Uganda

Monica Arac de Nyeko: ‘Procrastination is the devil, that and fear’

What are your 5 favourite novels?

The God Of Small Things by Arundati Roy, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Song of Lawino, the long poem by Okot p’Bitek, The Concubine by Elechi Amadi. I also love So Long A Letter too by Mariama Bâ. So a bit more than you asked for I suppose.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

Perhaps not specific authors but that generation of Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, Wole Soyinka, Timothy Wangusa, and Buchi Emecheta. They really set the pace.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I would like to see my novel in print. That would be nice. I just sent the draft to my agent. I hope he likes it.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I work full time so that limits my ability to do all the things I would like to do. But for now, I would like to focus on writing stories and publishing.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

I finally finished my novel after nearly ten years of procrastination. Procrastination is the devil, that and fear and you’ve got to fight them like you fight the devil.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

I am happy that seeing my name on the list gave me a bit of momentum to try and finish the novel.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I see several opportunities and an absolutely fantastic interest in the arts by the public. We have just got to keep them engaged by continuing to tell the stories that capture the voices of this time and generation.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I read Glaydah’s Namukasa’s story and Chika Unigwe’s. Both have strong narrative voices.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I was at Ake Books Festival a year or two ago. It was fun being with people who care about books.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

No.


Previously, in our ‘Reading Africa39’ series of essays, we considered de Nyeko’s ‘The Banana Eater’, published in the Africa39 annthology.

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Glaydah Namukasa: ‘Femrite has made me the writer I am today.’

Africa39 author, Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda).

Africa39 author, Glaydah Namukasa (Uganda).

What are your 5 favourite novels?

My list of favourites keeps changing, however, The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini, Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez have been steadfast on this list, for years. Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi, and The Memory Of Love by Aminatta Forna. I wish the number wasn’t limited to 5 because the list goes on.

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

I am interpreting ‘influence’ to mean three things: Inspiration, information, and Transformation. Writers who inspired my writing were first of all those that I read in my early literature classes: Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi, William Shakespeare, and many others. Then there are those I read along the way: Daniel steel, Robert Ludlum, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Goretti Kyomuhendo, and many others. But reading Goretti Kyomuhendo’s Secrets No More gave me confidence to believe in myself as a woman writer, as a Ugandan writer, and that in itsself was a turning point in my writing career. Then there are those writers who continue to inform my creativity like Chimamanda Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Nadifa Mohamed, Khaled Hosseini, and many others. And then there are those like Binyavanga Wainaina, Noviolet Bulawayo, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison e.t.c who are transforming my artistic use of language. It’s such a rich mix of writers who do influence my writing.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/do you hope to work with?

I plan to do an MFA in creative  writing. I believe that the MFA will further develop my my skills and add to my theoretical and perhaps historical understanding of my craft. All the writers I have met who have done the MFA in creative writing have only good things to say about their experience.

I am working on a novel My New Home. Been working on it since 2013. I completed it this year and currently I am making the final revision before I can take it for peer review, receive comments, rewrite, revise and then submit a clean manuscript to an agent. Can’t put a date on this but I am happy to say that last year I had a literary agent from UK (David Godwin) read the first 20 pages and he showed interest in the story. He asked for the whole manuscript once it was ready. This explains the hard work I am putting into it. I’ve had chance to work with the best. At this point I can’t determine which editor I will work with but I have worked with Ellah Wakatama Allfrey on the extract I published in the Africa39 anthology. It was such a great learning experience for me working with her and if you ask me to make a wish I would tell you I wish to work with her on a novel project.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I am involved with Femrite-Uganda Women Writers Association where I am the chairperson of the board.
Femrite has made me the writer I am today. It has developed me in different aspects of my life: as a writer, and as an Individual. FEMRITE nurtured my writing career from the beginning, gave me an environment where I interacted with other writers, opened up opportunities for me in the literary world, published my works. FEMRITE’s existence on the Ugandan African literary scene has been a turning point as far as African writing is concerned. Initially, it started as an organisation that nurtured, promoted, and published Uganda women writers. But along the way it extended services to all women writers in Africa. Men, as well, benefit from associating with Femrite because we have various activities in which they are involved for example the Readers/Writers club that sits every Monday evening, Author Of The Month where we have hosted writers like Kgafela oa Magogodi a spoken word poet from South Africa; Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Ghana), author of /Tail Of A Blue Bird and Commonwealth book prize judge 2011, Proffesor Austin Bukenya, Uganda. Chumaa Nwokolo, (Nigeria) author of Diaries Of A Dead African and The Ghost of Sani Abacha, Walabyeki Magoba (Uganda), who writes in Luganda, Onyeka Nwelue, (Nigeria,) author of The Abyssinian Boy and Orchard of Memories and also winner of the Thomson Short Story prize 2000, and many other writers.

