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  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi recommends some of her favourite books.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, winner of the 2021 Jhalak Prize for her powerful novel The First Woman (OneWorld) recommends some of her favourite books:

This goes back to my younger days. Luckily, it was recommended rather than a taught classroom text – nothing destroyed the joy of reading like studying a book for literature back then. Maru was my first novel by Bessie Head and after reading it I went and bought the rest of her novels. The writing style in Maru is deceptively simple – it’s short and precise – but I think that just added to the constant surprise and the sense of ambush at the ending, leaving my heart pounding at the end. I carried on writing Maru’s future long after I had finished the book. For all these reasons, it is a book I keep going back to. I think it is still hiding something from me. As an author, this is where I learnt that readers create the story as they go along. It’s important to leave gaps, to give the reader space to create alongside you.

Again, this one is from my high school days. I borrowed it from a friend. I remember when I read the opening line: my jaw just dropped. Good African girls did not say, ‘I was not sorry when my brother died’. Such sacrilege was tantamount to wishing for the demise of a sibling. This must have been in 1988 or 1989 and such wickedness, even literary, had not crossed my path. I remember looking around and wondering who had ‘heard’ me read it. Of course, by the end of the novel I was celebrating Nhamo’s death too.

I had a similar reaction to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s title, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. The first time I saw it I thought, ‘tell me she did not write that out loud!’ because those were things we said behind closed doors. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions taught me boldness, it taught me audacity. After that, nothing was unsayable for me.

Novels like this push a reader into expecting and demanding more from a book. Novels like this make an author wonder: ‘What am I doing being an author if I cannot write like this?’ After reading it I thought, ‘If I am going to be read by someone who’s read this, then I better up my game!’ It is the book I have most recommended to people. Tayari Jones understands the reader, she gives them more than they expect. And, oh boy – the language, the structure, the syntax – everything sings in harmony, there’s not a note out of place.

This was the first memoir I read by a middle class, Nigerian gay man privileged enough to move to New York and be himself. It is about being a son, a journalist, a fighter and an African man in America. Chike opened my eyes to how the queer world covertly coexists alongside the heterosexual one. He lays bare the extent of Africa’s loss to the West, in terms of skills, expertise, talent and entrepreneurship, that results from the rejection of its own. But most of all, this is a book about loving a mother, a father, a partner, and about being loved back.

This one is from my school days, when studying the nature of satire. This novel is why I fell in love with satire. It is my favourite of all Ngũgĩ’s novels and plays. It is where I learnt to wield humour, irony and sarcasm as weapons of anger. It was drummed into my head that you never let anger spill onto the page. Instead, you use these elements to reign it in. We studied it along with A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift and both texts left a strong impression on me. Sometimes, the study of literature can take the pleasure out of reading and it becomes a chore, but because of the humour I roared and hooted my way through Devil on the Cross. As an author, I know that with humour you’ll get away with murder, that irony can bite without bitterness, and that sarcasm will take the story far. For this I am thankful to Mwalimu Ngũgĩ.

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