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Chatting with Monica Arac de Nyeko, Caine Prize Winner
By Ayesha Attah
Uganda's Monica Arac de Nyeko won this year's Caine Prize for African writing. Her short story, Jambula Tree, was the eighth winner of the annual Caine Prize. Arac de Nyeko, born in 1979 in Northern Uganda writes of life in Africa. Jambula Tree is a short story about adolescent love between two girls. Ayesha Attah interviewed Arac de Nyeko for The AFRican.

How do you feel about winning the Caine Prize?
Of course I was really excited then, but now I'm really humbled more than anything. It's a great thing in so many ways, because in a sense the writing process is extremely lonely and you never know if you're making sense to yourself or to anyone else. It's just a wonderful time for Ugandan fiction. The Ugandan writing scene has just been revived, but it went through very difficult times. For instance before 1996, no one was writing. Uganda had a very difficult history so in a sense the arts suffered as well, until 1996 when the Ugandan Women Writers came in and started to encourage writing not only for women but for men as well. I feel honored!

When did you join the Uganda Women Writers Association?
I joined it in 1999. I was in my second year at university, that's when I started writing a bit more seriously. I started writing but I didn't even know then that it was called writing. I remember passing by Femrite and I saw the sign for Ugandan Women Writers and then I thought, maybe what I've been doing is writing. With them, I met all these renowned Ugandan women writers, who had produced books, who we were always reading about in the papers. We had Ama Ata Aidoo, we had all these writers come in, we had workshops, it was just a very wonderful, we called it, "sisterhood." [We came together] to write and to share, to talk about, to challenge and encourage each other, and to just continue believing in the written word and its potential to communicate across tribes, across borders.

What triggered the writing of Jambula Tree?
The way I write, if it doesn't touch me, if I don't feel inspired then I won't write about it. Particularly the debate on same-sex relationships, it's a very strong one and a very difficult one, not only in Uganda, also in several other African countries. A lot of people still find it a very difficult thing to talk about. In the past month, maybe couple of years, there's sort of been articles in the papers, it's something that a lot of people are going to be juggling with. I would like to think that is what triggered [Jambula Tree], because same-sex relationships have been presented as something perverse. Given religion, given culture, and in a sense there's a demonization of it.

When I started writing about it, I guess I just wanted to write, but the way the story sort of unfolded, you give the characters a voice and then you give the power of the story telling to them, and then it surprises you as well. Because you do not see it coming, and I thought that that was the beautiful thing about it. I think what was interesting in Jambula Tree is that the community's reaction is extremely harsh and severe but then it's contrasted against the other things within the story. For instance men come across as aimless and angelic but they are not exactly angels. And then you have the community gossip who keeps on disorganizing things and creating chaos, but in the space of the story, they are perfectly acceptable. So in a way there's a double standard and a certain level of hypocrisy within the lines. If you look at the story properly, it has lots of surprises and that is what I hope people do not miss. Because people present it as a story about a terrible subject, but it's about many things. It's about poverty, it's about dreaming, it's about innocence, it's about love. It's a very rich story in that sense, it's about trust and all these issues come alive in the story.

Did you have lingering doubts of what your mother and others would think?
When I started writing initially, I was extremely aware of myself and thought of how potentially the stories I wrote affected the people around me. I thought of myself as a daughter, as a sister, as an auntie, "what would they say?" But then it's time to move away from that because it's very restrictive. The beauty in writing is that we have to present these things, and some of them are very crucial issues, and we need to talk about them, so I try not to restrict myself and I try not to worry about that. It will blind you, you will not move forward if you consider all this. When I won the Caine prize, my first reaction was "Oh my God," because then it meant now so many more people were going to read it. You start to worry. Sometimes we preempt, we think of our audiences. Audiences can surprise you. You can't exactly foresee the reaction or what you will get. For me, this has been the beautiful thing.

I remember I told my sister who is an extremely important person in my life, because in so many ways she raised me... I hadn't told her so I called her. She said that's a good thing, you've done all this work, and I thought if I didn't win I wouldn't have to tell her what the story was about. And when I won I called her and said actually the story is about two girls. And I said "aren't you worried?" She said, "Why should I be worried? I didn't write it, you wrote it." So you can never forecast the reaction. It's been great in Uganda. Because really it's a story about love, it's not about these two characters being dodgy, it's not a perverse story, it's innocent and very honest, and if people can't see that, it's a shame. I think it's a good thing if people bring their own experience for the negative or positive to a body of work. If you ask people to read you, you have to understand where they are coming from and they have every right to react to the story the way the story appeals to them. It's part of the whole dialogue and it's a beautiful thing.

