes, absolutely. At that point Kirabo doesn’t even know what she’s doing. There is that one story that Nsuuta asks her about the lukokobe. This is the woman who, in the evening, comes out of her lair and seizes a man. [Laughter] Kirabo had no idea whatsoever what was going on in that story. It’s only later that she connects the story to her stepmother as a clinging woman. But that is not what the story is about at all.
At that point, I’m saying to the reader, We have a 12-year-old here. She can’t deal with women’s sexuality. She can’t explain this story for you, but you’re going to work it out yourself, and hope that along the way, one day, she will be able to work it out too.
Jill: Yes. At some point, Kirabo says that she thinks that Nsuuta forgets that she’s only 12.
Although the way you write her voice, it always comes out. She’ll just gloss over what she doesn’t understand or save that for later.
Makumbi: Yes, absolutely.
Jill: Kirabo thinks at one point, when they’re having the storytelling contest: “There was nothing like telling a story that no one else knew.” Growing up, or just in life, do you ever feel that power in storytelling?
Makumbi: Yes, I was aware that when I write novels, I want to tell stories that no one has ever told. I want my readers to come up and say, “Wow, that took me by surprise.” As a reader, I tend to second-guess and imagine, and when I come to the end and know what is coming, I’m so disappointed.
Perhaps one of the things that I learned when I did the PhD was not to write if you’re not bringing anything new to the table. You must do something new.
Perhaps I became more aware of it in the first section when Kirabo is asking to tell her story and no one will let her. I came back to this novel after Kintu was published, and I remembered all the rejections. I had a twinkle in my eye when I was rewriting that first section and the way Kirabo is rejected, and the silences. That was like, Yeah, I get to write back to the publishers.
Jill: I liked the language in that part. When the teenagers don’t want to hear her story, you write: “Their rejection gripped the room like a sly fart.” Another one was when Kirabo’s grandmother asks her: “Are you going to stand there all evening like an electricity pole?” It’s such a specific, surprising image.
I wondered how you thought about the humor and the tone throughout the book.
It was so, so freeing to find out that I could write like this.
Makumbi: Thank you. The humor, for me, is a very necessary tool. If I have tools to write with, and I have a pen and a computer and whatever, I have sarcasm, I have irony, and I have humor. Those are my major weapons because most of my books are dealing with serious issues.
Sometimes my anger can spill onto the page. This is when I unleash my irony and humor so that it is not so obvious, or I don’t come across as preachy. I do that intentionally, and I am aware of it.
The humor is also a very Ugandan thing, I think. In Uganda — especially for someone like me, I have lived through a lot of wars and a lot of pain, in terms of HIV, a lot of death — we have started to treat everything humorously.
You could be talking about somebody dying and dramatize it with people laughing, but actually, how else do you handle pain except with humor? Most of the plays that I’ve seen in my language tend to be humorous even though they are tragic. I think I carried that with me as well.
Jill: In the PW article, you said that once you realized that you were writing for a Ugandan audience, you didn’t have to be as careful about what to write or how to say something. How did you make that decision, and how did that change your writing process?
Makumbi: You remember the PhD I told you that I didn’t complete?
Makumbi: One of the chapters was about reception, the reception of books and readership. That was the first chapter. The second chapter was about women as aquatic beings.
I wanted to look at what happens to an African novel — and I limited myself to an African novel — when, as an author, you are anticipating both the African and the Western readerships, and for me, when I looked at those two, there were certain books, which I won’t mention, where I could see that the author had both audiences in mind.
You could see that the subject matter was aimed at Africans, but the style, language, and all that tended to go to the West. I thought, OK, as an author, I need to study this.
Of course, that dissertation was rejected because according to my supervisor, we read the same, because Africa was colonized and there are Africans in the West, so obviously we read the same, which is absolutely not true, but…
Jill: I have to say, I would really love to read this PhD thesis, because it sounds fascinating. If anyone ever wants to publish it, I would love to read it.
Makumbi: I thought I was doing something incredible, but they were not impressed. But anyway, after studying the way people read, the way people receive text, and, if you anticipate an audience, how you then write for them in a way that allows them to create the text as you go along, I realized what was going on with African writing. I realized that, for a long time, because our books are published in the West, edited in the West, marketed in the West, and reviewed in the West, we tended to write for the Western audience.
Africans have turned their backs on our writing because they are aware that we are not writing for them. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be explaining certain things, wouldn’t be saying certain things.
At that point, I decided, OK, I’m going to write for the Ugandan audience. I’m going to have a Ugandan girl, boy, woman, man in front of me, and I’m telling the story to those people. The minute I started to write to those people, the language changed. The subject matter changed, and even the structure changed.
The only way I can explain this is… you know now that I’m talking to you, I’m talking in a particular way. But if you put a Ugandan in front of me, then I go [exuberant laugh, gestures]. I do all of that because I know that’s how we speak. It’s what I’m doing in my book. I’m doing all those gestures because I’m writing to a Ugandan audience.
It was so, so freeing to find out that I could write like this, the West would understand, and they would enjoy it.
I look at it this way. You know the Mona Lisa, the picture?
Makumbi: That was drawn before cameras. That woman looked at Da Vinci while he drew it. 500 years later, I sit in front of that woman and she’s looking at me. I think that’s what good literature is like.
Jill: As a Western reader, I think a great pleasure of A Girl Is a Body of Water is that I don’t know everything. I don’t know a lot of the references. And as you were saying earlier, I don’t want to come to a book and know everything that’s going to happen in it. I want to be learning something new, and be taken by surprise, and that’s absolutely one of the reasons I loved this book.
