Goretti Kyomuhendo: Africa’s Independent Voices

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Square Gardens
Writer’s Retreat
August 14th

The Writer’s Retreat is a calm-inducing tent, with a silky red interior a little like a boudoir’ as the chair Rosie Goldsmith cheerfully remarked. It was almost full to capacity, including a wee baby in a pram, who was invited to stay as her father whisked her outside on the first whimper. The director of the Festival, Nick Barley, who was present throughout, had made a huge effort to bring Goretti Kyomuhendo of Uganda to Edinburgh to debate the future of post-colonial African literature. It’s highly encouraging that the Book Festival is trying to diversify the pool of authors featured, knowing that they want to concentrate this year on ideas for positive change. Goldsmith lamented the fact that a visa had been denied to Nigerian author Odafe Atogun, and suggested this situation would worsen, making it even more difficult to widen the variety of perspectives in literature. Unfortunate and ironic too, as Atogun’s brand-new debut novel, Taduno’s Song, is published by Canongate, an Edinburgh-based publisher. It was easy enough, however, for Kyomuhendo and Goldsmith to fill the hour on their own, with an easy, free-flowing discussion of between the two women about politics, family, feminism and the future of African literature.
Both women were extremely likeable; the chair, having spent much of her childhood in Africa, seemed very much at ease with Goretti, and was authoratitive and commanding in her role in a way that was both empathetic and respectful. The audience was invited to reflect on whether we are exposed to enough contemporary African literature, and which writers we regularly read. Young women writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche or NoViolet Bulawayo sprung to mind. Interesting that both authors are women, as Goretti began by explaining that her classic novel, Waiting, particularly highlighted the resilience of women in difficult situations and the importance of being exposed to and then understanding women’s experiences. Men during dictatorship and wartime are often not able to protect their families; due to being wounded, killed or jailed.
Goretti has particularly championed women’s voices in publishing, by founding a publishing house called Femrite. Interesting then, that she shies away from using the word feminism when highlighting women’s societal disadvantage. She explained that she wrote her first book as simply a kind of role or duty to ask questions of why her grandmother was forbidden from eating foods like eggs or fish, and why her mother wasn’t allowed to choose her own husband. A matter of convenient semantics, perhaps, if feminism is deemed to be about evening up the playing field between the sexes. Perhaps a generational issue too, with Goretti in her early fifties, as resistance in Africa to second-wave feminism may have meant ideas of gender equality had to be expressed differently. It brought to mind the age-old debates among both Western Black and African women over whether Black women should be fighting for feminism, or womanism before a greater understanding of intersectionality became a crucial element of socio-political discussions. The use of the word feminism seems to be much more acceptable now to young Black and non-Black women across the world, especially as championed by the likes of Adiche and Beyonce.
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Goretti paused to read from her best known novel, ‘Waiting’, written ten years ago about ordinary family life in the countryside during the Idi Amin dictatorship. The scene she read from was compelling in its stark horror and immediately transported you through time and space to 1970’s Uganda with its finely wrought tension and its sparse prose, written from the perspective of a young girl. Although keen for Uganda to detach its international image from the ghastly, lingering shadow of Amin, she still felt compelled to champion the voice of ordinary citizens and share their stories with the world. Although she deliberately uses a child’s voice to gain some emotional distance, it took her a great deal of writing to be able to touch such a painful subject. So traumatic in fact, that other Ugandan writers have barely been able to approach it.
Soon after independence in 1962, a thriving literary scene began to develop around Makere University in Uganda. Under Amin, literary production in the country sadly dried up, due to fear, death and exile. The current political climate has allowed things to pick up again, but economic pressures make it difficult for the average person to buy books. An interesting discussion developed about writing for the market versus writing for your audience, partly because she always writes in English. I wondered whether self expression and emotional nuance was blunted at all by writing in English, undoubtedly somewhat removed from her family’s own metaphors and view of the world. Interestingly she was not at all keen to throw off the cultural fusions that inevitably result from colonialism, especially when Uganda has no other official language except for English. She left it to heavyweights of African literature to write in their mother tongue who have the clout and money to hire expensive translators for their work.
Now based in London, after ‘following her heart rather than her head’, to a shy smile and chuckles from the audience, Kyomuhendo is in a good position to widen the exposure of contemporary African authors. She is the director of the African Writers Trust, which encourages the sharing of knowledge and resources between African writers back home and in the diaspora. However, she is highly optimistic about the new generation of Ugandan writers and publishing professionals, dynamically pushing ahead with literary festivals and promoting fresh voices in literature, importantly the focus being Kampala rather than London. The digital revolution will be a key factor in decentralising the traditionally Western dominated nexus of publishing, markets and opportunity. The father of the now sleeping baby returned, and just in time. He just so happened to be a Ugandan software engineer with a keen interest in literature and a particular respect for the author. The hour ended with this beautiful moment of synchronicity, as he was keen for them to discuss further how his skills and knowledge could expand the reach of contemporary African literature within and without the continent; exactly what the debate was trying to achieve.
Reviewer: Lisa Williams
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