For every day after that you learn something new about Lyakashunsha. At first it is the children crying in the night. When you open your eyes the bedroom is so dark that you widen them to be sure they are still not closed.
“Kaaka! Babies are crying outside. Who left them there? Why did they leave them out in the dark?”
You whisper, until she replies like she’s in a deep dream.
“Cats, Pati. Nothing but cats, go back to sleep.”
But you fail to sleep until the morning birds begin singing. Then you sleep for what seems like days and when they wake you up, it is time for lunch. Shwenkuru sits you on his lap.
“They were only cats, sometimes they are restless, and they cry through the night.”
You shake your head, you heard babies, and you’re convinced they were babies. But you say no more to your grandparents and dig into the cassava and beans katogo on your red plastic plate.
The next night you hear the babies again. You’re about to call Kaaka when you see them. They are numerous, small and pink like the baby mice that fell from the grass thatch on the kitchen when the kite flew past. They lie on the jagged brown stones in the compound where the coffee and beans are spread on wicker mats to dry. But there’s no sun or light. There’s only cold and darkness and the babies shiver. You also know the unkind stones that knocked out the nail of your third toe will cut their smooth skins till they bleed. You look around for their mother but she’s nowhere in sight.
You run to the kitchen but it’s empty and there’s no fire in the hearth. You go around it and ran past the mango trees and the latrine but only its odour welcomes you. You run back to carry the babies to the house but the place where you left them is empty and only their white sheet with brollies and teddy bears remains. You snatch it to your chest and for some reason look up.
In the dark sky the kite is carrying away the babies. They hang in each foot, gripped by the kite’s large talons. The bleed and they wail. The bright drops of their blood and the tears from your eye pool in your palms. You brush them against your nightdress and when you look up, the kite and babies are gone.
Lillian Aujo was the most laconic of my hundred interviews. She’s a confident and self-contained person who tends to give succinct, one-sentence replies.
Lillian has a lot to be confident about. She was the first winner of the BN Poetry Award given by the Baishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. She was invited to the Caine Prize Workshop in 2013 and her story “Red” was published in A Memory This Size and Other Stories, the Caine Prize anthology for that year.
In 2015 she won the inaugural Jalada Prize for literature with her story “Where Pumpkin Leaves Dwell.”
The story is part of the landmark anthology Afrofuture(s) (2015) published by the Jalada collective. Like much African speculative fiction, it exists in that area where worldviews overlap. It’s told to a child left with its grandparents in a rural village. The child has vivid malaria dreams—but those dreams also tell the truth about neighbours’ past history.
Lillian: “When I was writing that story, the Jalada story, I wasn’t thinking about genre. It only came out later that people thought it had speculative elements. Actually my friend Nyana Kakoma (of Sooo Many Stories) is part of the original Jalada group. They formed it out of a workshop with Ellah Allfrey. She told me that she thought my story would fit ... because my writer friends edit my stories and look through first drafts, and I do the same for them.
“So I didn’t pay much attention to genre originally. But now that I’m writing more consistently I’m thinking about it more consciously.”
We talk about how so much of African fiction deals with the overlap between modernity and traditional beliefs. Is there something distinctively African in the way so many writers are looking at traditional cultures?
Lillian: “I think so. The whole of Kintu (the influential novel by Jennifer Nansubaga Makumbi) is based on that, in my view. And then as a writer my personal opinion is that my generation—for example the way my mother sees things is not the way I see things. There are people who say that things like mental illness are related to witchcraft, but I know it’s schizophrenia and it can be rectified. I guess I come to the table with two things—I know what would be traditionally believed but I also know there’s a scientific explanation. And there are the religious people and others who don’t believe in God as interpreted by the West. Which is also something in Kintu. I don’t see anything extraordinary in it until you come and say ‘This is magic realism.’ But that is how Africans interpret schizophrenia.”
We talk about the Language Issue, an ongoing project by the Jalada collective in which a story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is translated into many different local and international languages. Also for the project, people write in their home language first and then translate the story into English, like Richard Odour Oduku’s “Tribulations of Seducing a Night Runner.”
Lillian: “I like what Jalada is doing with decolonizing the mind. For example, I only speak half or less as much of my mother’s language as she can speak. I think I express myself better in English, which is a problem. I can’t write in my local language. You won’t find many books written in your local language, but maybe you can find some newspapers, but not every language has a newspaper. I think the whole of Uganda has five local language newspapers, yet there are about fifty-five languages. What happens to the rest?”
