History in Fiction: Book Chat with NoViolet Bulawayo and Jennifer Makumbi - Enajite Efemuaye

I use history as a way to tell my story but when history is standing in the way, I twist it. – Jennifer Makumbi

We Need New Names was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and won the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Fiction in the same year. Kintu is being hailed as the great Ugandan novel, and at the book chat with the writers of book books you could easily tell why.  The love and work and sweat that went into the writing of both novels was evident in the way they spoke of their books.


The chat which was moderated by Kinna Likimani began with a reading from both writers. Kintu is a story of a curse making its way through several generations of a family from when Uganda was the Buganda kingdom to the twenty first century. Jennifer said many readers have likened the curse to colonisation but she deliberately chose to leave out everything about colonisation and instead look further back in history, a move that has made her book a reference point for history buffs.

NoViolet chose to tell her story through the voice of a child, a decision she made because “the child’s perspective can allow for interesting avenues that are not available to an adult.” So displacement IS viewed through the eyes of Darling who left Zimbabwe for the US to live with her aunt provideS many interesting perspectives.

Displacement was also present in Jennifer’s book but more subtly. “I’ve never looked at the curse as taking them away from something else,” she said. But she agreed that the kingdom was on its way somewhere and that journey was derailed.

The places in her book from the 1700s exist, Jennifer said, and she did extensive research for ten years while writing Kintu. “My research was done from books written by white explorers, not Ugandans. If I hadn’t relocated to Britain I might not have had access to those resources.”

Jennifer was also very clear about who she was writing for – Ugandans – and this was why her book failed to find a foreign publisher for many years. She had no intention of writing for anyone else or changing her story. “I believe if I write my novel very well with all my heart, other people will see themselves in my novel.” The same way she had seen herself in other African novels.

Kinna pointed out in We Need New Names, there was an absence of specificity about places. “That story was not a Zimbabwean story. It was the story of a country falling apart,” NoViolet said. She also commented on transition again, stating that she had left before the crises began in her home country. “We would never have imagined the Zimbabwe of now. I am saddened by the fact that the easiest thing to do is to leave.”

Both writers made a deliberate effort to leave politics and Jennifer confirmed this. “It was very intentional. I was very anti post-colonial stuff. You write such a novel and people focus on the colonialism. I cut out the politics because the major politics is Idi Amin. You put him in your novel and he is going to take up all the space. I wanted to talk about who we were before.”

For NoViolet, the lives of ordinary people took precedence.  “Giving Mugabe pitch time would be doing a disservice to my characters,” she said.

Enajite Efemuaye works as enterprise editor at Kachifo Limited, one of Nigeria’s foremost independent publishers, and is also the Manager of Farafina Trust. Her work has been published in African Independent, This is Africa, Ake Review, Sabinews.com, Guardian Life Magazine and Brittle Paper. 


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