Moses Isegawa talks to The Compulsive Reader about the writing of Abyssinian Chronicles, modern Uganda, on living in exile, and his next book, showing the same dry, wry humour displayed in his novel.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Compulsive Reader: Tell me about the origins of Abyssinian Chronicles.
Moses Isegawa: I have always wanted to write a book. The urge dates back 20 years. In 1990 I wanted to get started in a big way but failed: lack of vision… In 1994 I got the core idea: write about Uganda, a few things you know… and that is how the monster was born.
Compulsive Reader: The portrait of Mugezi is so immediate and intimate, and his life obviously follows the contours of your own. Did the autobiographical aspects of the story make it difficult to create fictional characters, or did it provide you with the basic framework?
Moses Isegawa: Once you get on track fiction becomes fact and vice versa. You just have
to get the percentage of dilution right. In my case 10% fact 90% fiction worked out well. Characters emerged stinking slightly of people still in this world but not too much to make the job unbearable.
Compulsive Reader: Do you find it unsettling to be doing promotional work again, 3 years after the original launch?
Moses Isegawa: I find it great. It makes my juices flow. I would do it any day if I had the time.
Compulsive Reader: Abyssinian Chronicles is your first novel. Had you done any professional writing prior to it?
Moses Isegawa: I didn’t write anything not worth using as toilet paper in Uganda.
Compulsive Reader: Despite the blackness of the book, there is a fair amount of humour in the story. Were you trying to be intentionally funny, or did the humour flow naturally from Mugezi’s character.
Moses Isegawa: I enjoy cracking jokes in my books and at my readings. Books without any vestige of humour I find as interesting as a pile of kleenex. Humour is a weapon I use whenever possible.
Compulsive Reader: The story itself seems to drive the narrative of Abyssinian Chronicles, and is obviously something you are personally familiar with, and something historically fascinating in its own right. Do you feel pressure to come up with something of equal historical magnitude? Is there an expectation from your readers and publishers?
Moses Isegawa: I don’t know what my readers or publishers expect. My second book is trim and covers only a few years of Uganda’s history. When I sit down to write I do what I want, deaf to any mumblings from heaven or hell.
Compulsive Reader: You’ve said that you felt that you had to leave Uganda in order to become a writer. Do you feel that the distance of exile helps a writer gain the necessary larger picture to create a national literature? How has your perspective of Uganda and Africa as a whole changed since leaving?
Moses Isegawa: My perspective has changed beyond recognition. Moving to Europe liberated me from the dictatorship of the quotidian and accorded me the chance to see
Europe and Europeans live, and Uganda and Africa dispassionately. The result was a sharp vision and a tongue to say things.
Compulsive Reader: Are you worried about losing touch with the modern Uganda? Will you continue to write about it?
Moses Isegawa: I can’t lose touch with modern Uganda. I am in contact with people there. I have written two books about it. My third novel will be about a very exciting subject: Europe and the Marines.
Compulsive Reader: Is there any talk of filming Abyssinian Chronicles? Would you write the screenplay?
Moses Isegawa: The film world is an near to my writing desk as Mars is from Holland. If there are any mumblings from there I am unaware of them.
Compulsive Reader: What are you currently working on?
Moses Isegawa: My novel on Europe and the noble Marines.