A boy sits in the window of a flat in Manchester, watching animals fight. “A whole fox?” the boy marvels. “Chased leaping and scurrying by a cat? So wrong. Like a husband walloped by his wife.”
Foxes, fighting, what’s right and who’s wrong: In Uganda, the boy muses — setting the terrain for this majestic new story collection by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi —“God was hands on. He watched and recorded every wicked deed, word and thought in his black book… But here in Manchester,” where the family has come, where something isn’t right, “God gave up a long time ago, [and] grown-ups are out of control.”
How, then, the boy wonders, can he wrest back any semblance of power? Unmoored, afraid, aware his mom and dad are hurting, he calls child services but relents when they knock on the door. The story climaxes at a gathering of family and friends with ties to Uganda. The mother drinks too much, yet again. She falls, can’t manage her bladder and then yells out in rage. Her pain versus his own: The boy rides home, drunken mother passed out, head leaning heavily against her son’s, neither of them behind the wheel.
Men behave badly in these stories, women suffer or negotiate for power, families bicker and try to cooperate. There is Uganda, and there is Britain, and then all the miles in between. The genius of the book, anchored by 2014’s award-winning title story “Let’s Tell This Story Properly,” is the same as the argument for its more universal power: the way Makumbi can take two countries — neither of which might strike the average reader as particularly germane — and still make their intersections feel like exactly the stories we all need.
The second piece ricochets back to the 1950s, tracing the progress of a Ugandan man newly arrived in the U.K., dazzled by postwar Manchester, thrust into a crew of other Africans trying to make a living. Then comes the moment of tension, when he finds himself the father of a boy his white British girlfriend has given up. The nurse shows him proof of the betrayal, and he writes on the adoption papers, “son of Muttiko Jjuuko of Kawempe, Kyadondo, Uganda,” giving the boy as much of a heritage as he can.
The matter of origins and ambition, who we are and who we can become, where is your house and what makes a home (and what to do with all the children) haunts so many of these stories.
“Inside, we were dying,” an expat writes of her life in Manchester. “I threw away all that Uganda had taught me socially and culturally and allowed Britain to realign me.”
Meanwhile, grandparents mourn children lost to England, let alone the grandchildren who’ll never come home at all. To future generations, old-timers warn, that “to send your children abroad is to bury them.” Yet when a woman returns, she realizes everyone expects who she is not, such that their anger “was not about me per se,” she thinks. “It was about them.
“They’ve spent years constructing themselves through dress, associates, jobs, boyfriends, houses and even areas they live. In my absence, I was co-opted into the masquerade.”
Makumbi’s previous book, the doorstop-sized novel “Kintu,” is a lush and epic story, the kind of career-defining book that signals great ambition and tremendous historical depth, tracing as it does the history of Uganda over hundreds of years. Her new collection, though it covers fewer years, and does so with a lighter touch, might end up being the more sly and risky project.
The final story, and maybe the book’s best, dramatizes a British-Ugandan family’s effort to navigate their son’s to desire to return home. The purity of his effort — to complete the coming-of-age ritual of male circumcision — becomes complicated, not just by the clash of values and expectations, but by a BBC film crew and the matter of the more than 600,000 pounds that the young man has raised in what seems to have begun as an online dare.
These inventive, heartbreaking, fully engaging stories range far and wide, but at the center throbs a persistent problem.
“Your skin becomes too heavy to carry,” a woman in a later story says. “Black guilt, like the genocide in Rwanda, Kill the Gay Bill, Tiger Woods’ sex life, black on black crime, the ghettoism of blackness in a white world” — it’s an almost impossible weight to bear.
Colonized in the 20th century, freed in 1962, the plaything of Idi Amin, and now the seat of another president for life, Uganda and its diaspora, the book argues, can still have more than a thing or two to say, as well, about recent history’s idea of real power. Who knew, a worldly grandmother in Uganda says, in a delightfully twisted moment, that Britain itself would one day be forced to claim an independence day.
“So you people really Brexited?” she asks. “We saw it on TV and asked ourselves: Did Europe colonize Britain?”
“Let’s Tell This Story Properly” by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Transit Books, 294 pp., $17
Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”