Africa’s leading literary festival, Ake Book Festival in Lagos, Nigeria, is in its seventh year. Appearing this year are 100 authors including Ayobami Adebayo, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bernadine Evaristo, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Nnedi Okarafor. I was asked to take part in a blog tour celebrating the festival and the authors involved – specifically, to host an extract of Makumbi’s Manchester Happened, which I’ve been especially keen to read since hearing her in conversation with Evaristo last week.
This is the opening few pages of “Our Allies the Colonies,” the first story following the Prologue. I hope it whets your appetite to read the whole thing.
First he felt a rush of dizziness like life was leaving his body, then the world wobbled. Abbey stopped and held onto a bollard outside the Palace Theatre. He had not eaten all day. He considered nipping down to Maama Rose’s for fried dumplings and kidney beans, but the thought of eating brought nausea to his throat. He steered his mind away from food. He gave himself some time then let go of the bollard to test his steadiness. His head felt right, and his vision was back. He started to walk tentatively at first then steadily, down Oxford Road, past the Palace Hotel, under the train bridge, upwards, towards the Grosvenor Picture Palace.
Abbey was set to return to Uganda. He had already paid for the first leg of the journey – the passage from Southampton to Mombasa – and was due to travel within six months. For the second and third legs of the journey – Mombasa to Nairobi, then Nairobi to Kampala – he would pay at the ticket offices on arrival. He had saved enough to start a business either dealing in kitenge textiles from the Belgian Congo or importing manufactured goods from Mombasa. Compete with the Indians even. As a starter, he had bought rolls of fabric prints from Summer Mist Textiles for women’s dresses and for men’s suits, to take with him. All that commercial development in Uganda he had read about – increased use of commercial vehicles; the anticipated opening of the Owen Falls Dam, which would provide electricity for everyone; he had even heard that Entebbe had opened an airport back in 1951 – was beckoning.
But his plan was in jeopardy. It was his one-month-old baby, Moses. Abbey had just returned from Macclesfield Children’s Home, where the baby’s mother, Heather Newton, had given him up for adoption, but he had not seen his son. In fact, he did not know what the baby looked like: he never saw him in hospital when he was born. Abbey suspected that Heather feared that one day she might bump into him and Moses. But Heather was fearful for nothing. Abbey was taking Moses home, never to return.
Suppose the children’s home gave you the child, what then, hmm? the other side of his mind asked. What do you know about babies? The journey from Southampton to Mombasa is at least two weeks long on a cheap vessel. The bus ride from Mombasa to Nairobi would last up to two days. Then the following night you would catch the mail train from Nairobi to Kampala: who knows if it is still running? All those journeys with luggage and a six-month-old ankle-biter on your own. Yet Abbey knew that if he left Britain without his boy, that would be it. Moses would be adopted, given a new name and there would be no way of finding him. Then his son would be like those rootless Baitale children you heard of in Toro, whose Italian fathers left them behind.
He was now outside Manchester Museum, by the university. He was on his way to his second job, at the Princess Road bus depot, where he cleaned Manchester Corporation buses. His shift began at 9 p.m. It was almost 8 p.m., but the day was bright. He could not wait to get home and tell people how in Britain the sun had moods. It barely retired in summer yet in winter it could not be bothered to rise. He could not wait to tell them things about Britain. It was a shame he had stayed this long. But having a job and saving money made him feel like he was not wasting his youth away in a foreign land. His day job paid the bills while the evening job put savings away in his Post Office account. His mind turned on him again: Maybe Heather had a point – you don’t have a wife to look after Moses while you work. You still have five months before you set off; if the home gives him to you, how will you look after him? But then shame rose and reason was banished. Blood is blood, a child is better off with his father no matter what.
He reached Whitworth Park. It was packed with people sunning themselves, young men throwing and catching Frisbees, families picnicking. At the upper end, close to Whitworth Art Gallery, he caught sight of a group of Teddy boys who, despite the warm evening, wore suits, crêpe-soled shoes and sunglasses, their greased hair slicked back. They looked like malnourished dandies. Even though Teddy Boys tended to hunt blacks in the night, Abbey decided against crossing the park. Instead, he walked its width to Moss Lane East. The way the sun had defrosted British smiles. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts,’ strangers will tell you now.
