Gerald Kraak Award Shortlist: A Dialogue with Dilman Dila

Dilman Dila is a writer, film maker and a social activist from Uganda. He is the author of Cranes Crest at Sunset and A Killing in the Sun. His work has been recognized by internationals awards such the Jalada Prize for Literature (2015), the BBC International Radio Scriptwriting Competition (2014), the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2013), Short Story Day Africa prize, (2013 and 2014), and Million Writers Awards (2008). His works has been published in The Sunday Vision, The African Roar 2013, Storymoja, The Kathmandu Post, The Swamp, Dark Fire, Shadow Sword and Gowanus Books.

This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the cold sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the exuberant city of Kampala, Uganda by Email.

Gaamangwe: Congratulations for being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. What does being shortlisted for this award mean?

Dilman: As a writer, being shortlisted for any award gives almost the same benefits, that is, not just a boost to your career, but also an encouragement to your writing. We deal with a lot of rejection, a lot of self doubt, and honestly it is never a certainty that people will like your work, so when you get into an award like this you, it’s a sign that you are on the right track.

The story I submitted I wrote specifically for this award. When I first heard of the award I did not know of Gerald Kraak, but the day I read about him I got an idea for the story, and I wrote the first draft in two days, although it is about 7000 words. The themes of the story had bothered me for many years, and I had tried to tell stories based on them a lot before, so this was not a surprise that the story came out so easily. I have a problem with the world today, especially the way the dominant religions view morality and how they try to make everyone conform to their standards. When Uganda was debating the anti-homosexuality bill, I did not want it to pass because then I would have been a criminal. It required that everyone must report the gay people they know, and I have several gay people close to me. The bill was killed, but I always wanted to write a story based on that world, where I might have been a criminal simply for not reporting a love affair that the state thinks is illegal. I also don’t like the way capitalism has commodified everything, including procreation, and I have been making a documentary film for a while now, about maternal health in Uganda, and this theme kind of came into the story as well. Yes, I don’t hesitate to say my stories are always political, and even autobiographical. I have no problem saying this for I know the stories I write are often character-driven and very engaging, and the thematic concerns often take a back seat to the plot. That’s why I like this story very much. It is science fiction, set in a secondary world, where we have a Christian Utopia in Africa, and I don’t think a reader will tell where I was coming from with these themes (re: the homophobic bill and the commodification of maternal health) but I think they will enjoy it a lot and will get to think about these themes.

Gaamangwe: These are interesting and powerful themes. Homophobia particularly in Africa nowadays is astoundingly thriving. The interplay of religion, the fear of the unknown and our very reluctance to engage in more in-depth dialogues and understandings of human sexuality are clearly creating a world that is, sometimes I fear, slowly morphing into the world in your story.

But perhaps what you were saying and adding to the narrative is how political human sexuality is. Much of what goes on, in people’s private spaces, is governed and scrutinized by not just the public but the government too. So now, we must address how this shifts the dynamics of what we think and believe about sexuality, in particular homosexuality. How free do people experience their sexuality when tomorrow their sexuality may become a crime? How was the collective responses to the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda? 

Dilman: Yes, it is true, sexuality has always been political, from the time human societies became patriarchal and thus saw sex as a means of reproduction. But I also think that regardless of what the government and public think, people will always find a way to enjoy their lives and sexuality, maybe not freely, maybe with a bit of fear, but no amount of political repression can destroy it, which is what I was trying to bring across in the story. Love will always go underground, and flourish right under the nose of those who try to stop it.

In Uganda, at the time the bill was being debated, the sentiment was “why should the police/government interfere with people’s private lives?” Even those who did not support homosexuality raised this question, and the subtext was that gay people have always been with us and the society always simply looked away. The raising homophobia could also be because gay people are coming out openly, and trying to live the way they see their counterparts in Europe and America living, rather than keeping things the way they are (and this is why some people claim it is an imported culture). It thrived in schools when I was growing up in the 90s and at that time there was no hatred against them. Boys would express their desire to experiment without fear. I also think many married couples had gay relationships. There are people who were always so close to each other, women who were so close they came off as sisters, men who were always in each other’s companies, and to the world these people were just very close friends. I have a friend who told me that when he was growing up, there was a woman who was so close to his mother that he thought this woman was his aunt, only as an adult did he realise the woman was just a close friend of his mother. And yet, he had seen this woman share a bed with his mother. If you looked around, you would find many such examples, and it is not to say that all these relationships are gay in nature, some could be just platonic friendships, but it is generally believed that this is how gay relationships thrived in the recent past, before many started coming out in the open and hence leading to homophobia and things like the bill. And that sentiment was in Uganda when the bill was being passed, I think was influenced it. And even as people asked the question why should the government interfere in private affairs, they also wondered why the gay people were marching in the streets proclaiming their gayness. They tended to think gay people were upsetting the status quo (re: living gay happily behind closed doors, while openly being married with children).

