By Glaydah Namukasa
‘UK LITERARY AGENT COMING TO UGANDA’, was the subject line of what I consider to be one of the most important emails to have come into my in-box in May, 2014. And indeed, one of those important posts that found their way on Facebook pages, and on the walls of many literary blogs and websites.
It was no wonder that the literary agent’s visit was organized by the African Writers Trust, an organization dedicated to increasing literary opportunities for African writers. A colleague of mine once said, “When you hear that African Writers Trust is coming to Uganda, you know that great literary things are coming.”
Among the many ‘great literary things’ African writers Trust has organised in Uganda are: The inaugural British Council/African Writers Trust Mentorship Scheme that resulted in publishing opportunities for the participants. The first International Writers Conference in Uganda held in March, 2013, which provided a platform for interactions between all African writers: Diasporan, Continental, Award-winning, established, and upcoming writers. The Editorial Skills Development workshop, that took place in June 2014 and was led by the best trainers from the UK (Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Vimbai Shire). As one of the participants stated, this was a workshop that marked the beginning of the future of professional editing in East Africa.
And now, more great things were on the way. David Godwin was the UK literary agent coming to Uganda.
‘Who is David Godwin?’ I asked Google. Google told me David Godwin Associates (DGA), was one of the leading literary agencies in the UK, founded in 1995, by David and Heather Godwin. I later learnt that David Godwin is a highly sought after literary agent, and is keen on finding new and fresh talent. He is credited for having discovered India’s acclaimed writer, Arundhati Roy, whose debut novel, The God of Small Things went on to win the prestigious Booker Prize in 1997. The agency also represents a number of high profile African authors including Helon Habila (Nigeria), Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone), Doreen Baingana, Goretti Kyomuhendo and Monica Arac De Nyeko, (Uganda), and Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Kenya).
This may sound unbelievable, but David Godwin would be the very first literary agent many Ugandan writers, upcoming and established, would be meeting. His long awaited visit raised questions among the writing fraternity such as, “Who is a literary agent? What does a literary agent do? What is he coming to do?”
Google answered some of those questions: a literary agent is someone who represents writers and their works, connecting them to appropriate publishers, negotiating contracts, ensuring payment of royalties, and acting as a mediator if there are problems between the author and the publisher.
African Writers Trust had also made it clear that David Godwin was coming to Uganda to meet and speak with Ugandan Writers. And the more exciting news was that he had accepted to read a few manuscripts ahead of his visit. Later, he would meet the authors to discuss their manuscripts.
To get an agent, writers usually write a query letter. This is a letter one sends out when they are trying to find out if an agent is willing to represent their book. Usually it includes a brief of two to three sentences about the writer, and a hook for the manuscript. But here was a re-known, international agent coming to meet Ugandan writers. How blessed we were to have an agent come to us instead? How blessed the manuscript writers were to be saved the daunting process of writing a query letter. How blessed the writers were to have someone with remarkable experience in the publishing market read and comment on their works.
I was one of the writers who had submitted my manuscript to the African Writers Trust, for David Godwin to read ahead of his visit. I still remember the spot David and I sat to discuss my manuscript. At the African Centre for Media Excellence gardens, under a blue umbrella shelter. David had my manuscript in his hands but as he made professional efforts to create rapport, my eyes were scrutinizing the front page, trying to read the comment scribbled at the top, in small blue letters. They were two words, barely separated from each other; letters holding on to each other like they were sets of Siamese twins. I failed to make out the words behind those two words. I was only sure though that the second word started with V and ended with E.
“I hope I have the right manuscript,” David said.
“Yes you do.” I was still scrutinizing the two words.
“I loved your story. Good voice.”
And there, the two mystery words on top of the page were good voice. And hadn’t I read from one of his interviews that one of the things he looked for in a manuscript was voice (something distinctive in the telling of the story)? Hadn’t he said that the best books had good voices and good stories?
As I smiled, the rabbit smile that had my lips twitching, I thought to myself, if only David could look in my heart and see the loads of encouragement he has just given me!
“I felt for the narrator. And at the end I asked myself, what’s going to happen to this little boy?” David continued.
He had related well with the narrator. I was so encouraged that he had given my work a thorough review. He pointed out some of the weakness in the work, one of which was over-writing; many unnecessary words and phrases interfering with the rather strong narrative.
“How far have you gone with the novel?” he asked.
“Pretty much the whole of it but I’m still working on the ending, wondering if I should consider another point of view at the end.”
He advised me that the last thing I could do was interfere with the voice in the story. His advice and all the other comments and questions he asked cemented my belief that he had loved, and enjoyed my story. That he was curious about the whole manuscript.
My interaction with a literary agent boosted my confidence as a writer. Knowing that David had read remarkable works before, and knowing that he had looked at my work with the same scrutiny he had read Booker Prize winning novels and other bestselling writing was enough to make me believe in my own work much more than I ever had.
David’s final words before we parted became fresh inspiration that has kept me going ever since.
“Here is my email contact. I would love to read your whole manuscript.”
Glaydah Namukasa is a Ugandan writer and midwife. She is the author of two novels, Voice of a Dream and Deadly Ambition. She is a member of FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women Writers Association, and is currently its Chairperson. She is one of the 39 African writers announced in 2014 as part of the Africa 39 Project. It is a list of 39 of Sub Saharan Africa’s most promising writers under the age of 40.