By Lillian Akampurira Aujo
I was recently honoured to be one of the recipients of the African Writers Trust (AWT) and International Writing Program (IWP) Writing and Reading Residency. For someone writing on the continent, such opportunities remain few and rare – especially now that the Covid 19 pandemic has shut the world down. While applying for the residency, I thought it would be nice to get away from the usual humdrum of daily life. Not that my life is boring, if anything it gets a little too colourful for me to contain sometimes. I know writers who feed off the constant reel of activity, who thrive off the static energy of the buzz surrounding them, but I am not one of those: instead, I find that I need time to step away and decompress from everything else but writing. This residency provided me just that, and as soon as I walked into the green quaint space of Hotspring Villas I felt a calm over me; there would be uninterrupted writing and reading time, I would not have to think about preparing my next meal or cleaning the house or getting across town through the thick traffic jam. It would just be me and my art and like-minded people for five days straight. I remain indebted to IWP at the University of Iowa and the whole AWT team for availing this opportunity.
The African Writers Trust set up a comprehensive programme to cater to my reading and writing skills. As required, I had read all three novels of recommended reading prior to the workshop with specific focus on character, characterisation, themes, plot, point of view, setting, and narrative structure. It turned out that my fellow participants and I were so engaged with the novels that we broke into impromptu discussions about them before and after their allocated times on the schedule. The sessions themselves were rich and powerful.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi talked about her characters like they were people she had known all her life, and I understood the importance of spending time with my own characters as they emerge. In the question and answer session, she let us in on the discipline and resilience of creative writing. It was not my first time hearing that her first novel was rejected severally, or that she spent ten years writing Kintu – and yet my heart surged with the new hope that if not now, there will be a time in the future for my stories as well if I continue writing.
Chris Merrill was warm, gregarious, and generous with information about the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He brought to my attention their hybrid and versatile projects that revolve around creative writing and how they could potentially enrich my career as a writer. He highlighted the collaborative poetry project ‘Every Atom’ on Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself that featured nine translations of the poem, as well as various commentaries on fifty-two parts of the poem. The project culminated into a Massive Open Online Course taught by himself and fellow professor Ed Folsom in 2014. I thought this form of writers convening quintessential to today’s zeitgeist of Covid 19 and the normalisation of zoom meetings for individuals to remain connected to community. And yes, we were convening with Chris Merrill via a zoom session. We all agreed that the residency would have been bigger and better if there had been no travel restrictions. I thought the IWP Residency would be great value addition to any writer who got the opportunity to participate.
We had a session with Mildred Barya on Tayari Jones’ novel ‘An American Marriage’. We were led into the narrative by guidance questions which she had used for a previous class of hers. It occurred to me that narratives can be born from pausing questions about society and how it is structured. Previously, I had struggled with how to zoom in on the important aspects of a particular story and this session gave me more grounding on how to focus my stories more concisely.
I am interested in fictionalising politics and one of the ways to do that is through employing wry humour and satire, which Okey Ndibe, one of the facilitators does so well. Reading his novel Arrows of Rain for the residency came at a time when I was grappling with the failing state of my nation and its increasing millitarisation. I remember commenting that I could simply substitute Uganda for Okey’s Madia Republic which in itself is unfortunate. However, it gave me confidence as a writer that the issues which occupy my mind are valid concerns of the individual and this legitimises my role as a writer in society – which in my country is treated as marginal, or explained away as ‘having nothing better to do’.
The peer-review sessions were labs where our stories were dissected in preparation for better reconstitution and one more step towards completion. For my part, I agreed that I needed to change the point of view of my story to address most of the things that the readers found problematic. I did my best to give candid and balanced feedback to my fellow writers and this is always good practice.
Chisom from Nigeria during the peer review session. Goretti, AWT director speaking during the peer review session. Other participants during the peer review session.
The publishing and editing sessions emphasised the value of self-editing and repeated editing if one’s one’s manuscript is to even get a foot through any serious publisher’s door. It was invaluable that we had the experienced Precious Kemigisha who once evaluated manuscripts at one of the most well-established publishing houses in London to give us pointers on how to prepare our manuscripts for pitches. Likewise, the qualified Owino Otieno a professional editor from Nairobi Kenya was on hand to highlight what the editing process of a manuscript entails.
It was six days of meeting new people, good food, and good conversations. I can comfortably say that I came away with a sharper mind and a richer heart for creativity.
Photo credit: Fred Mubiru