The First Woman
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
‘JENNIFER MAKUMBI IS A GENIUS STORYTELLER.’ Reni Eddo-Lodge
Longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize 2020
For one young girl, discovering what it means to become a woman in a family, a community and a country determined to silence her will take all the courage she has.
Growing up in a small Ugandan village, Kirabo is surrounded by powerful women. Her grandmother, her aunts, her friends and cousins are all desperate for her to conform, but Kirabo is inquisitive, headstrong and determined. Up until now, she has been perfectly content with her life at the heart of this prosperous extended family, but as she enters her teenage years, she begins to feel the absence of the mother she has never known. The First Woman follows Kirabo on her journey to becoming a young woman and finding her place in the world, as her country is transformed by the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin.
Jennifer Makumbi has written a sweeping tale of longing and rebellion, at once epic and deeply personal, steeped in an intoxicating mix of ancient Ugandan folklore and modern feminism, that will linger in the memory long after the final page.
‘Wonderful’ — Psychologies (Book of the Month) ‘A powerful coming-of-age tale… Kirabo is a fantastic character – headstrong and curious – and the way Ugandan myths are woven through the story is mesmerising.’ — Good Housekeeping ‘A captivating feminist coming-of-age tale set in Uganda.’ — Independent (Book of the Month) ‘A feminist coming-of-age epic… Her intimate prose is charming and compulsively readable. With equal parts wisdom and wry humour, [Makumbi] casts Kirabo as a character you care about… The First Woman is a refreshing bildungsroman that offers both a formidable heroine and an ornate snapshot of 20th-century Uganda.’ — Literary Review ‘Fantastic… Packed with passion and drama – and in possession of sharp political elbows – The First Woman finally becomes a moving and resonant celebration of sisterhood.’ — Daily Mail ‘An intoxicating coming-of-age tale set amidst the brutality of Idi Amin’s Uganda, The First Woman is a hymn to survival, rebellion and the enduring power of the female spirit.’ — Waterstones (October’s Best Books) ‘A poignant coming-of-age tale about women’s hard-won wisdom… Glorious.’ — Washington Post ‘The First Woman is a wonder, as clear, vivid, moving, powerful, and captivatingly unpredictable as water itself – from the “irate noises” of Nnankya’s stream to the “theatrical” rains of Nattetta with which Makumbi’s women wash, delight, and sate themselves. With wry wisdom, great humor, and deep complexity, Makumbi has created a feminist coming-of-age classic for the ages, sure to join the company of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Being surrounded by Makumbi’s women – young and old – as they each struggle in different ways to clarify and achieve mwenkanonkano, feels like love, feels like learning – and best of all it often feels, as she puts it, ‘like mischief’!’ * Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift * ‘What a ride! I feel naked while reading Makumbi-because there is so much history, and cultural nuances packed into her novels… In The First Woman, you will be enamoured by the Ugandan folktales with witches, men and betrayal, or sympathize with the coming of age narrative, or find yourself plunged into patriarchy, colonialism, spread of religion and power dynamics. The First Woman is indefinitely layered.’ * The Book Satchel * ‘In her characteristically page-turning and engaging style, Nansubuga lays bare the complex power dynamics of patriarchy, capitalism and neocolonialism, not through academic jargon but via that most effective tool of education – storytelling. An achingly beautiful tale.’ * Sylvia Tamale, Professor of Law, Makerere University * ‘Makumbi writes with the assurance and wry omniscience of an easygoing deity.’ * New York Times * ‘In The First Woman, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi takes the classic male quest for identity and turns it spectacularly on its head. Kirabo’s journey toward self-possession is a beautiful, wise, and exhilarating read.’ * Lily King, author of Writers & Lovers * ‘It is clear that Makumbi is writing for Ugandans and, by extension, other Africans – and this is partly what makes the book a delight to read. However, the chief delight is the humour. It’s impossible to highlight just one passage as the humour shines from the first page to the last.’ * East African * ‘Magnificent. The First Woman is ambitious and affecting in equal measure. It is that rare thing, a multifaceted novel guaranteed to stay with you long after you read it. Makumbi is indeed a singular talent.’ * Tendai Huchu, author of The Hairdresser of Harare * ‘Makumbi has told a critical story. With beautifully wrought prose, characters you cannot help but fall in love with, and the bravery to confront the complex issues of society, she gives us a vision of a brighter, stronger, and more equal world.’ * Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift * ‘[An] arresting bildungsroman… Kirabo, a strong, empathetic protagonist, reveals a society where women are routinely pitted against one another or silenced. This beautifully rendered saga is a riveting deconstruction of social perceptions of women’s abilities and roles.’ * Publishers Weekly * ‘Superb. An intoxicating tale that combines mythic and modern elements to make the headiest of feminist brews.’
