Nick Makoha represented Uganda at Poetry Parnassus as part of the Cultural Olympiad. A former Writer-in-Residence for Newham Libraries, his 1-man-Show My Father & Other Superheroes debuted to sold-out performances at 2013 London Literature Festival and is currently on tour. He has been a panelist at both the inaugural Being A Man Festival (Fatherhood: Past, Present & Future) and Women Of The World Festival (Bringing Up Boys). In 2005 award-winning publisher Flipped Eye launched its pamphlet series with his debut The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man. Part of his soon to be published 1st full collection The Second Republic is in the anthology Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press).
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Uganda but fled the country as a result of the Idi Amin dictatorship. For those of us who have read Idi Amin from history textbooks, could you tell us anything about Idi Amin?
Nick Makoha: Most people know Idi Amin as an African dictator. He sticks in the minds psyche due to the success of Giles Foden’s interpretation in the film the Last King of Scotland starring James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker. Idi Amin is probably the most infamous character in Ugandan history. If you are playing Top Trumps of dictators he’s would be up there with the worst of them. That is not the sort of USP that a country wants on its CV. He casts a long shadow on a part of the world that is a slice of paradise.
Geosi Gyasi: You did not flee the country alone but with your mum. I’m wondering how it all happened?
I left Uganda in 1979 when I was four years old. My mum smuggled me out of the country. I was removed from two narratives. The narrative of the Ugandan dictatorial regime and the narrative of my father. Looking back now I can see that it gave me a displaced sense of identity. On a practical level it was the right thing to do. But the emotional cost of detachment has been a price I did not want to pay.
Geosi Gyasi: At which point in your life did you see yourself as a writer?
Nick Makoha: I started writing a young age. As a person who has lived in several countries Uganda, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and England language and the ability to communicate has always been important to me. Often times my language is the only thing I have in common with the people and my surroundings. My earliest recollections of myself as a writer begin at age six. That was when I wrote my first poem. Looking back now I realise it was the first time I’d been given permission to add my feelings to words. I wrote throughout my childhood. I had the naive assumption that everyone wrote poetry. When my maths teacher (Mr Patel) died at boarding school I stopped being a casual writer and became a writer in the community. I remember crying under a tree at his loss. He had been a father figure to me in my times of loneliness. The only currency I could repay his kindness with was a poem. I had intended for it to be a private article but my fellow borders discovered it and insisted it be printed in the schools yearbook and read at his eulogy. From then on I was asked to recite poems and other schools church on special occasions. Art has always been secondary to education in my African household. So I never pursued it more than a hobby. But poetry was with me when I started my biochemistry at Queen Mary University. It’s followed me into my first job insurance, as a customer service representative and later on as a banker. Are used to read a lot of Deepak Chopra during my lunch breaks. The writer in me was trying to find his way out to the front. In one of the chapters he talks about success. In order to be successful a person must do what they love. I remember looking up and seeing my reflection in the mirror I was not doing what I loved. I had to draw line in the sand. I remember quitting my job and burning all my bank suits. I need this metaphor to remind me to pursue my passion. I was 26 at the time.
Geosi Gyasi: In your view, what are the benefits of writing?
Nick Makoha: writing is a cultural activity without culture you have no community. Community is born from art. When the first man writes hieroglyphics on a wall to communicate to those who come after him he’s trying to connect the world outside of him with the world inside. It is a way of delivering story. Story is the most important technology that we have. This interview is a story that joins you to me and me to your readership. The technology of story creates how we see ourselves as humans.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write “The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man”?
