Death as a Finite Separation: A Dialogue with Iryn Tushabe
Iryn Tushabe is a Ugandan-Canadian writer and journalist. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Adda, and Prairies North. Her short fiction has appeared in Grain Magazine, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology, and in The Journey Prize Stories 30. The winner of the 2020 City of Regina Writing Award, she’s currently finishing her debut novel, Everything is Fine Here.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between Canada and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Hello, Iryn. Congratulations for being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. How did you feel when you found out that you had been shortlisted? What are your expectations for your writing career after making it to this wonderful list of other writers from Africa?
Iryn: Hello, Saliha. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be shortlisted for the AKO Caine for African Writing. I’ve heard it said that we all just have one story in us, that we tell the same story over and over in different themes and variations. So, if “A Separation” strikes a chord with lovers of African literature, I suspect they might like what else I’ve got to say.
Saliha: “A Separation” is about the death of the grandmother of the main character Harriet, who raised her since she was a child. Separation as I know its meaning could be temporary, or even if it’s there, contact can still be maintained between the two separated persons. Is it why you chose this title, because even if Harriet’s grandmother is dead, she is still with her in a way? That her death is a finite thing?
Iryn: Exactly. The title of the story works on levels physical and metaphysical. Even though I don’t personally believe that the dead can physically reach out—like what happens in the story—and touch us, I’m always conscious that my loved ones who have died are still close to me somehow. My daughter, for example, has my mother’s eyes, and I tell her this from time to time. My son is like a carbon copy of my brother who died nine months before my mother. An older relative once told me that a person dies two times. The first time is when their hearts stop beating, and the last time is when the living forget them. When they stop speaking their name. As long as someone remembers the dead, they live on.
Saliha: The story was inspired by true events. In it we read how it’s the small things like gestures and scents, that remain with the main character from her grandmother but also from her mother before her. How were you able to write those feelings of losing those simple yet precious things into the story? Did you have to dig deep for courage because it was a subject that touched you personally?
Iryn: It’s easy to remember grief. The passing of time does sand away at the sharp edges of grief but not completely. There’s always something— a memory, a scent—that will trigger the grief and suddenly it’s as if the loss is fresh. I’m not a sadist but I welcome these moments and make space for them in my day-to-day life; thought is perhaps the only form of time travel we’ll ever get to experience as human beings. What’s often difficult is translating those feelings onto the page.
A trick I’ve acquired since I’ve been writing creatively is to describe how a certain feeling manifests itself in my body. If I’m specific in describing a feeling, such as love, which is global, I can replicate it in the reader, allowing them to bring something of themselves to the story. And love is easy to write about. In “A Separation”, focusing on Harriet’s love for her kaaka, how close they were, is what magnifies the sense of grief; the reader can readily perceive the enormity of her loss. In this sense, I didn’t have to dig too deep for courage.
“Even though I don’t personally believe that the dead can physically reach out—like what happens in the story—and touch us, I’m always conscious that my loved ones who have died are still close to me somehow.“
Saliha: In “A Separation” the grandmother, Kaaka, has a different perspective to her granddaughter about death, and where the dead go. She even frowns when the latter doesn’t believe her or tries to rationalize the subject. I want to know where you got this perspective from. Is it something from your childhood, or Ugandan folktales?
Iryn: I don’t recall exactly how I got this idea in my head, but I remember feeling very excited when I wrote this line about death, that, “it births one into a form of oneself bigger than life and visible only to the living whose eyes have grown eyes.” Nyabingi, in Bakiga oral tradition, is both a deity and a religion. She made many appearances in emigane, folktales, that my siblings and I often told each other when we were bored. (I grew up in rural Uganda without electricity or a television.)
She was the emandwa, the spirit, who took on the human form of a sickly old woman or a starving beggar. She blessed the households that opened their doors to her and fed her, but misfortune and evil befell those who turned her away. I understood her name to mean “the goddess of plenty” because bingi, in Rukiga, means “abundance”. There was nothing Nyabingi couldn’t grant those who showed kindness to others and paid her reverence.
Few people know of or speak of her now; Uganda is largely a Christian country since colonialism. The Christian missionaries dismissed Nyabingi and similar deities in her pantheon making it so that worshipping them constituted savagery or backwardness. But there are still abagirwa, the collective name for those who worship deities like Nyabingi. I decided for the story that Harriet’s kaaka was omugirwa (singular form of abagirwa). The bagirwa take part in kubandwa rituals that pay homage to the deities. I’ve also recently learnt that Nyabingi is popular amongst the Rastafarians of Jamaica where they call her Nyabinghi.
