BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Nakaseke, Kasese, Seeta, and Kampala via email.
A Darkness with Her Name On It started life as a short story. It follows Karungi’s quest for answers after the death, by suicide, of her boyfriend Jay. Karungi eventually discovers parts of Jay, which were kept well-hidden in life, and a family secret that makes her question everything she believes about herself and those closest to her.
Doreen elaborates on the importance of silence, why she considers The God of Small Things to be the gold standard against which she measures craft, and her eagerness to follow Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s footprints. She speaks about the delight of watching a teenage friendship evolve on the page, and unveils some of the things that went wrong – how she initially set out to write a love story but then ended up killing the love interest – and how she corrected them.
Davina: Madam nnyabo, this is the second time Africa in Dialogue is interviewing you. You think we don’t have other things to do? Wacha habari yako? Wewe, apologise for hogging our interview space!
Doreen: It’s not my fault that I’m awesome, please and thank you. (Laughs.) It’s genuinely an honour to be back. Thank you for having me.
Davina: Owaaye. Did I have a choice? Hmn! Nnaku y’anssi just! Oso me I was just there nga ndi byange then I saw you on the shortlist! It wasn’t as if I could go on strike and refuse to interview you again! Eky’okukola tewali! So, here we are.
Davina: Last year, you spoke about how the silences in your childhood nurtured your obsession with the why of things. Is silence still important to you? What possibilities/dangers lurk therein?
Doreen: Silence is essential to me – as a creator, but also as an extremely introverted individual. Beyond allowing me time to reflect and listen, silence offers a nourishing and restorative space. It’s such a big part of me that I subconsciously drift into pockets of silence without giving it much thought. I’m sure I could be more intentional about things like meditation (I tried an app once, but that didn’t stick) because while I’m great at outward silence, it is often very loud on the inside.
Silence allows me the opportunity to regroup mentally, think through and analyse issues or situations I’m dealing with at work and in my personal life, so that I can present myself to society as the level-headed individual I’m generally known to be.
The one danger I can think of ties to the common adage about the idle mind being the devil’s workshop, especially in the age of social media and 24-hour news cycles; there’s a possibility of being overwhelmed by the state of the world. Sometimes, when anxiety takes over, it is easy to spiral into repetitive and unproductive thought patterns.
I read a Forbes article recently about introversion and the workplace; the author begins by asking the reader to choose a dream job. The options are a) a day working in an open-plan office surrounded by many co-workers or b) a day with no meetings and plenty of time to work on a creative project. My answer is a day with both. I like to work by myself, but also enjoy a good laugh and juicy gossip and banter with people around me.
Davina: You also spoke about the need to “hone your craft and submit, submit, submit but realise that if you never win a prize or make a list, it is not necessarily because your writing is bad”:
…be careful not to lose yourself in the idea of writing to win a prize so much that you forget to explore and experiment and find your own true authentic voice.
How much never-seen-before experimentation went into A Darkness with Her Name On It?
Doreen: I don’t know about “never seen before.” It seems such a grandiose claim to make. And also wildly disingenuous. It is true that writing this book, especially figuring out a structure that worked for the story I wanted to tell, stretched me creatively. However, any experimentation I did was either consciously or subconsciously absorbed from others I’ve read before.
Davina: Name names, bagyenzi. Name them without fear, favour, or a Facebook status update.
Doreen: I look up to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things as a kind of gold standard. In my opinion, it is masterfully crafted. The way it explores very heavy themes without being overwrought. The rhythm and language. The pacing. The imagery. The structure. Reading it for the first time opened my eyes to how many ways there were to tell a story.
Another author I absolutely adore is the late Toni Morrison. (With her, I can’t pick just one book.) For the clarity of intention in her writing, but also for her fierce intellectual rigour and generosity off the page. (In a 1981 speech to the Ohio Arts Council, she said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This motivated me to take my writing seriously.)
And then Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. For writing for us.
Davina: For us? Stop tying on people, bambi. You and who?
