Love, Longing and Heartbreak in Manchester.
There is a bold mastery with which the Ugandan novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi writes that certainly places her as one of the most exciting writers presently creating work. It has also positioned her among the most important or best African writers of all time despite having only published two books; the third book, The First Woman, is on its way and anticipation is already high. Her debut novel, Kintu, an epic saga that follows generations of the Kintu Kidda family as they struggle through a curse placed upon them, has been hailed as the The Great Ugandan novel, with most considering it the one of the best African novels published in the last decade.
Now comes her collection of short stories Manchester Happened (published in the US as Let’s Tell This Story Properly), which comprises of a dozen stories divided into two sections: Departing and Returning. The first section, made up of stories about Ugandans leaving Uganda for different reasons and settling in Manchester, in the north-west of England. Here, they confront different issues that come with migration, in a fashion that reminds us of the characters of Sam Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners. Like Selvon, Makumbi has an eye for detail and pens her observations of immigrants settling into the new life with such accuracy and vividness. Makumbi, who herself lives with her family in Manchester, offers us this street-level view into the daily lives of these people. The characters are so radically different and distinct but each of them are lifelike. The authentic portrayal makes for both hilarious reading and also enables us to have empathy for the characters.
Even when the characters are non-human, as is the case in ‘Memoirs of a Namaaso’ which is narrated by an immigrant stray dog, the humanness of the stories is the thread that runs throughout the collection. Most of them are about a certain longing — to leave or return , to be loved or acknowledged— and Makumbi manages to convey that strong sense of desire among the characters.
The characters don’t always get their anticipations matched upon arrival and one can hear their dampened expectations in questions like: ‘You mean this is England?’ And some of them become disenfranchised and choose to return, settling back into the familiar feeling of home even when home has changed so much. Some, however, choose to stay back and confront the unknowns. Makumbi follows all who choose to return and those who choose to remain, reminding us that their lives are not merely fragments in a story about migration but that each one of them is whole, complete and worthy of being written about.
The departees — the dog, the visa desiring girl stuck with a religious zealot for a husband, etc — and the returnees —the two daughters of the scandalised pastor and their mother, the mixed race boy taking part in a circumcision ritual, etc — are all fully realised characters who have a piece of Uganda and Manchester in them.
The titular story, in which the main character’s sister struggle with her identity as she settles in Manchester is, in my opinion, the standout story in a collection where all the stories are brilliant. It perfectly captures the turmoil the characters are dealing with and ensures the reader gets a full sense of the complexities that are abound in a way that perhaps ties it with 2019 Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo which also explores the complexities of migration and race among others.
Makumbi has garnered comparisons to Achebe from both the way she centers her Ugandannes and from her use of language. Achebe wrote that: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.” Makumbi seems to agree with this sentiment and chooses to use Uglish (Ugandan English) when necessary without any footnotes or translations. ‘Sometimes events in Britain fail to translate into Luganda.’
Makumbi displays dexterity in the way she fuses English, Luganda and Uglish, giving each equal weight, sometimes switching between the three in a single sentence. The characters do things and speak ‘Ugandanly’ (as Makumbi chooses to adverb this). This expert level of skill is what sets Makumbi apart when it comes to the performance of language in her work.
Included in the collection, as the penultimate serving, is her short story ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’ which won the 2014 Commonwealth short story prize. It is a story that, for me, shows the height of her sleek use of language and at some point she says of the characters: ‘They mixed Luganda and English as if the languages were sisters.’
In the stories in Manchester Happened, Makumbi successfully captures the day to day Ugandanisms and places them before us, inviting us to enjoy the stories. This does not burden her work in any way and it makes one curious about the culture and the language. It is a bold decision and it pays off immensely. Ellah Wakatama-Allfrey, in her essay ‘When We Talk about Kintu’ published on Brittle Paper, says that: ‘ 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.’ And it is that same energy that Makumbi brings to her collection, choosing not to explain herself or let any yearnings for palatability get in the way of her stories.
In choosing to narrow it down and write specifically about the lives of Ugandans leaving Uganda and settling in Manchester or those deciding to return home, Makumbi reminds me of the quote by Derrick Jensen from Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution: “There is a deeper point to be made here, however, having to do with the specificity of everything. One of the great failings of our culture is the nearly universal belief that there can be anything universal. We as a culture take the same approach to living in Phoenix as in Seattle as in Miami, to the detriment of all these landscapes. We turn wild trees to standardized two-by-fours. We turn living fish into fish sticks. But every fish is different from every other fish. Every student is different from every other student. Every place is different from every other place. If we are ever to hope to begin to live sustainably in place (which is the only way to live sustainably), we will have to remember specificity is everything.”
This specificity is so admirable and it is what makes Manchester Happened shine as a deliberately put-together collection. Makumbi did not pretend about the Ugandannes of Kintu, vowing to tell the story properly and be as truthful as possible, and she doesn’t seem to hold back on that promise in Manchester Happened.