Currently one of Femrite’s major activities is creating a new reading and writing generation. We are partnering with CKU-Danish Center for Culture and Development and we have formed Readers/Writers clubs in secondary schools with a focus in northern and western Uganda. We mentor young writers, organize public readings for them, hold reading tents for children, hold creative writing workshops for them, give awards to inspire them write more, among other activities. FEMRITE continues to develop the reading and writing culture in the country. We organize an annual Residency for African Women Writers where the selected writers have a chance to work on their projects and to interact with mentors who read their works and give feed back to them during the time of residency. We have had writers from countries like Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, e.t.c.

Also, various literary initiatives have been formed in the country and Femrite readily supports them by giving them space to conduct workshops, build their networks, and offering moral support.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

Like I mentioned earlier, My New Home is the project I am putting all my efforts in right now. And just like any novel project, it involves a lot of work and commitment. It’s challenging also because in the novel I am exploring the dynamics of how our respective mother tongues affect the way we express ourselves in English. English as the major driver of communication across borders continues to change and to vary according to place and social setting. So it’s these regional varieties of English that has been yet another source of inspiration for me in wrting this story. This project has involved a lot of research as well and so far I am proud of myself for the work I have done on it.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

The Hay Festival and the Africa39 project in my opinion, has already started on the journey of advancing my career. Naming me on the list of African writers to shape the future of African writing started this journey. First of all it increased my confidence as a writer. Knowing that the judges believed in me, in my work and in my abilities and in my promise to influence African writing changed my writing life. My writing has changed in such a way that I aim for excellence. When I am thinking about a story, writing the story, rewriting, revising, I want to do my best. My new work is stronger. And I am putting a lot of hard work in it. Being part of Africa39 requires me to become even a better writer. Hay Festival has given me a platform to showcase my work to the world in the Africa39 anthology. Many reviews of the book were published and I was glad that I read some reviews that mentioned my story. One reviewer particularly mention “… I’d quite like to read the full novel (notably: Ebabma, Kinshasa-Makombo by Richard Ali Mutu; My New Home by Glaydah Namukasa; Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi).”

I would like to see Hay Festival promoting the writers by organizing readings for them especially those who have won awards, those who have published books, or who are in the process of publishing books, market their books, facilitate their participation in different literary festivals and book fairs around the world, and also to have Africa39 writers participate in the future Hay Festival events as visiting writers and give readings from their works.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

In Uganda, one of the major challenges is getting published. Majority of publishers are more interested in text books or biographies of famous people; that is where ‘the money is.’ FEMRITE is one of the very few interested in publishing fiction. But Femrite still depends on donor funds and it’s difficult to get funds for publication. So that’s where we are limited. Of course there is on-line publishing especially for short stories and poems and many writers have made good use of that. still it’s every writer’s dream to be in print.
Then there is the market for the books. The market is not yet good. And it’s not that people don’t read. No. People do read but they don’t have enough money to buy books. Instead you may find that Glaydah buys a book and she has five people in line to read the same book after her. And that’s okay. But not good for the market for our literature.

And we don’t have Creative Writing programmes in our Universities. I think that to have these would boost the Ugandan literary scene. I am happy to say that Femrite and other literary initiatives in the county are doing a lot of literary activism. We are working to improve the market for our literature, get young people who are tomorrow’s main readers get interested in reading and writing, teach them to value literature so much that buying books will automatically feature in their day to day budgets.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have enjoyed the works of have read Chika Unigwe, and my favourite of her works has been On Black Sisters Street. Its been a while since I read it but I think she captured the different situations of the ‘Black sisters’ vividly. Their voices stood out, I think those four women represented hundreds who are even now going through the same depressing experiences.

Nadifa Mohamed is another of those writers I respect so much. To some extent her book Black Mamba Boy inspired parts of my current work. I loved how she wrote about life in the slum through the experiences of six-year-old Jama and his mother. Jama inspired certain experiences in the life of the narrator in my novel My New Home.