Doreen: Me and you, Davina Kawuma. I say Makumbi writes for us because her writing makes no attempt to explain Buganda and/or Uganda to a white readership. Kintu had to have an introduction by a white man to explain some things.
Consider this, from a review of Kintu, in The Guardian: “There are some surprising historical omissions. Makumbi mostly avoids describing both the colonial period, which so often seems the obligation of the historical African novel, and Idi Amin’s reign, which seems the obligation of the Ugandan novel.”
Surprising to whom? Obligations as decided by whom? Certainly not by Africans. Makumbi refuses to stick to these expectations of what the African or Ugandan novel should be. I think her success is encouragement to those of us following in her footsteps to tell our stories our way, boldly and unapologetically.
Davina: I read the review. One, I’m still struggling to understand why a photo of Queen Elizabeth National Park was featured in it. Two, some Ugandan writers, like Lydia Namubiru, argue that Makumbi has done for Ugandan literature precisely what Achebe didn’t do for Nigerian literature. Three, while I wouldn’t say that writing about Amin is the Ugandan novel’s obligation, I understand why some people might think it should still be. (This review of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija’s The Greedy Barbarian claims that the novel is “…more Idi Amin than Museveni.”)
I think that, for obvious reasons, it is safer to write about Amin, especially if the point is to explore dictatorship, violence, or misrule (of which Uganda has suffered, and continues to suffer, an unfair share). Amin quickly became and will likely remain the ultimate symbol for violent misrule. With him as a character in your novel, I feel you could get away with a lot; stereotype him beyond what would be the permitted limits for other Ugandan leaders and no one will catch feelings. If you made Idi Amin your antagonist, you might not need to invent a country; Uganda might not have to become, say, the Pineapple Republic of Udorslorea.
Incidentally, were you ever tempted to set your novel in a fictional country (albeit one that’s largely modelled on Uganda)?
Doreen: No. I feel as if Uganda is mad enough as it is to supply me with a lifetime of stories. However, I can see where such an invention would be useful, especially in writing directly about the current regime. Although, given what happened to Kakwenza, even such attempts at camouflage might not be enough to save one from the wrath of the powers that be.
I agree with you that Amin is safer to write about. What with him being no longer in power and dead and already such a well-known symbol of brutal misrule. I however feel as if Amin, the character, has always been explored in a limited way – with him as a kind of absolute villain. I would be interested to read stories that explore him with more nuance.
Davina: Exploring Idi Amin with more nuance? That’s a tough one. It seems to me that you need a special kind of permission to add nuance to popular caricatures of him. So far, the only people that are brave enough to do this are people of a certain age who call into local language radio stations to say things like “…at least when Amin was president there was medicine in hospitals.”
While many Ugandan writers are still grappling in many ways and through several forms with the trauma of misrule and war, our obligations are evolving.
Derek Lubangakene said everything he’s ever written about “…is very interior, very singular: the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of one individual, not a society” and that the conflict in his stories usually “has nothing to do with governance or socio-economic dynamics.”
Regarding the subjects she explores in her fiction, Lillian Akampurira Aujo said thinking about her personal history, especially her “mixed-tribe status,” has given her much to write about.
Of his début short story collection, Surumani Manzi said, “…the stories traverse themes which may be dubbed ‘socio-conscious’—poverty, identity politics, the criminal justice system, religion and spirituality—the list goes on. But my aim was to glean and thresh out the human strands within the lives and experiential spheres of each character. People are inevitably influenced by the meta-themes of existence, but the gist of living is in the micro-sanctuaries outside these.”
Iryn Tushabe’s 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing shortlisted story, ‘A Separation,’ featured ideas about death gleaned from Kiga oral tradition; the protagonist’s grandmother participates in kubandwa rituals meant to pay homage to deities like Nyabingi.
Then there’s you. Like many Ugandans, you, too, live daily with the consequences of misgovernment – corruption, poor service delivery, incompetence, etc. – yet this isn’t necessarily what you always feel led to explore.
