Read African Writers: Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

kintuugandaIf you think that sprawling, multi-generational family sagas where characters have multiple names is the exclusive realm of Russian novelists, think again. Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi of Uganda, begins with a man killed by a mob in the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, in the early 2000s. Swiftly, Makumbi takes us back to to the 1750s, when Kintu — the ancestor of his modern-day clan — incurs a curse. We then return to modern times and observe how the curse plays out in different branches of Kintu’s descendants.

Kintu isn’t short, and it isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. The reason that it isn’t easy is because it wasn’t written for me. As Bwesigye wa Mwesigire, another Ugandan writer, notes, “Makumbi manages to dress up a Luganda novel in English words.” Literary scholar Aaron Bady comments, “The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans.” Mwesigire goes on, “Kintu’s oral aesthetic goes beyond its language, however, and into its story, which comprises a collection of origin myths and folk tales, many of which Makumbi has created, and a number of which she reinterprets, rewrites and turns upside down.”

There is sweet humor here, as when Kintu and other men of the village give his son a remarkably frank and respectful sex talk before his marriage. But there is also great tragedy — rape and incest and more. Not graphic nor gratuitous, but witnessed or implied. Like many well written big novels, Makumbi touches on a wide range of contemporary issues without it feeling like she’s checking items off a list. When Isaac, one of Kintu’s modern-day descendants, fears that his wife has died of HIV/AIDS and gets tested but is afraid to read the results, he says to a friend, “Blood tests bring nothing but certainty. We could not handle certainty. When all you have is a tiny doubt, you hang onto it.” (This is reminiscent of American poet Danez Smith’s lines about a positive HIV test: “give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question, sweet if of yesterday bridge back to maybe.”) Or when one character’s children opt to drop out of school: “Ssemata’s sons, having been vexed by study, asked if every successful man in the world was educated. When the answer came back negative, they dropped out of school. Besides, education took too long to yield results.” Much of life spills out of these pages.

Definitely read Kintu. But don’t start a week before your book club. If you do, then — as one character said — “May you have luck the way millipedes have legs.”

Reviews in Western outlets
  • Aaron Bady, Lit Hub: “Ugandans have waited a long time for Kintu to exist. Since it was first published in 2014, after winning the Kwani Manuscript Project, the enthusiasm with which Kintu has been received in Uganda has been difficult to describe but remarkable to witness… The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans.”
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review): “A masterpiece of cultural memory, Kintu is elegantly poised on the crossroads of tradition and modernity.”
  • African Queer, Rewrite: “What makes Kintu particularly unique is how it approaches its various topical areas, with as much naturalness and ordinariness in discussion of Baganda traditional culture as would be expected of a book written within the more readily accepted Western traditions. Makumbi does not turn to the traditional as the source of an unfamiliar and distant past, but rather as an ever-living present.”
Reviews in African outlets
  • Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire (a Ugandan), Johannesburg Review of Books: “Makumbi’s art, her oral aesthetics, are highly sophisticated, requiring more than the bland generic Anglophone novel, manufactured in the MFA factory, does. While the latter has perpetuated a myth of what is ‘marketable’ in world fiction, part of the joy of Kintu is that it’s stuff is what universal stories are made of. What Luganda speakers hear when they read the novel is not entirely out of reach to non-Luganda speakers, precisely because of its fable-like qualities.”
  • Solomon Asaba, New Times (Rwanda): [This “book review” is merely a summary, including a summary of the book’s ending, with no value judgments.]
  • Itumeleng Molefi, Business Day (South Africa): “Kintu is a triumph and will surely leave a mark on the African literature landscape that will be felt for generations to come.”
This is book #19 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.

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