Monica Arac de Nyeko, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: You’re no stranger to prizes, having won first prize in the Women's World Voices in War Zones, for your personal essays; and you were short-listed for the Caine in 2004 for your story “Strange Fruit.” Congratulations on having won the Caine Prize 2007 for your story, “Jambula Tree.” We appreciate your taking time to do this interview with us for Per Contra.
What did you work on during your writer’s residency at Georgetown University in Washington D.C? [The month-long residency is a part of the Caine Prize.]
MAdN: I was at Georgetown two years ago about October and November. I took time to work on my novel. It was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed it.
PC: Would you please tell our readers a bit about Kitgum in Northern Uganda where you come from?
MAdN: I grew up in Kampala but Kitgum is the place I call home. There is this thing perhaps in Uganda or elsewhere as well (I do not know) but it does not matter if you grew up elsewhere all your life. The place where your parents are from is always home.
PC: When did you start writing? What did you write when you first wrote?
MAdN: I started writing more seriously in 1999. That is about the time that I joined FEMRITE. My earliest attempt at story writing was a story about some sort of murder, a mystery. I was probably watching too much Inspector Derrick on Uganda television.
PC: Do you still write poetry?
MAdN: No. It has been a while since I wrote poetry.
PC: How would you compare the two genres? Why did you move to writing fiction?
MAdN: Poetry is briefer and intense. That is what I like about it. But then again, I can transport those things I like about poetry into fiction. So for me fiction then becomes a marriage of different forms. PC: You joined FEMRITE (Uganda Women’s Writer’s Association). Would you please tell our readers about FEMRITE: when you joined, and the role it has played in your work?
MAdN: I joined FEMRITE in 1999. FEMRITE is an association of women writers in Uganda. In the earliest period of my writing, if offered a space to share and encourage each other. It organized trainings, invited writers from within and without. It was generally a very good space for a writer.
PC: From what I’ve read, I see a possible connection between what you write and your jobs. In the humanitarian aid and development work, you have immediate visible impact on the communities with which you are involved. Your writing has an impact, too, as it calls attention to conditions. There’s a big difference between propaganda and literature, and you write literature. Your stories are multi-layered, but you write with a purpose.
In your essay “In the Stars” you wrote: “We are a generation of thorns.” How does that metaphor underlie your choice of subjects for your writing?
MAdN: What I mean is that there is so much that has happened in the past and this past particularly in the Ugandan scenario is burdensome. My current fascination is with Uganda’s history because this is an area I am keen to understand and explore through fiction.
PC: In an interview with Molara Wood for BBC, in answer to her question about your concerns as a writer: “I am Arac, a woman, Acoli, Ugandan, a daughter, an aunt, a sister – all these things shape my existence and fascinate me.” Would you please say a bit more about these?
MAdN: What I mean is that I cannot separate aspects of my identity from my concerns as a writer because they are the avenues through which I interpret, understand and experience the world.
PC: In the same interview you said you listen to music when you write. Do you choose songs to go with what you’re writing and play them many times, or do you use them as “warm up” so to speak? Have you always listened to music while you wrote?
MAdN: Sometimes I listen to music when I write. Sometimes I do not. I listened to a lot of Jazz when I was writing Strange Fruit, mostly Billy Holiday and Nina Simone. I did a story recently and listened to a lot of Ali Farka Toure and Godfrey Oryema. I think each of my stories is different however. The formula or method is not prescriptive. Sometimes, I cannot work with music at all.
PC: You taught literature and English language at St. Mary’s College, Kisubi, in Uganda before studying for the MA in Humanitarian Assistance in Groningen. Why did you decide to change professions? How are the two connected for you?
MAdN: My work at the college was done when I left. There was nothing more I could give. Right now, I feel like here is where I ought to be. That’s, that.
PC: You were an Early Warning Analyst in Rome and later a Reports Officer in Khartoum. What did you do in these jobs?
MAdN: The job titles sound quite fancy, don’t they? What they mean is that I was writing a lot of factual reports.
PC: Your work as a humanitarian and development officer in Italy, the Sudan, and then Kenya. Are you still in Kenya?
How does this work affect your writing?
MAdN: Yes, I am in Nairobi. I am not sure that I can yet map the connection between my job and my writing although of course there must be one. For me the two are very different. They are not even distant cousins (or maybe that is what I like to tell myself).
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