Through a giveaway on Eric’s blog, I won tickets to see Bernardine Evaristo and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi speak about their latest books at the London Literature Festival (this year’s theme: “Once Upon Our Times”) at the Southbank Centre yesterday. It was great to meet up with fellow bloggers Eric and Eleanor to hear these two black women writers read from their recent work and discuss feminism, the political landscape for writers of African descent, and their experiments with form.
Frustrated by the lack of black women in British literature, Evaristo started writing Girl, Woman, Other in 2013. She began with Carole (Anglo-Nigerian, like herself), who has to change to fit in, first at Oxford and then as a City banker. Next she moved on to the stories of Carole’s mother and school friend, and the book grew from there. All told, there are four mother–daughter pairs. Evaristo believes her background as an actress (in her twenties) allowed her to almost become these characters and write them from the inside, so that even though the chapters are written in the third person they feel like first-person narratives. The 12 flawed, complex main characters are “equal protagonists,” she insisted. Her aim was “to explore multiplicity to address our invisibility.” She characterizes the book’s style as “fusion fiction”: an accessible take on the experimental novel, with unorthodox, free-flowing language that allows readers to move easily between the different characters’ storylines.
Both Evaristo and Makumbi admitted to having a complicated relationship with feminism, Evaristo because the feminism of the 1980s did not seem to include black women and Makumbi because the fight for equality is still ongoing in patriarchal African societies like her native Uganda’s. Evaristo feels that feminism is now more inclusive and, also thanks to the #MeToo movement, there has been a place for her book that may not have been there five or 10 years ago. (The same goes for Makumbi, who has only now found a publisher for her very feminist first novel, which was rejected in the 2000s.) Both authors spoke of the ways in which people are made to feel “Other”: through sex, race and class. Makumbi pointed out that Africans experience a specific racism separate from other blacks in Britain. “I’m not racist, but I draw the line at Africans” is how she caricatured this view.
Makumbi’s novel Kintu is a sprawling family saga that has been compared to Roots, but she has recently released a collection of short stories that focus on Ugandan immigration to Britain between the 1950s and today. She envisioned Manchester Happened as “a letter back home” to tell people what it’s really like to settle in a new country, as well as a chance to reflect on the underrepresented East African immigration experience. Much of the book is drawn from her life, such as working as an airport security officer to fund her creative writing degree. Her mentor recommended that she start writing stories as a way to counterbalance the intensity of Kintu – a chance to see the beginning, middle and end as a simple arc. She assumed short stories would be easier than a novel, yet her first story took her four years to write. It is as if she can only look into her past for brief moments, anyway, she explained, so the story form has been perfect. She has deliberately avoided the negativity of many migration narratives, she said: Things have in fact gone well for her, and we’ve heard about things going wrong many times before.
I’m over halfway through Girl, Woman, Other now, and enjoying it very much – but wondering if its breadth sacrifices some depth. Evaristo acknowledged that she felt a bit less attached to these characters than she has in novels where she followed just one or two characters all the way through. Still, she feels that she knows and understands these women, even if she doesn’t like or approve of all of them. She read excerpts from the sections about Yazz, a feisty and opinionated young woman waiting for her mother’s play to start, and Hattie, a strong-willed 93-year-old from a Northumberland farming family. Makumbi read from two stories, one about a Ugandan couple arriving in Manchester in 1950 and the other set in the airport security area. In the latter the protagonist confiscates a whip from a priest, a funny moment that seems to represent Makumbi’s style – moderator Irenosen Okojie, a Nigerian author, mentioned another notable story from the perspective of a Ugandan street dog newly pampered in Britain.
I hope to read Manchester Happened soon, and should be featuring an extract from it next week as part of the Ake Book Festival blog tour. I’ll also finish the Evaristo this week and expect it to be on my Best of 2019 fiction list.