The PEN Ten: An Interview with Stella Nyanzi
Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan medical anthropologist, academic, writer, and activist, was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment after writing and posting a poem online, in which she criticized Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his mother. After spending sixteen months in prison, reduced on appeal, she spent three months living in exile in Kenya before returning to Uganda. In January 2022, she left Uganda for Germany, where she now takes part in the writers-in-exile program run by PEN Germany.
In conversation with Rachel Powers, the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center Program Assistant, Nyanzi discusses writing against oppressive powers, the loudness of the taboo, and the nuances of working in exile.
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
Back home in Uganda, I am variously identified as a dissident writer, government critic, and resistance poet located in the political opposition. I write and publish in several genres including poetry, essays, social-political commentary, short stories, and academic journal articles. My writing is transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary and dabbles in diverse indices of formality. The multivocality and plurality of my vast body of writing, perhaps, arises out of my awareness of the intersectionality of the multiple identities that I sit with whenever I write. I am a single mother to three teenagers; a Ugandan national who has also lived as an asylum seeker; child-refugee and currently an exile in Germany; a Black African woman from the Buffalo clan of the Kiganda ethnic group who was born and raised in Africa but later studied as a foreign student in London for my graduate and doctoral studies; an academic scholar trained and specialized in medical anthropology with twenty-five years of social science research at the nexus of gender, sexualities, culture, health and law; a radical queer African feminist activist who contests patriarchy, misogyny, heteronormativity and homophobia; a politician registered with the opposition political party in Uganda called the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) under which I contested in the national elections for the position of Woman Member of Parliament for Kampala district; an ex-prisoner of conscience who was twice imprisoned in maximum-security prison because my writings offended the president; and thus a relatively privileged member of Uganda’s middle class with access to the resources of education, voice, and political space.
My multiple identities empower me to fashion my writing into an effective weapon fighting against injustices meted out by holders of abusive power onto underprivileged groups in society. Sometimes, my writing is a torch shining a light onto the dark unseen, invisibilized, or erased aspects of society. Sometimes, my writing is a shrill scream amplifying the pain from the inside of the underbelly of Uganda’s authoritarian dictatorship. Sometimes, my water is water seamlessly flowing through society and revealing what is in far-off remote corners unreached by the pens of those who write in defense of oppressive power. As a writer, my writing is largely shaped by the contests of power and powerlessness within the societies in which I live, work, love, and circulate as a political agentic person. As a writer, my writing is always positioned, situated, and located, and thus subjective.
2. Your poetry often uses profane comedy as a means of critique. What does radical rudeness—both in the tradition of anti-colonial protest and in your poetic form—mean to you?
Contrary to popular critique, most of my poetry is about mundane, ordinary, even banal ideas and events exposing injustices, oppression, and inequalities in Ugandan society. However, it is mainly those poems in which I deploy ample amounts of profanity, vulgar metaphors, graphic language, sexually explicit figures of speech, the taboo, and transgressive ideas that travel fastest and farthest. In my experience, there is much greater currency and power in my deployment of irreverent idioms of satire, mockery, and ridicule of oppressive power. Readers and audiences love the audacity of irreverent profanity against the militant dictatorship of Yoweri Museveni, which permits the evils of misogyny, homophobia, biting poverty due to corruption and embezzlement of public funds, extractive exploitation, violations of human rights, and lawlessness among several other ills.
Generally, in Uganda, privilege serves the furtherance of oppressive power in society. Thus, the expectation is that based on my relative privilege as a highly educated woman with substantive voice and social status, I should have been serving the main oppressors of Ugandans. The transgressive reversal of my role as an elite academic who chooses to write for (sexual and gender) minorities, poor people, and the political opposition party members further enhances the shock element within my audacity. This transgressive audacity increases the efficiency of my deployment of crude, crass, unrefined language to challenge elitist oppressive state power. Not only is an educated Ugandan woman expected to respectfully serve and sustain the status quo, but her methods of resistance are also expected to be polished, refined, respectable, and temperate—not abrasive, rude, and hard-hitting. I deliberately defy all these expectations. Consequently, it is very easy to categorize my writing within the tradition of anti-colonial strategies of radical rudeness deployed by writers, authors, journalists, dramatists, poets, and lyricists in Uganda.
Radical rudeness is an imperative form of erudite resistance deployed by a select cadre of clerics and scripters who choose to refuse the docility, domestication, and indoctrination of civility/respectability which makes dominated people governable. Codes of politeness demand that colonized, dominated, and subjugated peoples do not talk back to their captors, colonizers or oppressors. Politeness blunts the tongue of criticism, ridicule, satire or irony. On the other hand, radical rudeness breaks down the doors to the arsenal of verbal, literary, and linguistic devices available to launch a counterattack against corrupt militant brutes in government who use bullets, prison sentences, and mass graves to silence their opponents. The clarity within radical rudeness as a form of resistance can never be mistaken, misheard, or avoided by both the audiences and (more importantly) the targets of the message.