You've said in other interviews that you're not a lesbian. How were you able to make your characters credible?
Love is love. It doesn't matter if it's between two women, two men, it's an experience. I know it sounds like I'm not taking responsibility when I say I let my characters talk. I really trust the characters to tell the story. I think with Jambula Tree, the most credible thing was the reaction of the community. It was an over-reacting community and we see it all the time.

People say it's a story between two women, does it mean you're a lesbian? I think in a way it's a very irrelevant question. I've read books where people write about dogs and cats, does it mean they are dogs? Does it mean they're cats? If someone wrote about the Rwanda genocide, do they have to be Rwandese? It's your own license as a writer. I think it's such an interesting question because it seems to only arise when you write about a taboo subject. I think subject matter should not be restrictive, if you feel the need to write about anything, you can carry it along.

Did you have a Mama Atim in your neighborhood? [Mama Atim is the neighborhood gossip who exposes the girls]
[Laughs] I think you have a lot of Mama Atim's in the world. Mama Atim is a very universal character. And it's not only in communities, in any place where you have a group of people. Based in school setting, anywhere. It's very universal in terms of who she is. The thing is with a lot of Ugandans who read it, they are going to say "I know this person. Are you talking about my auntie, are you talking about so and so?" Experience is huge and it's so easy to interact on that level that people can identify. I remember from school we read about all these characters and you don't see yourself in them, you don't see the people that you know. Like for instance when you see Mama Atim, the way she stands over her saucepan, it's an ever present image.

"Like ants on a cob of maize", "like water during a drought", "like cow udders in space" to describe Mama Atim's breasts over her saucepan... You have these amazing similes. Where do you get these images from?
It comes from who I am. I'm Acholi. The Acholi language, like a lot of African languages, is extremely rich in terms of imagery and in terms of language. It's an intermarriage of your language, of your growing up... and you come up with these expressions. When people read Jambula Tree, for instance, there's a section where for Mama Atim, [there's an expression] the monkey behind cannot laugh at the monkey in front's tail and Mama Atim laughs. I've met so many people who talk like that. So it comes almost naturally.

Do you go through writer's block?
I'm not a prolific writer. I'm not one of those writers who says every morning I wake up and I have to write this amount of words. I don't write like that. I don't want to put that pressure on myself and I don't work like that. I can go for one or two years without putting anything on paper. If something hits me..., sometimes it's when something gets you angry. I work with triggers. When something triggers and then I write. Then I can get quite aggressive about it. Everything stops, and it's me, myself and the story. I work like that based on inspiration. I have an idea of so many stories that I would like to write, but I wait for them to come to me. I like to write about the conflict in the north and growing up.

How long did the writing of Jambula Tree take?
It came to light quite quickly. It wasn't a story I struggled with, like for instance, Strangefruit, which was earlier shortlisted for the Caine Prize, I spent at least a week getting the first concrete draft. Jambula Tree came in one sitting. I sat down, looked at the computer, once the first line came to me, I did it in one sitting and then I sent it to my friend, and they looked at it and gave me their comments. That's not to say all my stories are like that. Some you struggle with and they just don't shape, and you don't like the way they're unfolding and you say, "okay, your time is not yet." Jambula Tree came easily. It's new with every story.

On U.S. writer's residency:
This is going to be my first writing residency [laughing], and I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be at Georgetown University and I think that's a great thing because we need to bring it to America. I think it's a wonderful connection. It's just a great thing, followed by something a lot more practical, because you have time to write. Everyone is asking where is the novel? Probably when you're done with the novel they'll say where is the next one? So in terms of being practical this is a good thing. Because I have a full-time job, so you try to juggle your life around everything else. It's going to be a wonderful experience because I've never done it before. I haven't done an MFA or approached creative writing extremely formally, so this going to be great learning. I worked as a teacher for two years, so I'm curious about how the whole thing works- writing and academia.

Fascination with stars?
There's a personal essay I wrote about the conflict in Northern Uganda called In the Stars. Stars are never-ending, always there, very reliable. In a sense they are these immortal beings going to be there for ever and they see everything. For me the sky up there, heaven, such abstract things just fascinate me.

Photo Credit: Allan Gichigi

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