Gaamangwe: Oh there is so much faultiness with this sentiment that “why are gay people marching in the streets proclaiming their gayness”. It says gay people should be secretive because we as society will rather not deal with the possibility that our ideas of sexuality are not as static as we want them to be. Society has a fear of both the unknown and discomfort, and it will rather hide that discomfort rather engage.  

Gay people are marching the streets because they are fighting for their rights. People should live however way that they want. Why is it that society enjoys policing other people’s choices and experiences? Yes, love always finds a way to thrive, even if it’s in secret, but this should not be the case. Why do we have a lot to say about how the world should work? Why can’t people love who they love, and experience their sexuality and bodies as they want?

 Dilman: I think I spoke about it a little, that it comes down to what people think is the role of sex in a society. The generally agreed mainstream view is that it is for reproduction, and so sex that isn’t geared towards that is frowned upon, which is why promiscuity and prostitution are considered immoral, for example. I think the Bible was against homosexuality and masturbation because of that reason “wasting seeds” and nothing else. I might have read that somewhere. So as western countries became more and more christian, they took on a biblical stand against this. And I think in African societies tolerated gay relationships as long as the people involved bothered to procreate (re: what I said earlier about our parents having very close people of the same sex that we thought they were aunties and uncles) which would explain the anger of recent times, re: why do they have to march in the streets? Why can’t they continue doing it in secret while being married to opposite sex? Coming out openly also means you denounce sex as being purely/mainly for procreating. From the little I have read about gay relationships in precolonial africa, and from what I witnessed and overheard before homophobia took root, I think most gays were bisexual. I am not an authority on this, but that is the feeling I got.

I believe in the future, as technology evolves and has a bigger say in procreation, maybe through cloning and artificial wombs, there may not be a need for society to police sexuality, as procreation won’t happen through sex alone. We are already seeing that in today’s world, with people using In Vitro fertilization and children being born without sex involved, which might have made gay people to become bolder and seek marriages and children, but if technology becomes so efficient that human populations can continue to grow without relying on sex, then there won’t be a need to govern sexuality. I know there may be a rise of “a naturalist” movement, of which I would belong to, for I fear a future where everything is cloned or done in labs, and machines mother our children, but the subliminal fear that society will collapse without sex for procreation, hence giving people more sexual freedoms.

Gaamangwe: This is an illuminating take on sexuality Dilman. Fear has always been such a crippling tool in perpetuating an ideology, but I do wonder if you think that removing the ideology that sex is for procreation will actually remove homophobia and patriarchy? How can we change this narrative, in particular looking at how religion is at the forefront of narrating the meaning of sexuality to us? Sometimes it seems to arrive to sexual freedom, we have to break a lot of systems that sustains the absence of this freedom.

Dilman: I think humans will always find a reason to discriminate against people who are not like them. If there was only one race, then it might be the shape of the ears that is the basis of discrimination. Similarly if there was only one gender, you might find something like the shape of the head being a basis for discrimination. Changes in reproductive technology may lead to less homophobia, but in our current society, religious and patriarchal views of reproduction gave rise to homophobia, so yes, anything that changes will reduce homophobia. I am not sure I have all the answers, other than to keep telling stories that influence people to challenge the dominant world view. 

Gaamangwe: For sure, this is how we shift worldviews. What narratives/dialogues/spaces do you hope your story will open, particularly in the political and social spaces in Uganda?

Dilman: I didn’t write that story with a political agenda in mind, so I don’t have expectations on what narratives/dialogues/spaces it may open. While most of my stories are steeped in what could be considered activism, I aim for entertainment above everything else, I do not carefully consider the messages, I only focus on the plot and the characters, everything else is secondary. So in writing it, first I wanted to tell the story of two women determined to consummate their love, no matter the forces against them. The homophobia and the anti-gay bill that it is thematically based on, only served to provide a huge obstacle to the lovers, but it really was not my focus, nor any preaching. I kept my eyes on Amoit and her lover, and whatever a reader takes from that is totally up to the reader. My job is in telling the story and I hope I did it well. 

Gaamangwe: Thank you for telling your story Dilman.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for The Gerald Kraak Award 2017 Shortlists.

DOWNLOAD BOOK HERE: Gerald Kraak Award Interviews

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa’s leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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