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African Writing Archives


Monica Arac de Nyeko


Monica Arac de Nyeko

Arac de Nyeko is a Ugandan writer living in Nairobi. She is a member of the Ugandan Women Writers Association (FEMRITE). She won the 2007 Caine Prize for her short story, Jambula Tree. On 14th October 2007, she discussed her writing with Molara Wood, at the Word Power Literature Festival & Book Fair, held in London

Photograph: Molara Wood



Wood: You have said that ‘Jambula Tree’ is not the kind of story you choose to write; it chooses you. Why would you say that this particular story chose you?

Arac de Nyeko: Often I sit and decide that this is what I want to write about, but as the process goes on you realise that it’s coming out totally differently from how you had set it out. That is how I approach all my stories. And since I do not feel like I set forth immediately with a preconceived idea of what I want to say, I kind of feel that all my stories, including this one, choose me. But particularly ‘Jambula Tree’ because if you’re familiar with the social commentary in Uganda right now... I mean, I wouldn’t choose to write about something as controversial, and something that’s almost guaranteed to infuriate a lot of people. I just felt it was a story that needed to be told. When I started ‘Jambula Tree’, it sort of just wrote itself; and so I feel like it chose me.

MW: So you had anticipated that this would be a controversial subject to write about. Did it turn out like that after the publication?

AdN: When it was published it was all right. It was when it won the Caine Prize that everyone sort of said: So, you’ve written this thing! I was very weary at the beginning particularly after the story started getting a lot of visibility, and after a lot of people started reading it because when you have a wider audience, that is when everyone starts to say what they think. But thankfully, in Uganda it did not turn out like I had thought, because the very first coverage by the papers sort of set the tone for how everyone talked about the story and how people chose to perceive it.

MW: Did the Caine Prize influence the reception of the story?

AdN: I think in Uganda, whether your story has won something or not it will be judged on its own merits. But I think in this particular case, the way the media covered it pretty much set the precedent. And also, the writers who were asked for commentary were extremely positive. Also because... in the beginning I was very defensive. I kept saying: I’m not gay, I’m not gay.

MW: Which should not be a relevant question for you to have to answer.

AdN: Exactly. I regret that now. Maybe if I hadn’t said that however, they would have set a totally different pace. But I think it helped, so that people sort of saw me as a writer, perceived as a writer. ‘As a writer, you’re given these very many liberties. You are a writer, so you’re crazy enough to write about these things’ – that was the reaction. But the topic, right now in Uganda, is still very contentious. It’s something the society is still grappling with, and I’m talking across all sectors. I’m talking about people in schools, in churches, our political leaders... And not only in Uganda, but elsewhere as well. The Anglican Church is battling with it.

MW: You have said that you wrote the story at a time when homosexuality was a burning issue in Uganda. Can you relate the kind of discourse that was going on in the media and in the larger society on same sex relationships? What pushed you to tackle this subject matter?

AdN: I think the matter of same sex relationships, like any other subject, comes into the discourse from time to time. There are times when the debate is very hot; it just takes something to trigger it and you get all these reactions. In this particular case, it was at a time when our minister – because we do have a Minister of Ethics and Integrity - I think we’re the only country with such! I don’t know what exactly his job is, but he had said: If this is the choice that you make, then we have a right to persecute you. Not in so many words, but that in essence is what was going on. For those who are familiar with Uganda, ‘Jambula Tree’ to a very large extent, was about coming to a compromise. To say that intolerance has never resolved anything. In Uganda we have so many things going on that the last thing you need to put full weight on, is this. We have a war in the North; people are dying; over 1.6 million people are in Internally Displaced People’s camps; we have a history which is very difficult; we have at the moment a very contentious political atmosphere; people are worried about transition. These are very serious issues that everyone is apprehensive about.