Chimamanda Adichie’s creativity continues to inspire me. I respect her ability to create and her sense of observation, how she turns something non-existent into something existing, a story that you read and you see people you see places, you see things happening. You see a world in a book and she makes you live in that world and enjoy that world. There are writers in Africa39 whose novels I am eagerly waiting for: Monica Arac de Nyeko, Igoni Barrett, Ndinda Kioko, Novuyo Rosa — surely the list is endless because to me the pieces of writing in the Africa39 anthology showcase “… a collection of some of the most varied and exciting new work in world literature today by writers who are certainly going to be among the most celebrated of our time.”

What festivals/workshops/Residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

Since Africa39 I have attended the African Women Writers Network conference that took place at the Bellagio Center, Milan. This was organized by Femrite and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. I have also attended the FEMRITE residency for African writers that took place at the Baltic Center for Writers and Translators, Gotland island, Sweden.

Here in Uganda, I participated as one of the writers and worked on the novel project with mentors: Erik Faulk and Ellen Banda. In June 2014 I attended the Editorial skills development workshop organised by African Writers Trust and the Commonwealth in Uganda. I have also been a facilitator in the Creative Writing workshops in schools in Uganda.

‘Voice of a Dream’ (Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa) by Glaydah Namukasa.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I recently was a mentor on the FEMRITE/CKU Novel Mentoring Project where I worked with Prossy Bibangamba, a writer who is also a medical professional. Her story-telling abilities, and the writing skills were quite impressive, I could see a doctor of words. She created a 300,000- word work of fantasy, successfully. And something that amazed me was that she always took time to clean up all these obvious mistakes to do with grammar, punctuations, typing mistakes, spellings and this gave a smooth read to her texts. This gave us space to deal with the major structural issues and other relevant bits of the craft. It was such a good experience for both of us. I encouraged her to join the community of writers and explore the opportunities that come with it. She is such a promising writer.

Jackee Batanda: “Take note of the lessons you teach and apply them to your own work”

What are your 5 favourite novels?

  1. Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
  2. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  3. On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe
  4. Harare North by Brian Chikwava
  5. Kintu by Nansubuga Makumbi

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most?  How did each influence your work?

My influences keep changing at different stages.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years?  What are you working on?  What do you hope to publish?  Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I am currently working on two pieces of work: Rewriting a novel about an apocalyptic cult in Uganda, and working on a novel about how a nation and a family deals with its violent past when one of the perpetrators of violence is released back into the community. Within the next 3-5 years, I should have completed both works and hopefully published them.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa?  How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I have supported nascent literary organisations — Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, Writivism Festival and The Story Club. Support has been advisory, teaching writing, and minimal financial support. I am excited about these organisations because they are standing on the cutting edge of literary renewal on the continent, and are promoting dialogue across countries. I support them because they are promoting intra-continental literary discourse and dialogue. All the organisations have worked with budding writers to bring their works to the world. They all need support.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

My most recent artistic project is the rewriting of the apocalyptic novel. It has been a long work in progress with a lot of hiatus moments taken away from it. In the course of running writing classes, I have encouraged my students to create character profiles as they write. I had to step back and assign myself the same task. When I first started on my novel, I did not create character profiles, and just working through classes with my own students made me realize the importance of going back to the drawing board and doing the same for the novel. I believe doing this exercise will make the story more vibrant and richer than it is already. So the lesson here is that learning does not end, and when you teach, you also need to take note of the lessons you teach and apply them to your own work.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career?  What impact has it had thus far?  What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?  

The Hay Festival and Africa39 project has so far had so very little impact on my career. It is one year down the road and I see nothing tangible from it.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region?  How are you ameliorating these difficulties?  What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

I think the greatest challenge facing artists, writers and literary culture in my region is the over dependence of donor funding. We have fully focused our energies on outside help and have failed to raise funding in-country. Of course this is not to ignore that fact that corporate sponsorship in country is dwindling at a drastic rate. I believe that if we start targeting our efforts to local audiences and getting them to see the value of supporting local artistes, then our survival will be more guaranteed. Several literary initiatives are all clamouring for the same funding basket. If we can borrow from other artistic acts like musicians and comedians to tap into the broader corporate market in order to diversify the funding basket. I recently attended a play by 3 female poets, who had just done that. The theatre was a full house and they had successfully gotten corporate entities on board. It has worked for the other disciplines and we in the literary world can learn to borrow a page and infuse it in our own works.

In this regard, I am running a for-profit writing company called Successspark Brand which runs writing classes and offers other book writing services, with the hope of tapping into the untapped corporate class within our countries with the potential to invest in books and literary initiatives. This company seeks to test my hypothesis of getting people within the region to pay for the arts instead of expecting freebies as has been the case because most literary initiatives are underwritten by donor funds, and thus dogged by the issue of sustainability when the funding comes to an end.