I boldly and gladly embrace the transgressive, audacious power of radical rudeness in my writing and other forms of nonviolent resistance. Although I have been twice arrested, charged, tried, and imprisoned for cyber harassment and offensive communication against the president of Uganda, I have no regrets for freely expressing myself about the oppression inherent in his dictatorship. In fact, as expressed in one of my poems written in prison, I wear my prison sentence for poetry as a badge of honor. If the dictatorship did not comprehend the diplomacy of previous prevalent platitudes, they clearly understood the disgust carried in my radically rude writing.
“Politeness blunts the tongue of criticism, ridicule, satire or irony. On the other hand, radical rudeness breaks down the doors to the arsenal of verbal, literary, and linguistic devices available to launch a counterattack against corrupt militant brutes in government who use bullets, prison sentences, and mass graves to silence their opponents.“
3. In 2017 and 2018, you were arrested twice on charges of “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” for poems you posted on Facebook and subsequently spent 16 months imprisoned. Before you were convicted, did you ever imagine that the repercussions of your writing would be incarceration?
No, I never imagined in my wildest thoughts that I would be imprisoned for merely writing poems criticizing the multiple governance failures of Museveni’s dictatorship. Perhaps I was naïve, but then I did not expect the dictatorship to be so reckless that it would provide ample evidence of its repression and suppression of dissident voices such as mine. Having realized the critical importance of my trial as evidence of Museveni’s repression, I dared the state prosecutors to prosecute me if indeed I was guilty of any crime. Predictably on cue, I was tried, convicted, and sentenced to eighteen months. I appealed against this trial, conviction, and sentence and was subsequently acquitted after spending sixteen months in maximum-security prison.
4. Your writing is sardonic and witty, rejecting polite and submissive forms of femininity by using taboo subjects like sex, queerness, and the President’s buttocks. In response to a comment on one of your poems asking about how far you would go, you wrote, “When Ugandan lives are murdered unrelentlessly, is there a limit?” How do you see the taboo as applying urgency to your work?
You are correct when you identify my frequent use of the taboo in my poetry that criticizes the militant dictatorship of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. Double standards demand that feminine respectability bars women from articulating, writing, or deploying words, concepts, and ideas deemed to be taboo subjects. Good girls and respectable women are trained to avoid taboo topics and “bad words” particularly in their public articulations. Therefore, my conscious and deliberate decision to freely utilize these words in my poetry that is criticizing urgent political, social, economic, legal, or judicial issues gripping the Ugandan nation has the effect of grabbing attention of the masses. Discussing the taboo subject of when the aged dictator will hand over power back to the people of Uganda using tabooed metaphors such as the urgent need to change menstrual hygiene pads is effective at grabbing audiences. Using taboo topics to poetically break silences surrounding government failures and violations of human rights is unavoidably loud. Whoever hears or reads the poems in which I deploy taboo topics stops, stands still, and thinks for a while about the issues being raised. It is effective!
5. How have you navigated censorship—and self-censorship—in your own writing?
Writing and publishing my poems on my social media platforms permitted widespread circulation of the poems without the gatekeeping of editorial review and its related censorship. The availability of share functions on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp applications allowed my poems to circulate within and beyond the borders of Uganda. Often in Uganda, discussions were held about the more notorious poems in local newspapers, tabloids, and radio and television stations, thereby enabling the uncensored poems to travel even farther than I planned. Most of my publicized poems eventually ended up in one of my published collections of poetry. Generally, my publisher, Kisana Publishers Ltd, is agreeable with the content and ideas of my poems. To date, out of three collections of poetry, there has been only one poem which the publisher found too risqué (because it named diverse incidents of murders undertaken in Uganda) to include in a book which was published by him. I replaced that specific poem with another less bold poem.
The other genres in which I have published my writings over the years are not as lenient and flexible as the poetry first published on my social media platforms. When writing for editors, reviewers, and publishing houses, I tend to temper and tone down my poetic license.
“I never imagined in my wildest thoughts that I would be imprisoned for merely writing poems criticizing the multiple governance failures of Museveni’s dictatorship. Perhaps I was naïve, but then I did not expect the dictatorship to be so reckless that it would provide ample evidence of its repression and suppression of dissident voices such as mine.”
6. What is your writing practice like? Do you think that your ideas about poetic craft, and particularly the element of constraint, have been influenced by your time in custody?
My writing practice depends a lot on my context at a given time. The most ideal context is when I have unlimited access to a private space with a desk, good lighting, paper, and pen with which to write my first drafts. I tend to write most devoutly first thing in the mornings when my mind is fresh from a night of sleep. It is important for me to establish a routine of uninterrupted writing on consecutive mornings. I commit the afternoons and evenings, often to research, typing up first drafts, reviewing, and editing typed up drafts, etc.
When I was in maximum-security prison and slept on the floor in a crowded ward that I shared with, on average, one hundred other prisoners, I adjusted my schedule to writing late at night to the sounds of dancing mosquitoes, snoring neighbors, and the loud clock on the prison wall. I learned to write for hours while lying stretched on my stomach and placing my exercise book on the prison floor. My book of poems written and published when I was in prison was produced this way. Poems which survived confiscation and being destroyed by prison wardens were smuggled out of prison and collected by my publishers who compiled them into a book that I proudly received on the day I was acquitted of my prison sentence.
