African Writers’ Corner
Interview with Monica Arac de Nyeko
2009-02-26, Issue 421
Born in 1979, Monica Arac de Nyeko comes from Kitgum district in northern Uganda. She grew up mostly in Kampala, but attended high school in Gulu, northern Uganda, for some years.
She has a degree in Education from Makerere University, and a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Assistance from the University of Groningen (Netherlands). She is based in Nairobi, where she works for IRIN, a humanitarian news and analysis agency.
Arac de Nyeko is the first Ugandan to win the Caine Prize, although her counterpart Doreen Baingana has been shortlisted twice. Prior to winning the prize in 2007 with ‘Jambula Tree’, she was shortlisted in 2004 for her story ‘Strange Fruit’ about child soldiers in Gulu. ‘Jambula Tree’ was published in ‘African Love Stories’, an anthology of stories by African women edited by Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo (Ayebia Clarke Publishing). The chair of the judging committee, Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub, described ‘Jambula Tree’ as:
‘a witty, mischievous story about a love between two people and the effects of this relationship on the community in which they live. It’s got a very lively, very mischievous tone, it’s funny, and it doesn’t follow a straight-through narrative line but weaves around, bringing you slowly into the center of the narrator’s thoughts.’
We meet the two protagonists of ‘Jambula Tree’, Anyango and Sanyu, as schoolgirls and best friends. We accompany them through a first-person narrative in the voice of Anyango, as they mature into their own bodies, become aware of a growing passion for each other, and experience a tragic forced separation when their relationship is discovered by the adults around them. The story is set in Kampala’s Nakawa Housing Estates, similar to the estate where Arac de Nyeko grew up. In a 2007 interview with Saudi Gazette, Arac de Nyeko said:
‘It is a story about love, very innocent, very pure. You may think it’s sad, but I think it comes out in the end like a triumph; in the way she narrates it you get a sense that it’s OK.’
On herself as a writer, she says:
‘I write to understand myself, the world around me, the things that have come and passed and those that are yet to come. I am Arac, a woman, Acoli, Ugandan, a daughter, an aunt, a sister – all these things shape my existence and fascinate me.’ (BBC interview with Molara Wood, 2004)
Shailja Patel spoke to Arac de Nyeko in Nairobi for Pambazuka News:
Shailja Patel: What is your writing process? Do you schedule writing time? Write when the urge takes you? Write alone or with others?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I used to write much more sporadically. These days I am trying to give it a bit of discipline. I write after work hours and on weekends, mostly alone.
Shailja Patel: Who are your favourite writers? Why?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I will tell you the books I have read more than once this year. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Wole Soyinka's Ake. And Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, has also made a strong impression on me.
Shailja Patel: When did you begin to call yourself a writer?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: Perhaps two or three years ago when everyone started to call me a writer.
Shailja Patel: How did it feel to hear that you'd won the Caine Prize?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I was stunned at first. Then later, humbled. It was a great experience.
Shailja Patel: Tell us about your experience of the Caine Prize residency at Georgetown University.
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I enjoyed the experience. It was a good place to be. Janice Delaney, the residency administrator, had worked with PEN/Faulkner for several years. She brought the same enthusiasm and professionalism to the residency. So did Mark McMorris, who is an associate professor in charge of the programme. Everyone at the faculty was great.
Shailja Patel: What's the strangest question/comment you've received on Jambula Tree?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I would not say it was the weirdest question. But everyone assumed I was gay when they read the story, and they seemed genuinely surprised that I was not. Later, I felt that I should not have explained anything to anybody. Because my sexual orientation was not relevant to the story, and the story was good on its own merits.
Shailja Patel: Do you feel Jambula Tree has put you in the role of a spokesperson for African lesbians? Do you accept that role, reject it, ignore it?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I do not feel pigeonholed at all if that's what you mean. I was happy that everyone seemed excited. People embraced the award and I got so much encouragement.
Shailja Patel: The Caine Prize confers professional credibility for African writers – opens doors to agency representation, international publishers and platforms. What advice would you give to future winners and nominees on how to make the most of those opportunities?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: Enjoy yourself, dust your shoes and get on with writing!
Shailja Patel: You've spoken before of the conflict between your vocation as a writer and your responsibilities to your family. How do you balance the two?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I would not call it a conflict. Perhaps it is me who worries about these things. I am not sure what my family thinks of my writing. I suppose I have to ask them sometime about this. My sister for instance has (I assume) not read most of my stories. My nephews and nieces whom I am very close with don't ever mention it, or seem to notice that I spend a lot of time fiddling and trying to write.
