To celebrate 10 years of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize we are inviting previous winners to share something new with us—it might be a story, a podcast, an interview or a blog. Here 2014 Prize winner Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi shares a short story from her collection, ‘Manchester Happened’, reproduced by kind permission of Oneworld Publications.
To read Jennifer’s Prize-winning story, ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’, click here.
by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
When I arrived at the party the guests were so natural around me I forgot myself because I didn’t see myself in their eyes. I was just another person. It’s true we see ourselves in the eyes that look at us. I didn’t realise this until I came to Britain. When they look at you, people’s eyes are mirrors. The problem is you’re always looking at yourself.
Out here, especially when you’ve just come from your home country, whenever you arrive in an unfamiliar place, your eyes can’t help scanning the guests, the crowd, the seminar group for someone like you. It’s a reflex. I guess we do it because there’s warmth in numbers. Your way of being, your behaviour on that occasion, won’t carry the burden of representing your kind.
Once you’ve identified someone, you wait to catch their eye. In most cases, when you do, you smile or nod. Sometimes, however, you catch an eye that panics Oh no, not one of you, or one that flashes Fuck off. Some will avoid catching your eye intentionally and stay well clear of you. In most cases there is a flicker, an acknowledgement of I’m glad you’re here too. Someone gave this acknowledgement a name; it’s called the nod.
But when I arrived at the party I was made so comfortable I didn’t look around for others. And that’s when things went wrong. You see, I didn’t see her; I didn’t give her the nod.
Looking back now, I suspect that even if I had I might not have identified her. I think she saw me arrive, tried to catch my eye but I glanced past her. She must have thought I was one of those Fuck off types. And in terms of slights within the nation, that’s one of the worst. They’ll call you Oreo. Unfortunately for me, she was not the kind of sista you blanked and got away with it.
The party was in one of those rich areas, somewhere in Maple, where children stop playing and stare as you walk past. And if you catch them at it, they smile hello. Nothing rude, just that they don’t see people like you often. Even though I’d just arrived in the country and everywhere in England looked the same to me, from houses, to the roads, to the shops: were the builders lazy or just lacking in imagination? I could tell that this was an exclusive area, like Kololo, from the distances the houses shrunk from the road. They had such large compounds you would build a second house. Hedges grew untamed. (Out here, in the areas where we live, you let your hedge grow high, your neighbours complain to the council that it blocks the sun.) Along the way, I came to parts where the woods were so dense it felt like walking in Mabira Forest. That’s how wealthy this area was.
When I arrived, Annabelle’s family were waiting. You would think I was a long-lost cousin. Everyone knew my name; everyone had been waiting. ‘Let me take your coat, Lucky…Did you have a good journey on the train?…Cup of tea, Lucky?…Autumn’s getting nippy…Ah, British weather: it must be awful for you…You must miss the weather at home…Red or white wine?…Try this cake, Lucky…I love your dress…You didn’t get lost, did you?…We were worried…’
But our traditional upbringing, I tell you: it can be treacherous in Britain. You know how, as a visitor, it’s rude to say no to food, especially when someone brings it to you. I accepted everything the women brought me. ‘Try this, Lucky…You’re gonna love this meringue cake…piece of lasagne…That is quiche…This is elderflower; you must try it…’ In the end, there were plates and plates and glasses around me. Don’t misunderstand me, it was new food and I was eager to try it all, but I was worried that the numerous plates made me look gluttonous. This is why Ugandans in Britain will tell you The British didn’t give your culture a visa: leave it at home.
Annabelle came to my rescue, ‘Oh my God, Lucky: they’re gonna feed you to death. Here’ – she picked up the plates – ‘come with me.’ She walked me to the kitchen. ‘Put all that food away and get yourself what you want.’ She dumped the food on work surfaces and walked back to the garden, where her engagement party was being held. But I was still too Ugandan. As soon as she left the kitchen, I tossed the food away and tied the bin liner. Yes, wasting food is abominable, but I was not going to leave my rudeness displayed like that! What if the people who served it to me saw that I had rejected their food?
I was reaching for the chocolate cake when a voice from behind me said: ‘You have such lovely skin.’
I glanced at her, smiled, thank you, and turned back to the chocolate cake.
