By George Gumikiriza
The thrill of uncertainty hits different when adventure is all the journey ahead holds in promise. One traveler might prefer rugged terrain with waterfalls gushing their excitement beneath valleys, another a plush game reserve traipsed by frisky fauna, this one however was an adventure of minds — the bellies earning themselves a great many treats along the way. I’d heard of writing residencies before, and like many out there, thought them to be workshops with timely writing assignments guided by assorted prompts, but I was yet to learn otherwise. On Tuesday, 27th April, the African Writers Trust (AWT) Writing and Reading residency beckoned. At half-past 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the atmosphere sweltering under the sun’s shrewd eye, HotSprings Villas’ gate came into sight. Backpack in hand, bubbly anticipation impelling each stride, I made for the reception. A jocund smile, unlike the almost perfect glee staged by receptionists, met my arrival. And for a split second, I felt so important, like I had in my possession all the money to afford the luxuries of life. In case you’re wondering, I don’t.
The sociable receptionist took me for a stroll around the Villas, naming one structure after another at the end of her pointing finger. When we finally circled back to a familiar walkway, I’d made a mental note of what my favorite spot would be — looking over distant hills and the budding city of corporates. Back at the reception, I was led to what would be my space of comfort when in need of rest, a room at the end of the hall. How they knew I’d fancy the exact locale, a mystery, but I guess our backbencher airs precede our every step. Once in the room, I kicked off all formality and made home of all in sight. The couch was quite inviting, but the bed called louder, so I allowed myself some rejuvenation — a thirty-minute nap.
The 6:00 p.m. alarm went off just in time to wake my sharpened appetite. It was dinner time, and for a minute I chuckled to myself, reminiscing the high school routine. After pulling on a pair of shorts and footwear that let my feet breathe, I made for the cafeteria. Under dim lights that suggested some kind of romance should be taking place, a pride of ladies perched, trading banter in conversations that inferred common interests had been brought to each other’s attention. Upon a spectacle as such, with company that warm, the night could only go so right. Among the many faces, I could make out Racheal, Goretti and Lillian A. as the people I’d met before. The other three; Chisom, Ann and Colette had featured in a Facebook post on the AWT’s page in which we were announced as recipients of the AWT’s Writing and Reading Residency sponsorship under the International Writing Program (IWP), University of Iowa.
I waved hello to all and wasn’t allowed the joy of mentioning my own name, for everyone I indulged started with the statement, ‘You must be George’. That’s what I got for being a single bull in a herd of heifers. Dinner was served shortly, a buffet of delectable delicacies — and so maintained the meals that followed, into a world of ineffable tastes. We bonded over The First Woman, argued about An American Marriage and exchanged mixed feelings about Arrows of Rain as we awaited Lillian T’s arrival after many unsuccessful attempts at giving her directions. Finally, poetry made it to the table. How could it not, with that many writers in one space? On Lillian T’s arrival, Racheal handed out program sheets and guided us through, activity at a time. Further conversations were held after the formalities to grace the Meet-and-Greet. After witnessing everyone laugh at least thrice, it was time to put the faculties to rest. I said my goodnight and left to get some sleep.
Mornings come too early under cozy sheets, so was the case on Wednesday. The chef did his magic with the breakfast as he had the dinner. As the ladies argued amongst themselves, coming clean about their black male celebrity crushes, I took off time to try and comprehend the workings of the female mind. You got that right, not much progress was made. Some were into brains, others brawn, majority both but mostly undecided by the end of the discussion. With a good breakfast fueling our engines, we made it to Dolphins Conference hall for a group book discussion of The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi before an online session with the author herself. The discussion focused on Character, Characterization and Theme. We agreed upon feminism as the core theme among many others, marveled over outstanding scenes and shook our heads in wonder of the singular talent Jennifer Makumbi is.
My excitement was palpable when Jennifer Makumbi popped up on that zoom screen. I was like a country welcoming its war heroes back home, the respect with which they’re received, for daring at something many citizens wouldn’t have had the guts to. Because that’s what Makumbi’s stories read like: dares, defiance and a deliberateness to nonconformity — determination to tell the Ganda and Ugandan stories regardless of the western readership’s reservations. But my respect and noble admiration for her works roots from more than just her willpower, something the New York Times said best in their review of The First Woman. It reads: ‘Makumbi writes with the assurance and wry omniscience of an easygoing deity.’ And I’ve never come across a better description of her work. Jennifer Makumbi truly writes with the assurance of an easygoing deity, like she was there in the 18th century and before; like she’s simply recollecting times she once strolled in flesh. And her impeccable diction and imagery do a marvelous job sucking you into her world. Of all great writers, there’s Jennifer Makumbi without a doubt makes my envy list! The session with Jennifer Makumbi felt like a talk with that loving big sister who holds nothing back because she wants to equip you with as much knowledge as necessary to excel at your niche and life altogether. If it wasn’t for our lunch that came too early, even though the clock screamed 1:30 p.m., we could’ve gone on longer. She was that generous.
