Finding Meaning in Silence: A Dialogue with Doreen Anyango

FINDING MEANING IN SILENCE

A DIALOGUE WITH DOREEN ANYANGO

Doreen Anyango is a Ugandan fiction writer, scriptwriter and biotechnologist. Her short fiction has appeared in several online journals and in print anthologies with FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association, and Writivism. She was longlisted for the 2016 Writivism Short Story Prize, and is longlisted for the 2020 Short Story Day Africa Prize. She is an alumna of the inaugural Mawazo Novel Writing Workshop and is hard at work on her first novel. 

Davina Philomena Kawuma

BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation, the second account of life and writing in the time of Covid-19, was held against a backdrop of virtual Kisubi tea, gonja chips and roasted g.nuts. Some sections contain heavy doses of good-natured ribbing; reader discretion is advised.  

Davina: Describe the last few months in one word. (15 marks)

Doreen: Unprecedented. That has been the buzzword over the last few months and I can’t think of a more apt descriptor of the strangeness that we have found ourselves plunged into. There! Can I have my fifteen marks, now?

Davina: Hold on! Not so fast! Unprecedented? But there have been pandemics before. Perhaps what you mean is how one a friend put it: “This is the first pandemic in a time where there is so much speed and connectedness.”

Doreen: There have been pandemics before, yes. And this very pandemic was predicted. I agree with your friend’s point about the times we live in vis-à-vis our responses to how it has affected our lives. With all our advances in technology and medical research comes the expectation that we should be able to beat this. We weren’t ready for it to last this long or be this devastating, and thanks to our high speed connectedness we are able to keep up with all the dreadful statistics in real time.  

But unprecedented, as in of-a-kind-unseen-before, in the sense that we are dealing with a new virus whose properties we are figuring out as we go along. The fact that this virus is so different in biology to the viruses we have dealt with in the last two centuries makes it very hard to predict its future behaviour and impact.

There are just too many unknowns, and the not-knowing is a big part of our collective anxiety. By the way, thank you for sending me into a pandemic rabbit hole with this question.

Davina: I aim to please! Hah! Now let’s talk about a different kind of rabbit hole, which I’ve always associated with a time before we were born—an anachronism that seems misplaced in today’s high-speed, digitized world: curfew.

Doreen: A work colleague told me of how a gentleman from that older ‘you never saw war’ generation of Ugandans told her that now young people have an idea of what the war times were like. I am sure he meant the more tangible turmoil like the lockdowns and mandatory quarantines and loss of income and violently-enforced curfews.  

But I am thinking too about the more subliminal things like the use of language around the pandemic (the idea that we are in a war against the virus) and the things we don’t talk about when discussing the turbulent past like the effects, of the things they went through, on the mental health of our parents’ generation. In today’s high-speed digitized world, are we more in tune to these less obvious features of what we are going through?

It seems the strangeness and uncertainty will be with us for a while yet, and I wonder if this pandemic will be a catalyst for one of those big shifts in history. To me this feels too big an event for us to just go back to business as usual when/if it is done. In fact, I think it will be a waste of pandemic if all we do is find a vaccine or cure and then move on without attempting to address the massive societal issues that it has exposed.  

Davina: I’m not prepared to believe that it’s taken a pandemic to expose the ‘massiveness’ of societal issues. Did we really not know, pre-Covid-19, how wide the gap between the rich and poor has grown? That so many people will never afford health insurance? That hospitals are grossly underfunded and understaffed? 

Hasn’t it already been demonstrated, repeatedly, that we have in one or another way normalized injustice, violence, oppression, and discrimination? Is this where we are, now?—at a point where we are telling ourselves that we hadn’t noticed? Or have we preferred to believe this whole time that structural inequality and chronic mismanagement are fake news? 

And as for being ‘at war’ with the virus, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos writes about how framing the response to Covid-19 in military language reinforces statist thinking” and by extension what Toni Morrison referred to as “statist language,” “ruthless in its policing duties.” Tabu Butagira also writes about the “securitisation” of the pandemic, and the attendant “war imagery.”

Doreen: I understand the skepticism towards the idea of the possibility of change and I often share it, to be honest. Did we always know structural injustices existed before the pandemic? Of course. We have accepted that injustice, violence, oppression and discrimination are ‘normal.’ We read/watch the stories on the news and shrug and move on with our lives. And that is not okay. This resigned indifference to the way things are saddens me, but is also very understandable. 

Sometime in June or July, I read the entirety of Martin Luther King Junior’s famous I Have A Dream speech. It was around the height of the BLM protests after George Floyd’s killing. As I was reading the speech, I remember thinking you could lift the whole of it from 1963 into 2020 and it would still be relevant. Every single word.  

The realization that nothing has changed in 57 years was very disheartening. So, yeah. Maybe nothing will change after this. Maybe we will all shrug and carry on as usual. But even (or especially) in these grim times, maybe remaining hopeful is how we survive.

What a beautiful, beautiful speech by Toni Morrison. Language is not neutral, and it is true that all abuse of power begins with abuse of language. In Uganda, the state took over all matters related to the pandemic from official communications to the distribution of food. 