MW: I read the story again last night. There are subtexts that I read in there. Mama Atim who is very active in persecuting the girls is a case in point. It’s a depressed community isn’t it? There is an economic downturn. As you said, so many other serious things going on, why persecute people who are different? At the same time, is there a suggestion in the story that all those serious issues are the very reason why people take out their frustrations on individuals like the two girls in the story?

AdN: The social setting is the Nakawa Housing Estate. I grew up in Naguru Housing Estate, and this is pretty much how Naguru is. In Naguru, you do not even need a controversial thing to set people off; your crime can be wearing something nice and the neighbours would be ganging up against you and calling you a slut. So that is the sort of atmosphere. However, I do not think the reaction in the story is due to that; in the space of the story it’s totally different. But you’re right in the sense that the estate that represents the disillusionment with how the country is, sort of addresses issues of class, economics. It’s the kind of thing we call, ‘grasshoppers biting grasshoppers’. You don’t know how to deal with the issues and you are biting each other; and I think that is the reality in Uganda and in the space of the story. Life is very difficult for a lot of people, a lot of people are very disillusioned, a lot of people are struggling. And sometimes this frustration manifests itself in being very close minded, being very intolerant – because that is the reality; that is what you think the world ought to be. So I think Nakawa is closed in that sense, and the poverty, the disease – that’s why you have characters turning out like that.

MW: The story may have stood out on the Caine shortlist for not being about war, genocide, issues like that. It’s dealing with a very intimate situation. But the war is not far from the narrative actually when you think about it, because you have the soldiers doing policemen’s jobs in the story. Would you agree that there is that undercurrent, that the war is somewhere nearby?

AdN: It is set in a post-war Kampala. So that’s why you have the soldiers in the backdrop. In my experience, if you’re going to write about Uganda to a large extent, the politics of it all, the larger things, are what impact on ordinary people. It’s all from the top down. The line is very clear in terms of how people are affected by, say, the choices made by their political leaders. And that is what you have in the backdrop. But I do not want to say all stories have to have something about war – no.

MW: The situation in Uganda is more or less the same as in many other African countries, as regards same sex relationships. Do you think that ‘Jambula Tree’ has made a difference in Uganda?

AdN: I’m not sure that I’d be able to say that. I think it’s going to take a lot more than a short story! It just adds to the dialogue. At this stage, things are still difficult, everyone has their guns out and battling each other, different points of view. It’s all still very difficult, and I do feel that it will take time before things change. I just hope my story, or any other story, can just add to the overall dialogue, and the necessity of talking about things. But at the same time - and I’m very conscious about this - because after the Caine, I think a lot of people just thought I was going to become a spokesperson. And I was very conscious about that, because I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone. I do not pretend to think I know what needs to be done, or what exactly is wrong.

MW: You have said, however, that you wrote this as a dialogue with yourself in order to impart a message to society. Do you as a writer feel that there ought to be a message in your writing?

AdN: I think when you write and you begin to look for publishers, it means you kind of want more people to listen to what you’re going to say. Otherwise you can just keep your stories under the bed and not worry about publishing. So in the sense that you write, that you feel a need to communicate, that you have something to say, the answer is: yes. But at the same time, I’m very weary about the weight of it all, putting this burden on you and saying: great, now we’re wrong fixers. Because I can’t do that. I can’t pretend that I have the capacity.

MW: Has ‘Jambula Tree’ been read widely in Uganda? Is it available there?

AdN: There’s been a lot of interest in the story, and a lot of people have read it. I forwarded quite a few PDF copies (don’t tell my publishers!). Also a part of the story was printed in one of our larger newspapers, The East African, so I do think it had a wide audience. I meet people and I’ve got very interesting feedback. I think it’s been a very nice and enjoyable experience; much better than I thought it would be.

MW: I’m interested in your name – Monica Arac de Nyeko – and I’ve wondered a number of times about this seemingly European construction in-between, like ‘Olivia de Havilland’. Tell me about your name and what you think it represents.