Nick Makoha: This was my first chapbook that was published by award winning FlippedEye Publishers on their Mouthmark imprint. The book happened by accident. I remember walking in to Roger Robinson workshop put on by Apples & Snakes. Roger Robinson is one of the founding members of the poetry collective that I am now part of called Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. I was the only one that attended the workshop. I wanted to walk out. But I remember him stopping me and asking to read some of my work. The work had a lot of visual dexterity but was hard to understand. I had as he put it talent but little craft. He then asked me where are you from. A question I get asked all the time. And when I answered Uganda. He didn’t like most people reference Idi Amin, instead he asked tell me about Uganda. My Cousin was the first poem that I wrote from that collection. It began by letting go of all I had written before. There was no flourish, just me and the page. Over the period of a fortnight Roger invited me to his house just to read poetry and write. By the end of it we had the pamphlet. It sounds easy in hindsight but at the time a lot of my emotions from my past were manifesting. I was often writing with a reluctant fear. Roger handed the work to Flipped Eye Publishers. I could not see what they saw in it at the time but in months it was out. I realise now that the real poet had come to the conversation. If you look at that work you see writer in exile discovering himself.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any history behind your one man show, “My Father and Other Superheroes”?
Nick Makoha: “My Father and Other Superheroes” is a true story. It’s my story. Triggered by the birth of my first child. I remember holding her in my arms and thinking I do not know what it takes to be a father. I did not have the bank of memories that equip a man with the confidence to be a dad. All my social markers were based on fictitious characters from comic’s, films and TV. I have never been to the barbers with my dad but I can recites Jo-rel speech to Superman word for word.
Geosi Gyasi: “Don’t quote me, but I swear the radio hissed” – how did this line come to you? Did it come so easily?
Nick Makoha: Poems for me come on the visual and lyrical plane. Often times there is a soundtrack playing in the back of my mind. The soundtrack triggers a vision that is cinematic in nature. If I still myself enough I can tap into the panoramic of this vision. It requires letting go of what is safe, what is obvious. I build poems line by line, by translating what I see in the cinematic space of my mind. No line before knows what is coming next. The first line has to be lured in. Once I catch that line I feel like I have crossed a threshold that permits me to navigate freely. This line is the lure.
Geosi Gyasi: You tell me, what is the inspiration behind, “The Self (1979)”?
Nick Makoha:: This is a poetical representation of a true story, my story of leaving Uganda when I was four years old. I wanted the poem to talk about something important but with a lightness of touch so as to draw your attention without being sentimental.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any regrets as a writer?
Nick Makoha: I wish I had played on my conviction to be a writer sooner. I would not have wasted time trying to figure myself out.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you aim to achieve with your writing?
Nick Makoha: As a writer I have the privilege of pursuing my passion. I want to build a passion into a successful career. I would love to build a body of work that adds to the true landscape.
Geosi Gyasi: You mentioned somewhere on your website that T. S. Eliot Prize award winning poet George Szirtes is your mentor. Could you tell us anything about George?
Nick Makoha: George is been a mentor to me. He has a very interesting take on the world. He has Yoda like qualities. He is a walking encyclopaedia of poetry and literature. I try to catch up with him at least once a year. His conversations are like a Zen master class. Often times I will record and transcribe later because his words pack a punch. You can be overwhelmed by the first piece of insight he gives you only to realise that they are seven or eight more in the conversation. We are both writers in exile. There is a lot I am learning and have learned from him. For me he is definitely an ace in the pack.
Geosi Gyasi: How is your book, “The Second Republic” coming forth?
Nick Makoha: The manuscript is now finished part of it has been published on Slapering Hol Press in their anthology series Seven New Generation of African Poets. I have submitted the full version to publishers. I hope to have some good news for you soon.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard London as your new home?
Nick Makoha: Home definitely! New No! I have been here a while and though it took me a long time to accept this is my home. Having a family have made that an easier pill to swallow. Ironically when a Ugandan says they are going home they mean back to Uganda.
Geosi Gyasi: Which of your poems do you feel more close to?
Nick Makoha: That is a hard question. I like the poem stone as it seeks to talk about all the voices I am addressing in the collection. It sets the story in motion. But poem are like stars the should not just be admired in their singularity. They are at their best when viewed in a night sky.