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''You Don't Have to Be a Dead, Old English Man to Be a Writer'': Monica Arac de Nyeko in Conversation with Doreen Strauhs
SAGE Publications The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 2010 45: 151 DOI: 10.1177/0021989409359861 The online version of this article can be found at: http://jcl.sagepub.com/content/45/1/151
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Abstract In conversation with Doreen Strauhs.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29. She also comments on recent dynamics in the literary landscapes of Uganda and Kenya. “Strange Fruit” and “Jambula Tree”.sagepub. Commenting on recent developments in the literary landscapes of Uganda and Kenya.nav Vol 45(1): 151–157. a phenomenon that has been particularly fostered by literary associations such as Femrite (Kampala) and Kwani Trust (Nairobi). as initiated by literary associations such as Kwani Trust (Nairobi) and Femrite (Kampala) and the impact of travel on her view of her identity as a Ugandan.uk/journalsPermissions. a member of Femrite and the Caine Prize Winner of 2007. she discusses the role of creative writers in present-day Uganda and the extent of their responsibility to engage in the socio-political arena. but rather a reawakening of an ongoing dialogue between writers of different generations and society. Copyright © The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: http://www.co. DOI: 10. Monica Arac de Nyeko talks about questions of identity and the power of creative writing. Monica Arac de Nyeko. She has a BA in Education and English Literature from Makerere University and an MA in Humanitarian Assistance from Groningen University.1177/0021989409359861 Downloaded from jcl. As the interview unfolds. Old English Man to Be a Writer”: Monica Arac de Nyeko in Conversation with Doreen Strauhs Recent years have seen the re-emergence of Ugandan and Kenyan writing on the international anglophone literary scene. Doreen Strauhs interviewed her in Nairobi on 25 July 2008. She was born in Kitgum District in Northern Uganda and much of her writing is informed by the ongoing Civil War in this part of Uganda. has gained international attention through short stories such as “October Sunrise”. The interview demonstrates her spontaneity and her refusal to be bound by stereotypes and conventions. she underlines that the present upsurge in creative writing is not a literary revolution. 2010 .sagepub.Interview with Monica Arac de Nyeko 151 “You Don’t Have to Be a Dead.
which was probably during my second year at university. There might be people who are able to map every triggerpoint in their life. African writing. Kenya DS: Do you remember the moment you started writing? MA: No. Wole Soyinka is a very fine writer. is there one you like best or a character you like best or completely dislike? I’ve met writers who have said that sometimes there are characters they can’t stand at the end of the day. DS: What is your educational background and where do you work at the moment? MA: My educational background is probably very similar to every other person’s. I suppose that’s why I write. of course. although I can say that I do remember the time when I started writing more seriously. I don’t go around reminiscing about my characters. Femrite. It used to be one of the best universities. but it wasn’t very distant. I studied Education to become a teacher of English and Literature and I did teach for a while..1 which is sort of what Ugandans call the “Hill of Giants”. I thought it captured the voice of the child very well. It’s a quest. It was very powerful and the characters seemed real and Soyinka’s experience resonated with me.152 Journal of Commonwealth Literature Keywords Monica Arac de Nyeko. Uganda. or stories and characters that touched them a lot in many ways. Although having Downloaded from jcl.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29. which is a very good book as well. but I can’t say that this is true for me. Having said that. For instance. DS: Out of all the stories you ever wrote. I think part of writing is being able to let the story and characters take on a different journey of interpretation by readers and people who come across your works. At the moment I work in a different field. But then I decided to do something else. I studied at Makerere. DS: What was the last book you read and which book would you reread any time? MA: I’d probably read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy again. the magical things about childhood – I found that very easy to relate to.. Kwani Trust. You are trying to communicate something. but I don’t think my work is very relevant to my writing.. The last book I read was Aké by Wole Soyinka. MA: I’m not so attached to my stories in that way.sagepub. It was a Nigerian story. It is a very beautiful book. Maybe I have something interesting to say . DS: What keeps you going as a creative person? Where do you draw your inspiration from? MA: Writing is an impulse. 2010 .
