When Kwani? launched its Manuscript Project competition in 2012 the stated aim was to find the best unpublished novels by writers from across Africa—and to publish them for readers across Africa. The call for submissions asserted a firm belief that ‘there is no greater celebration of emergent forms than in publishing our own’ with Billy Kahora and Kate Haines of Kwani? outlining what they saw as the task of ‘building on the foundations and innovations of the African novel, from Wole Soyinka to Meja Mwangi to Alain Mabanckou’. Along with other literary professionals—my fellow judges—I had the great pleasure of reading a wide variety of texts in draft with the competition ultimately attracting 282 manuscripts from 19 different African countries and the Diaspora. We were looking out for future classics and I firmly believe that we found them.
Among the long-listed titles several books have been published to date (by Kwani? and others): Saah Millimono’s harrowing but ultimately life affirming story of a child caught up in civil war in Boy, Interrupted; Nikhil Singh’s phantasmagorical cyber-meets-steam-punk adventure in Taty Went West; Ayobami Adebayo’s beautifully observed family drama Stay With Me, Toni Kan’s swaggering and ambitious tale of Lagos and sibling rivalry Carnivorous City, and there are more titles to come. What we looked for as judges were manuscripts that told stories from the inside without the burden of focusing on how an imagined ‘West’ would view them. Along with this followed a real investment in time and editorial support to bring the works from manuscript to publication. It is the kind of publishing I had long dreamed of.
So, then, this is what has me feeling ‘some kind of way’ about the fact that the winner of the competition, Jennifer Makumbi’s book Kintu, now with a well-deserved U.S. publishing deal, is presented with the addition of an introduction. First, let me be clear, I admire and respect Aaron Bady. If I see his name attached to an article or post, I’m guaranteed to click and read—we have a shared passion for the literatures of Africa and her writers. His work brings a critical response that fuels intelligent debate and encourages both writers and readers and for this I am often grateful. Added to that, I valued his essay about Kintu—he gives interesting background, cheers the author’s achievement and captures the magic and excitement the publication of Kintu brought to its readers in Uganda and beyond. I’m full of admiration too for Transit Books who took the leap and added this astonishing debut to their list.
What I can’t stop worrying at is this: why was it felt that this novel, first published in 2014, needed an introduction at all? I can see that a work presented as a ‘classic’, written decades ago and needing fresh context and a review of its critical reception over the years may need just that. Indeed, I’ve written one such introduction myself and commissioned about a dozen more during my time at Penguin Modern Classics. But a book that is only three years old whose writer is at the start of her career? My anxiety ratchets when I do a quick trawl online and find that any listing of the U.S. edition of the book now has not only the author’s name listed but gives almost equal billing to the writer of the introduction. Both seem to me to be a lamentable dilution of Makumbi’s astonishing achievement.
Make no mistake; I firmly believe that thoughtful critical responses are crucial to the cementing of literary works as part of our culture and heritage. I would have welcomed (and encouraged others to read) Bady’s essay had it been part of a considered publicity campaign and appeared in a newspaper article or journal review. But I emphatically disagree with the decision to ‘explain’ Kintu in the way the adding on of an Introduction at the beginning of the new edition declares. It’s that basic premise that agitates me. Sure, early sections of Kintu take the form of an ‘historical’ novel and many readers outside Uganda may not immediately ‘get’ the reference to the Kintu of myth and fable. The foundation story set in an ancient kingdom will be unfamiliar to many—but this is just the point. This is a book you most assuredly have not read before. But if all of us, around the world, can read Mantel or Melville or Murakami, why do we think American readers can’t be trusted to read Makumbi? If Africans have been reading and understanding King Lear for generations, why do we think it will be difficult for Americans, in this age of easy-to-Google and the digitally enabled global village, to read Kintu and make of it what they will?