The relationship between Nsuuta and Alikisa, Kirabo’s grandmother, was one of the most interesting to me in the whole book. How did you decide to move back in time and give them their own section when they were young women, where the reader can learn their history and how much that has informed everything else that happens in the book?
For me, the story is key, and it must be interesting.
Makumbi: That was the final part I added to the book, their childhood. In the beginning, if the book had been published in 2003 or 2005, that part would have been missing. After I’d written it, I wrote back to one of the people who had rejected my book. I said, “Thank you. Thank you for rejecting it,” because I noticed that it had grown.
For that, I did a lot of research. I went back to Uganda and looked at what teaching was like back in those days. I couldn’t find anybody of that age to talk to. There was no one in my family with whom I could talk. We have a lot of grandmothers, but my grandmother who is still around has dementia, so I couldn’t talk to her about it.
But I did I enjoy writing Alikisa and Nsuuta. I enjoyed exploring childhood. That village where they are is my mother’s hometown, Nattetta. That’s where she was born. I had to go back and talk to her and her older brother about what Nattetta looked like when they were younger.
My mother was born in the ’40s, so it’s only 20 years’ difference. She would be perhaps Nsuuta’s daughter. It’s not far, and she took me to her school. She told me what the school was like.
I built on that, and I actually built on her grandfather as well. That old man, Nsuuta’s grandfather, I took him from my mother’s family. I just made him a terrible person. Thankfully, my mother doesn’t read my books. She doesn’t read English, so she has no idea what I’m doing with her family.
I did a lot of research. Perhaps that’s why it comes across as quite beautiful, because I was writing a world that I had been told about, that I had imagined, and that was tangible to me through my mother.
Jill: I also really appreciated Kirabo and Sio’s relationship. It’s really moving, and I think you capture well what it’s like to have known someone from childhood and to go through these different versions of what that connection is as you’re both trying to navigate your lives, sometimes together, and sometimes apart.
I found the relationship between the two of them realistic and beautiful.
Those never felt right to me. The story was always so perfect, even when things went wrong. And each one of them was very beautiful. I read them at a point when I believed what I read, rather than realizing that this is fiction. So I took it for granted that, Oh, this is how people fall in the love in the West. I hadn’t fallen in love like that.
Of course, where you have a permissive culture and a non-permissive culture, things happen differently.
Also, in my culture, there’s that denial that 13-year-old girls are still pristine and untouched by love and whatever. I just wanted to put it there for the girls to see that what is happening to them has happened to a girl in a book, to remind people how we fall in love in Africa, because it’s especially that very first love, when you’re very young. You don’t know what’s happening to you. You think, Oh, my God. I’m a terrible person. Why is this happening to me?
I wanted to share that, first of all, with young African girls. Also, to say to the West, “Ah, this is how we do it as well.”
Jill: We talked about the humor in the book, but there’s so much other writing and imagery in the book that I loved. Very early in the book, there’s a sentence that says: “There is no satisfaction like clapping a bloated mosquito out of existence midair.” When I read that, I thought that it was a perfect sentence.
Makumbi: Thank you. That one comes from malaria. When you’ve suffered from malaria, I’m telling you, you see someone picking up something as big as a bat to kill a mosquito. It is so tiny. That’s how much we hate mosquitoes. Every time you hit it, you’re like, Oh, yeah.
With the language, I’m aware that I can’t use the old adjectives. I can’t use the old metaphors. Once it’s been used, then it becomes a cliché in the next book. I know that I must keep the language fresh, and it must be doing something new.
These days, you can’t just write a good story. The language must be exciting as well. I’m always reminding myself that you can’t throw lifeless sentences on the page. You must use metaphors. If you don’t use metaphors, you must use descriptions that are new, that no one has used.
Because I am writing in English, and I speak another language, it’s very easy to go back and borrow things from there. Things that have been said, but also, things that I’ve seen. One of the things that I tend to do when I’m writing or when I’m editing is to read Toni Morrison.
For a long time, Toni Morrison reminded me that you just cannot waste prose. You have to be very tight, and each sentence must work hard. With that, I am pretty aware. Again, that’s one of the reasons it takes me a long time to finish a book.
When I start editing, then I start to look at sentences: Can I say that better? Does it come across?
Jill: Has the pandemic changed anything about the way that you’re writing now, or your writing process?
Makumbi: I stopped writing. I didn’t write at all in March, in April, or in May. I’ve only started writing again in June.
I did get the virus, but it wasn’t so bad. I just had a very high fever, which tended to tip into hallucinations. I didn’t have breathing problems. I did stop tasting and smelling.
Jill: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.
Makumbi: Yes. But compared to what other people are going through, for me, I believe that that’s nothing.
What happened then was that I started to get fevers every evening. At around this time, I would get a fever. Then in the morning, it was gone, and I would be OK. But during the day, I was unable to read, I was unable to write, and then the fever would come back. I think I had the fever for like three months, but it was degenerating, getting thinner and thinner. I did not read. I did not write.
Once we had to close down, I had piled my books up and I said, That and that and that. That’s what I’m going to read. Every morning, I’ve looked at these books and thought, Goodness, what a waste of my lockdown. I have piles from last year that I could have read and caught up with my reading, but I didn’t and I didn’t write.
So I started writing in June, but other than that I don’t write any differently. The only thing that has occurred to me for the first time is that I am going to take a break. Ever, for the first time ever, I am going to take a month off, and not write, and not think about it. I don’t know whether I can do it, but it just occurred to me that I’ve got to stop for a while. [Laughter] If there’s any change, that’s the biggest change.
I spoke with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi via Zoom on August 5, 2020.
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Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2013 and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. Her story “Let’s Tell This Story Properly” won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Jennifer lives in Manchester, UK, with her husband and son. A Girl Is a Body of Water is her latest book.