Doreen Baingana is a Ugandan writer. Her short story collection, Tropical Fish, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book Prize, Africa Region. Two stories in it were nominated for The Caine Prize for African Writing (2004 & 2005). She has also published two children’s books, as well as stories and essays in numerous international journals. Other awards include a Miles Morland Scholarship, a Rockefeller Bellagio Residency, a Tebere Arts Foundation Playwright’s Residency, and in 2021, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award. She co-founded and runs the Mawazo Africa Writing Institute, based in Entebbe, Uganda.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between Uganda and Algeria, via Zoom.
Saliha: Hello Doreen. Congratulations on being shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. I think it’s your third time being shortlisted. Between the first time and now, are you feeling differently about being shortlisted? And how did being shortlisted the first time change your writing and your career?
Doreen: Hello Saliha. Thank you. The first time I was shortlisted was in 2004, and then again in 2005 and that was very early on in my career. My first book was published in 2005 and at that time, I was living in the US and my work was not known on the African continent. The Caine Prize nominations helped publicize my writing on the African continent. Then in 2006 I won the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book Prize for the Africa region, which also helped a lot. I think it was through the Caine Prize recognition that I got a South African publisher as well as a West African publisher. All I need now is a North African publisher (laughs).
The Caine Prize events were a good way for me to meet other African writers. At that time I was based in the US, which was quite isolating. Now it’s very different, of course. The recognition helped me get to know my community. For example, it was at Caine Prize events in London that I met the late Binyavanga Wainaina, who was revolutionary in terms of enhancing the networks of African writers across the continent.
Saliha: Thank you for sharing those details. Sometimes people can’t completely see how being nominated for a prize can be very helpful to a writer’s career.
Doreen: To answer the second part of your question, it’s very different being nominated now because I have been writing for many years and have had my work published widely. However, being shortlisted again is a kind of rejuvenation. It’s a nice way for my work to be reconsidered. I hope to use this new, fresh energy to get my second book published.
Saliha: New energy, yes. Refueled.
Saliha: That’s great. I would like to ask you about the tone of the story. At times when I was reading it, I felt its tone was bordering on insolence, in a way that it embodies the main character who doesn’t bend to anyone and doesn’t conform to anything. So is it just my impression? Or is it the subject of the story that guided it naturally?
Doreen: That’s an interesting question. First of all, I always like that when a story goes out into the world, it is open to interpretation. The story keeps coming alive, as each person who reads it also recreates it. My intentions are secondary to your impressions as a reader, and I believe that every impression is valid.
I wanted to put in a little bit of humour because it is a dark story, so my intention was not so much insolence but humour. And I wanted the character to have ‘voice’. If a character has a particular voice, either in the way he expresses things or what he has to say, that character becomes memorable.
So I thought of this young schoolboy, stuck in what would be horrendous, tragic circumstances, but still having the humour and playfulness of a boy. You know, at that age, you always look down on your teachers. The teachers think that they know everything and you are fed up with them. I was trying to capture a young teenager’s voice, so I would say it’s a tone of irreverence rather than insolence. He is irritated by this teacher who thinks he knows everything but is always saying the wrong thing, which foreshadows his taking the wrong step by going outside.
“There is something weird in our human psyche, maybe it’s a survival mechanism, to find laughter in the tragic. They say you have to laugh to stop yourself from crying.”
Saliha: I know the story is about the very sensitive subject that is war, but I kept laughing throughout the story, I don’t know if it’s an unusual thing. When I finished reading it, I think I had the same feelings as when I read Albert Camus’s The Stranger. I felt the whole situation was futile, maybe because they are trying to escape and hide from war when there is no escape or hiding from it. Was that why you used humour in that way?
Doreen: It’s certainly one of the reasons, because in life you may be in a tragic situation that is also funny, in a very weird way. I remember once sitting in a restaurant where the floor was a bit wet and everyone who came down the steps took a fall, and it was just so funny. Luckily they didn’t get hurt. There is something weird in our human psyche, maybe it’s a survival mechanism, to find laughter in the tragic. They say you have to laugh to stop yourself from crying.
Saliha: A coping mechanism, maybe.
Doreen: Exactly. There is something not only humorous but ironic too, in the uselessness and waste of war. Why are people dying? What is it for? All these armies that supposedly fight to make the world better, but in the process make it worse. We still haven’t learned this lesson.
Also, when you have this container of a story, where you want readers to face something difficult, you have to find a way to carry them through the story, to keep them reading. humour can do this. The lighter emotion can help readers deal with the darker themes. It also mirrors life, which can be horrible, and yet in that horror is the ridiculous. First of all, the situation shouldn’t even be happening. For example, the context in my story is the ‘musical chairs’ nature of the conflict. There was a government army fighting a rebel army; the rebel army won and became the government army, and the former soldiers became a new rebel army. They are simply exchanging positions.