artistic and cultural works. One of my earliest stories “October Sunrise” is a story I would write again. I like “October Sunrise”. literature was not relevant. I just think that we are sort of going through a time where there are stories being told and they are stories of our time. the biological relationships. the motivations. There has been a demystification of the writer and writing is becoming much more of an engaging thing.2 whereas others have been less enthusiastic. I think Ugandans today are more likely to pick up a book and the stories that are being told are gaining another relevance. and I mean in general. not just in Africa? Downloaded from jcl. the voices. as you read it to pass exams and that was that. stating that these recent literary energies are not a revolution. this is sort of like drawing fault lines. I find that very interesting because I remember when I went to school. a kind of reawakening arguably brought about by a more democratic atmosphere”. but rather “an upsurge of creative. It’s about a child’s quest for a father and a story about her journey from not knowing this father. the dreams and aspirations of their time. although a friend read it the other day and thought it was quite sad.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29.Interview with Monica Arac de Nyeko 153 said that. the time. The writers always represent their time. I think the generations of writers are absolutely complementary. DS: When looking at the literary landscapes of Uganda and Kenya of the past ten.sagepub. if you like. It seems like then you are talking about them here and the others there and that there is no point of interaction. It’s a story I would write again. There is so much going on and it is definitely an interesting time to be a writer. and the disappointments and a realization about the fluidity of. because she was moved to live somewhere else and coming to eventually meet this father and the circumstances around them. fifteen years. Writing is moving from behind to the forefront I think. it is also true that sometimes you reread some of the things you wrote and they surprise you by the fact that you were able to capture the voice. when you talk about this old and new generation. the motives. DS: Is that where you would say there is a difference between what some critics have called the older and more recent generations of writers? MA: You know. DS: At times it seems African writers especially are expected to sort of engage with their socio-political arena. people sometimes speak of a literary revolution. All these years. the characters and the world of the stories in a way you did not think you had at the time of writing. moving out of the classroom. I thought it was a completely upbeat story. I think it’s an absolutely continuing dialogue with society. 2010 . What would you say is the role of the writer in a society. not only specifically in Uganda or Kenya. 3 What is your view on these literary dynamics? MA: I know for sure that I really have to read quite a lot.
. It’s good when people can relate to stories. you know. DS: When you write. I can complain. you can do it. That for me would be exactly the reason why I would never be able to produce a story. We have to build institutions and provide that choice. My writing journey has been very beautiful and it’s a great time to be me. That is as important as building schools or preserving an eco-system. I’m enjoying my writing experience. What do these things mean? You can’t completely dismiss the labels for they make things easier for some people as they can categorize you and so on.sagepub.. Writing about Kitgum for instance. But at the same time. I write because I enjoy it and it is great when it finds a relevance in the larger scheme of things. It’s something you have to do. DS: What’s important. Downloaded from jcl. But for me. But these labels also come with a lot of heavy baggage sometimes. “Ugandan writer”. which foster creativity and encourage ideas. They are everyone’s problems and that’s why everyone has to do their bit.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29. which is where I’m from. Ideas are very important. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that those problems are not writers’ problems. they have been important institutions that have given us space for ideas. outstanding. But I do understand that some people feel like they are being labelled: “African writer”. interesting about such literary associations as Femrite5 and Kwani Trust?6 MA: You know.154 Journal of Commonwealth Literature MA: I think it is a little irresponsible to say that you just write your stories and that’s where you leave it at. But at the same time I’m very wary about these very big expectations of writers. But for me right now there is nothing to complain about.. my writing is not motivated by any sort of huge agenda. but at the same time I write because there are certain things you cannot ignore. Literature is just part of an equation. Through such organizations writers were also invited more often and were given more space to talk in public. It’s like everything else is. for me is almost an imperative. “black writer”. It’s part of a dialogue. 2010 . You need more such bodies.4 And I think that’s important. or those writers who supposedly start to write because there is this really big political problem and they go and solve it. DS: In which ways do you think fiction in general – not looking at any specific continent – can contribute to the mindsets of people and civil society? MA: You know. But if you as a reader find that the stories other people write or that I write are relevant . I think that is absolutely beautiful. so that people know that if you want to write. do you have an audience in mind that you would specifically like to read your work? Do you feel people assume you write first and foremost just for a Ugandan audience? MA: I suppose that once I start writing my books. because you have to capture the things there which we mustn’t forget and which should never happen again. you know.
identity is a very fluid thing. both the ones known to you and the ones that are not. That’s why we have to write. Then my Ugandanness becomes more acute when I’m outside the country and all of a sudden I’m extremely patriotic. That can become a bit uncomfortable for some writers. because you are many things. I’m Acoli first. my Ugandanness. Why do we do the things we do? Why do things move you? I think that is interesting. Sometimes you need to step out of your comfort zone. I am African. to realize that.” So definitely my writing has been enriched by different experiences. At the end of the day we are all human beings. Our motivations as human beings are a very complex thing. somebody else will come and write your stories for you. what would this definition be? MA: You know. Because if you don’t write your stories.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29. Who are you? I am Ugandan! It becomes absolutely important. unravelling or sort of puzzling over the human condition is part of the reason why you write. maybe you discover that your mother is not the best cook in the world. So I’m many things and it’s good to be that because I wouldn’t like to put myself in a pigeonhole. For me at the end of the day I will write what I feel like. opens up possibilities and all that remarries the ideas you already have. because if we don’t that is lost. You can’t quite say exactly what you are. It’s almost something you take for granted. of your space. I’m Arac. You can choose to call me whatever you like. 2010 . And it’s certainly necessary to step out of Uganda to realize how Ugandan you are [laughing] and how much it is home and how much you are absolutely attached to that and how important it is for you to actually keep writing your stories. makes you think about certain things differently. It is great if you read my work and if it relates to you because at the end of the day there is something like the universality of the human experience. We have this saying in Acoli: “You think your mother’s cooking is the best. I’m Monica. DS: If you could define your identity yourself. DS: How has travelling and living in different places influenced you and your view of home. So you sit and watch a movie about Uganda and mourn that this is such a bad representation of your country.sagepub. Being human. because being in somebody else’s cultural context or place challenges you. Downloaded from jcl. Not yet. I suddenly come to defend Uganda. but when you go to another house.Interview with Monica Arac de Nyeko 155 The fact that you are being labelled in a certain way comes with a lot of heavy bundles of meaning and attached assumptions. At the end of the day for me. And when this idea is challenged. I’m Ugandan. For the longest time I always knew I’m Ugandan. of the world and in which ways has it influenced your writing? MA: There is a beauty in travelling. Those labels don’t bother me.
