Ugandan Writers: One on One with Monica Arac de Nyeko, 2007 Caine Prize Winner
"I see myself as part of the new generation of African writers seeking an imperative voice in Africa today."
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First published: July 31, 2007
For those who are familiar with the Ugandan writers' scene, her name is not a novelty. In fact, she is one of the most active writers of Ugandan origin today. What launched her international reputation and catapulted her to serve as a Ugandan cultural ambassador is her enviable ability to win the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing, one of the most prestigious awards an African could ever win for writing. It is often called Africa's Bookers Prize.
"Jambula Tree" is one of a collection of 21 short stories featured in Ayebias African Love Stories, an anthology Edited by Ama Ata Aidoo and published in July 2006.
Monica Arac de Nyeko, who was born in 1979, beat four other finalists to bag the $20,000 (10,000) prize for her story Jambula Tree. It is a story about a lesbian relationship in a country where homosexuality is illegal. The story was described by the jury as "a witty and touching portrait of a community which is affected forever by a love which blossoms between two adolescents." Arac de Nyeko is the first Ugandan to win the Caine Prize, now in its eighth year. The Caine Prize comes with a month's residence at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where Arac de Nyeko will be the Caine Prize/Georgetown University Writer-in-Residence.
Arac is a member of the Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE) and is no stranger to literary awards. She has long been a strong contender for international literary recognition and has won considerable acclaim for her writing. In 2004, she was short-listed for the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Strange Fruit and she won first prize in the Women's World Voices in War Zones for her personal essay, In the Stars. It is no surprise therefore, that when one reads her work, it is filled with descriptive and arresting use of the English language. Her writing has appeared in a number of anthologies, periodicals and magazines. Her first internationally published short story, October Sunrise, was part of the 2003 anthology Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, and edited by Jane Kurtz. Arac de Nyeko was also selected for the British Council writers' scheme Crossing Borders that, in partnership with Lancaster University, correlates writers in Africa with UK equivalents.
Monica Arac de Nyeko. [Photo by George Hallett]
The dread locked Arac de Nyeko is an Acoli, originally from the Kitgum district of northern Uganda, a region that has unfortunately been torn apart by conflict since 1986, and where thousands of children have been abducted, abused and forced to become soldiers. After obtaining a degree in Education from Makerere University, Arac de Nyeko taught literature and English language at a popular boys' school, St Mary's College, Kisubi (SMACK) in Uganda, for two years. She then completed an MA in Humanitarian Assistance at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and now works for an international organization in Nairobi, Kenya.
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Arac de Nyeko has more stories in the pipeline. Her literary works are scheduled to appear in Dreams, Miracles and Jazz, an anthology of new African writing edited by a former Caine Prize winner, Nigerian Helon Habila, and a literary activist of Sierra Leonean descent, Kadija Sesay. The anthology is to be published this year by Picador Africa. She also has a story in the anthology City Link and Other Stories. Jambula Tree can be found in the Ama Ata Aidoo edited Anthology, African Love Stories, published by Ayebia.
Jane: Now Monica, you know that I have been trying for almost two years to highlight you on UGPulse, as one of the Ugandan writers I respect the most and your response has always been a humble one. You felt that it was not quite the time. Now, it is finally happening. You were named the eighth winner of the annual Caine Prize for your story, Jambula Tree. It must be surreal. How has it changed your life?
Monica: It has been a humbling experience, which has certainly encouraged me to keep writing.
Finally, Uganda gets to win the literary award. How does it make you feel as a Ugandan female?
I think this is a wonderful thing for Ugandan writing and the arts in general because it is an addition to the vibrant arts scene in Uganda today. There is so much variety, creativity and growth. For instance, in the writing circles (which remain quite small and intimate) writers are writing more now and we should be. We are following in the footsteps of great story tellers like Austin Bukenya, Okot p' Bitek, Timothy Wangusa, Violet Barungi and so many more.
Monica Arac de Nyeko.
Please tell us more about Monica Arac de Nyeko. Who is she?
A former teacher, an aunt, a friend, a woman, an Acoli, Ugandan... many things.
When did you begin writing?
I started writing more seriously about 1999 when I joined FEMRITE. Before that, I had been scribbling stories on notebooks and had no idea the writing journey for me had started.
Are publishers knocking at your door?
At the moment, there is certainly more interest in my writing than in the past and a lot more people are keen to read my other works.
Do you think that there is space on the international market for Ugandan stories and Ugandan writers? Is the world ready for our stories?
I think people, be it in a Ugandan or international context, are keen to read any interesting new writing. Uganda's past and present has certainly never stopped being fascinating.
The Jambula Tree is about a relationship between two young girls in a very complex social setting in Uganda, a community where homosexuality is illegal. What made you chose that topic, considering Uganda is a very homophobic society?
Jambula Tree is about a community that is forever affected by a relationship between two girls. The recent (and ongoing) debate on same sex relationships in Uganda and how the housing estate in Jambula Tree is affected by the relationship are not any different really. Jambula Tree explores a fear, hypocrisy around morality and its interpretation, a difficulty around the subject and that is what you see today. Its interesting, for instance, that wars are being fought with impunity, there is so much uncertainty about the future and that there are so many immediate challenges facing us.