Saliha: And people are dying because of them.
Doreen: Exactly. There’s an African proverb that says that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. So this is a story about those regular people who have nothing to do with the war, but end up being the grass that is trampled upon.
Saliha: I noticed a similarity between the old man, Mzee, and the children. He is telling many stories about war and in a way he is romanticizing it and we see the little child fascinated by these stories. Why do you think that is? Even though they are from different generations, there is a mutual fascination with war. Is it because war will always be there? Is this another coping mechanism?
Doreen: This story is an extract of the novel that I am just about to finish and send out. It’s about Alice Lakwena, a female charismatic rebel leader who led a war in Northern Uganda from 1986 to 1987 before she was defeated. Alongside that larger picture, I wanted to include ‘innocent bystanders’ who, as I mentioned, are the grass being trampled. For example, in another chapter I write about a girl who gets impregnated by a soldier.
The particular question I wanted to explore in this story is this: Why do we have such a violent culture, here in Uganda? I know people may say I am focusing on the negative, and yet we have a lot of good things. Yes, we do. We have been voted among the friendliest people on the planet. However, when you look at our history, from generation to generation we have been passed down a legacy of war and violence. Almost all our changes of governments have been military coups.
What I wanted to explore is how this legacy of violence is passed on. For instance, we would not be surprised if the young boy in the story joins an army, even after all he has seen. He may be led to think, ‘I have to right these wrongs; I must join the army’.
Perhaps this legacy of violence is passed down because it is idealized by the older generations. (Right now we have the so-called ‘historicals’ who call themselves ‘freedom fighters’, in power). So Mzee, who is proud to have fought in all these different wars, and cradles his gun like a baby, passes that idealization to the next generation.
‘Mzee’ is a Kiswahili title used to show respect for an old man; it’s not his actual name. (Our president, Yoweri Museveni, is also referred to as ‘Mzee’.) The old man represents old values that supposedly should be respected, but unfortunately his values are suspect, as evidenced by the lack of respect the boy’s mother has for him. (Laughs).
Saliha: Thank you for sharing all of that information. This is why literature is so important; it educates people. I didn’t know a lot about Uganda’s history prior to this. It’s important for us to reflect on our history, and that is why your novel will be so important.
I read that you teach creative writing and that you are the director of the Mawazo Africa Writing Institute. Why did you choose to teach writing? And how can we support the institute more so that it can benefit a larger number of writers?
Doreen: Good questions. Mawazo is still new and small. We opened because we saw the need for the teaching of creative writing at an advanced level so that more long-form works are produced. For example, there are no creative writing programs at the master’s level in sub-Saharan Africa, so those who want to study writing at this level have to go to South Africa, or leave the continent. This should not be the case.
We support writers working on novels and other long-form writing through extended online workshops across Africa. We used the online platform even before the Covid-19 pandemic, because we wanted to avoid the expense and logistical obstacles of having to leave one’s home, family and work to enroll in a writing course. We got initial support from the University of Bristol and the Miles Morland Foundation for a pilot novel-writing project consisting of two 3-month long workshops. Out of that project, nine participants completed their novels and two of them have got publishers so far, one with Huza Press out of Rwanda. We would love to partner with more literary institutions that support African writers. Unfortunately, the pandemic and a lack of resources have slowed down our work.
Saliha: Yes, we have a huge problem with funding on the continent. As you said, collaborations can be very helpful, so that’s why I wanted more information about the Institute.
You didn’t tell me why you are teaching creative writing. Can you tell me about that? Is it something you have always wanted to do?
Doreen: My passion for writing has always been intertwined with sharing what I learn along the way with novice writers. Perhaps this is because I began writing by taking lots of workshops back when I lived in the United States, and enjoyed the discussions and exchange. Also, while doing my MFA, I enjoyed teaching undergraduates and have continued teaching in many varied venues since then.
Teaching helps you clarify your own ideas and make meaning out of what you do. In the classroom, you are able to delve into the mystery of the creative act, to articulate it, and as a result, see students’ work get better, which is exciting. It’s fun to work through the technicalities of writing with those who are passionate about it. Also, writing can be quite isolating; sitting alone in your room with your computer. Teaching is one way to stay in touch with a writing community.
Saliha: This was a wonderful conversation, Doreen. Thank you so much.
Doreen: Thank you very much. I enjoyed this a lot.
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 Doreen Baingana: Jérémy Baron.
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.