Yesterday I anchored the 'In Conversation with Monica Arac de Nyeko' session during the Word Power Book Fair. Above right, the winner of the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing - reads from her award winning story, 'Jambula Tree' - about the so-called 'taboo' lesbian relationship between two girls, and the price they have to pay in their unforgiving community. After her reading I engaged the Ugandan writer on her writing. She also took questions from the audience.
Among the audience were writers including: 2004 Caine Winner Brian Chikwava, Chika Unigwe (who was on the 2004 Caine shortlist with de Nyeko & Chikwava), ANA President Wale Okediran (on a visit from Nigeria, he attended both days of the book fair), Koye Oyedeji, Delia Jarrett-Macauley (author of 'Moses, Citizen and Me') and Dr. Vincent Magombe (earlier in the day I sat with Magombe on a panel, 'Focus on African Literature' - chaired by Jarrett-Macauley).
Q & A With the Audience
Dr Wale Okediran: Monica I’d just like to say: Congratulations. Like you I’m from Nigeria where the issue of same sex relationships is being hotly debated. My question is whether you wrote the story [Jambula Tree] with the Caine Prize in view, like some do when they want to write for a Western audience, they try to write what [Western readers] like. Would you have been able to publish this in Uganda?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I believe good stories are always being published, and sometimes good stories do not get published. So in that sense, yes. When we [FEMRITE members] first started writing, people were saying: ‘You’re women for God’s sakes, what do you think you are writing?’ But, NO, I did not write the story with the Caine Prize in mind. I think if you write with competitions in your head then you’re going to be one very sad writer because they’re not very easy to win anyway.
Dr Vincent Magombe [exiled for over 20 years from Uganda because “I dared to write a play about Idi Amin”]: Noted de Nyeko’s reticence about being a ‘voice’ for community or nation, but suggested that in recognition that fellow scribes have suffered for a better society, there ought to be conviction in today’s writers to say: I have to do something about this situation [MW paraphrases Magombe].
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I think it’s a very difficult thing, to take on a voice and to defend a particular community, because the assumption has been that people who are suffering do not have voices. But I do not think that’s always true. For instance, in Northern Uganda people are telling stories. You have kids who are painting; you have people who are very vocal on radio stations. People are talking about it and people are not silent. But [as for me taking on their voices] NO, I do not think I can because, you know, it would be a pretence, to understand, or to feel completely that I can represent... Unless you’ve lived it, every minute, unless your legs are being chopped off, unless you’re being raped. It’s a reality, and you cannot pretend to be in someone’s shoes. I do not want to pretend that it’s something I can do, because I can’t. What I can do is try to understand it; and writing is my way of doing it.
South African writer in the audience: Asked if the writer feels it’s necessary to defend ‘Jambula Tree’ or any other story, to let readers know what the intention is, in writing the work [paraphrased].
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I don’t think it’s necessary to defend a story. Once you ask people to read your story, I think you have to understand that they have different experiences and maybe their reading of [the story] is completely different. If I wanted to, I could go around writing Reading Guides saying: this is how you ought to understand it, but it’s much more complex. I think part of the joy of whole thing is that people take it and are free to choose, to interpret or misinterpret it however... that is much more interesting, to me. Another thing is that when I write, I am very sure this is what I want the character to do sometimes, but when people interpret it, then I’ll say: that’s interesting! So I think it’s a sort of learning and re-learning.