‘It must be all that sun in Africa: the weather in this country is not right for our skin.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed without looking at her. My eyes were so focused on the delicate job of balancing a slice of cake on a spatula towards my plate that I didn’t register the words our skin. In fact, when the slice was safe on the plate, I added, ‘My grandmother says that sweat is the best moisturiser’, to reinforce the notion that the sun in Africa was indeed good for our skin.
Truth be told, it was a lie. It was not my grandmother, it was my mother. My mother is what they call New Age out here. But the word ‘grandmother’ gave it a je ne sais quoi; let’s call it the weight of African wisdom. It’s something I turn on sometimes in Britain especially when among the nation, to play up on the difference, you know, African age-old wisdom (often common sense) vs Western research (the silly one). My grandmother is a city girl. She swears by Yardley products – soaps, talcum powder, deodorant and perfume. When she strays from Yardley she goes Avon. She would be seriously offended if she found out that I had attributed what she calls my mother’s madness to her.
Then I realised the woman had said our skin and stopped. I looked at her properly. My mind was frantic: is she a Zimbabwean, South African or Namibian white? But white Africans would never say our skin. They’ll say our weather, our economies, our politics, never our skin. What I did not realise was that she was watching. She saw every wave of my frantic thoughts in my eyes as I tried to place her. Then I began to see markers of the sub-Sahara in her. Her hair, though long and straight, was suspiciously thick, perhaps straightened. Her eyes were too dark. And there were signs of ‘the pride of Africa’ around her posterior. It had been there all along; I’d have realised, if I had looked past the colour of her skin. But it was a delicate situation: out here you can’t essentialise. Besides, there are blacks who don’t want you to focus on the sub-Saharan in them, some who are wrathful at the suggestion.
Then I saw her anger. The How dare you search my body for my blackness, the So I am not black enough! In that moment, we spoke with just our eyes – hers fiery with outrage, mine withering with mortification. Finally, when she relented and the glare in her eyes flickered to a shade of okay, I’ll let you off this time, she smiled. ‘Really,’ she said in response to my ‘grandmother’s wisdom’.
I flashed a sista smile (I was wont to overdo the comradery now). ‘Well, sweat is nature’s moisturiser, people don’t realise. It has a perfect pH and it moisturises the skin from within, softening both layers. These creams we buy only work on the surface: they don’t even penetrate the top layer. Our skin needs to sweat regularly.’
By now, I had turned on that conspiratorial tone we use in the nation when we discuss aspects like our food (we don’t eat anything out of a tin, you don’t need to be told that you need fruit and vegetables, we cook from scratch), our health (watch out, we put on a lot of weight in winter; take vitamin D supplements for the bones; go home to the islands or the continent at least once a year to get proper sunshine and to eat proper food to rejuvenate the body. For some reason, British weight drops off when we go home no matter how much we eat), and products specific to our bodies, (skin, hair, jeans that fit our thighs but don’t betray our butts when we sit down). ‘I go to the sauna four days a week’ – I was talking too much but could not stop myself – ‘and drink a lot of water just to sweat. It keeps my skin well moisturised. Besides, I’ve not yet found the right moisturiser. I use Vaseline.’
That was true at the time. For some reason, the air in Britain made my skin so dry that moisturisers marked For very dry skin lasted only a few minutes and my skin was dry again. Parts of me were desiccated: feet, ankles, knees, elbows and hands. I resorted to applying cream, waiting a few minutes, applying again and then using Vaseline Petroleum Jelly to lock it in. It took me a while to discover the ethnic beauty shops in Hulme which had appropriate creams. I thus expected her to step in and recommend a few moisturisers. She did not.
She reached for the chocolate cake, cut a piece, turned around and leant against the work surface. I waited as she bit into the cake because I could see she was about to say something.
‘I’ve always wondered which one of my parents was black.’ I put my cake down. She had me by the scruff of my neck. The thing about the nation’s sensibilities is that there is a danger of taking blackness too seriously. Then your skin becomes too heavy to carry. Black guilt, like the genocide in Rwanda, the Kill the Gays Bill, Tiger Woods’ sex life, black on black crime, the ghettoism of blackness in the white world where the darker the skin the more ghetto and the ‘failure’ of Africa.
