Conversation with Julius Ocwinyo
Julius Ocwinyo is an editor to one of Uganda's major publishing houses, Fountain Publishers.
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First published: May 28, 2009
Julius Ocwinyo was born in Teboke village in Apac District in 1961. He is an editor to one of Uganda's major publishing houses, Fountain Publishers. Ocwinyo is an accomplished writer of four novels which include: 'Fate of the Banished' (1997), 'The Unfulfilled Dream' (2002), 'Footprints of the Outsider' and 'The Price of Grandma's Love'. 'Fate of the Banished' was recently, in 2008, included in the A-level secondary school curriculum as a study book. His poetry has been published in 'Uganda Poetry Anthology 2000'. He studied at Aboke Junior Seminary and Lango College, before joining the Institute of Teacher Education, Kyambogo, where he earned a Diploma in Education. He later studied at Makerere University, where he received a Bachelor of Education. Ocwinyo has taught at various educational institutions.
Julius Ocwinyo's Fate of the Banished.
Ocwinyo spoke about his passion for writing and the challenges of being a writer in Uganda.
In a country where most people don't read, what makes 'Fate of the Banished' special to be included in the secondary school curriculum?
Well, Fountain Publishers submitted a number of the novels they had published to the National Curriculum Development Centre (NCDC) for evaluation with a view to having them included in the O- and A-level syllabuses. I still do not know the criteria used to choose the book. What I know is that the NCDC Literature panel, each of whose members received a copy of each novel, went carefully over each book and arrived at which book to choose by consensus. Perhaps I should have taken the trouble to ask them how 'Fate of the Banished' came to qualify.
Can you now live on your royalties from 'Fate of the Banished' as a writer?
No, it is not possible to live on the royalties. This is partly because of the small number of students who take Literature, especially at A level, compared to other subjects, and partly because sales to non-students are quite low.
How do you think society perceives you as a writer?
The educated people who know I'm a writer are often baffled about such a career, for they seem undecided exactly where to place me in terms of social class. Then there are those who are simply awed, for they believe you have to be something of a genius in order to be able to write anything creative at all. Then there are those who think I earn a lot of money from my writing. Then, of course, there are those who don't give a damn. That is as far as the educated people are concerned. Most of the uneducated people , especially in Lango, who hear I am a writer, have absolutely no clue what creative writing is all about, for to them writing a book is writing a book; and the books that are thus written are meant to go into the schools so that their children can obtain knowledge and learn wisdom from them. Besides that they do not understand why books should be of more importance than working the garden and herding goats!
How has your job as an editor assisted you in your writing career?
Being an editor has helped in a number of ways. One, I have had the opportunity to read books that I would not otherwise have had access to, books often lent or donated to me by people who feel I should read them to enhance my ability to appreciate, and thus evaluate, literature. I am talking about works such as Ben Okri's 'Famished Road' and Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' and 'The Bluest Eye'. Two, those who evaluate my manuscripts do it with greater rigour than if I had not been an editor, mainly because they expect me to produce works of the highest standard. Three, I also write more consciously now, for I am more sharply aware of the literary pitfalls to avoid - something you learn from evaluating other people's works. This last might also be a disadvantage, for you lose a little bit of your spontaneity as a result, and you write more slowly and perhaps also 'stiffly'.
What made you realize that you could actually write for public consumption?
I don't think I made any conscious decision to write for public consumption. In fact, whatever I wrote at the beginning resulted from a burning desire, a strong, irresistible urge to write. I think it was because I felt strongly about something, because I wanted to get something out of my system - an attempt at some kind of purgation - that I wrote.
Did your upbringing contribute in your writing career?
I think so. Being the last born meant that I was left to my own devices more frequently than my older siblings, so I could indulge my love for reading. My dad, though he did not have much education, understood the value of education, mostly from a practical point of view. For instance, he saw some of his colleagues coming out of Prisons Training School with higher ranks than him because they were better educated, and that was something that always troubled him. He frequently, therefore, brought books and other reading materials home for us, even materials that were too difficult for us to understand. I remember being given my first copy of 'Reader's Digest' and 'National Geographic' - both of them second-hand - when I was barely nine years of age! As a child I was also something of a dreamer, a loner, so I was largely left undisturbed by my peers whenever they felt I was not in the mood to join them in their games. That gave me plenty of opportunity to read and to exercise my imagination.
