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Made in Africa III: Nyana Kakoma and sooo many Ugandan stories

In 1962, when Makerere hosted the Conference of African Writers, literary work was almost exclusively to be found in print and the post office was essential to its production and consumption. Over fifty years later, where do Ugandans and others find literary work? TIA’s Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire talks to publisher and editor, Nyana Kakoma, the founder of Sooo Many Stories, about Ugandan digital literatures in our Made in Africa III series

Sooo Many Stories was launched in 2014 as a blog focusing on Ugandan literature by Nyana Kakoma. Kakoma is a writer, journalist, editor, communication specialist, publisher, and reader, among other labels. By 2014, she had already had a story published in the Caine Prize annual anthology, another in an African Writers Trust anthology, and was a founding member of the Jalada African Writers collective. Her writing career was already taking shape, having attended various workshops including the Kwani-Granta workshop, and the Caine Prize and African Writers Trust workshops, among others. She worked for two of Uganda’s main newspapers, The New Vision and The Daily Monitor, and was also a Group Magazine Editor at one of the biggest corporate companies in the country, the Madhivani Group. Newly married in 2014, Kakoma launched Sooo Many Stories (SmsUg).

A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013, the anthology in which Nyana Kakoma's story "Chief Mourner" appeared. Image: Caine Prize
A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013, the anthology in which Nyana Kakoma’s story “Chief Mourner” appeared. Image: Caine Prize

Kakoma wasn’t happy that in the literary spaces she has been in, people seem not to read or know about Ugandan literature, and those who know talk only about Okot P’Bitek. “This is the reason for this blog,” she wrote. “To show you our literature.” She describes the blog as, “the online home of short stories, poems, legends, myths, proverbs, opinions, book reviews and all kinds of literature written by Ugandans or about Uganda.” Her submissions guidelines state that entries should be in English while those in local languages can be considered with translations if they are proverbs, myths, folktales, legends, and riddles.

SmsUg takes a flexible approach to publishing work in Ugandan languages. In February, the site published a Rukiga narrative (labeled as a poem on the site) titled Nokikora Ota, with an English translation How do you do it? They have also published poetry originally written for performance, book reviews, short stories, excerpts from published books and interviews. Kakoma writes a weekly column 7/7 where she shares interesting things happening in the literary world. In just a year, SmsUg has established itself as a home for Ugandan digital literature. We learn more about the blog and its founder and editor below.

Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire: How did Sooo Many Stories appear in your head as an online platform?

Nyana Kakoma: In my head, it was a simple platform to shine a light on Ugandan Literature. At that time, it was more for the outsider than the person in Uganda. But the more the idea grew in my head, the more I realised that as Ugandans we also need a good education on our own literature and a sense of pride and ownership of it. Before we invite other people to look in and celebrate us, we have to have something to celebrate. From then on, the importance of it grew from a simple blog to something that would make reading and literature a pleasurable thing. I don’t quite remember the memo I sent the designer but I am quite certain I used the word “cool” because the presentation and content, for me, were very important.

How do you define SmsUg? I know it’s online, and not yet in print, but would you call it a literary journal, magazine, literary blog etc.?

Literary blog for both writers and readers. Readers can find literature to read both in Uganda and beyond and writers not only find a place for their work to be published but also information on other opportunities available to them.

Image: Sooo Many Stories
Image: Sooo Many Stories

Why focus on Ugandan Literature, not East African or African literature?

It is how the need presented itself to me. It was the Ugandan writer being amongst other African writers and readers but not being known. It was that I was taught how to draw the map of New York and South African History and I know where Saskatchewan is but some people in Africa don’t even know that Kampala is the capital city of Uganda. It was that I want to say that I am a writer without hiding under the cloak of “journalist”. It was that I knew quite a bit about the Gikuyu culture because I read so much Ngugi and knew a lot about Nigeria long before Nollywood because of Soyinka, Achebe and Pacessetters. It was all these things. Most of them my own insecurities and annoyances. So for me, from the very beginning, it was about Uganda. To shine a light on who we are through our stories. And to give our voices more confidence then to participate on an African and international level.

Let us talk about the work you publish at SmsUg. Can one send in a Sci-Fi or romance novella or is it limited to literary short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, interviews, features and opinions?

When it comes to publishing on the Internet, the shorter the better. The longest we take is around 3,000 words, which we can publish in parts. It’s hard to sustain people’s interest when it is longer than that. We welcome all genres and forms.

And do you insist on work by Ugandans or can a non-Ugandan whose work is about Uganda also submit?

A non-Ugandan whose work is about Uganda can submit but it has to be believable. Something that conveniently slaps Uganda into the narrative wouldn’t pass.

Please note that I do feature non Ugandan work in my 7 out of 7, where I talk about things happening around the world that would interest readers. Most times, those things are non-Ugandan. I have also interviewed people that are not Ugandans but that we can learn from.

There was a good online literary platform called Uganda Modern Literary Digest circa 2011 and 2012, edited by your friend Ernest Bazanye. Is SmsUg in a way a successor to UMLD?

Except for the timing (SmsUg came in when UMLD was winding down), there is no  successorship. They are both about Literature but very different in their approaches. But if SmsUg fills the void that was created when UMLD stopped publishing, then I am happy to have been there when SmsUg was needed.

Transition Magazine, covers from 1966 and 2012. Image: Transition Magazine
Transition Magazine, covers from 1966 and 2012. Image: Transition Magazine

Speaking of literary succession, there was Transition and PenPoint magazines based in Kampala in the 1960s, which disappeared. Transition ended up at Harvard University. Other literary periodicals followed and similarly withered. How can we sustain these literary periodicals?

I can’t say why those literary periodicals did not work but I can think of a couple of reasons, time being one of them. Time to look for content, time to market the content, time to grow the vision etc. Most of these periodicals, like SmsUg, are individual initiatives and can only go as far as how the individual is feeling or doing and the extent to which the other parts of their lives affects the initiative they have set up. I have been lucky to have more time than most people to invest in SmsUg, but there are days when it is overwhelming (sometimes underwhelming) and I don’t want to think about it. On such days I have to remember why I started and how this vision is bigger than me and how happy it genuinely makes me on days when it is going well.

But another thing that could help is if we let other people in on our vision. That way, when we are discouraged by how things are going, we have people to remind us why we started and to occasionally have someone that inspires us to grow.

"For the first time in my history of possessing business cards, they say that I am a writer," says Nyana Kakoma. Image: Bremen & Kampala
“For the first time in my history of possessing business cards, they say that I am a writer,” says Nyana Kakoma. Image: Bremen & Kampala

Let’s talk about Nyana, the writer. Sometimes when literary writers get into publishing, their writing careers suffer. Will we see the same in your case?

If you had asked me this question a couple of months back I would have been greatly distressed by it. Mostly because it is something that was worrying me. It is true that what I do now has greatly affected my fiction writing but it is only recently that I gave myself permission to enjoy what I am doing now. Truth is, editing other people’s work is giving me so much pleasure. The day I got my first manuscript during my internship at Modjaji Books was scary, but my spirit and brain soared, so at least I am certain that I am in the right place.

But to be quite honest, I am reading so much right now (work for editing, essays, reports and other work to educate myself) that I am not sure how pure my voice would be if I decided to write fiction now. 

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