After the Nobel Peace Prize, there are very few literary honours that can beat the Windham Campbell Prize. And that's something that first-time novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi can safely say she's ticked off of her list.
The honour from Yale University was awarded to Makumbi for her debut novel, Kintu. The book focuses on the myths and customs of a family from Uganda who believe that they have been cursed, and she poured herself into writing after moving to the UK 17 years ago. Despite the epic storyline, when she pursued British publishers, she was told that her writing was “too African”. She was advised that her book needed more Westernised characters, settings and storylines, as those are supposedly things that readers like when reading about Africa (which speaks for itself with regard to the whitewashing of minority voices and experiences).
Her book was finally published in the UK back in January, and Makumbi is the first winner out of eight to have won the prize having published only one full-length work — which goes to show just how phenomenal Kintu is. The most wonderful thing about her work, though, is her authenticity and how she uses her writing to tell fellow Ugandans about life outside of their country.
“I write the stories as a way of writing back to Ugandans, informing them what happens to us,” she told BBC Africa. “I'm telling them, ‘You want to come to Britain? Hang on a minute. First read my story.’”
Many people of colour who work in the arts are often told that their work is too Other, and requires westernising in order to connect with audiences, but this roots firmly in white supremacy and the lack of spotlight that has been placed on minority talent in the past. Makumbi's honour at Yale just goes to show that your roots — in her case, her “Africanness” — do not, and should not, be compromised in order to have success.