Historical Fiction

A Girl Is a Body of Water

My 11th Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021 longlist read! I actually have had an earlier novel by Makumbi, Kintu, on my TBR for years. Having read this one first, due to my personal longlist challenge, I have to say that I am blown away by Makumbi’s work and am now planning to pick that one up much, much faster than my original timeline was making it look. (Especially since I think some of the stories in this novel, short tales passed from grandmother to granddaughter about the founding and history and mythology of Uganda, will be told in even greater depth throughout that book. And I am so excited about that prospect!)  

A Girl Is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

“Wife, mother, age, and role model – the ‘respect’ that comes with these roles is the water they pour on your fire. […] every woman resists. Often it is private. Most of our resistance is so everyday that women don’t think twice about it. It is life.”

When we meet Kirabo, she is a 13 year old girl living in a rural area of Uganda with her grandparents and just getting to the age where she’s beginning to ask questions about the mother she’s never met. Looking for answers, she reaches out to Nsuuta, the local witch, who teaches her not only about the mother who isn’t yet ready to meet her, but about the history of women in the world, in their country, and encourages her to embrace the “wild” streak within her own self that harkens back to the first women. As years pass and Kirabo moves to the city to live with her father and attend school, she also begins to grapple with the ideas of mwenkanonkano (feminism) and what they mean to herself and the other women in her life, as they move through a world that does not allow the space for them to fully be, and the many different ways women choose to handle that.

There are a few major themes/aspects that are woven together to create this full story, including Kirabo’s personal journey, an exploration on the interactions and roles of women in society and within societal expectations, a history (both in myth and in fact, ancient and more recent) of the nation of Uganda and the intergenerational affects of that development on women, and a number of larger themes related to colonialism and privilege both internal and external to Uganda itself. The writing was perfect for the style of the story, lush and lyrical in a longer-prose style, a medium-pace that pulled you along but also allowed you to linger in the sense of place that Makumbi created. There is also a story-telling flow to the writing that matched up perfectly with the emphasis of the importance of story-telling that runs as a theme through the novel from beginning to end.     

A few other notes about parts of this novel that I really enjoyed. They don’t really go together with any real connection, so I’m just gong to bring them all together list style. It is what it is! There was a difficult but important emphasis on the damage of widespread internalized colonialism and patriarchy. It was so frustrating to read at times, when the reader was confronted with the ways that the roles women must play as mothers and wives and grandmothers cause them to lose or be forced to hide their selves. It was especially difficult to swallow when it turned would-be allies against each other, both in actuality (like Kirabo and her friend Giibwa) and as a farce because they felt like it was expected (like Grandmother and Nsuuta). And yet, there were so many wonderful moments that Kirabo shared with many different female mentors and friends that helped her learn and grow and push against/subvert those colonialist/patriarchal expectations, each in their own unique ways. I loved reading about the variety of inter-women dynamics and the ways the spirit of mwenkanonkano triumphed, both large and small, in Kirabo’s experiences. There was also some fantastic and insightful commentary on cycles of poverty/education, privilege and the compounding of intergenerational privilege, and the ways that all traditionally shows up, along with the exacerbations that come with Western “interventions” and “perspectives” (a transition that was presented in a few ways I hadn’t been exposed to before, which was fascinating and eye-opening). And finally, Kirabo was just such a compelling and recognizable character. Despite numerous surface differences between lives, there’s an underlying similarity growing up as a female that just really drew me to her, through her triumphs and mistakes and grief and joy.

This coming-of-age and coming-of-womanhood novel, steeped in the folklore and traditions and culture of Uganda, takes the reader on a sweeping journey of self-discovery and realization. And, honestly, Kirabo is just one of those special protagonists that captures a reader’s heart and you cannot help but hope and cheer for her at every turn. If this novel was a body of water, it would be a wide stream, with a subtle but persistent current that sweeps you with it slowly until you realize that you’ve been pulled right into the middle and aren’t strong enough to get back to the bank. Check out my metaphor-ing! But for real, what a lovely reading experience.    

Enjoy a few pull-quotes:

“What I meant, child, is that we are our circumstances. And until we have experienced all the circumstances the world can throw at us, seen all the versions we can be, we cannot claim to know ourselves. How, then, do we start to know someone else?”

“Water has no shape, it can be this, it can be that, depending on where it flows. The sea is inconstant, it cannot be tamed, it does not yield to human cultivation, it cannot be owned; you cannot draw borders on the ocean. To the ancients, women belonged with the sea like in marriage.”

“My grandmothers called it kweluma. That is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.”

“With that kind of perversion, who would not shrink? Who would want to be huge, or loud, or brave, or any of the other characteristics men claim to be male? We hunched, lowered our eyes, voices, acted feeble, helpless. Even being clever became unattractive. Soon, being shrunken became feminine. Then it became beautiful and women aspired to it. That was when we began to persecute our original state out of ourselves. Once we shrunk, men had to look after us, and it was not long before they started to own us. Fathers sold daughters; husbands bought wives. Once we became a commodity, men could do whatever they wished with us. Even now our bodies do not belong to us. That is why when they need it, they will grab it. Things were so bad in some cultures, women had to be hidden away to protect them, in separate spaces where no men were allowed. Soon, they had to be spoken for by men.”

“There is nothing like love lost and found. It is unreasonable; it is reckless; it is hungry.”

How Zungu [foreign]. You go and hurt someone, and then when it comes to apologising you help yourself to crying as well. She had seen it in films. Man cheats, man confesses to woman, man cries, and the betrayed woman is robbed of her right to tears.”

“It was surprising what a bit of history did to a place, how it coloured it.”

“…oppressed people turn on each other to vent because the oppressor is untouchable…”

“…the fact that poverty and wealth were constructs after all […] the way the world was going, people in the rural were beginning to see poverty from the city’s perspective, while city people were starting to see poverty through Western lenses.”

“Until the law starts to protect us, we must find ways.”

“Because women are brought up to treat sex as sacred while men treat it as a snack.”

2 thoughts on “A Girl Is a Body of Water

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