The president used the frequent Covid-19 updates to position himself as a benevolent grandfather guiding his wayward grandchildren while, on the other hand, opposition politicians were declared enemies of the state and arrested for distributing relief food. That official language that Morrison describes as being “smothered to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege” was (and is still) very much in play.

The enforcement of the government-imposed curfew was very brutal with bands of lower-cadre, law-enforcement personnel prowling the streets and beating up and sometimes killing citizens.

Poorly remunerated health workers working in deplorable conditions were hailed as ‘heroes’ and encouraged to keep on sacrificing their lives in the ‘trenches’ and ‘frontlines’ against the virus while greedy politicians ‘ate’ the money meant to buy Personal Protective Equipment.

Davina: The point you made earlier, about silence…I’ve always been bothered by our parents’ many and enduring silences about the past. But I wonder if this is because I’ve never thought of silence as a legitimate way to deal with trauma. 

It’s hard to imagine a world in which things aren’t talked about, but that’s probably because the world we know is one in which ‘over-sharing’ is common. If you admit to nurturing suicidal thoughts in a Facebook post, for instance, maybe one or two random people will reach out and say call this or that helpline, instead of shaming you for being ‘weak’ or ‘of little faith.’

There’s more openness to discussing mental health, I find. And while I acknowledge that social media isn’t always the best place to find edifying (because nuanced) conversations, people sometimes use social media to broach what were once taboo subjects.  

Doreen: I grew up in a house where we didn’t talk about our feelings, but we (or rather my siblings, who are parents) are doing better for the next generation. It gives me great joy that my little nephew can come to me and say, “Auntie I feel very, very sad.” And I can say, “Why? What’s wrong?” And he can to the best of his limited ability express his emotions. And I can listen and not tell him to “Be a big boy and stop whining.” Little moments like that give me hope. 

To be fair, our parents didn’t know any better. And part of growing older and doing better myself has been getting to a point where I can acknowledge that they were just doing their best with what they knew. Me and my siblings’ generation know better and hopefully the generation after us will be more open and accepting than us. 

Social media at its worst is an absolute cesspool. But if one is intentional about it, I believe it is possible to curate a safe space where open and honest conversations can happen with kindness and empathy. I am here for more of these communities that affirm and edify.

Davina: The feeling of strong feelings a.k.a. emotionalism is frowned upon, especially in boys and men. Public displays of emotions, to say nothing of discussions revolving around them, seem to signify a lack of moral strength or courage. Heh!

Yet, without a trace of irony, even those who encourage indifference to feelings speak with pride of having arrived at this and that radical decision based solely on their intuition, which is a kind of feeling, isn’t it?! How often do you rely on your intuition when you’re making creative decisions?

Doreen: I do have to rely on my intuition, particularly with writing about experiences I have never gone through myself. However, it is nice to have those imagined representations validated in real life. For example, in my novel manuscript, the main character grows up with her maternal grandmother and at five-years-old she starts to pester the grandmother about her absent father. 

I wondered if that was too young for a child to ask such questions. I couldn’t remember being five-years-old let alone any questions I might have had then. I also grew up with my own father. 

And then, one day, a friend came to visit me in the rural town I was working in. My friend came with her then three-and-a-half-years-old daughter whose father is not involved in her life. Every now and then, this girl would go to my bedroom and pull back the curtain to peep outside and ask if her father was out there. 

I asked my friend if she’d told the girl she was coming to see her father and she said no. To this girl, this strange new place was associated with strange new possibilities. Like the possibility of a father she didn’t know lurking somewhere in the darkness beyond my bedroom window. I was moved by her reaction, but also reassured that my fictional five-year-old would definitely have questions. 

Of course, it is not possible to have every experience I write about validated like that. So in cases where I have doubts, research is my friend. I think this is especially crucial when dealing with sensitive issues like mental health. 

Having said that, I feel it is important to note that human beings aren’t uniformly assembled, and really part of my fascination with the human condition is how unpredictable and surprising we can be. So, I’d say a blend of intuition, some real-life validation, some hard facts and some creative license. As long as it is believable. 

Also in the later stages of the writing process, when revising and editing and thinking about themes and structure, decisions are more analytical and deliberative.

I grew up in a house full of many silences. I was a quiet, introspective child and I think I absorbed and processed the silences in a different way from my siblings. I had questions and thoughts in my head but no one to ask or express them to. Even at a very young age, I was obsessed with the why of things.

Davina: Who decides what is believable, though? You, your reader, your editor, your publisher, some of you, all of you? 

Doreen: All of us.

Davina: I’ve always loved that about children; how even the most mundane activity and object seems to them imbued with endless possibilities. I’m attracted to fiction because it’s a way for me to remain childlike; fiction allows me to postpone ‘growing up!’

What drew you to fiction? Is what drew you to fiction as a reader different from what drew you to fiction as a writer?

Doreen: As I mentioned, earlier, I grew up in a house full of many silences. I was a quiet, introspective child and I think I absorbed and processed the silences in a different way from my siblings. I had questions and thoughts in my head but no one to ask or express them to. Even at a very young age, I was obsessed with the why of things. Why was my father the way he was? Why did my mother choose him? Why did she stay with him? My thoughts were a constant companion. 

