BM: So Mel, tell me. How has their London been since you left us in our Kampala? Do you yet feel a sense of ownership of London to call it your London, our London?

MK: I wonder what it means to own a geographical location? I’m quite anti statehood simply because I don’t think the contemporary modern state makes any sense. I think the endless process of sustaining citizenship is fatiguing and quite senseless. And when I say the process of sustaining citizenship, I am talking about the unending processes states/countries undertake to maintain their legitimacy. This includes legitimizing the state through militarized power, using propaganda to construct cultural norms and histories, and controlling movement through borders, check points, and immigration centers. I think “ownership,” especially of lands, is a value increasingly taken for granted, and therefore, assumed to be natural. And yet today, indigenous communities suffer the brunt of land demarcations and legal constructs that demand for land titles and property rights. And yet today, the current geopolitical make-up of the world is largely due to institutional genocide propagated through imperial legal, physical, and spiritual practices.

I say all this because as I travel, as I set up “homes” in multiple locations, even if temporary, I am fully cognizant that there are historical and most often oppressive implications for my being able to enter into these spaces. So I don’t claim a sense of ownership to London, the same way I don’t claim a sense of ownership to Uganda regardless of where my passport says I am “from.”

Let’s go straight to Reveries of Longing. What was the process of writing the poems like? Did it take 10 years, two? Months? Weeks? And how was it? Was it painful in the sense that you bled the words? Or liberating in the sense that you poured your pain on the page?

These were poems that had been around for years before the collection was published. Poems that traveled with me as I traveled, Cried with me as I cried, and celebrated as I celebrated. It’s funny, because I am not really writing about migration anymore. Perhaps it was a wound that I let heal through the work (though don’t quote me if I start writing about migration a few years from now). But the process of publishing is a long-term thing…so the poems in Reveries I definitely would not/ cannot write today. But I would say that my process is exactly that…a process. Sometimes it takes everything out of me to write to the truth of whatever it is I am writing about, other times it is extremely liberating. But I know I am onto something when I get goose pimples after finally crafting a sequence of words in a way that feels like the truth.

Let’s talk about the line between the personal and the artistic. How much of you is in these poems? Are there parallels between your work and yourself?

I definitely think there are reflections of myself in my writing. But I also think if I just wrote about myself and my personal life, my writing would be extremely limited and one-dimensional. Even if a writer were to write only about the realities around them, the fiction becomes the liberties and exaggerations taken to shape a new reality.

I remember at the Kampala reading, where you had an engaging conversation with David Kaiza, and Daphine Arinda, a Ugandan writer, asked you about self-censorship. She asked whether you were not scared when writing about clit-clit moments and you said you did not really freak out while writing that as you did while writing about bombing the embassy, which I found powerful. The claim you make on the personal, the sexual and the fear that comes with claiming the political. The ownership and space taken regarding the personal and sexual, and the ownership and space un-owned when it comes to political power. Made me think that you probably approach politics and power from a dis-entitled perspective and yet have no qualms when it comes to the personal. If this is accurate, do you see in your lifetime the possibilities of taking the same liberties with power and politics?

From a feminist standpoint, the personal is political. I define the political as power relations between people and the ways power manifests itself. So speaking to “the sexual” is extremely political because power is deeply embedded in the ways we think about sex and the ways we have sex. Whose sex is valuable? Who is deemed worthy of being a sexual being and who is not worthy of being a sexual being? How does the history (or histories) we are told shape how we think about sex? Whose histories are not told? How do narratives of value shape the ways we think about ourselves culturally and spiritually?

I think often we focus on “politics”, which I define as the actual institutions that enforce the political. This emphasizes the government bodies, the embassies, the bombings, etc. I choose to focus on the political because it is much more insidious. It challenges the taken for granted notions in politics and begins to peel things back.

Reveries of Longing

You were one of the ’emerging’ writers who applied to be part of the Writivism Creative Writing workshops for 2014, and you worked with Yewande Omotoso under the mentorship programme. Then you wrote that beautiful story The Wound of Shrinking, that was longlisted for the Writivism Short Story Prize. How was the entire Writivism process for you as an emerging writer at the time?

I really enjoyed the mentorship/peer group set-up. Yewande was great because she had all her mentees communicate with each other. This allowed for really robust feedback and interpretations of where stories could go. It was really nice. Also I was publishing my collection while I was a mentee, so it helped being able to ask Yewande about her experience publishing. She received a few frantic longwinded emails from me during that time and she always offered some great insight and advice.

Why are you hesitant when it comes to mainstream publishers? Do you think it is possible to maintain some level of satisfactory control over your book when working with a publisher, or do you think those of us who want to have some level of control of the process should just figure out our own ways of publishing?

I understand the desire to go with a big mainstream publisher who will distribute your work and get your name out there. But I also understand that we live in a time when the market is absolutely saturated with new work. Simple economics tells us that if competition is extremely high, costs and bargaining power for authors is inversely extremely low. I think it is important for authors to know there are different models depending on what you want your work to do.

I opted to collaborate with a small publishing house so that I could work with an editor and get all the graphic design stuff done. After having a final product, I opted to self-publish so that I would be fully in control of both my marketing and distribution. This has worked for me because I know how many books I need to sell to cover printing costs and to make a nice sizeable profit for myself. Writing books is not usually seen a profitable industry to go into unless you are extremely well-known and can leverage yourself to get a great deal from the publisher. However, for smaller writers (especially poets like myself), self-publishing can be extremely profitable depending on how much legwork you are willing to put in to get your work out there.

Melissa reading from "Reveries of Longing" and in conversation with David Kaiza on her poetry at Goethe-Zentrum Kampala
Melissa reading from “Reveries of Longing” and in conversation with David Kaiza on her poetry at Goethe-Zentrum Kampala

You have used the term ‘guerilla’ at times to define your marketing model. Tell me more about it. Do you see it working on a large scale?

The guerilla aspect has a lot to do with the legwork put in. The books will only sell as much as you are willing to put it out there. There are a number of things authors can do including hosting readings by themselves or with other writers, throwing multiple launches, getting newspapers/radio stations/talk shows to host you or to highlight your book. I have found my collection sells far more from these events than they do from Facebook shares or from my website.  So it’s important to get out there, be visible, be vigilant and be your own manager.

Where do we see Mel in the next ten years? A big broadcast star and an important writer? An academic? A publisher? Obviously an activist, so I won’t ask about that.

Oh goodness, is this the “what do you see yourself doing in ten years question?” I don’t think of myself as an activist. I’m not the one to be out on the street protesting holding a banner. I think social and economic justice movements need all kinds of peoples and talents to grow the movement. I’m not going to pin myself down to specific work, but what I will say is all the work I do stands on the side of justice and seeks to build a more equitable world.