After a belly-bulging meal, the party broke into individuals; some retired to their rooms to have a siesta, others took pictures in the afternoon sun that seemed to have just awoken, and those that hadn’t yet, used the opportunity to read the two stories scheduled for discussion during the peer reviews. I was on the siesta cruise. 4 pm found us in the conference hall for an online conversation with Christopher Merrill, IWP director. He too was very generous with his time, taking us down memory lane through the events that led to the birth of the IWP. He shared with us in detail about the three-month residency at Iowa and the qualities considered as benchmarks for one to stand a chance at competing for placement. It was during this session that one more gentleman joined us, Eliseus Bamporineza from Burundi.
The first peer reviews happened that Wednesday night at 9 pm in the cafeteria after dinner. Lillian Akampurira Aujo’s story was discussed first, followed by mine, the critique focusing on character, characterization and theme. From the feedback I got, I was proud of how far my short fiction had come and it was brought to my attention that I could pull off an even better craft. The reviews left me with quite a number of ideas and that night, I read through my short story twice, each read bringing to life possibilities that hadn’t occurred to me before the residency. You know that moment when you write a story and it’s just perfect? Every line you read fills your heart with joy and you can’t wait to share it with someone, because you’re certain that praises are all they’ll have for you. That’s how I was with that short story until that night when better ideas started to pop into my head. That’s the magic a group of woke writers do to one’s work, challenge it to perfection, however good it might already sound.
Thursday woke with a fight in it. An American Marriage was to be presented to the jury, and from the looks of things, many of us had too many bones to pick with the author. Luckily for her, Tayari Jones was still swamped with a work in progress, a novel she’s working on, so less blood would be spilled. Nonetheless, the knives weren’t forgotten in the cupboard, pickaxes made it to the hall too, because this fight demanded its blood! Team Roy or Team Celestial, but many were on the fence as regards Andre. Fortunately, no limbs were broken, for words aren’t vicious enough for a bone shuttering. In the group discussion of An American Marriage, we focused on Plot and Point of View. The chef must’ve been tipped off about the exhaustion the group discussion would hang over our heads, ‘cause the fish stew we had at lunch could mend a broken heart. Of course, you’re in disbelief, but you can’t attest to this unless you tasted that tilapia yourself.
Peer reviews on Thursday came early, at 2:30 p.m., in the eucalyptus grove. There stood a grass-thatched hut open to the breeze for its lack of walls. Far removed from the stern stares of brick walls and asphalt walkways that threatened to partition the entire hilltop for themselves. The hut assumed a modest disposition under the collective shade of tens of eucalyptus trees that towered over it. The breeze was kind to the senses and the sun repeatedly stole glances through seams in canopies to eavesdrop on our conversation. Taking advantage of the weather, the photographer shot his shots, and our smiles were more than present to brighten the pictures some more. In the peer reviews, we discussed Precious Colette Kemigisha’s excerpt from a novel she’s working on and Chisom Okwara’s nonfiction essay. This was one of my favorite sessions because in it we discussed more than just literature; we discussed careers, shared experiences and diversifications one could take on to earn from their writing. This left me with much to ponder and swiped open a bank of lucrative literary ideas.
From 8 to 10 pm, we had an online writing workshop with Mildred K. Barya, a writer and director of the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Asheville among many other things. With her, we discussed An American Marriage in detail, guided by a list of sixteen questions about Plot and Point of View. We delved deeper into story plotlines, plot archetypes and had a 20-minute writing exercise, challenging us to come up with a short story using any of the many archetypes we’d discussed. In that workshop, I learnt that stories get done a lot faster when plotted out before writing, compared to writing as the muse dictates at a particular time. That night, we had more room visits and bonded over whichever topic popped up in conversation. The peer reviews gave us much to talk about and we carried it with us back to our rooms. That night, it felt like we were only beginning to get familiar with each other.
It rained that Friday morning, just before the night clouds dispersed, a sign that Arrows of Rain by Okey Ndibe was living up to its name. It was the book scheduled for discussion that day. Unlike the previous group book discussions, this one was brief. I guess it’s because we seemed to agree and share disagreements about similar things, so there wasn’t much room for argument. Peer reviews were held at 2:30 p.m., like the day before in a hut-like shade whose name eludes memory, right next to my favorite spot. We discussed Ann Agwang’s and Lillian Tibasiima’s stories which were both excerpts from novels in progress, and three poems from Eliseus Bamporineza. This session got a couple of ladies excited about a muscular figure in Lillian’s story and Goretti couldn’t get over one of Eliseus’s poems, so it’d be performed at the barbeque.
