Since its 2014 publication, Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu has raced its way to hit status. Divided into six parts, the novel “reimagines the history of Uganda through the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan.” It begins in 1750 when a man, Kintu Kidda, unleashes “a curse that will plague his family for generations.” The story follows his descendants as they try to “break from the burden of their shared past and reconcile the inheritance of tradition and the modern world that is their future.”
Publishers Weekly called it “A masterpiece of cultural memory…elegantly poised on the crossroads of tradition and modernity.” Library Journal describes it as “Reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.” Book Riot called it a “passionate, original, and sharply observed” book that “decenters colonialism and makes Ugandan experience primary.” The book has also earned praised from such names as Maaza Mengiste and Ellah Allfrey.
Recently, Aaron Bady, editor of The New Inquiry, wrote an essay in Literary Hub titled “In Kintu, a Look at What It Means to be Ugandan Now.” Bady’s essay is an appraisal of the novel’s immediate and projected impact as well as its success in providing a corrective narrative of Ugandan history. Bady had also written the introduction to the novel.
Here is an excerpt of the essay.
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. Last year, I had the pleasure of trailing behind Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi at the Writivism literary festival in Kampala, as readers and other writers caught at the hem of her garment. In such circles, it is hard to overstate what a rock star she is, and how precious her book has already become. The book sold out immediately, and even those who hadn’t read it were talking about it and about where to get it. It’s not hyperbole to call Kintu the great Ugandan novel. It is, simply and obviously, a plain fact.
Her reception in the UK, where she lives with her family, has been very different. Even after winning the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Makumbi was told that Kintu was unpublishable, that it was much too African for British readers. Perhaps a sprawling multi-character saga like this one might work if the characters were white, if the proper nouns were places like Oxford or Southampton, and if their names were solid English names (and for goodness sake, only one name each!).
In Great Britain, after all, who has even heard of Kintu, the mythical first man on earth and founder of the Buganda Kingdom? Who would know to pronounce his name with a soft ch sound, instead of a hard k? Perhaps British readers might be interested in the exoticism of the historical novel that Kintu starts off as being—the 90 pages or so that are set in the 18th century, before the rest of the novel reverts to 2004—but could the book-buying public be expected to care about the struggles of an extended family in present-day Kampala?
If you must write about Africa, then you write about dictators, ethnography, and war; these are the sorts of stories that confirm what people already “know” about Africa. And if you must write about Uganda, then you place a white character in the middle of the action. You write about Africans who have left Africa and migrated to the United States or Europe. You write about the legacies of colonialism. If you can’t make Europe the hero of the story—and these days, you can’t—then you can at least make Europe the villain. One editor rejected the manuscript because Makumbi didn’t want to change it: to publish it, they would have to change it, and the novel is too good to change.
The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. What, after all, is a Ugandan? For one thing, a Ugandan might be someone for whom complex and indefinite extended families are more the norm than the exception, a world in which siblings might be cousins, parents aren’t always parents, and everybody can have at least three different names, depending on who they’re standing next to. A Ugandan might be someone for whom family is a much older and more permanent institution than the nation, and in which nothing is more political than sex and children. A Ugandan might also be someone who knows the name Kintu, whether or not they know what it means. At the highest level of abstraction, perhaps, a Ugandan is someone with firm ideas about what it means to be Ugandan, and who it is that isn’t. But if Uganda is real, its borders are anything but clear and obvious: American readers might struggle to keep track of the names and relations that proliferate across the pages of this novel, but it’s not like these things are easy for Ugandans. They are not. If family is the texture of everyday life, then everyday life is as confusing and indefinite (and borderline fictional) as family history itself.
More concretely, this book is for Ugandans because it’s saturated with Ugandan words and places and names. From the hills and valleys that the urban jungle of Kampala now sprawls across—but that once looked out over the Buganda Kingdom—to the long roads and rivers that crisscross the country, Kintu is a novel about a singular and all-encompassing sense of place. And these references tell stories. You may speed past them on your way to your destination, but even a traveler who cannot understand the language—who can only look, see, and move on—will still feel the depth of the novel’s engagement with Ugandan history. This is part of Kintu’s magic: you will feel more than you know. This also applies to Ugandans, especially those for whom “history” is the story of Europe in Africa.
As Makumbi has been quick to explain, 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. To remind them that Uganda’s history did not begin in 1962, when it gained independence from Great Britain, or even a few years earlier, when Europeans first “discovered” them. To place today’s cultural politics—of citizenship, sexuality, and spirituality—into the deep and long endurance of centuries. Most of all, to tell a singular tale of Uganda as an expansive family saga, in which blood ties only mean as much as the stories we tell about them.
Read Aaron Bady’s “In Kintu, a Look at What It Means to be Ugandan Now” on Literary Hub.