Out here, your skin carries such guilts intimately. In that moment, I was at once all the African, Caribbean and African-American men who had travelled to Britain, had had children but, for whatever reasons, had not brought them up. Don’t ask why men. Black guilt was screaming ‘absent fathers’. What could I say to her? I concentrated on looking guilty.
‘I am now sure my father was African, a student,’ she said. ‘He was from either Liberia or Sierra Leone, though he could have been a South African coloured because, obviously, I am too pale.’ The emphasis on ‘obviously’ said that she had not forgiven me.
Something, I don’t know what, made me say, ‘Some Africans, especially in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and other Southern African countries can be really pale.’
Her eyes flashed a Don’t correct me, but she carried on. ‘He finished his studies and returned to Africa. At the time, Africans that came to Britain were students and couldn’t wait to go back to their countries after their courses. My mother was Irish, young and adventurous. He didn’t realise she was pregnant when he left. And she didn’t know his address in Africa.’
I looked at her for a while and then nodded. I imagined her as a child, lying in bed constructing herself. She began with the father and made him black. Then her mother, whom she made white. She constructed the circumstances of her birth and how she ended up wherever she was at the time. But as she grew older and more knowledgeable, she was forced to change things, make specific adjustments to her parents to fit what she looked like and the time of her birth. I was confident that at one time her father had been Caribbean complete with an island, he had also been African-American with a state and an accent. However, she had now settled on Africa and she was not going to be moved.
‘Teta is a Liberian name, isn’t it?’
‘Oh!’ I was put straight. Africa was guilty. I smiled. ‘What a lovely name!’ It was the first thing that came to mind. Then I regretted it. Why was everything that came out of my mouth either woefully inadequate or patronising? I should have said Nice to meet you, Teta; my name is Lucky and shaken her hand.
‘It was the fifties,’ she went on. ‘In those days, more Irish women had relationships with black men. But she was young and could not bring up a child on her own. She selflessly gave me up for adoption.’
The fifties were like a rope thrown to me. I grabbed and clung onto them. ‘You don’t look like you were born in the fifties,’ I said. And it was true. She did not look a year older than forty. ‘Honestly, I thought you were in your thirties.’
‘Oh, you’re so kind.’
But Teta was not interested in looking young. I had blanked her and then dared to search her body for her blackness – I was going to pay for her abandonment as well.
‘If you look at my wedding pictures, there are no black people. My husband is Italian and comes from a large family. There were so many people at the wedding, people imagined it was both our families. But of course, deep down they were thinking, Where are her black folks?’
‘Ah, there you are.’ I didn’t see Brenda, Annabelle’s mother, come in. ‘It’s your moment, Teta!’ She grabbed Teta’s hand and steered her towards the door. ‘Wait till you hear Teta sing.’ Brenda winked at me.
There was something about the way Brenda led Teta away: as if I was not the first person she had rescued from her. Yet the fact that she was going to sing at this party made me uncomfortable. I tell you, being in Britain can make you hypersensitive. Or maybe it’s the nation’s sensibilities. It’s easy to give offence out here and even easier to take it. In that moment, Teta singing seemed a cliché.
As they got to the door, Teta looked back and asked, ‘You’re Lucky, aren’t you?’
She saw that I understood and threw her head back with a large smile. ‘Lovely name,’ she said, and stepped out.
I closed my eyes. ‘Sneaky bitch.’
Left alone in Annabelle’s house, there was such silence that I felt the house’s outrage. The corridor stared, mouth open. The door shook its head. A window tsked. Everything in the kitchen acted like they were the nation. I pushed the cake away and hurried out.
I sat at the back of the gathering and watched Teta sing. There were no traces of the earlier confrontation on her face whatsoever, only her happiness when the audience joined in and danced in a circle around her. She never looked at me again. I wondered whether she was one of those floating souls who, occasionally, made a landing. That day she had anchored on me, rattled me and taken flight again. Annabelle saw me sitting alone and came over. ‘What are you doing hiding at the back, Lucky? Come sit with us.’
First published in Manchester Happened (Oneworld Publications, 2019)
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan novelist and short story writer. She has a PhD from Lancaster University. Her first novel, Kintu (Oneworld, 2018), won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013, and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. She won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’, which featured in her short story collection, Manchester Happened (Oneworld, 2019), and her second novel, The First Woman, was published by Oneworld in October 2020. She was awarded the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction in 2018, and lives in Manchester where she lectures in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.