Currently, as a writer in exile, sharing a two-bedroom flat with my three teenage children, and specifically sharing a tiny bedroom with my daughter, I am learning to write later in the mornings after the children leave the house for school. Each of us has a private study desk in our respective shared bedrooms. It is a lot more challenging to write in the house when my three active children are around. Sometimes, deadline pressure forces me to write in the late hours of the night—past midnight when the children are asleep.
Custody and punishment for writing freed me of the fear I previously held of being imprisoned. Physical and emotional torture during my two terms in prison radicalized me in unexpected ways. Rather than rehabilitating me against further criticism of the failure of Museveni’s dictatorship, I gained a bold fearlessness to continue writing crude truths to power. This emboldening as a dissident writer made me an endangered species in Uganda. If anything, I lost all restraint. If I choose constraint in my present writing, it is a conscious literary and stylistic choice, as opposed to being a result of state instigated punishment.
7. What do you see as the role of writers in society?
I believe that writing is a privilege and source of power. From my observations of diverse writers around me, I know that while some of us deliberately choose to use our writing in the service of underprivileged members of society, others choose to benefit from their writing by serving the dominant oppressors in their specific parts of the world. Writers can use their writing to either challenge and contest against oppressive power, or else to maintain the status quo and further entrench oppressors in power.
As an individual, I am content that I have variously used my writing to raise awareness about the plight of poor minorities, challenge ongoing systemic oppression, and to criticize power holders in institutions, families, societies, or the state. Furthermore, I have played a significant role as a writer promoting several causes that I believe in including women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health services, girls’ rights to access affordable menstrual hygiene products so that they do not miss school, LGBTIQA+ people’s human rights in times of escalating homophobic legislation, labor rights of academic scholars working in colonial institutions of the university in Uganda, civil and political rights of opposition political party members, digital democracy and rights to internet freedom, academic freedom of scholars to study outlawed topics such as Queer African sexualities, protection of women prisoners from torture particularly when they are pregnant or lactating, calling out the nepotism of the first family in Uganda specifically the appointment of the first lady as the Minister of Education while she lacks the education qualifications, etc..
8. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression in Uganda today?
The biggest threat to free expression in Uganda today is a repressive legal regime that enables state penalization, violent arrests, torture during interrogation, extended detention without charges, tramped up charges based on the Computer Misuse Act, long unjustifiable periods in prison during prolonged court trials, compromised judicial officers, etc. The ongoing state penalization of individual critical writers is intended to deter others from similar critique.
“Poems which survived confiscation and being destroyed by prison wardens were smuggled out of prison and collected by my publishers who compiled them into a book that I proudly received on the day I was acquitted of my prison sentence.”
9. Now living in Germany, what does it mean to you to write in exile? Has that shifted your role as a writer?
The distance of exile is simultaneously disruptive and productive for me as a writer. For many comrades, colleagues, and allies who stayed back home in Uganda, my flight to exile was interpreted as defection from the liberation struggle and nonviolent freedom fight to return power back to the people of Uganda. My escape to exile was widely described as betrayal, abandonment, defeat, surrender, etc. In my defense, I frequently explained that while a dead soldier was no use to the liberation struggle, exile provided me with the opportunity to heal from the traumas of being actively engaged on the frontline in order to resume my role as a dissident writer who was in a more secure environment. Exile removed from me the immediacy and immersion into the context of struggle at home. Thus, my writing in exile lost its characteristic immediate response to incidents occurring in the country. Exile also allows me the ability to choose not to engage in some issues that would otherwise mandatorily grab my attention had I still been living in Uganda. Losing this compulsion to write is healthy.
On the other hand, the distance of exile allows me to embrace the illusion of relative security and safety from the punitive, repressive dictatorship of Yoweri Museveni back home in Uganda. Consequently, I have continued to play my role of writing for articulation and amplification of diverse criticisms against the growing governance failures, human right violations, and injustices in Uganda. The distance of exile brings a certain clarity to issues.
10. What advice do you have for emerging writers?
I encourage emerging writers to practice writing daily if this is possible. Writing is a craft that gets better with practice. It is impossible to write a perfect script, and thus while editing and revision make finished products better, it is necessary to let go of revised drafts by submitting them to potential publishers. There are often possibilities of getting a publishing contract. When this does not happen, reviewers’ comments are good ways to improve the quality of one’s work and then send it off to alternative potential publishers.
Dr. Stella Nyanzi is a multiple award-winning medical anthropologist with specialization in sexual and reproductive health, sexual rights, and human sexualities in Uganda and The Gambia. She self-identifies as a radical queer feminist scholar, social justice activist, human rights defender, nonviolent protester, poet, Facebooker, politician belonging to the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change, former aspirant for Kampala Woman Member of Parliament (2020-2021), an ex-prisoner from Luzira Women’s Maximum-Security Prison, and mother of three teenagers. She obtained her doctoral degree from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (2009), a Master of Science degree in Medical Anthropology from University College London (1999), and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication and Literature from Makerere University (1997). Currently, she lives with her children in exile in Germany having fled from political persecution in Uganda.