Ugandan author, said to be “Too African”, wins prestigious literary prize

The director of the one of literature’s biggest prizes recently made the call of a lifetime to eight entirely surprised writers, informing them that they will each be recognized with a $165,000 USD prize to support their writing.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, was among those recently awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University. The award of $165,000 is aimed at supporting creatives as they focus on their work. The Ugandan author was recognized alongside poets, artists, and other writers for her debut novel Kintu, published in 2014.

For years, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi struggled to find a publisher for her book because it was deemed “too African.” Her refusal to compromise on her debut novel which has been termed “The great Ugandan novel” has now paid off. 

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Established in 2013 with a gift from the late Donald Windham in memory of his partner of 40 years, Sandy M. Campbell, the prizes are among the richest and most prestigious literary prizes on earth.

“This prize for me is like having been working without pay for a long time and then someone comes a long and says, ‘Will a salary for the past ten years do?’ Then you’re left speechless.” Makumbi is quoted saying on the award’s web page.

Along side the Ugandan author who were awarded after being nominated confidentially and judged anonymously were, Lucas Hnath (US); in drama, and Suzan-Lori Parks (US); in nonfiction, Sarah Bakewell (UK) and Olivia Laing (UK); in fiction, John Keene (US) and ; and in poetry, Lorna Goodison (Jamaica) and Cathy Park Hong (US).

Windham-Campbell 2018 prize recipients

Director, Michael Kelleher said, “The day I make the call to notify award recipients is the highlight of the year, as each cycle I hear how much of a difference it will make for them”  “Six years on, we can now see the impact the prizes have on these writers’ lives, careers, and their work. The feeling is magical.”

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan novelist and short story writer living in Manchester, England, having moved to the UK at the age of 33, 17 years ago. Her debut novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project Award in 2013, and was subsequently published by Transit Books (US) and Oneworld Publications (UK/Commonwealth).

Kintu tells the parallel stories of the fall of a cursed bloodline—the titular Kintu clan—and the rise of modern Uganda. With an extraordinarily ambitious narrative voice that blends traditional oral storytelling with folk tales, mythology, and biblical elements, Makumbi delivers an inter-generational story and incisive critique of contemporary Ugandan class, ancestry, politics, and religion.

Makumbi, on her debut novel, expressed that “Kintu flowed out of a desire to give Ugandans a taste of their own long and complicated history, to do for Ugandans something like what Chinua Achebe novels did for Nigerians in the 1960s: to make them look at a hill, for example, and know that the Ganda have been climbing it for centuries.”

“I wanted Ugandans to start looking at the history of Uganda before colonization—how Uganda was organized before Christianity and before Europe arrived—and to compare that with what we have at the moment. We need to start having those conversations,” she told the Los Angeles Review of Books in August last year.

However, when Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi sent her novel “Kintu” to British publishers it was initially rejected because it was “too African.”

Kintu Cover.

The book was first published in Kenya in 2014 by the nonprofit publisher Transit Books, becoming an instant hit in East Africa where the book was sold. It was finally published in the UK in January 2018.

After success in East Africa and a US release less than one year ago, Makumbi has disproved the naysayers and won one of the most lucrative literary prizes in the world, the Windham Campbell prize from Yale University in the US.

While publishers were slow to realize the novel’s potential, Makumbi is positive about a growing audience. “I think readers are more adventurous,” Makumbi told CNN.

The Awards will be conferred September 12-14 at an international literary festival at Yale, where the Prizes are based.

Makumbi has a PhD in African Literature from Lancaster University, and has taught creative writing at colleges and universities around the United Kingdom. The Ugandan author, who also won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her work, Let’s Tell This Story Properly, has her collection of short stories, Love Made in Manchester, forthcoming from Transit Books in January 2019.