In Kitgum, which is where I am from and where most of my extended family lives, people talk, but most of the time, it is about me and the fact that I have grown so much. In Naguru Housing Estates where I grew up in Kampala, I think people are vaguely aware of my writing. It is not the point of reference when they think of me. But to be honest, I do not sit to talk about my writing much with my family, or the people who knew me before I even thought about writing. That is just the way it is.
Shailja Patel: Jambula Tree is written as a first-person narrative, which makes it even more powerful and moving. Was that a conscious choice? Did you experiment with different voices? What's the difference for you between writing in first and third person?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I like my stories better in first and second person because it gives an intimacy with the characters and I sublimely own those stories more. I also find those two forms easier than the third person generally.
Shailja Patel: How do you deal with the exposure and expectations that the Caine Prize has brought you? Have they made it easier or harder to write?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I am aware now that I cannot be talking about being a writer. I actually have to write, so that's that!
Shailja Patel: In an interview with the Saudi Gazette in 2007, you said: ‘We haven’t quite captured our history; the story has not all been told, there are still so many stories, so many viewpoints, so many discussions, so many emotions, that have to be captured in fiction.’ What kind of stories do you want to read about the African continent that you don't see out there yet?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I think people should write whatever they want to write. Writing is not prescriptive. It is good to see several recent books tackle head-on a lot of complex themes and predicaments on the continent. That is what good stories should do.
Shailja Patel: Do you believe you have a social or political responsibility as a writer? To the continent, to Uganda, or to the other writers who look to you as a role model?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I care about Uganda, and see my writing as important in the sense that I have things to say. There is so much that has not been written about Uganda. Our history especially is a very rich tapestry. I do not think politicians should be the only pacesetters of our past, present and future. They are terrible custodians of truth, and writing offers a good antidote. Fiction, I find, often unpacks the bigger and more complex issues, by giving these collective memories a human and much more intimate face and story.
Shailja Patel: How did your family respond to Jambula Tree?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I do not think most of my family have read the story. But let me tell you the post-Jambula Tree story anyway. You see, I wrote Jambula Tree in a rush to meet the deadline for submission to the anthology. At the time, I did not believe it was going to be read widely at all. So, although it is not a true story, because I was so casual about it, I was not creative with my name picking. Our neighbour at the time was Mama Atim, and I gave this name to the character who discovers the two girls and causes trouble. When the story did win the Caine Prize, and Jambula Tree got read on BBC, Mama Atim and her family heard it on air. They were terribly upset (naturally) as we have know them since 1984, when we moved to live in the estates, and they have been good neighbours.
I was away while all this was happening. So my sister did the mediating, explaining that the story was fiction and if they just read it, they would know. When my sister next spoke to me, she told me to stop using names of people I know.
When I went to Kampala, I went to see Mama Atim with my head under my armpits! She has known me since I was a kid running around the house with no clothes on. So I felt in many ways that I had let her down.
Anyway, I shan't be using names of people I know in my fiction.
Shailja Patel: Can you recall the books you read as a child that made you want to write?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: From about 12, it has got to be the African Writer's Series (Heinemann). Because my sister was studying literature and she talked a lot about these books, so did my uncle. I remember the early edition cover of God’s Bits Of Wood, by Sembene Ousmane, which used to be in my uncle's book cabinet. That flamed hand and the firm grip, powerful images. They stayed with me.
Shailja Patel: Has living in Kenya changed your writing? Have you written about the ‘Kenya crisis’ of early 2008?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I do not know that my writing changes that dramatically. I have worked in a couple of different countries, but whenever I sit down to write, it is Uganda that is immediate for me.
Shailja Patel: Why prose fiction, rather than poetry, screenplays, or any other genre? Did you choose your medium, or did it choose you?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: I just find it easier to write prose fiction and enjoy the process more.
Shailja Patel: Other than literature, what feeds your creative soul?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: Music. Jogging.
Shailja Patel: What are you working on now?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: A novel. I have been saying this for ages! But yes, a novel.
Shailja Patel: If the Monica of today could have a conversation with the Monica of ten years ago, what would you tell her?
Monica Arac de Nyeko: Gal, what did you do to your hair?
* Monica Arac de Nyeko was awarded the 2007 Caine Prize for her work Jambula Tree.
* Award-winning Kenyan poet, theatre artist, and political activist Shailja Patel is 2009 African Guest Writer at the Nordic Africa Institute. She guest-edited Pambazuka’s special edition (Issue 417) on ‘Kenya: One year on’.
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