Mon: Why did you create Sooo Many Stories? What was the process like- both technical and emotional investment?
Nyana Kakoma: In 2013, while attending a writers’ workshop in Nairobi, I thought of starting something that would showcase Ugandan Literature. The workshop was organized by Granta, Kwani? and the British Council. The workshop had writers from Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Nigeria. It is the same workshop from which Jalada was formed.
When I interacted with people there, they did not know any Ugandan writers except maybe Okot p’ Bitek and Doreen Baingana. Those are both very inspiring writers who have shaped our writing but I wished they were reading more Ugandan writers. So I started thinking of ways to bring us out of wherever we were hiding. The idea of the blog came and when I had some free time on my hands later in the year, I started seriously considering it.
For the start, I started by bouncing ideas off of Peter, my husband. He is passionate about coding and the internets so we talked about it at length. He asked me to write down what I wanted for the blog- from what it looked like to the kind of content and how I would get that content.
At some point I almost gave up on it. Who would want this sort of thing? Where would I get the content? So what if people did not know us? But Peter kept asking me almost every day when I would be ready to put it up. At some point I got very mad at how passionate he was about what had been my idea, I told him we would not mention the word “blog” in the house.
But I continued reading as much as I could, researching and when I said I was ready, we had a meeting with our favourite designer, Ivan Barigye (he is the best!) and began work on the blog. Ivan on design (I gave him a brief on the look I wanted and the feel I was looking for), Peter on programming and me on content creation and everything else.
Mon: How many hours a day do you put in?
NK: It is quite hard to say how many hours I put in since what I am doing at the moment is very inter-linked. There are specific days for specific things like editing stories, sending emails to writers, working on photos, etc. But everything I do now somehow informs a lot of what happens on #SmsUg.
Mon: What has it been like finding work to publish from Ugandan writers? Do you make people write? Do you stalk already published pieces? And what’s copyright on that? Do the writers keep the rights to the work?
NK: The most surprising thing for me has been the writers’ response to #SmsUg. A lot of people send in their work, even from Nigeria and Kenya, which sadly I have to turn down. But in the beginning I sent out emails to people asking them to tell their friends about it. There are some writers I know that I approach and tell about #SmsUg. I go to many literary events (spoken word, recitals, book launches) and I approach people I see there as well. Some of my friends tell people they know are writing and they will send me emails of their work, their blogs etc. The most stalker-ish thing I have done was when I heard someone asking for Ugandan literature in a bookshop. I didn’t have cards then but I approached them and said, “Hey, if you don’t find anything you like here, look at my blog.” I know. Very weird.
The writers retain full rights to their work.
Mon: Can you tell me about the writing circle you’re in?
NK: I belong to a writer’s group with Davina Kawuma, Lillian Aujo and Harriet Anena. We have been meeting for a while now in our homes where we discuss the short stories and poems we write. We meet once every month and discuss someone’s work and give about two weeks to send the amended work. We have been writing whatever we want but we recently tried thematic writing. We are yet to see how that works. We also have book swaps, share things that are inspiring us, information on competitions and prizes, and discuss different aspects of writing and what we can learn from them. It’s not always about writing though. Sometimes we talk about boys and religion and girls and life in general.
I have learnt so much from each of them: Davina is teaching me to have fun while writing, to just enjoy it. Lillian pays attention to detail, to what each word means and how it fits into everything and you need someone like that and we all admire Harriet for her bold writing. Harriet recently had her poetry collection A Nation In Labour published, actually. You should check it out.Mon: Any thoughts on Ugandan women writing? (Since Mon is a women’s blog, we are super interested in this angle. This for times before and current…)
Even beyond women writing, the characterisation of women in Ugandan work.
NK: I think women writers in Uganda are doing a lot to help everyone realise how important and serious writing is. When they are not mentoring other writers, they are providing publishing platforms for both men and women. FEMRITE has a reading club that is open to both men and women. They also have a writers’ residency for African women and they recently sent out a mentorship call for both men and women novelists. There is the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award (BNPA) which was started by Beverley Nambozo for women poets and opened up last year to include the rest of Africa and men. There is African Writers Trust that was started by the co-founder of FEMRITE, Goretti Kyomuhendo, which provides opportunities for writers and editors.
Personally I received so much encouragement from women like Jackee Batanda when I was starting Sooo Many Stories. It is so good to have such women to look up to, to work with and to learn from. They are not sitting and waiting for someone else to sort out this writing stuff; they are writing and creating opportunities for others.
On the characterization of women, if I think of the short stories I have read recently by Ugandans, I think we are getting to see different faces of Ugandan women. I hope this continues because there isn’t one type of Ugandan woman. There is the woman who believes that her husband has to beat her to show that he loves her and the woman who is raising children on her own and the woman trying to have a life, a family, a career and a man and the woman who has no idea who she is at all. I hope we get to see all these different women even the ones that we wish did not believe certain things about themselves.
Mon: You recently wrote about interning with Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books. What is it like so far? What do you hope to learn and bring us back?
NK: I hope to bring back lots of wine, because, you know, it’s Cape Town. Seriously though, Colleen Higgs (who is a published writer by the way) has been running Modjaji Books for seven years now on mostly passion. There is no person I would rather learn from than her. From what it means to turn a passion into a functioning business, to doing something that is bigger than you (she’s “making rain for South African Women Writers”), to working with writers, editors, designers, to partnering with other people to expand your dream, to marketing books. I hope I get a glimpse into all that. I hope what I learn will expand my vision for #SmsUg and help me give hope to Ugandan writers about getting their work published.
Mon: What should your followers expect from #SmsUg?
NK: Multi-faceted stories of Uganda told by different Ugandans. I still hope we can get some of our folktales, legends, proverbs, myths told as well. I hope it makes us readers more interested in our stories because that demand and interest will in turn make writers want to tell our different stories. I hope more people who never believed writing could be a real thing, get encouraged to write. I hope we raise the standard of stories told and how they are told. I hope what makes us Ugandan does not die because we will have written about it. That’s my vision for Sooo Many Stories.
Mon: Who is your favorite author?
NK: That is usually a hard question but last year, Toni Morrison stole my heart and I don’t even want her to return it!