“I’m generally not a person of extremes and grand pronouncements. I leave myself and others room to change and evolve. “
Doreen: The range of responses from the writers you’ve referenced speaks to the immense possibilities that exist for Ugandan (and African) literature outside of the expectations placed on our writing as described by Ben Okri:
“But Black and African writers are read for their novels about slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision – in short, for subjects that reflect the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world. They are defined by their subjects.”
I’m glad to see us moving away from such limiting impositions, and I believe that our writing can only be better for it. We love and laugh and create and exist outside of and in spite of what is being reported about the continent in the western press. To quote Okri again:
“Literature is the index of our intelligence, our wisdom, our freedom. We must not let anyone define what we write, what we see as worthy of playful or profound investigation in words. “The aim of art,” wrote Aristotle, “is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.””
Davina: Why is A Darkness with Her Name On It a novel? Why isn’t it a collection of short stories or poems or essays? Why a novel in English, further?
Doreen: The novel started as a short story, actually. The scene where Karungi first sees Jay suffer a psychotic episode was my first published short story; it appeared in an online journal, by FEMRITE, that is no longer in publication. Karungi’s character stayed with me and I kept expanding the story.
I chose the novel format because it offered more space to explore things in depth. I would say though that the bigger choice was in how to structure the story (as a novel in parts) because of the way it developed over the years.
Originally, I’d set out to write a love story. But then the love interest died, making it a terrible love story. Then, I thought it would be a story about dealing with family secrets and grief and how those things shape us. But, in the next rewrite, I thought it could be a story about friendship. Eventually, it became a story about all these things and more. So, I had to come up with a structure that could accommodate all those aspects.
I think the root of my struggles with structure was that I initially wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do with the novel. I was discovering the story as I wrote it, so I ended up with many tangential ideas that I then added and attempted to bring together into a coherent whole.
Gradually, and with the guidance of editors I’ve worked with, I realised that although it’s true that a novel can’t just be about one thing, it also can’t be about everything. And so I’ve had to play around with structure to figure out what needed to stay and where it needed to go.
When we think of structure, initially, it is tempting to think of it as something rigid, but the goal for me was something that wouldn’t come off as mechanical. So the structure I settled on is non-linear and fluid without being opaque. Finding that rhythm and balance has been my biggest struggle.
As for English, it is the only language in which I can write a hundred thousand words. Like the average Ugandan, I speak three languages fairly fluently but only learned how to write in English. It is what it is. They came here, forced it on us and now it’s ours. However, it was important to me that the novel have a distinct Ugandan flavour. So there’s quite a bit of Uglish (Ugandan English), Luganda, and Rukiga in there.
Davina: What was it about Karungi? How long did it take to develop her character/write her story?
Doreen: I remember that, quite early in my writing career, I sent several short stories to another writer for feedback (was it you?) and they said the main character in all of them sounded like the same person. That person was the beginning of Karungi. I figured that if the same person was showing up unbidden in all my writing, they were worth exploring a little further. I think part of the draw in the beginning was that, on the surface, Karungi was so much like me. But that has changed over the years as I’ve gotten to know her better.
How many years? Maybe seven or eight, on and off. At one point, I had given up on the manuscript because I felt that I’d done all I could yet it was still objectively terrible. Fortunately, at the end of 2018, I was shortlisted for the inaugural Mawazo Novel Writing Workshop and I picked the manuscript up again. Now here we are. Karungi and I have been through a lot together, I tell you.
Davina: Which parts were the most pleasurable to write?
Doreen: I enjoyed writing about the friendship between Karungi and Phoebe. That ka fierce tenderness of teenage girl friendships was a delight to capture on the page. But it also gave me great joy to have that friendship grow and evolve into adulthood.
Me, as me, I think that friendships don’t get the credit they deserve (compared to romantic and familial relationships). And so I thought it was important to highlight the value of friendship in this book. In many ways, Karungi’s primary relationship is her friendship with Phoebe.
I also enjoyed crafting the love story and writing the tender moments between Jay and Karungi. Because very deep down, on the inside, I’m a bit of a romantic.