I talk for a while about Jalada and how exciting it was to meet people like Moses Kilolo, Clifton Cachagua, Mehil Gohil, and Richard Oduor Oduku, all part of the Jalada group, so interested in language and experiment.
Lillian: “You have to gravitate towards the people are doing what you want to do.”
I then talk about the opposite, uninspired SF that is derivative.
Lillian: “Some of it reads like pulp fiction.”
GR: “It IS pulp fiction.”
Lillian: “I am being nice.”
We talk a little bit about Imagine Africa 500 and how she liked Derek Langubakene’s story, and what she is working on next.
Lillian: “I think my first long work will be Afro Sci-Fi. I have a plan. I’ve written a synopsis. I want to see how it goes. I’m actually thinking that I can take the first 10,000 words as a novella and submit it to Ivor Hartmann’s AfroSF series. Their limit is 10,000 words.”
We talk about ice cities or settings that have been there forever in SFF and how things don’t change in some fictional worlds.
Lillian: “In 1984, everything changes. I’m thinking about that. When I read Brave New World ... it was written a while back. He had this vision and some of those things have happened. It was so futuristic. It’s still relevant now. How could he have known? It was like he was clairvoyant.
“I haven’t started writing my book. I have to finish my postgrad in Law from Nairobi. So I was in Nairobi last year. I just moved back recently. I am studying to be an advocate.
“I find it interesting that some of the better known writers of contemporary fiction in the African continent have a legal background. I always find that interesting.”
GR: “Well, lawyers have to be actors ... and use words clearly.”
Lillian: “I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, but I always read a lot. I wrote poetry, but I didn’t think it could be a career, maybe because we don’t have writing courses here. The closest you’ll get is a Bachelor’s in Education, Literature. But I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, so ... that’s the only course you get.”
I ask her to talk a bit more about her poetry.
Lillian: “I’m more comfortable in poetry. It’s what I started out doing. I actually just started writing fiction. It’s still not coming easily.
GR: “You won the poetry prize.”
Lillian: “When I submitted I wasn’t expecting anything. There was no theme, there was no subject, so I just sent poems. And they told me I was a winner and I was surprised. So I started taking it seriously. There was a group called the Lantern Meet of Poets. People like me who meet every other Sunday and write poems and archive them and have recitals. We had our last recital about three weeks ago. It’s closed down now. It’s moving to other things, I think they are going to publish an anthology. I joined in 2009, so it’s been going for that long?
“It started with a group of friends. I think they were roommates at Makerere University. They liked literature, so they began meeting in their rooms, and then it got too big, so they moved to the National Theatre.
“I was at a different university, UCU (Uganda Christian University, Mukono) instead. A friend of mine who is a reader told me, ‘There are these guys and I think you’ll fit,’ because she knew I write. They helped my poetry grow. They were critiquing from a point of knowledge.
“I remember they gave me a standing ovation for the poem that won the award. Before it won the award. Because what we do is sit around in a circle and critique each other’s poetry, it would be anonymous.
“Apart from that there is the Readers Writers club at FEMRITE, every Monday ... that was my first exposure to writing in public.”
GR: “Your biography says you are part of FEMRITE. Can you tell us a bit about FEMRITE?”
Lillian: “It’s a women’s writers' organization. You pay membership, you access the resource centre, and you get to attend writing workshops at different levels. There is an annual residency for women writers that covers the African continent. I think there have been six so far. I have attended one. So, those have brought in people like Ellen Banda, Zukiswa Wanner, and Nii Parkes. At the workshop, the women critique each other’s work, but you listen more to the instructor. It’s more like a creative writing course.”
GR: “I haven’t run across a woman’s writing organization in South Africa or Nairobi or Malawi ...”
Lillian: “Yay! You’re right.“
GR: “In some places it’s been jolly difficult to even find a woman writer of SFF.”
Lillian: “I need to tell you every female Ugandan writer has been affiliated to FEMRITE at some point. Beverley Nambozo (founder of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation), Monica Arac de Nyeko who won the Caine Prize in 2007, Beatrice Lamwaka, Doreen Baignana, Jackee Batanda, and Goretti Kyamunho (who ran FEMRITE from 1997)—they’ve all been associated or linked to FEMRITE at one time or another.”
GR: “So it’s been a very effective organization.”