you see that there is a lot of interest and that people are very keen on writing or reading. For me this is one of the things that I can translate into my writing. You don’t have to be a dead. Like rejections – that not all your stories are going to speak a truth. I don’t know the exact period since when this is the case. is a great thing. Part of it is going to be blood and bones on the floor. I don’t know? Heaven! Is it possible? Would a dream society be good for us? If we had no wars to fight and no things to sort out? I think things are just the way they are and I’ve come to accept that. It’s not always going to be fun and nice. But coming to a place like Femrite. whether it’s through travelling or through a book that reveals something to you you didn’t know or you wouldn’t have thought about in quite that way. DS: What do you think non-Ugandans can gain from reading Ugandan literature? MA: It’s the same thing: You have to step out of your cultural context to learn. DS: What do you love most about being a writer? MA: The freedom! Every body of work lies with me and I love this freedom of feeling that I can influence the stories and that I should. DS: What would your dream society look like? MA: Oh. If people want to write. to the Monday Readers-Writers-Club at Femrite. go on and do it. And as a writer these are sort of the things you go along. And we must visit other cultures. old English man to be a writer. for instance. And there was quite a lovely boom when we had a lot of poetry nights. where you can share ideas and aspirations. The imperfections of this world – that’s what your characters will represent and that’s what will make them interesting. I’m not on a search for perfection because I haven’t seen it yet. There are definitely a lot of interesting things and people are writing a lot more. I don’t think you can speak of trends. Downloaded from jcl. 2010 .sagepub. But if you go. It’s an ongoing dialogue from a long time ago. The drive of wanting to know. All these seas that have been crossed in the search for spices … is the never-ending enigma of exploring the unknown. It’s not there. DS: Do you have any final comment or recommendations for people who want to start writing? MA: [laughing] I don’t know.156 Journal of Commonwealth Literature DS: Are there any topics or trends in the present Ugandan or Kenyan writing that you see or that appeal to you? MA: I don’t know. I come from a place where I grew up thinking that there was no space for me to write.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29.
Uganda.. Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman note in their article “The Continental Shelf”. 118). To date. Kwani Trust was officially registered in 2003 as an autonomous literary association in order to provide an institutional framework for the management of its annual literary journal. Kitgum is a district in Northern Uganda. Oluoch-Olunya. like Doreen Baingana and Goretti Kyomuhendo.] The African revolution is on your doorstep […]” (p. Kwani? has become for East Africa what the magazine Transition used to be in the 1960s – the most visible literary journal in the region of East Africa with both continent-wide and international recognition.com at University of Sussex Library on September 29.Interview with Monica Arac de Nyeko NOTES 1 2 157 3 4 5 6 Makerere University in Kampala. The founding of the journal was spearheaded by Binyavanga Wainaina. Mary Karooro Okurut. July 2007. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Kenya Kwani? Litfest [. along with a number of other prominent Kenyan artists. Nairobi: Twaweza Communications. 2010 . It was established as Uganda’s Women Writers’ Association in Kampala in 1996 and has been nurturing emerging female writers since then. have been female and in one way or another have been associated with the organization. the first Kenyan Caine Prize Winner.sagepub. 118-26: “Those in the know are buzzing about an African literary renaissance. Kimani Njogu. eds. Having attended the Kwani Literary Festival of 2006 in Nairobi. By now. Cultural Production and Social Change in Kenya: Building Bridges. where people have been victims of kidnappings and brutal attacks by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kwani?. Vanity Fair. Kimani Njogu and G. most of the contemporary internationally renowned writers from Uganda. 2007. 3. in 2002. Introduction.. Downloaded from jcl. p. Femrite was initiated by the Ugandan writer and former Professor of Literature.. pp.
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