Davina: Since 2019, The Atlantic has been running a project called The Friendship Files. So, when you mentioned friendships not getting the credit they deserve, I was reminded of an article, from those files, titled ‘What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life?’
This is how the article begins:
Kami West had been dating her current boyfriend for a few weeks when she told him that he was outranked by her best friend. West knew her boyfriend had caught snatches of her daily calls with Kate Tillotson, which she often placed on speaker mode. But she figured that he, like the men she’d dated before, didn’t quite grasp the nature of their friendship. West explained to him, “I need you to know that she’s not going anywhere. She is my No. 1.” Tillotson was there before him, and, West told him, “she will be there after you. And if you think at any point that this isn’t going to be my No. 1, you’re wrong.”
Like you, I think we need to be more deliberate about highlighting the value of friendship. Still, that article made me wonder if I could ever be as radical as West. Not so much because I couldn’t imagine saying what she said to a boyfriend, but because I worried that the feeling wouldn’t be mutual. What if I chose friend X over a boyfriend, only for friend X to later choose a boyfriend over me? What if my assumptions about why X is friends with me are wrong or misguided?
Karungi’s primary relationship may be her friendship with Phoebe, but is Phoebe’s primary relationship her friendship with Karungi?
Doreen: I’m not sure I would ever say what West said, either, but for me it would be because I’m generally not a person of extremes and grand pronouncements. I leave myself and others room to change and evolve. Who is to say that there might not ever be a circumstance where I choose my boyfriend over my friend?
In my opinion, the expectation of absolute mutuality in any relationship is unrealistic because we serve different purposes in each other’s lives. My somewhat cynical view is that all relationships are transactional and there is always the possibility that two people will attach a completely different value to the same relationship. So, I guess, choosing friend X over a boyfriend is a risk you’d have to take without any guarantees that X would do the same for you.
Karungi and Phoebe are very different people and the dynamics of their friendship change over time as they experience life differently outside of the safe bubble of the high school where they first meet as teenagers. Phoebe has a tight-knit family and a large circle of friends while Karungi’s relationship with her own family has always been less assured and her circle of friends is very limited. Phoebe’s primary relationship isn’t her friendship with Karungi, but ultimately she realises that Karungi serves an important role in her life and is valuable in a way that is unique to only her.
Otherwise, those friendship files sound very interesting. I will definitely read as many of them as I can. Thanks for pointing me to them.
Davina: Your novel opens on a dark and heavy note – with Karungi trying not to think of her man, JAMES LOUIS KALEMA, BELOVED BROTHER AND FRIEND, whose funeral service she’s at. Phoebe’s steady presence at that service, and throughout that week, anchors Karungi; Phoebe does everything from establishing details about the burial to helping Karungi get dressed that morning and driving her to Nansana.
Nansana is, of course, proudly Ugandan. As is Phoebe’s hand bag, which swallows things – pieces of used tissue; mineral water bottles; toilet bags – in a way that is distinctly Ugandan. (At some point, I half-expected Phoebe to pull a mattress, or a bathroom sink, out of that handbag. Hah!)
But nothing was more Ugandan to me than the bit where Pastor Ken pauses to allow the translator to render his version of “The fool says in his heart there is no God. They are corrupt. They do abominable works. There is none who does good”:
Omusirusiru ayogedde mu mutima gwe nti siwali Katonda. Bavunze, bakoze ebikolwa eby’obugwagwa. Siwali akola obulungi.
To encounter that scene – and to notice that you settled for “siwali” and “ayogedde” rather than “tewali” and “agambye!” – filled me with such joy! I couldn’t stop smiling! I had no trouble imagining the translator’s tone or his posture, having heard and seen several variations of him over the years. What a gift! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I had no idea how desperate I was for scenes that faithfully depict the everydayness of Ugandan life until I met Pastor Ken’s translator!
Considering your description of yourself (“I am not as religious as I used to be when I was younger, although I like the shared responsibility of having a higher power overseeing my existence. So, basically, I like God, but don’t do religion.”) did you have to fall over backwards to weave religious material into the story?