Okey charmed his way into everyone’s heart with his smile and wits. What was intended to be a two-hour online workshop stretched into thirty extra minutes ‘cause we all couldn’t get enough of him. What amazed me more was how he quoted texts from Things Fall Apart off head, word for word. Likened to Jennifer Makumbi, Okey shared a lot more than the questions required. His bounteous demeanor made him even more likable. How he responded to questions with a story and took his time explaining concepts with careful deliberation to ensure understanding for all made him an aspirational father character. The workshop was meant to focus on Setting and Narrative Structure but we’d learnt so much more by the end of the session. That night till date, the saying, ‘A story that must be told never forgives silence’ stuck with me. And now, all the stories I considered trivial then have proven significant enough for scripting.
Saturday found the group swelling up as we were joined by a party of four members: Esther, Mohmed, Dr. Jane and Dr. Susan Kiguli. In the morning session, Goretti and Precious Colette took us through the Publishing process, focusing on the main steps in the traditional publishing cycle. Goretti shared tremendously in this session, mostly from her experience through the many countries she’s been to, giving eye-opening insights, tactics and workings of the publishing industry. Other members of the group occasionally chipped in with stories of their own publishing experience. I sat tongue-tied, shaking my head from time to time, as I was let in on the secrets of an industry that controls the dreams of many. After the lunch break, we had a session with Otieno Owino on ‘How to handle feedback: working with editors to polish your work.’ Otieno took us through the roles and importance of an editor. Using his own experience, he shared practical examples and went on to answer all our questions. He also shared interesting articles about line and copy editors, the surgeons of the literary world.
Participants during Otieno`s session. Racheal, AWT project coordinator helping Mohmed Participants clapping for Otieno after a wonderful session on editing and publishing.
Only the finest outfits made it to the barbeque, a precursor for the dance moves that would grace the floor that night. The chef outdid himself as if to say he’d only been playing at the pots and pans all the while. To keep the night cold away, three embers were placed in the center. The poets did their thing, spilling emotions all over the place, as those with recording voices serenaded us away. There was something in the air, it manifested on the face as delight but weighed heavy on the heart, like partaking of joys utterly fleeting. The realization that a life-changing experience was coming to an end. After cutting the cake that we were too full to finish, having passed on countless calls for more chicken and roast goat, the deejay decided it was time to give the bones a shake. Strokes dating from centuries back to a future we’re yet to witness made their way to the dancefloor, Chisom doing the most. For a person hearing half the songs played that night for the first time, the Nigerian girl seemed to be having the time of her life. No bones are too feeble for a dance, not after the right barbeque with a shake of wine, ask Ndejje hill about the night of 1st May 2021. Fun comes in pairs, but the enjoyment comes in crowds, ours was the latter and I couldn’t have chosen any different. It’s amazing what good music and collective happiness does to people, even the most principled bend a few rules.
Me and some of the ladies at the barbeque. Drinks table during the barbeque. barbeque
Among the many lessons, I left with on Sunday morning was the need to be deliberate with my writing. Stepping out of the bubble of writing only when the muse strikes, but writing even on those days when putting three good sentences together feels a lot harder than jogging up Makerere hill. That fiction, however imaginative, shouldn’t be foreign to everyday experiences. In fact, good fiction is that to which readers can relate and probably imagine themselves in similar situations as the characters in the story. Good literature should be inspired, have a conflict and resolution if it’s to earn its readership. I’m well aware that bringing to life a riveting novel is, as Jennifer Makumbi would put it, no joke! Fine literature demands its time, lots of research and most importantly, an unwavering resolution to the cause. Like with any good adventure, I made new friends with whom we share work for constructive criticism and look forward to working hand in hand on projects to come. Having been an editor myself, the residency left me with an affinity for Editing and Publishing, disciplines I intend on exploring in-depth. Peer reviews unshackled me from the restraints of creation by the mercy of the muse and vested me with the right of creation by will, so I look forward to the thousands of stories yet to fall out of me. Going in for the residency, epiphanies and awakenings were what I was looking for, and those I got in abundance.
Photo Credit: Fred Mubiru
GEORGE GUMIKIRIZA is a 23-year-old poet and writer of both fiction and nonfiction. He was the second runner-up in the Babishai Poetry Award competition in 2018. His work has been published in Ibua Journal and his short story, Forbidden Pleasures in the Jalada Nostalgia Issue. He is currently an editor of poetry at Ibua Journal, an establishment of the Lantern Meet of Poets.