The First Woman
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The First Woman

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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. 

Jennifer Makumbi is a genius storyteller.’ Reni Eddo-Lodge         

Review

1970s Uganda: halfway through Idi Amin’s terrible reign. The First Woman details the coming of age of Kirabo, a headstrong young woman from a small Ugandan village who begins to feel the terrible absence of her unknown mother as she enters her teenage years. A stunning epic and breathtaking tour de force that spans generations, the novel explores the very concept of Ugandan womanhood while tracking Kirabo’s first move, first love and first betrayals in a rapidly changing world.

The novel is a particularly successful example of the coming-of-age story due to its careful blend of universality and specificity. What does it mean to be on the brink of womanhood? As a feminist – or rather, mwenkanonkano (a Ugandan movement that predates Western feminism)? In a country in turmoil? As a girl without a mother? Author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi draws upon mythology, folklore and biblical tales to build a story that transcends the expectations of a bildungsroman or a feminist take on a classic trope. The characters and situations are too present, too real, to act merely as allegory. Kirabo refuses to act as a stand in for all young women – her voice is too loud, her perspective too unique. And don’t even get me started on her grandmothers.

Published overseas last year, Makumbi’s novel made it on to most of the ‘Best of ’ lists of 2020 and I would be shocked if it didn’t find its way onto Readings’ Best of 2021. The book has earned well-deserved comparisons to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It has the same mastery of language and ability to transport the reader to another time and place. And as we pass our first COVID-19 anniversary, who wouldn’t want to be in another time and place? Read immediately.


Tristen Brudy is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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