Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s magisterial first novel Kintu continually diverts us from our preconceptions about Africa. Despite the generalizing and pigeonholing, African writers are rarely thought to speak to universal questions. But as its two-faced title—man/thing—suggests, Kintu does in fact have a grand philosophical question in mind. The novel forces us to reckon over and again with what it means to be kintu, to be man, or human.
When African writers talk about glossaries, we don’t just exchange tips—How long? How comprehensive? By whom? We talk about whether to include one at all, whether to offer glosses within the text or omit all glossing entirely. To gloss, or not to gloss? That is the question.
On December 30, 1977, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was arrested. If the coarse toilet paper at Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi was meant to be punishing, “what was bad for the body was good for the pen.” Ngũgĩ wrote the notes that became Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary on that toilet paper. He also wrote the classic novel Devil on the Cross, which has been published in a new edition by Penguin.