* Irenosen Okojie, author of Nudibranch * ‘Ambitious…unapologetically African.’ * The Millions * ‘A magnificent blend of Ugandan folklore and more modern notions of feminism… This book is a jewel.’ * Kirkus, starred review * ‘Bewitching… Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a mesmerising storyteller, slowly pulling readers in with a captivating cast of multifaceted characters and a soupcon of magical realism guaranteed to appeal to fans of Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.’ * Library Journal (starred review) * ‘Makumbi’s writing is lyrical and vivid as she not only captures Kirabo, but the world and community that Kirabo is navigating.’ * Alma * ‘Makumbi taps the shoulders of readers lest they forget the power of being able to tell your own story. Whether it be teaching something new or overwriting something old-[The First Woman] makes clear the importance of being able to speak for yourself.’ * Chicago Review of Books * ‘A beautiful coming-of-age story, The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is set to the backdrop of a small Ugandan village. Surrounded by strong women, protagonist Kirabo starts to miss the mother she never knew and the book follows her journey growing up and finding her place in the world. It’s a tale steeped in folklore and feminism, rebellion and longing.’ — Evening Standard ‘Makumbi balances heartbreak with humour… The novel is also a discourse on power (whether political, social or sexual), but executed with a beautifully light touch.’ * Daily Telegraph, 16 New Season Reads * ‘Ugandan literature can boast of an international superstar in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.’ * Economist * ‘Makumbi’s prose is irresistible and poignant, with remarkable wit, heart and charm – poetic and nuanced, brilliant and sly, openhearted and cunning, balancing discordant truths in wise ruminations. The First Woman rewards the reader with one of the most outstanding heroines and the incredible honor of journeying by her side.’ * New York Times * ‘With each new work, Makumbi cements her position as a writer of great influence in our time and for future generations.’ * Booklist (starred review) * ‘A mesmerizing feminist epic.’ * O, the Oprah magazine * ‘The First Woman is a wonder, as clear, vivid, moving, powerful, and captivatingly unpredictable as water itself… With wry wisdom, great humor, and deep complexity, Makumbi has created a feminist coming-of-age classic for the ages.’ * Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift * ‘At turns rapturous and devastating… Makumbi’s writing uplifts and inspires, evoking the grand tradition of folklore and stories passed down, one woman to the next.’ — Refinery29 ‘The genius of this novel is in its subtlety: home truths about the treatment of women throughout history are hidden like gems within the utterly engaging tale of a single girl… So, I’m calling it now: The First Woman will soon be considered a coming-of-age classic. And rightly so.’ — Stylist ‘Jennifer Makumbi is a genius storyteller.’ * Reni Eddo-Lodge * ‘The First Woman is captivating, wise, humorous and tender: Makumbi has come back stronger than ever. This is a tale about Kirabo and her family, and her place in the world as she searches for her mother and a true sense of belonging. But most of all, this is a book about the stories that define us, and those we tell to redefine ourselves. A riveting read.’ * Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King *
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