Lillian: “I think so, yes. Because it opens doors for people in terms of opportunities and lets them know what is out there. If you are doing creative writing and you don’t know what is happening in the rest of the world, you won’t go far. And that is the thing that FEMRITE has done. Many writers from all over the world have visited FEMRITE. Like Ellen Banda, Nii Parkes, and some literary agents. Chuma Nwokolo has been here several times. Richard Ali has been here. Laura Kubuitsile has been here. For a very long time FEMRITE was the visible pit stop for writers who wanted to come to Uganda.”
GR: “Why is there so much activity in Kampala? Writivism (a festival and award based in Kampala) is here, too.”
Lillian: “Writivism is new in its fourth year now. Someone just said we need to start this and it started. It comes down to personal initiative. I don’t know why it doesn’t happen elsewhere. I don’t think it's anything to do with a literary-friendly landscape or anything like that.
“Incidentally, these organizations are more well known outside Uganda than in it. The only people who know about them are the literati in Kampala. If people don’t read or are not writers, they are not aware they are happening.”
I ask if she thinks feminism has been an influence on her work.
Lillian: “Hmmmmm. At first I didn’t think so but then that’s because I have always been surrounded by such people. So I didn’t think there was anything special about it. Until someone who is not exposed to the same space points it out to me and I realize ‘Oh, what I said, that’s feminist. Maybe.’ That’s how I’ve always thought, so I get surprised that people have to label it, and make it a big deal. Which is fine if academia want to do that, it’s their prerogative. But I didn’t set out to be influenced by feminist ideals.”
GR: “Feminism is a broad church.”
Lillian “With very many sects. Why did you ask about feminism?”
GR: “Because I think the readers are going to be very interested in FEMRITE. It ties in with things that are happening in the SF world.”
Lillian: “OK. The same thing is happening to my writing in terms of genre. Now I’m also thinking of writing from a feminist point of view. So I’m going to be more aware of it in my fiction. Though I think my poetry has been going down that way for a long time and I just realised it.
“And then we had a general meeting last weekend. The coordinator was saying she thinks we ought to have feminist discussions and talks. Because people out there think that to be a member of FEMRITE you need to be a ‘feminist.’ No, you are simply a woman who's looking for a writing space. But people think that and we have to own it. We’ve have had several collaborations with the African Women’s Development Fund. We don’t market ourselves as feminists, but as creative writers. But the public thinks we’re feminist.”
GR: “The problem with all labels.”
Lillian: “They are perceptions and you can’t control them.”
We talk about labels. Lillian hates the term “tribal.” We talk about how the term “African” can be used to blur distinctions between peoples.
Lillian: “When people come here, they say that Ugandans have the same accent; but we don’t. People who are not from here don’t realise it. Most Kenyans cannot imagine that we don’t speak Swahili. I was there, and they kept asking, ‘Where are you from that you can’t speak Swahili, what is wrong with you?’ I found it offensive until I got used to it. I had to explain to them that we don’t have a national language. And they said, ‘Oh, OK, does that mean that everyone speaks Luganda?’ And I said, ‘No, but it so happens that Luganda is what is spoken in the capital city, so that is how most of us end up speaking Luganda. If you didn’t have Kiswahili all of you guys would be speaking Kikuyu, because it’s central.’”
We talk about the emotional pull of pan-Africanism. People seem genuinely to like the idea.
Lillian: “My theory is that Europe was not subjugated and subdivided as Africa was. If you look at Kenya and Uganda we have different laws in Kenya and different laws in Uganda, but if the borders were drawn differently some of us would be Kenyans. Personally I think those borders could have gone any other way—or didn’t have to be there in the first place. I think those borders are overrated. So that’s how I approach it in my writing. If colonialism and the Scramble for Africa hadn’t happened we might still be one whole Africa.”
We then have a joint despair-session over Donald Trump, who had just won the election a few days before. I despair over Brexit. I try to pull the interview back around by asking her if there was one thing that people knew about her writing, what would it be?
Lillian: “I would like to do writing that gets people to think, think about the status quo and where we are going. That’s it. I also like documenting history and culture. I don’t know if I do it or if I can do it well. I hope I can bring that into my writing because there are so many things that go unnoticed in public life.
“Policies and politics affect people’s day-to-day lives. People who don’t read are really unaware of how politics affect them. For example the average Ugandan will keep voting the same person into power and won’t question why when they go to hospitals why there are no doctors, no medicine. We don’t see the correlation. People need to critically think. I think we lack that even among the educated Ugandans. I don’t know if my fiction can help people think more and question.”