Saliha: I have read your short essay about your experience of being mentored and in a residency granted by SK Arts. In it you mention that at some point you had time to think about home, and since then you have reflected on it in a lot of your writings. Do you think it’s easier to write about home as you call it from a distance? What do you think could be the difference between writing from within and from another place? I am also curious to know how you felt in the interim period between your arrival in Canada and obtaining permanent residency, as a person and as a writer.
Iryn: Home for me is a complicated amalgam of the people and places in Uganda that shaped me, and Regina, Saskatchewan, where I became a writer. I write about home and movement in search of home because I live in that in-between place. A Ugandan-Canadian place, which can be small marginalizing. But you’re right. I think it’s also a wonderful place to create from, to have that vantage point of an insider-outsider. The danger for me then becomes that of overly romanticizing Uganda, painting it only in the beautiful colours of nostalgia when in fact it’s a real place with real problems, some of which I was glad to get away from.
I became a writer during a period of uncertainty while I awaited a decision on my application for permanent residency. It was a good distraction, but of course I worried. I was allowed to stay in the country, but I couldn’t work without a valid status. I’d had to leave my journalism job. My health card—Canada is famous for its universal healthcare, meaning you get to see a doctor at no cost to you —expired and I couldn’t renew it. My anxiety grew with each passing day that I didn’t hear from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I waited for almost a year. So it’s no wonder, I suppose, that in my early fiction and nonfiction work, I contemplate issues of placelessness and displacement with characters who feel uprooted, moving timidly through alien spaces with names they can’t seem to pronounce.
Saliha: In your essay, ‘Those who journey see’: Becoming a Canadian citizen is a transformation with gains and losses, for CBC, this sentence held my attention: “I couldn’t point to one particular moment that had turned me away from god. I told my sister that I wanted instead to hold to the mysterious interconnectedness of humanity.” It reminded me of the events in the short story. Harriett at some point meets another family that seems to have immigrated to Canada too. We immediately read how a bond is soon created between these characters that are from different places, but share so much. Is it this sort of the mysterious interconnectedness you refer to in the essay?
Iryn: I think so. Immigrating is a journey that doesn’t end upon arrival. The journey continues long after. It continues to change and shape you in ways you could never have anticipated. In “A Separation”, Harriet encounters Ganesh who, like herself, is an immigrant, and he brings her back ‘home’ to her apartment. For me, there’s always a connection I feel with fellow immigrants wherever I see them—on the street, in the park where I take my children to swing from the monkey bars—whether I get to talk to them or not. I know that they also in some way are grieving for a way of life they left behind.
Saliha: In addition to writing short stories and non-fiction, you are working on a novel titled Everything Is Fine Here. Can you give more details about the novel? And how is the experience of writing it going so far?
Iryn: My novel-in-progress, Everything is Fine Here, is set in contemporary rural and urban Uganda. It explores the moment when a young girl decides to assert herself outside the religious and cultural limits of her family in order to stand with her sister and emerge—disastrously, tragically, but ultimately with renewed compassion—into adulthood.
In late 2019, when the pandemic broke out, I had just started the rewriting process. When we went into lockdown and schools shifted online, I became my children’s at-home teacher. I tried on most days to get up early and do a bit of writing before e-school, but this wasn’t always possible as I’m not a very early morning person. Eventually I allowed myself to take it easy and write when there was an opening in the kids’ school schedule. And I think it wasn’t an entirely terrible idea, allowing myself a period of fallowing.
I’m writing a bit more now that school is out for the summer. I have more good writing days than bad and expect to have a finished manuscript by the end of the summer.
Saliha: Thank you Iryn for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish you good luck for the AKO Caine Prize.
Iryn: Thank you so much for these insightful questions. I appreciate your time finding and reading some of my other stories that I wrote after “A Separation”. I wish you good health and well-being in these unprecedented times.
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
Photo credit for featured image of Iryn Tushabe: Robin Schlaht.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at university. She graduated in the field of Anglophone Literature and Civilization in 2015. She is an Interviewer for Fiction at the online magazine, Africa in Dialogue. She has written about cultural subjects for the Algerian online platform Dzair World and for the printed and online magazine Ineffable Art and Culture. Her debut creative nonfiction piece has appeared in the African magazine Agbowó.