Ugandan Wins African Writing Prize

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; 4:16 PM

LONDON -- Her day job in development doesn't overtly influence Monica Arac de Nyeko's fiction _ her stories are not set in desperate refugee camps or peopled by heroic aid workers.

But her experiences, the Ugandan writer says, do inform her stories, because they have taught her "how much people can go through and still be stronger."

Arac de Nyeko spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday, a day after her short story, "Jambula Tree," was the named the eighth winner of the annual Caine Prize, a $20,000 award for African writing. The prize is sometimes called the African Booker because it was created in honor of the late Sir Michael Caine, a British businessman with a deep interest in Africa who for almost 25 years chaired the management committee of what is today known as the Man Booker Prize.

Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub, chairman of the 2007 Caine judges, praised Arac de Nyeko's winning story "Jambula Tree" as "a witty and touching portrait of a community which is affected forever by a love which blossoms between two adolescents."

Both the adolescents are women, described with such compassion that their community's unforgiving response when their love is discovered is more shocking than the theme.

Arac de Nyeko said "Jambula Tree" is a story of "untainted love _ very intimate and also very honest.

"The girls do not know what is happening to them. It surprises them," she said. "They did not commit any crime. Their only crime is falling in love."

"Jambula Tree" contrasts the tenderness between its two main characters, one of whom narrates, with the harshness of a crowded Kampala neighborhood sinking into poverty. Arac de Nyeko said it is the neighborhood where she grew up, built in the 1960s when hopes were high that prosperity and democracy lay just ahead for independent Uganda. Its deterioration is symbolic of the disillusionment that is a common thread in the work of young African writers.

Urban poverty and AIDS are among "the issues that affect me, the issues that concern me, the issues I want to spark discussion about," Arac de Nyeko said. But she said while an earlier generation of writers might have been more concerned with building new nations and criticizing, the shift in themes is not a sign of conflict between young and old.

"There's still dialogue that's going on across generations," she said. "Because, let's face it, these issues affect everyone."

Arac de Nyeko studied in Uganda and the Netherlands, where she earned a degree in humanitarian assistance. She has taught literature and worked as a humanitarian and development officer in Italy and Sudan, and now is based in Kenya. She said, though, she has not worked in Uganda because she is too affected by the toll that war there has taken on family and friends.

"I don't think I have the emotional capacity to work there yet," said Arac de Nyeko, who was born in 1979 in Uganda's north, scene of one of the world's longest civil wars.

Instead, she confronts the war in her work.

In "Strange Fruit," a story that was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2004, she writes of a man forced by rebels to fight with them in northern Uganda. He returns to his wife a convert to the cause, smelling of "gunpowder and decay."

"The conflict has not gone away," she said. "People feel you are telling their stories, and you have to be true to it."

Music is threaded throughout her stories _ the hymns the former Sunday school teacher grew up hearing, the traditional songs of northern Uganda's Acholi people. "Strange Fruit" opens with a line from the moody song of the same title Billie Holiday made famous, and Arac de Nyeko said she listened to Holiday and Nina Simone's version often while working on it.

Arac de Nyeko writes with a sure touch for simile that brings to mind the best jazz songs, packing layers of meaning and emotion into short, sharp phrases. Revenge in "Jambula Tree" is "sweet and salty like grasshoppers seasoned with onion and kamulari _ red, red-hot pepper."

She said with a laugh that now that she has won the Caine Prize, everyone is asking when she'll produce a novel. Because it recognizes short stories, the "African Booker" often spotlights _ and helps launch _ younger writers. Previous Caine Prize winners and finalists have gone on to write acclaimed novels _ among them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won the Orange Prize for Fiction earlier this year for "Half of a Yellow Sun."

The short story, though, may be the best showcase for Arac de Nyeko, with her economical use of language and penchant for ambiguous endings.

"I want my stories to be a sort of dialogue with the reader, to give them space to comment, and maybe end it themselves," she said, adding that her goal is to "say something in a moment. You can say something huge in a very brief way."

© 2007 The Associated Press