Some have described him as Uganda’s unsung literary hero; others ‘the former literary desert’s best fiction author ever’. But the simplicity and humility Julius Ocwinyo, born in Teboke village in Apac District in 1961 to a prisons officer and a housewife, exudes is instantly recognisable.
For a man whose books and profile have already got acres of publication space, I prefer to centre on what influences his writing, dig into his future plans and sip from the fountain of his broad knowledge and experience.
The rise of Ocwinyo’s literary star is what one would call a long journey that has borne fruit. As a child, the former student of Aboke Junior Seminary, Lango College, Institute of Teacher Education Kyambogo (ITEK) where he pursued a Diploma in English and French and later Makerere University for a degree in Language Studies, was a loner that minded his business but with an insatiable appetite for reading anything and everything.
While the majority of his peers shied away from 18th and 19th century literature, he fell in love with books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, a 1000-page piece on slavery by Harriet Beecher Stowe because, in his characteristic wise choice of words, “I wanted to explore why human beings were so cruel to one another; and the creative distortion of English by the Black slaves was simply amazing.”
Nurturing his writing
One would be right to observe that this reading culture polished his imagination and nurtured his writing so impressively that his compositions were always read before his class. Whereas his teachers identified a literary genius in him, he took it casually and becoming a phenomenal writer was nowhere close to his dreams.
His career ambitions were as wild and wide as those of any other naïve child, “I wanted to be either a lawyer or work in the Foreign Service and that is why I studied French.” But the literary calling kept haunting him, “The impulse kept coming, Julius you have to write,” he reminisces.
As though to respond to this relentless voice, while coming to mark at Uneb where he was an examiner for English Language Paper 1 (composition writing) he carried along Fate of the Banished, a book that took him one year to finish after several times of re-writing. But getting it published never crossed his mind, especially after Macmillan and Centenary Publishing houses rejected his very first poetry collection.
He only told himself, “Let me just try!” Little did he know that this was later to change his life. Sam Siminyu, then Publishing Editor with Fountain Publishers, to whom he handed the manuscript shelved it from December 1993 to 1996. Interestingly, he had no high opinion of his first fiction work, which explains why, when he was told Fountain Publishers had put up adverts all over the press calling him, he was both shocked and flattered.
Patricia Haward, a British editor at the publishing house, then appreciated the book as ‘the best Ugandan novel ever.’ Considering that it is one of the few Ugandan novels on the Uneb A’ level literature syllabus and studied at universities overseas, the validity of the assertion may not be underestimated.
Out of 65,000 words, her strict editorial eye only spotted “five little mistakes” and it was against this background that Ocwinyo left the chalkboard to work with Fountain Publishers as a trainee editor from where he’s risen through the ranks to become Associate Editor.
What influences his writing
A writer, it is said, sheds his sorrow on paper, and indeed when I engage him on what influences his writing, it is not surprising that there is a correlation between a good many scenes in his books, especially Fate as it is fondly known (which was adopted by Amakula film festival and is to be premiered as a movie in June this year) and growing up in many barracks and in the rural setting peopled by orphans and studying in a seminary.
These, coupled with his wide travel as a child, “coalesced and fermented spontaneously” into several other novels like The Price of Grandmother’s Love, The Unfulfilled Dream, Footprints of the Outsider and poems on Aids and other themes published in Fountain Poetry Anthology 2000.
Ironically, as many marvel at his literary glory, Ocwinyo does not consider himself successful yet, “I have my sights set on something.” To this effect, he has two more novels in the pipeline as he works on accumulating more social capital beyond Uganda where he plans to become known to continental and global literary enthusiasts in around five years’ time.
People of his generation, he asserts, given the trying political times, missed the mentorship of literary icons like Okot p’ Bitek. But today, aspiring writers have a full-size menu of established writers to turn to like his own favorite Ugandan authors: Austin Bukenya, Arthur Gakwandi, Gorreti Kyomuhendo, Doreen Baingana and Arach d’Nyeko. Possibly these writers’ works bring out the qualities of what makes a good read to him, such as elegance of writing, plot coherence, novelty of story and suspense. Passing Ocwinyo’s litmus test of what it takes to be a writer can be a tall order and yet fulfilling.
For instance a rich imaginative power, vocabulary, firm grasp of language, sensitivity and readiness to work, tear up and persevere, as “writing is no easy place to be.” On his part, Ocwinyo points out his scholarliness, broad knowledge rooted in ordinary life and humour – often of the macabre variety – as the unique attributes of his writing.
On what contribution other than his own books and inspiration he will be remembered for in Ugandan literature, he says in 2002 they formed the Uganda Writers Association (UWA) with other ingenious writers like Arach d’Nyeko, Dr Patrick Mangeni and Beatrice Lamwaka but the fire of the idea was extinguished when most of his colleagues went for further studies.
On his literary grave, he would be content to have an epitaph reading, “He tried the best he could.”