One of the packages my company runs are writing retreats. We are running an inaugural 4 day writing retreat in October 9-12 at the picturesque Bulago Island in Lake Victoria.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39?  Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)?  Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I have read most of the stories in the collection, and would prefer to work with most of them not just singling out a few. The reason is that with the richness in the selection, it also opens up a door to reaching out to writers in other countries, I would never have reached or known about if it wasn’t for the collection. I am interested in getting us to work on the initiatives such as Successspark Brand, where we teach writing to a wider group of paying students. It is efforts like this that will be a wider appreciation for the arts.

 What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently?  What was your role?  What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I recently attended The 2nd Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies Conference. I was a panelist on the Encounter with Writers’ panel, where I spoke about my writing initiative.

The takeaway was the need for a closer collaboration between literary initiatives and academia in our countries. The two seem to be operating independent of each other, yet there is a lot more room for collaboration and convergence.

 Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

I am mentoring a new crop of writers through my company, Successspark Brand. We are newly started and the mentorship is a work in progress, so I am hoping that after a year our work will be showcased in publications and not just written about.

Reading the Africa39 Anthology: “The Banana Eater” by Monica Arac de Nyeko

Over the next 4 months, we’ll be reading the stories in the Africa39 anthology and linking to interesting commentary on them from various sources. This first review was of Kenyan Caine Prize Winner, Okwiri Oduor’s short story, “Rag Doll”.

The Africa39 Anthology.

The Africa39 Anthology. (Click to purchase from Amazon.)

If you or your book club haven’t yet purchased the anthology, do so now and read along with us.

The next review will be of “Two Fragments of Love” by Eileen Almeida Barbosa.

This review is of Monica Arac de Nyeko’s “The Banana Eater”.


Sitting outside the library, or anywhere really, one often overhears conversations between women about fear and violence. In such conversations, a singular, unifying truth, reiterated in foundational works of feminist geography, emerges: what women fear most is not death or disease or war or the apocalypse; no, what women fear most is men. Men on this planet have not only imagined myriad and brutal ways to destroy themselves, women, and the planet’s ecosystems, but they also, by moving and working, thinking and acting, occupying space and mapping the world in ways that privilege men’s desires and points of view, continue to produced subtle and not so subtle aggressions against women. The famous words of Margaret Atwood — oft quoted as apocrypha and thus almost always out of context — is an apt index when reading Monica Arac de Nyeko’s Africa39 anthology story, “The Banana Eaters”. Documentary film director Mary Dickson recounts Atwood’s words in “A Woman’s Worst Nightmare”:

A woman’s worst nightmare? That’s pretty easy. Novelist Margaret Atwood writes that when she asked a male friend why men feel threatened by women, he answered, “They are afraid women will laugh at them.” When she asked a group of women why they feel threatened by men, they said, “We’re afraid of being killed.”

The Banana Eater provides an interesting perspective on the various fears a woman and her daughter must endure, and the stresses that result from living in an environment where men are an ever-present threat. Amito, the narrator, lends us a view of her neighbourhood: a housing estate in which “many things about our houses were similar.” Within this ostensible repetition without variation, Amito’s mother, Ma, establishes her individuality and the home-ness of their home:

Only our back yards were different. […] A house, she often said, starts at the back yard. See the state of the back yard and you’ll know if you want to enter.

Through her skill in gardening, Ma makes this backyard, where the home begins, spectacular. Though such a simple and benign thing, gardening reflects Ma’s daring to be unique, to express herself. “Garden”, in itself, is redolent with biblical and other mythologies. In this, a woman’s garden, not a secret garden but one that is highly visible to the world, we find a mother and a daughter. The labour of creating her garden, of nurturing a woman’s own space, at this point of the story already feels like a rebellion. (We might imagine Genesis rewritten, substituting a woman and her daughter for the prelapsarian man and woman in the garden.)

Plant fences and flowers, on the other hand, were different. They were boastful. They attracted everyone.

