A UK-based Ugandan author whose debut novel was initially rejected by British publishers has won one of the world’s richest literary prizes.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – who moved to the UK from Uganda 17 years ago – has won one of the Windham Campbell Prizes from Yale University in the US.
She will receive $165,000 (£119,000). “I haven’t been earning for a long, long time,” she says.
“I really put everything into writing. So for this to happen is unbelievable.”
The prize money is more than double the amount that the Booker Prize winner gets, and organisers say it’s the richest award dedicated to literature after the Nobel Prize.
Makumbi is one of eight writers to receive Windham Campbell Prizes this year spanning fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry – and is the only winner to have published just one full-length work.
The prizes were created by writer Donald Windham and also carry the name of his partner Sandy M Campbell. They were first awarded in 2013 to “provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns”.
Makumbi said news of the award came out of the blue. “It’s American, and normally it’s people who have got so many books [behind them],” she said. “So I’m surprised how I was one of them.”
Makumbi’s debut novel Kintu was first published in Kenya four years ago after British publishers rejected it for being “too African”. It was finally released in the UK this January.
The author said British publishers and readers like to have something they can relate to – be it Western characters or familiar settings and storylines – if they’re reading about Africa.
But she describes Kintu as “proper, proper Africa”.
The book conjures myths and legends to tell the story of a Ugandan family who believe they have been cursed over 250 years.
“I had really locked Europe out,” Makumbi says. “But it was a little bit too much – the language, the way I wrote it – they [Brits] were not used to that kind of writing. But they are beginning now to open up I think.
“Readers are realising, OK, if I want to explore Africa I’d rather be told from an African point of view rather than being told things that I’m expected to want to know.”