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Ber Anena on Pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, Literary Agents, and Book Publishing in Uganda

By Tomas Maldonado

Ber Anena
Photo: Ber Anena

Ber Anena is definitely a writer to keep an eye on. Born and raised in Northern Uganda, she writes poetry, creative nonfiction (essays and memoirs are her focus), and short fiction. Anena completed a bachelor’s in mass communication from Makerere University where soon after she wrote and edited for the Daily Monitor – Uganda’s leading independent newspaper critical of the Museveni regime. She then went on to pursue a master’s in human rights at Makerere University before enrolling in an MFA Writing program at Columbia University in New York. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English (Creative Writing) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Her debut poetry collection A Nation in Labour won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa in 2018, which was awarded by the legendary Nigerian author himself. Her poetry and prose have appeared in The Atlantic, adda, Off Assignment, Brittle Paper, Isele, Columbia Journal, The Kalahari Review, Popula, New Daughters of Africa anthology, The Caine Prize anthology, Short Story Day Africa, among others.

I sat down with her via Zoom on Thursday, September 14th to discuss pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing, literary agents, book publishing in Uganda, recommended Ugandan writers along with a host of other interesting writing topics.

Tell us a little about your studies at the moment?

“I just started my second year of the Ph.D. in English with a focus on creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I'm preparing to start reading for my comprehensive exams. The years fly so fast, but it's all going well so far.”

When asked if she found the MFA she earned from Columbia University helpful to her current Ph.D. pursuit, she adds with a chuckle:

“I think the MFA did help. I focused on creative nonfiction for my MFA and for the PhD I'm doing poetry. But the interesting thing with both programs is that I’m able to take classes in other genres outside of my concentration as well. When I was at Columbia, for instance, I took classes in poetry and in fiction. And right now, I'm taking classes in fiction, creative nonfiction, and some classes in women and gender studies, because that's also an area I'm very passionate about. The MFA did help prepare me for the Ph.D.”

A labour in nation
Photo: 'A Nation in Labour' by Ber Anena

What is your experience with writing in Uganda versus writing in America?

“I don't think it's so much about the writing, but rather what I write about. When I was home, I wrote about things that were very local to Uganda, but now that I'm away from home, I'm writing about my experiences here and a lot of times in comparison to life back home. What does home mean? How about identity? These were not subjects I preoccupied myself with at home because they were not central to my life at the time as they are now.”

What writing prompts do you use when you teach creative writing?

“I'm not actually teaching yet. I am carrying out research under a project run by Professor Kwame Dawes. We want to better understand the state of poetry book distribution in Africa, particularly poetry books by African authors. Essentially, we hope to create a practice that makes it efficient and beneficial to publish, market, and distribute these books.

I'll start teaching next year. I'm already taking a mandatory class that prepares us for the classroom. I'm excited about that.”

What inspires you to write?

“I'll say anything really. Everyday life. A poetry manuscript I’m working on now for instance is about motherhood, inspired by the life of my mother, my grandmother, and a lot of women in my life. I'm also a lover of nature, and I’m increasingly incorporating nature into my writing. I was reviewing my poetry collection with a friend in the program recently and we were both struck by how many times the wind featured in my poems, but also birds and plants. I would say I write about everything, as long as it appeals to me.”

When I was finishing my MFA, I was told that poets don’t need a literary agent. However, you recently got one. Do you recommend poets find literary agents to get published?

“I write more than poetry and I don't think that I would have gotten this agent if I was only writing poetry. What I'm working on with my agent right now is my memoir. But, of course, she read all my portfolio of work. She's interested in my poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction because I write in all three genres. I don't believe I have a friend or colleague who writes poetry strictly and has an agent. It's usually hard to get an agent when you primarily write poetry. And yes, I was also told that as a poet, I didn’t need an agent and that I wouldn’t find one if I looked.”