Where do you get your inspiration to write your stories?
From lots of sources - from personal experiences, observing people, reading - reading all sorts of books. You would be surprised how much your imagination can be fired up through reading a book on how aeroplanes function, or even a book on surgery!
Julius Ocwinyo in his office.
How do you juggle writing, work and family?
Well, I do most of my writing either at Fountain offices during the lunch break or after work. But I also write at home on Sundays when the mood strikes me. On Sundays I actually do a lot of contemplation - and the opportunity for this comes from the fact that I am not a church-goer; I'm only a nominal Christian. I actually consider myself an agnostic. This means that when everyone else has gone off to church I'm left pretty much to my own devices. So Sundays for me are days for contemplation, washing the car, taking long walks, writing if I'm in the mood.
How do you deal with a writer's block?
Right now I'm actually going through a writer's block. There is a novel in the works that I'd thought I'd be able to finish by the end of this month (March), but I don't seem to be getting anywhere. I also have two short stories plotted out, but I have yet to put any kind of flesh on them. Of course I fret a lot when I can't write, and life becomes kind of empty. But I do not force myself to write because I know that the product of such an effort will not be worth the ink that you spend on it.
So, do we expect publication of your next novel soon?
As soon as the writer's block wears off I'll be able to take up my pen again and do some speedy, spontaneous writing. I hope that will happen before this year comes to a close. Wish me luck!
As an editor, you have rejected many manuscripts. What advice do you have for Ugandan upcoming writers?
My advice is that once you have the urge to write, write. But also try and find out from honest, unbiased people who have the courage to tell you the truth whether you actually have the talent to write publishable stuff. Rejection of a manuscript does not necessarily mean that it is no good from the literary point of view. Rejection might actually result from wariness on the part of the editor about the market potential of the book rather than its intrinsic literary qualities. I know that is why 'Animal Farm' was rejected several times before finally being accepted - probably with reservations - by a publisher. The main reason for the various rejections was that it was a modern-day legend - so who in the modern world would want to read such a legend! Of course we know what a huge success that book turned out to be!
What writing opportunities are there for writers in Fountain Publishers?
The opportunities are quite limited, for we can only publish so many literary works each year. It isn't as if we have only a limited interest in publishing such books, but we have to juggle the various categories of books that we publish, and that does take its toll!
What do you think of Uganda's literary scene?
It can only get better. There is a lot of quality work coming up. There are a number of young people writing who are highly talented and totally committed to the art, craft, vocation of writing, and more and more publishers and people are beginning to pay attention to what is going on the literary scene.
There is this talk about Ugandan women writers getting more international attention than male writers. What's your take on this?
Some women writers are producing high-quality work, just like some of their male counterparts. However, the women writers pursue self-publicity more aggressively and are better at ferreting out international literary contests and awards. Most of the male writers I know consider their work done once their work has been published. Furthermore, many of the publishers who publish the men's work do not enter them for international awards. For instance, neither of my adult novels has been entered for any international award. Another reason is that some of the awards are intended only for a specific genre - for instance the Caine prize for short stories - in which a lot of the male writers do not write. Well, that is an anomaly that we are trying to rectify.
Best of luck and many thanks
You are welcome!
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First published: May 28, 2009
Beatrice Lamwaka is finalist for the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award 2009. She is the author of Anena's Victory, one of Fountain Junior HIV/AIDS Series, a supplementary reader in primary schools in Uganda. Her published short stories have appeared in Gowanus Books, Women's World website, WordWrite-FEMRITE Literary Journal, as well as anthologies such as Words From a Granary, Today You will Understand, Aloud: Illuminating Creative Voices, Michael's Eyes; The War against the Ugandan Child FEMRITE publications. She was one of the pioneers of a British Council writing scheme that links Ugandan writers with established writers in the UK, and she is a member of Uganda Women Writers' Association (FEMRITE). She is currently working on her first novel and a number of short stories.