Navigating Language: An Interview with Glaydah Namukasa

gladysUgandan writer and midwife Glaydah Namukasa is the author of two novels, “Voice of a Dream” and “Deadly Ambition.” In April, 2018, she received the Women in Literary Creativity Award for Women Powering Change in Uganda.

Namukasa grew up in Entebbe, studying at Nkumba Primary School, then Entebbe Secondary School. She graduated as a midwife in June, 2000, at Kabale Nursing School and started her writing career by telling stories to fellow students at Nkumba Primary and Entebbe Secondary School. She used exercise books to record her stories, later requesting friends to read through the work.

Glaydah’s young-adult novel, “Voice of a Dream,” won the 2005/2006 Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa. Her second novel, “Deadly Ambition,” was published in 2006 as part of the Crossing Borders project.

In the fall of 2008 she was awarded the title Honorary Fellow by the International Writing Program, University of Iowa. In 2013 she was recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts Residency. She has also been visiting writer in residency at City of Asylum Pittsburgh and Ledig House International Arts Residency Hudson, Network. In 2014 she was selected on the Hay Destival Africa 39 List of of writers under 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of African Literature. In 2012, her story “My New Home” was part of a project that featured African women on indigenous writing.

Her short stories have been published in anthologies in Uganda, South Africa, UK and Sweden. In addition, she has written three books for children.


Kahini: How did you first become interested in storytelling?

Glaydah Namukasa: Through listening to stories as a child. This is what inspired me to start telling stories of my own and through primary school I was a story teller. In secondary school, when I was introduced to literature, I started writing my stories.

K: What is your process of writing like?

GN: My best imaginative time is early in the morning before I wake up. In fact when I am working on a piece and I get stuck somewhere along the way, or if I just can’t put my brain around a scene in my story, I take a break and reserve this ‘what happened next’ for that time in the early morning when I can think creatively. And when I get down to work, words flow easily when I am writing on paper more than they do when I type directly on a computer. So I write down my stories and then type them later.

K: Is there a difference between your process for writing short stories and that for writing novels?

GN: For the short stories, I usually think through and plan the story from beginning to end. In fact sometimes I write out a guiding outline. In the end I may find myself changing things of course but most of the time I stick to the outline. The most difficult aspect in my short story writing process is finding the main idea. But once I get one I am satisfied with, I am good to go. When it comes to novel writing it’s different. Usually the plot takes shape in the process of writing. I have written three novels: two published, one forth coming but I have never planned the plot ahead of time.
But the imaginative time remains the same.

K: Kampala is one of the richest literary scenes in the world: will you talk about the local writing scene, with Writivism, FEMRITE, the open-mikes readings throughout the city, and the many other things going on? How does it inspire you, as an artist?

GN: It’s surely amazing that the literary scene in Kampala is vibrant. There are many literary initiatives with the same cause but what I like about this is that all of them have specialized in diverse programmes and activities. FEMRITE started, and opened up a literary platform on which majority of the Initiatives stepped and found their niche. Many of the leading brains behind the Initiatives have either been FEMRITE members or members of the FEMRITE Readers/Writers Club. We have Writivism lighting up the city with literary festivals, Mawazo which mentors novelists–bridging the gap between the daunting time of starting a novel and finishing it. Writing Our World with the Kahini Writers’ Conference, Kitara nation that is discovering and nurturing budding poets, Oasis and Malaika , who are specialized in children’s readers series and promoting a reading culture in children, Success Park Brand… just to mention but a few. Looking into the near future I see Kampala being declared a UNESCO City of Literature.

K: What literary trends do you notice recently, whether local, national, regional, or international?

GN: Writing prizes are on the increase and I believe they are still the number-one intervention for exposing and promoting talent. Festivals, workshops, and conferences are also on the rise and these have played a big role in connecting writers and giving them a platform to make useful networks.

K: Who are the writers and artists that inspire you? What is it about their work that moves you?

GN: 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, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 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 itself was a turning point in my writing career. Then there are those writers who continue to inform my creativity like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Nadifa Mohammed, Khaled Hosseini, and many others. And then there are those like Binyavanga Wainaina, Noviolet Bulawayo, Junot Díaz, Toni Morrison, etc.,  whose artistic use of language I admire so much. It’s a rich mix of writers who do influence my writing.

K: Will you talk about the process of navigating language, in your fiction? When do you write in English? When do you write in Luganda? For example, in the story “My New Home,” when and how did you decide which language(s) to move with? What is that process like?

GN: First of all I am happy to say that I’ve finally finished “My New Home” after about seven years of on-and-off work. The process has been challenging but interesting. One of my readers called it “one of its kind.” In this book I’ve explored the influence our mother tongues have on our use of English as a second language. When I was starting the book, I didn’t have this in mind but later, my protagonist dictated. As my protagonist developed more and more, I started realizing that the language I was using was not his language and this was a big flaw in the narrative. One of my mentors said, “You have such a strong character, but you are not fair to him. How about you let him express himself in a language that comes easily to him?” That comment completely changed the direction of language use in the novel. I let my character speak, I let my character narrate his own story.

About writing in vernacular, I don’t have much work written in Luganda. In fact I haven’t published in Luganda. But I have been published in translation. I consider it an absurd truth that it’s difficult for me to write in Luganda and be able to pull off the orthography to publishable standards. I no longer blame it on the Education System though, I think I haven’t given it much attention.

K: In addition to short stories, novels, and nonfiction, you’re also a young-adult author. Will you talk about the process of moving between adult and young-adult audiences? What is that writing process like?

GN: Writing for young adults, I must say, comes easily to me. I have published one book in this category and my next project, after “My New Home,” is a young-adult book. Just like “Voice of a Dream,” my award-winning young-adult book, I have published several short stories which have been appreciated by the youths. Writing for this category is more like my process with the short story, once I get the main idea that will appeal to the youths I am good to go.

K: What is it like to work as a midwife, in addition to being a writer? 

GN: I became a writer before I became a midwife. Like I mentioned earlier, I started writing when I was in secondary school. And later, when I became a midwife, it didn’t hinder my writing abilities. I have embraced new fields along the way; I have my first degree in community psychology, and currently I also work as a science books editor but amidst all this, I continue to write, I continue to publish.

K: What excites you (or saddens you!) about contemporary writing?
I love the versatility in contemporary writing. I like how writers come up with stylistic, out of the box narratives not to mention the liberties in the use of language.