After clarifying the issue concerning poets needing agents, she reveals to me that her debut collection of poetry A Nation in Labour was self-published. Anena searched for an editor to work on the manuscript and released it into the world with critical acclaim from many African writers.

I comment that when I'm in Uganda visiting family every summer, I notice many writers go the self-publishing route. Anena informs me:

“A lot of self-publishing is happening back home and a lot of it is really because the publishing infrastructure is not yet at the level that we would want to see. We have many young writers who feel ready to have their books out. And so, they go the self-publishing route. But we also have a couple of organizations coming up that are helping young writers publish. There isKitara Nation which primarily publishes poets, but they have published nonfiction and some fiction as well. They are giving writers a platform to have their books out in the world. A lot of poets acquire the services of an editor before they self-publish, which is important.”

I tell Anena that I wanted to see Jennifer Makumbi – the celebrated Ugandan novelist based in the United Kingdom - when she visited Kampala this summer, but I couldn’t due to Malaria. I had heard about her best seller Kintu (pronounced chintu) and figured it was published in England. I stressed to her the absolute need among Ugandan writers to become published by Ugandan book publishers due to the stigmatism that is placed on being self-published.

Anena agrees, then tells me:

“We have a couple of publishers in Uganda. However, the challenges of the publishing industry cannot allow them to get to the level that we would want to see fast enough. It's a journey. One of my friends, Nyana Kakoma, founded Sooo Many Stories, which I would argue has the hallmarks of a typical publishing house. She has published Kagayi Ngobi’s poetry collection The Headline That Morning, Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir Flame and Song, and a children’s book by Acan Innocent Immaculate called The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. There are other literary organizations that have also been instrumental in publishing literary works such as FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers Association and African Writers Trust. However, I think it will take us time to get to the level of mass book production through mainstream publishing.”

What was it like writing for the Daily Monitor and did it prepare you for literary writing?

“I worked for the Daily Monitor immediately after university because my bachelor's was in journalism. When I was done with school at Makerere, I went back home to northern Uganda and started submitting articles for the Daily Monitor for about three months. Then they offered me a job as a sub-editor. In truth, most of the work I did at the Monitor was editing but because I love writing, I always found time for field reporting. Going to the community and seeing the life that the ordinary Ugandan was living, provided material and inspiration for a lot of the work that you see in my debut poetry collection. Issues such as the nodding syndrome, the Lord’s Resistance Army war, and how people are struggling to piece back their lives after the two-decade insurgency, were the things I wrote about, not just for the newspaper but for my poetry and prose as well. So yes, my journalism did give me details and perspectives for my creative endeavours.”

Photo: Ber Anena performing
Photo: Ber Anena performing

Any recommended Ugandan food, music, bookstores and places to visit in Uganda?

“Well, I am biased towards food from my region. I come from northern Uganda and I would recommend Acholi food. If you have the opportunity to go to Gulu, there are a bunch of restaurants there in the city. You can eat Malakwang – a type of hibiscus; Boo – a sauce made from Boo leaves and peanut butter, okra, sesame, peanut stew, and Dek Ngor – pigeon peas soup. Those are some of the foods that I miss the most.”

After Anena clarifies that Ugandan cuisine in the North is different from that of Central Uganda – the food my wife introduced me to – she lets me know that each is equally popular. We then move on to Ugandan bookstores:

“I've heard a lot about Mahiri Books. They have quite a reputation for stocking books by Ugandan and African authors, and they also pay authors on time, which is a thing that does not happen very often in Uganda, including by established bookstores. Mahiri is a very recommended bookstore. We also have Kitara Nation books by Kagayi Ngobi, which I mentioned earlier, and African Writers Trust by Goretti Kyomuhendo. The organization holds conferences, workshops, and mentorship programs but they also stock a select stock of books by Ugandan and African authors.”

What Ugandan writers do you recommend?