Different…boastful. Her will to difference, and individuality, is a boast. Ma plants a garden and the garden is prideful. Ma is prideful. Amito sees that the very act of a woman planting a magnificent garden in the housing estate is tinged with what the world of men will project onto her as hubris. Most of the time, the people who are attracted to the garden are harmless, tolerable. But then:

The lot she found unbearable, though, were the market vendors. Every day as soon as customers turned scarce, the vendors left the market. They crossed Estate Close, the road that separated the market from the estates, and came to sit in our back yard. They were choosy, those vendors. They avoided all the other back yards on the block. They came straight for ours, and laid down their tired and sweaty bottoms. Our back yard was a place to forget about the market and its unsold sacks of potatoes and bananas, a place to gossip, a place to laugh out loud at anyone, including our distinguished house guests.

Africa 39 author, Monica Arac de Nyeko

In re-reading the story, we might pause within the stream of narrated images and events. We stand in the stream and feel disturbances and perturbations as ripples of a mother and a daughter’s attenuated desires; we follow the stream as it flows through Ma’s garden: How does Ma live? Where does she live? When does she live? What does she do to make her life and that of her daughter possible? What life does she want for her daughter? How does she express the individual magic of her irreplaceable self? What does she tolerate? What is she made to tolerate? What does she find intolerable? What does she bear? What is unbearable to her? How does she make do? How does she forebear? Does she complain? When does she complain? Does she protest? When does she protest? When she is up against it, how does she stay standing? What is her daughter to make of womanhood?

Ma’s backyard is overrun by violent men. The home, which “begins in the backyard” is “defiled”. Her home is vandalised. With the dangerous men there, occupying her treasured space, can her and her daughter’s home be said to be theirs any longer? An everlasting question: where is a woman safe? Its corollaries: What can a woman call her own? The difficulties a woman faces when she desires her own privacy and intimacy: Is her home her own? Ma confronts the vendors. The men riot and retort:

In the back yard, Ma found the vendors laughing and talking, happy, as if all was well. She tried to speak to them. They did not pay her any attention — not until she started to yell at them, her small arms shaking and her wig unstable on her scalp.

‘Leave. I want all of you to leave my compound now,’ Ma said.

‘Your compound?’ one vendor said. The rest joined in, and they did not allow Ma to speak again.

[…]

‘Your house? You think this is your house?’

The vendors were undeterred in their efforts to make Ma shut up.

Her house, her land, are not her own. Her home, her life, are not her own in these men’s eyes. She has to fight men to own what is already hers.

Amito is a witness to the compromises her mother is forced to make to accommodate men in the shadow of violation by men. She watches everything with wry amusement, with bitterness, with anger. For her, “it is war!” She and her friend, Naalu, become militant girl-rebels against “the bastards”. So young, they are learning that at almost ever turn, a woman, to live any kind of life, must be ready to fight against men. Amito turns her anger into action but all she can do, with the meagre means of her child-body, is curse the men, throw stones at them, pour dirty water over them. She flings stones at them then flees. She pours filthy water on them then hides under her bed. Her actions only escalate the problem and infuriate the men who will not be deterred by a wilful child or a belligerent woman. To these men, both woman and child are identical because they must be made powerless in their eyes. Ma and Amito refuse to accept that they, woman and girl, are powerless. These entitled men project their weaknesses and entitlement onto women and girls, and see them, instead of themselves, as weak and entitled. These men, apparently without space of their own, decide that the woman and her daughter should have no space, even as they enjoy the luxury provided by the space — the garden — created by the very woman whom they are bent on violating. These men, powerless before the market management, the Kampala city council, and the vagaries of economics, project their powerlessness onto the woman, treat Ma and Amito as prey, as endlessly exploitable. The confrontations escalate. Ma resorts to returning home from work later than usual, in the hope of avoiding the evil men. She does what all women, always under threat, do within urban and suburban space: she develops a mental map of where and when she can move through various places; her own home is unsafe.

The men were still in our back yard, basking and anticipating another exciting confrontation with Ma […] Ma came home to a riot — men with stones and bricks.

A group of men, in a place they have no right to be, arm themselves with stones and bricks against a woman and a girl. Women fear men; too often, men cause women’s deaths, men are the promise of death to women, men are the death of women. To many women, death may well be male. (We glimpse Amito’s mind. Isn’t this what she must think, seeing armed men ready to attack her and her mother?)