War also rates highly as one of your favourite themes. You were short-listed in 2004 for the short story Strange Fruit that talks about the war in Northern Uganda. I quite enjoyed the story. Please tell us how you were inspired to write the story.
I would say, rather, that I am interested in exploring violence generally in its different dimensions, intensities and its general capacity to scar and destroy. I come from Kitgum and I have seen the effect of the conflict on homes, my relations, my history, and my everything. Scenes like that never leave you. Even if, say, the conflict ended now, it is going to be ever present in a sense, in the scars it created, in what it destroyed and in what it allowed. I think there is a duty to memory and truth that we capture this so that we do not forget. Therefore, this is what Strange Fruit is about but it is also about loss, love, commitment and time (and what it can do to the human condition) in the backdrop of a very complex reality.
I noted that you humanize what would have otherwise been to the international community, a faceless, anonymous people who are suffering in a war torn zone, namely Gulu. Was that a deliberate move?
I do not think the people are faceless or anonymous. Not at all. I think, more than anything, that they are resilient. Every time I return home, I notice my people are still strong. They have not given up hope even if hope is elusive sometimes.
Music is threaded throughout your stories. For example, in Strange Fruit, your story opens with a line from a song of the same name by Billie Holiday. Is there a specific reason why you do that?
I think music is a powerful art form across cultures. You find many songs in my fiction for the simple reason that you can say so much in a few lyrics than you could in any other form that fiction allows. You can condense so much narration and emotion by a single verse and contextualize evocatively. A song does not only have to be the heard melody. I am interested often in the 'unheard songs'. When I write, sometimes I try to create a pace, tone - something. If I read aloud, I like to feel that there is a certain rhythm, a certain melody, almost as if I was singing.
Monica Arac de Nyeko.
How has being a member of FEMRITE influenced you as a writer?
When I discovered FEMRITE, it had opened up space to encourage women's writing. FEMRITE was sharing and creating this space as early as 1996. FEMRITE had come into being at a time when the Ugandan literary scene had almost no visible creative literature written by women. FEMRITE became a wonderful place to be, to meet people who share the same interest, people who encourage you. They included writing giants of our own like Goretti Kyomuhendo, Ayeta Anne Wangusa, Violet Barungi, Regina Amollo, Mary Karooro Okurut, Susan Mugizi etc. However, FEMRITE was also a place to meet other internationally renowned writers (who visited during the week of activities that was organised each year) and to be inspired by them. This included the likes of Ama Ata Aidoo, Taban Lo Liyong, John Rugunda, etc.
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How has the British Council Crossing Borders Programme helped you as a writer?
Crossing Borders was a great cultural exchange. It was the first time I had my works read by someone who was not from my own cultural context to gauge my appeal and ability to communicate beyond people with whom I was familiar. It was a good learning experience.
Who are your influences as writer?
I have read so many writers' work and I continue to discover great fiction each time. I like to think that all these writers influenced me and continue to do so.
Monica and Chika before the dinner picture by Stephen Williams
What challenges have you met along the path to becoming a published writer?
Finding the time to write, because I do have a full time job and I have always written within this context.
Does your master's degree in humanitarian assistance have any bearing on your writing?
I like to think that every experience I have encountered has added something to my writing.
Your story is part of African Love Stories, an anthology comprising of twenty "odd tales that deal with challenging themes and represent some of the most complex of love stories". Where can it be purchased?
People can get more information about ordering these works by following this link: http://www.ayebia.co.uk/ordering.html
What are you planning to do with your 10,000 Caine Prize?
Buy a rocket and jet to the moon (kidding).
Any tips for the youth?
You have to love what you are doing . That is the start.
What is next for you?
I will continue to write.
Monica Arac de Nyeko on Wikipedia
Time of the Writer festival: 20 to 25 March 2006
Monica Arac de Nyeko - British Council
November 2002 TAP Network Member of the Month
Caine Prize Interview: Monica Arac de Nyeko
Love story wins 'African Booker'
Monica Arac de Nyeko's short story "Jambula Tree" wins the 2007 Caine Prize.
Chained (short story) in Words from a Granary, FEMRITE Publications, 2001
Bride Price for my Daughter (short story) in Tears of Hope anthology, FEMRITE Publications, 2003
Tribe, Somebody (poems) Poetry International, San Diego State University, 2003
October Sunrise in Memories of Sun Anthology, Greenwillow Books, 2004
Children of the Red Fields (novella extract) in An Anthology of War Stories from Northern Uganda, 2004
Last Dance (novella) for Fountain Junior Living Youth HIV/AIDS Series, Fountain Publishers, 2005
Grasshopper Redness (short story) in Seventh Street Alchemy Anthology, Jacana Media, 2005
Strange Fruit ( short story) in Seventh Street Alchemy Anthology, Jacana Media, 2005
Children of the Red Fields (novella), Phoenix Publishers, 2005
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First published: July 31, 2007
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.