Doreen: Oh, those Luganda translations are delicious. I found a Luganda translation of the Bible online and those are the exact words used. It’s that compact, pithy, old-school Luganda which sometimes tends towards the impenetrable. I wished I could read Luganda proficiently so that I could get properly immersed in the translations.
About religion: recently, I had a conversation with a cousin, who is a devout Muslim, during which he challenged me to mention anything I consider “wrong” about Islam so he could counter it. A few years ago, I could have rattled off an entire list, and our conversation would have descended into one of those useless “my religion is better than yours” exchanges that I consider to be in the same league as arguments about which football club is better. I remember, some years ago, that there used to be an entire radio program on one of the local stations where they’d pit, say, a sheikh against a pastor and both of them would go at it for hours.
Davina: I remember those radio shows very well. I also remember that radio wasn’t the only site for those showdowns. Once, on my way from work, I stumbled upon one between a sheikh and a pastor. This was at about 8:00 P.M. Both men stood on raised platforms in the Old Taxi Park. One would make an argument into the microphone, and the other would counter it. I sat, watching and listening, for about fifteen minutes.
Doreen: But, at the end of it, everybody would go home still believing what they believed at the start of the show. I guess I’m more mature now, because I’m no longer interested in such conversations. My cousin is hardworking and honest and generous, and to me that is more important than which religion he practices. I guess I’m at a point where I can be critical of religion as a system while appreciating the value of having faith on an individual level (especially having been religious myself in the past).
You speak of scenes that faithfully depict the everydayness of Ugandan life. In Uganda, religion is as everyday as potholes and rolex. (Laughs.) I have Balokole neighbours where I live now and, almost every evening, they’ll have fellowship complete with praise and worship and speaking in tongues and casting out demons. Some evenings, I’ll be in my house trying to read or listen to a podcast and fail because of the noise, but it would never occur to me to go and tell them to ask the Holy Spirit to kindly keep it down. It is also very Ugandan to suffer inconveniences in silence.
Davina: It is. I only know of one person who has been brave enough to take his complaints about the noise from a nearby church to the local council. A few of us might write a cheeky letter to the editor of The Daily Monitor or The New Vision, urging the National Environment Management Authority to do something about the noise pollution. But most of us won’t speak up because we don’t want to be thought of as enemies of godly progress. (Another very Ugandan thing, I think, is the fear of being perceived as an agent of the devil, ahem.)
One of very few things I enjoyed during lockdowns, aside from significantly less traffic, was how quiet the nights got. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t waking at 3:00 A.M. to music blaring from the nearby bar or people screaming from the nearby church. I think I slept better, then, than I had in years.
I completely understand (and commend) your desire to respect your neighbours’ freedoms. But what about yours? Why doesn’t it occur to them to respect yours? For me, the question has always been one of where, in all fairness, the line should be drawn. If I’m meant to inconvenience myself in so many ways in order to respect other people’s freedoms, shouldn’t they pay me similar courtesy?
I’ve been in WhatsApp groups where people will post a Bible verse every morning of every day of every week. Even when it’s clear that not every participant believes in the Bible, you’re not allowed to protest. But, then, when someone posts a verse from a book of sacred writings that isn’t the Bible, there will be a crisis: stern warnings, from group administrators, about posting religious content, will be issued.
I always watch, silently, from kamooli, while thinking, “Bagyenzi, but you’ve been posting religious content the whole year. Why can you do it but others can’t? Shouldn’t other participants also be at liberty to post what they believe? Why do some freedoms [of expression] automatically rank higher than others?”
Doreen: I think religion is so deeply interwoven into the fabric of our society that it has become something we do rather than the expression of any real conviction; the way religion is set up makes it very hard to engage in any meaningful way with differing views. That text-er of bible verses in the WhatsApp group will more than likely claim persecution for the sake of Christ if called out on it and yet see the act of them calling others out as part of their mandate in carrying out the Great Commission.