AdN: I wish I had something more glamorous to explain this, but the reality is... When I started using it, because my mother was ‘de Nyeko’, I thought it was something historical, passed down from my great-grandfather.

MW: So, you have this ‘de’ prefix to indigenous names in Uganda?

AdN: No – just in my particular family. Some of my aunties have this name, and everyone who married into our family sort of became ‘Mrs de Nyeko’. So I honestly thought it was traditional, and it didn’t occur to me to ask. And when I did ask, it turns out that my Uncle, when he was in secondary school, about 14-years-old or so, he came to study abroad and thought ‘de’ sounded very glamorous, and convinced his sisters and brothers to use it! Nyeko is my grandfather though.

MW: I take on board what you say, that a story does not have to be about war. But you’re from Northern Uganda, where there’s been a war for over 20 years, and I know that it’s been a preoccupation of yours to some extent. Your story that was shortlisted for the 2004 Caine Prize, ‘Strange Fruit’, had as its backdrop that war.

AdN: For me ‘Jambula Tree’ was different in the sense that it was a kind of departure, because I’ve been writing about violence and its capacity to distort and destroy. But it’s mainly because of my background. I come from Kitgum. And when you talk about the reality, there is no memory without a time when there was violent conflict, for my generation. And so it’s very immediate. It’s not something you can ignore and say: it doesn’t exist. We went to school and were running out of class all the time because there were gunshots. It was a very traumatic and very scary time for us. So that sort of explains my preoccupation in the very early stages of my writing, with exploring violence and trying to understand it. I think that was my response to it; trying to make sense of it because it wasn’t like A and B leads to C; it was much more complex. And when you started to see that there had been many lies, that history... the present... there had been so much destruction; and things were the way they were, not because of what we were being told, but because of other issues. So that formed my interest. And I do still very much want to write about it because, particularly in the Northern Ugandan situation, it’s going to be in our consciousness for a very long time and I think we have a duty to history to sort of capture it. Because I don’t think it’s something anyone else should go through; I don’t think it’s a time that even should be lived through again. Capturing it is for history but also to make sure that we do not forget and we do not repeat what happened in the past. And in the Ugandan situation, it’s been quite repetitive, all this violent conflict. So that’s why I was preoccupied with it.

MW: Do you think that writing or writers can intervene in such situations?

AdN: Like I said before, I’m so weary of the responsibility that is put on writers, because these things are not writers’ problems; they are political problems.

MW: You are a member of FEMRITE, an organisation that’s helped to bring forth new female writers from Uganda. I understand that FEMRITE has about 50 members, but outside of Uganda, we only know of a handful. Maybe yourself, Doreen Baingana and Jackee Budesta Batanda - are names that readily come to mind. Why aren’t there more published women writers coming through from Uganda?

AdN: Oh, but they are! They are. Ugandan women have just been on fire. There’s been this very keen awareness, that we have stories that need to be told. And writing, for a very long time, had been ‘a domain for men’ – and so you didn’t see a lot of writing by women coming out. Since 1996 (when FEMRITE was formed), women are publishing books, within and outside Uganda. You know, the difference is if you win the Caine Prize, then people start to think you’re the only female Ugandan writer – or if you’re shortlisted – because of the visibility. But there is a very rich tradition of writing, like we have Goretti Kyomuhendo whose book ‘Waiting’ just came out in the US; we have Violet Barungi; Ayeta A Wangusa; Susan Kiguli – the list is endless. And that’s what is very exciting about coming from Uganda right now and being a woman writer.

MW: It just remains for me to ask the usual end-question. What is your next project?

AdN: I am working on a novel, and we are waiting to see how it goes.


Molara Wood

Molara Wood
is the UK-based Nigerian journalist behind the blog, Wordsbody. She is a writer and literary commentator. She was a former columnist of the Nigerian Guardian, contributes to BBC's web portal, and has stories published widely in the media. Her entry, 'Trial by Water', won a Highly Commended Story Award at the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.

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