“I'm going to tweak that question a bit because the Ugandan writers that I would typically recommend already have a platform. Their names are already out there, but there are dozens of young Ugandan writers who are doing a really great job but are still not as well known outside the country. I believe their work deserves to be read and studied. Some of these writers are Jedidah Mugarura, Gloria Kiconco, Mercy Geno Apachi, Hawa Kimbugwe, Awadifo Olga Kili, Bridget Ankunda, Evelyn Kimong, and Aarakit Sheila, Moses Serubiri, Jason Ntaro, and many others.

Some of these writers have full-length poetry collections already. Others are still trying to overcome publishing hurdles or getting into writing programs that would get their craft to the level they desire. Many are sharing their work on social media and publishing them with online journals, which is always a great step towards reaching a bigger readership.”

What do you want the world to know about Ugandan poets and poetry?

“Ugandan writers are doing incredible work considering the environment that we are writing in. As you probably know, the current regime of President Museveni is not very supportive of the arts and humanities in general. He has been on the record several times saying the arts are useless. There are all sorts of laws and actions that are used to curtail writing by Ugandan writers. Some, like Stella Nyanzi, have been jailed and exiled for their writing. The Kampala International Theater Festival, run by Tebere Arts Foundation, also faced a lot of disruption to their programming last year because the government wanted to sanction whatever they showcased at the festival. Their offices were recently broken into, and equipment stolen. It's frustrating, but people are doing great work and I believe that every artist in Uganda deserves their work to be visible and appreciated.”

In the world of poetry, who are you currently reading?

“Right now, I am preparing for my comprehensive exams and of course, I get to read all my favorite poets. I'm reading Juliane Otoniya Okot Bitek, who is also a Ugandan writer. Her book A for Acholi, is on my comps list. I'm also reading Warsan Shire's latest book Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head and Mahtem Shiferraw’s Your Body is War. These writers, as you notice, are all African women now living in the diaspora. And because I'm interested in the concept of the diaspora and what it means for different writers, I’m focusing on these women, plus others such as Mildred Barya Kiconco and Safia Elhillo. I'm also reading Chris Albani’s Kalakuta Republic, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Prisoner, Okello Oculu’s Orphan, and Freedom Nyamubaya’s On the Road Again. Those are the texts that I'm studying for their focus on political resistance in post-independence Africa. Those are just a few out of the eighty books I’m supposed to read for my comprehensive exams, but it’s fun. I’m essentially reading poetry collections and a couple of critical texts, so I’m excited about that.”

What are you working on now?

“I'm working on a couple of things. I'm the kind of writer who embarks on multiple projects at a time, which is crazy because it demands some sort of compartmentalization. I'm working on revising my memoir with my agent right now. And I'm also working on a poetry collection. Actually, two poetry collections and I'm writing a couple of short stories that I'm hoping will become a short story collection at some point.”

What is your opinion on those with MFAs, should they venture into the Ph.D. or pursue writing and get published? Or maybe both?

“That's an interesting question. I think it really depends on what someone wants to do. I am interested in scholarship. I am interested in teaching. I love the classroom and so I felt the Ph.D. was necessary for me to be able to do that. But I also know people who do not have Ph.Ds. and they've been teaching creative nonfiction. You can have your MFA and publish a bunch of books because a lot of times, your publications add weight to your profile as a teacher. I would say, it really should depend on the individual.”

Is there anything you want to close out with for the readers? Anything you want to add that can be of value or could benefit us?

“Buy books. Buy poetry. Don't just read the people you know or the writers in your country. Explore other cultures, and experience the literature coming from around the world, because a lot of times writers reflect their society. Writers are the sounding board for a lot of things that go on in our societies. I consider reading as a form of travel, and I love traveling. When I was young, reading and writing were my tickets out of the home that I knew, the home that was engulfed in war. Right now, we have plenty and easy access to all kinds of literature, all kinds of books. Buy books. Gift books. Recommend books. Read.”


Website and Social Media

Twitter: @ahpetite

Instagram: @ber.anena

Facebook: Ber Anena

Buy her poetry book 'A Nation in Labour'!


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