There is just no room for negotiation or meaningful interrogation of some of these ideas.
I mean, we live in a country where, every year, with zero shame or sense of irony, the people at the forefront of mismanaging the affairs of the state gather to have a national prayer breakfast – to pray against corruption and bad governance. As we say in Uganda, “Olemwa.” Or, for the loose English translation, “You completely fail, my friend.”
Davina: In ‘On Writing Women and Being A Feminist,’ which appeared in the first issue of Africa in Dialogue Magazine, Ashley Okwuosa asks novelist and playwright Sefi Atta if she interacts with her characters after she’s finished writing a story. Atta says she has to let her characters go for the sake of her sanity:
It can be quite painful to separate from characters in short stories and plays, but when I’ve finished a novel, I’m glad to see the backs of my characters. I’ve generally had enough of them.
Do you also find it harder to let go of characters in shorter work?
Doreen: I do find that it’s harder to let go of characters in shorter pieces of work. I guess because I’ve only worked with them in a short period under a limited set of circumstances. With my novel, I can say with certainty that I’m always glad to see the backs of all my characters at the end of the writing of each draft. I’m pretty sure I’ll feel the same way once all the revisions are complete.
Davina: You said you thought part of the draw in the beginning was how alike you and Karungi were. When you were planning this novel, over the years, thinking of a line of work for Karungi, were you tempted to give her the same occupation for which you trained?
I read somewhere, now I can’t remember where, that while most writers are happy to give their protagonists vocations, it’s not usually so we can show what their day-to-day work life is like; that, while many of us will say, “oh, so-and-so is a lawyer,” very few of us will go to the trouble to include scenes in which so-and-so is involved in heavy-duty, real-time lawyering. Did you feel led to depict Karungi doing serious on-the-job biintu?
Doreen: I don’t think I would ever give a character the same occupation as mine. Mostly because, like most jobs, the day-to-day is mind-numbingly boring. I write in part to escape the tedium of my everyday life so I’m definitely not bringing it with me into my fiction.
I made Karungi an administrator in a sales office. It is a job that’s easier to explain than what I do, but I felt it would also offer more potential for drama. There is some level of her doing her work in the book. But any details in fiction have to serve the story in some way so I couldn’t just have her just sitting at a desk answering the phone all day.
Davina: As for your day job, what developments, in Uganda’s biotechnology sector, do you foresee? What improvements do you want?
Doreen: I work in agri-biotech so I’ll speak to that. Anyone that’s been alive longer than two decades will know that while weather patterns are changing, agricultural practices here are still very rudimentary and at the mercy of nature’s whims.
I’m excited about crop varieties that are drought-tolerant, a few of which have already been released. I’m also excited about varieties that are resistant to diseases such as coffee wilt and banana bacterial wilt. There’s a move to high-yielding hybrid varieties for staples such as maize, so that farmers can make a bit more money on the same size of land. There’s also a move to more organic and environmentally-friendly fertilisers.
In the next ten years, I hope the average subsistence farmer is making a decent living from agriculture. I would like research to be decentralised out of government facilities. As you know, our government agencies work with absolutely no sense of urgency. I think privatised research would be faster and more commercially beneficial for the sector.
Davina: Onto yet another thing you do: script-writing. Under (or above) what circumstances might Doreen Anyango, the film-director, emerge?
Doreen: So far, I’ve only worked on TV series. I’m currently working on my first short film script. Later in the year, I will be writing my first feature. Writing for TV is my second love. Therefore, a move to directing isn’t out of the cards. Under what circumstances? Money?
Davina: You know what they say about the love of money being the root of all evil, don’t you?
Doreen: Bringing a movie or TV show to the screen is a significantly more collaborative process than writing a novel or, even, getting it published. There’s a solitariness to writing fiction that appeals to me. People are annoying. (Laughs.) Apart from money (lots of it!), the other thing that would push me to be more involved in creating for the screen would be a story that I felt was important for me to tell and for which I felt that the screen is a better medium. Let me first finish the script for my short. Then, we’ll see what happens.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.