Authors at SIBF 2020 discuss how their indigenous cultures   impact their writing and also live through it

Emirati poet and novelist Sultan Al Amimi and Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi participated in a virtual discussion held as part of Sharjah International Book Fair 2020

The influence of cultural traditions on literature and how authors use them to tell their stories was the focus of a virtual session titled ‘Two Worlds’ on Saturday, the concluding day of the 39th edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), that was organised from November 4-14 under the theme ‘The World Reads from Sharjah’.

Emirati writer and poet Sultan Al Amimi and UK-based Ugandan novelist and short story writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi spoke about how their indigenous cultures informed their work, highlighting the role of literature in preserving and carrying forward indigenous traditions. Layla Mohamed moderated the discussion.

Sultan Al Amimi, who is a critic, poet, researcher and novelist said that while the local culture and traditions were integral to his novels, his short stories tended to be universal. “They can be set anywhere and can happen at any time,” he explained. “They are much more topical and immediate. However, I do agree that the history and culture of your surroundings must inform your work.”

Al Amimi spoke about how the rich oral traditions of the region informed his work. “We are heavily influenced by what we hear and read about as children,” he pointed out. “Nabati poetry, which is indigenous to this nation, is our identity, and it’s rhythm and beat has influenced our writings. You cannot separate the culture of a region from its literature. Both are inextricably entwined.”

Makumbi, who has won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the 2018 Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in Fiction, and teaches creative writing at Lancaster University, said she relies heavily on Ugandan oral traditions, especially myths, legends and folktales to craft her stories.

“I focus mainly on Ugandan culture in my work because for a long time there was no literature that was based on it,” she said, adding: “The books I read during my childhood were by Shakespeare, Dante and Dickens, and their works did not represent my literary history. So, when I started writing, I wanted to go back to our older traditions – what my ancestors left behind”.

Sharing an interesting insight with her audience, the author said that Ugandan people have their own myths regarding the creation of life. “My first novel Kintu was based on that. It is a retelling of the myth and simultaneously humanises it.”

Makumbi approaches writing as a way of going back to her childhood, steeped in legends and folklore. Looking at how her ancestors recorded their philosophies and ideas, her work reinterprets them for modern-day readers.

“I also look at indigenous feminist viewpoints to show that feminism was not exclusively a Western concept,” the author added. “There was indigenous and traditional feminist thought within our communities, but when it was discovered in the West, their understanding of it took precedence over our traditional thought. That is why I am so interested in our older traditions.”

Makumbi asserted that she writes about Uganda for Ugandans as well as for the rest of the world. “I learnt about London and New York from the books I read as a child, and now I write about Uganda for others to know my country. We preserve our cultures through our literature,” she concluded.

The session was one of eight intellectual discussions organised by SIBF this year, which brought together a line-up of Emirati authors with their counterparts from countries such as Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, to name a few. The sessions were conceptualised by the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) in collaboration with several cultural institutions worldwide.