Men, on the other hand, fear women’s laughter. The imbalance of power, inordinately favouring men, remains significant. It seems ridiculous to fear laughter from anyone because, from a man’s perspective, a woman’s derisive laughter, in itself, does nothing no matter how loud and sustained. What men fear about a woman’s wilful, mocking laughter is that women’s laughter gives women power and reveals the absurdity of men’s will to power. The juddering laugh of a woman mocking a man shakes the foundations of his masculinity, his world. If she laughs long and hard enough, his world might collapse. After all, a woman mocks that which has power over her — and this is part of what we also glean when reading Mallory Ortberg’s recent “Texts from Jane Eyre”: A woman mocks a man in order to de-power the object of her mockery. Thus, the frustrated narrator, Amito, in Monica Arac de Nyeko’s The Banana Eater repeatedly says:

Chei, I thought, such nonsense!

The behaviour of the adults around her is baffling and annoying. The men in the housing estates are mucking up the world. These men are violent, weak, blustering, disrespectful; they are, in Amito’s turn of phrase, “such nonsense”. We could imagine her, as a grown woman, shouting “Chei. Such nonsense!” at silly men. When Amito sees her mother invite the churchgoing Patrick Aculu into their home, she knows instinctively that her mother is about to take him as a lover; when Amito hears their conversations turn increasingly intimate and salacious, she sees and hears “such nonsense.” Aculu, in Amito’s eyes, is an insipid man. Amito and other children call him the “The Red Devil.” He is spineless, yet still his maleness, inside the house, is a threat, different only in degree from the violence of the men lurking outside the house.

The chairman, Ma’s nemesis, has to intervene to solve her vendor problem. The problem is indeed solved but Amito has a best friend, Naalu, and the chairman is Naalu’s father. After the chairman’s chases away the vendors, the nonsense caused by men, which had amused Amito before, now takes on a shocking and intimate reality. Nonsense causes a schism. Naalu is cloistered.

Chei, I thought. Such nonsense.

But it was not nonsense, of course, because Naalu did not return.

Amito’s witnessing of the world is harsh and hard. Her resistance to the world of men is playful and disrespectful. But her resistance changes nothing. Through the story, she is animated by a conviction that she perceives everything clearly and that by perceiving clearly and mocking savagely, the world’s effects on her life can be ameliorated, men can have no power over her world. But this, she learns, is not so. Men will continue to shape her world against her desire. This perhaps is a fundamental lesson of girlhood, that even though there can be no civility in the face of violence, the violence will nonetheless be unrelenting; as the violence escalates, so must her tactics, or else, like her mother, she will be beaten down, consigned to accommodating to the presence of men by whittling down her life: bringing an ineffectual suitor into her home, avoiding her own home when it is overrun by men, reaching out to the very man whom she hates because only he can provide the assistance she needs. In The Geography of Women’s Fear, Gill Valentine notes that “the fear of male violence deters the majority of women from being independent. It robs them of the confidence to live alone, to work in certain occupations, and to socialise without a group or male chaperon.” She adds that the inhibited use and occupation of public, public-private, and private space is a spatial expression of patriarchy.

Sarah Ahmed, writing about feminist complaint — about, precisely, Amito’s beating her girl chest, and sneering with “Chei! Such nonsense” — both observes and encourages that “[s]he comes up; she keeps coming up. She has not been beaten. She persists. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.” Africa39 author, Namwali Serpell, wrote that “to be a woman is horrific. It is always to be subject to violence or constraint, rape or repression.” To be a woman in the midst of horror, to persist in being a woman, to persist as woman when one is persistently horrified, to persist as a woman when men are fucking up the world, is to exist, necessarily, through and by disobedience. If to be a woman is horrific, then perhaps Amito sees that in order to carve a space of her own, without “such nonsense”, she must in turn become horrible. Disobedience becomes the basic lesson and weapon in Arac de Nyeko’s depiction of girlhood. We read The Banana Eater and we imagine a fighting girl’s future.


In Monica Arac de Nyeko’s interview with Shailja Patel, the Africa39 author said:

I grew up in Naguru Housing Estate, and this is pretty much how Naguru is. In Naguru, you do not even need a controversial thing to set people off; your crime can be wearing something nice and the neighbours would be ganging up against you and calling you a slut. So that is the sort of atmosphere.

Arac de Nyeko describes herself as writing “about violence and its capacity to distort and destroy,” and this is another useful index by which to read her work. Violence manifests in macro- and micro-aggressions. It is the violence of men against women and girls. It is the violence which proscribes the love of the lesbians in her Caine Prize winning story, Jambula Tree, and which curtails then shatters the sisterhood and inter-ethnic friendship between Amito and Naalu in The Banana Eater.

We arrive, again, at the last page of her story, we scroll to the end of the transcript of her last interview, we find what we are urgently hoping for: Arac de Nyeko is, in fact, working on a novel!

References