In 2015 I was a Man Booker Prize Judge. This year I am on the panel for the International Dublin Literary Award. Not a single book I have read (and I have read a lot) was deemed to need an introduction. Not the books in translation, not the books featuring patois, not the historical novels or those set in made-up worlds or those that were experimental in form and approach. Not one.
At some point, while thinking about this, I stopped tearing at my locks long enough to email Vimbai Shire, an editor and colleague who worked closely with me in my role as Series Editor for the Kwani? Manuscript Project. Here’s what she said:
Let’s not pretend that media: social, print and visual, has no influence whatsoever on the buying public. Big prize winners (for example) don’t become literary sensations and sell well because they won the prizes. It’s the media coverage, the interviews, the plaudits—they create the buzz that pushes the public into the stores. Media, in effect, tells the public what they should buy and why.
This is where the energy should lie, in working to build networks that promote review and conversation about books by writers from African countries, battling for access, creating spaces and places where the books can be talked about and making it possible for readers to find them. Encouraging engaged debate and review. Nurturing thoughtful critiques. Seeking out audiences and champions for the books we believe in. I don’t deny that it’s hard work. As Bady rightly points out in his article and Twitter stream, there are often obstacles facing the publishing and distribution of books about Africa by Africans. But it has to be worth the while. Because this I do know—once readers find a book as good as Kintu, they will buy it, they will read it and they talk about it.
In an era of enervating mansplaining and a day in which I noticed one too many instances of a black African being spoken for, I couldn’t help but feel exasperated. What is the point of investing in the search and development of such talent if it is still felt that we need a white male to tell us what a black female is trying to say? And yes, I do mean to be that blunt. Because this should have been considered. It may be that the inclusion of an Introduction or Afterword is the standard format for Transit’s publications—I am not familiar enough with their list to comment. But, as a publishing professional and reader with a very personal passion for this book and this author, I can’t help but ask: What statement is being made, who is the statement being made about and who is being requested to make the statement? I can acknowledge the publisher’s good intentions, I can admire and recognise a kinship with the author of the introduction and praise the content and style, but I look at the cover and see ‘Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi. With an introduction by Aaron Bady’ and all I really see is the decades of work promoting the telling of our own stories, by ourselves and for ourselves, being eroded. Makumbi doesn’t need to be explained. She says what she wants to say in her novel with clarity, skill and a staggering capacity for storytelling.
Take a look at Kintu’s opening lines:
There was a knock. Kamu’s woman woke up and climbed over him to get the door. She picked a kanga off the floor and wrapped it around her naked body. Sucking her teeth at being disturbed so early in the morning, she walked to the door with the annoyance of a proper wife whose husband was at home.
Tell me, really, what more do you need?
About the Author:
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey is a Zimbabwean-born editor and critic. She was the previous Deputy Editor of Granta. She was Senior Editor at Jonathan Cape, Random House. She sits on the boards of the Writers’ Centre Norwich and Art for Amnesty, and is Deputy Chair of the Council of the Caine Prize and a patron of the Etisalat Prize for Literature. In 2011 she was on the judging panel of both the David Cohen Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing. In 2012 she was chair of the fiction panel for the BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Literature. In 2013 she was chair of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 2015 she was a Man Booker Prize Judge. She is currently on the panel for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award.
She is Series Editor of the Kwani? Manuscript Project and the editor of Africa39 (Bloomsbury, 2014), Let’s Tell this Story Properly (Commonwealth Writers/Dundurn Press, 2015), Flamingoland and Other Stories (Spread the Word, 2015), and Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (Cassava Republic Press, 2016). Her journalism has appeared in the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Observer and she is a contributor to the book pages of NPR. Her introduction to Woman of the Aeroplanes by Kojo Laing (Pearson, African Writers Series) was published in 2012. A Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, Allfrey was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to the publishing industry. In 2016 she received a Culture for Service Award from Goshen College, from where she graduated in 1988.
Author photographed by Charlie Hopkinson at Rye Books, London.