I didn’t grow up in a house full of books and I’m secretly envious of people who did. And so (perhaps as a way of escape), I built up these imaginary places in my head with families that were different from mine. I spent a lot of time in those places. 

My father was a lecturer of civil engineering and so there were a lot of academic texts around the house that held absolutely no interest for me. The one exception in this dullness was a monthly magazine called Parents that my dad used to buy. The stories in there were mostly heart-wrenching, real-life narratives that were perhaps not suitable for a child but which were my introduction to the power of storytelling. I read those stories over and over again until I had some of them memorized. 

The other reading, which I enjoyed as a child, was that page in the Sunday newspapers dedicated to wit and satire with the likes of Lilliane Barenzi and Ernest Bazanye. As a child, when I thought of writing, it was under a byline in a newspaper or magazine. 

I discovered fiction as a teenager. I was very good in school, but also very bored by it. Luckily, my drab all-girls, boarding high school had novels in it. Once I read that first Sidney Sheldon, I was hooked. Fiction transported me into worlds that were exciting and fun. Hiding a Mills and Boon in a chemistry textbook I was pretending to read made the hours of night prep fly by. 

As a writer, I was drawn to fiction as a way of making meaning out of the things that puzzle me. The questions of my childhood had never left and many more had accumulated over the years. 

Fiction gives me a means to explore these questions without the pressure to come to any firm conclusions or make recommendations on how things should be. The mere articulation of the questions is satisfying in and of itself. Fiction is for me the more scenic route to meaning. But also as both a writer (when the writing is going great) and a reader (when I get lost in beautiful prose), fiction is a source of great pleasure. 

Davina: Maura Kelly’s Why Storytellers Lie claims that “we like stories because, as Gotschall puts it, we are “addicted to meaning,”” but reminds us that “meaning is not always the same as the truth.” 

I met a writer who said she writes non-fiction because that way she doesn’t have to make anything up (and therefore lie). Later that day, when I Googled “Christians who don’t write fiction because that would be lying,” I stumbled upon this.

I don’t know about you but I pay as much attention to what’s in the comments section as I do to what’s in an article. Gary Townsend, from the comments section, wrote: 

Many, including non-Christians, say that fiction is supposed to tell us the truth about the human condition. That sounds to me like it puts fiction right in the ballpark for any Christian.

Would you describe yourself as religious, and if so what is the relationship between your religious beliefs, the meanings you’re interested in making, and the truths you’re trying to tell about the human condition? 

Doreen: 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. Most major religions come with the injunction to believers to convert others to the faith or encourage them to do so. It was important as a believer that my writing reflected my beliefs, and hopefully persuaded the reader to come over to my side.  

As I’ve slowly lost my religion over the years, I am less restricted in what I can think and write about. The author of the second article mentions the danger of placing the message above the characters or plot and I have to agree that that is a real danger if you write under the umbrella of a proselytizer. The intention of the writing then becomes getting the reader over to your way of thinking.

Where the Christian (or religious) writer says, “This is how I see things and this is why I believe you should see things the way I do,” the unencumbered writer says, “Here is how I see things; what do you think?” The writing then becomes more conversational, less instructional or moralizing. I definitely think I write better fiction without the certainty of the moral high ground. I would then edit Gary’s comment to say that perhaps fiction is “supposed to tell us a version of the truth about the human condition.” 

Davina: Has the pandemic changed your view of the world? Shifted how you see or think of things?

Doreen: I work and live (for the most part) in a rural area where most households own their own home (however modest) and grow most of their own food. A lot of the young people that grow up in these areas shun the meagre existence of the villages for the towns and cities where opportunities for advancement might be found but also where the way of life is very different. As they struggle to find their fortunes, these young people have to pay rent and rely on daily income for food. 

With the pandemic and the lockdowns and curfews, a big majority of these young city-dwellers have found themselves unemployed and staring destitution in the face. As a result, there’s a steady reverse migration of young people back to their villages where “at least there’s food.” In the midst of this pandemic, my neighbors who are known as ‘peasants’ and considered ‘the poorest of the poor’ are not worried about the basics like shelter and food.

On the flip side, while children in urban areas with access to electricity and perhaps more educated parents can keep up with school via the internet or television, those in the rural areas where even the small battery-powered radio is rationed have fallen behind on their education. 

More importantly, perhaps for these children, is the lack of school as social protection. Young girls are getting defiled, and cases of underage pregnancies are going up at an alarming rate in the rural districts. When cheap and convenient means of transport were suspended for a few months, women in rural areas had trouble accessing health centers for contraception and childbirth. So while my neighbors have food and shelter, their usual ‘poor people problems’ are magnified by the pandemic. 

I am interested in the framing of Covid-19 as some kind of equalizer, devastating the developed world and exposing the inadequacies of supposedly superior systems while highlighting the resilience of the third world in organizing and curbing the spread of the virus; laying redundant the banker while making essential the garbage collector. What are the trade-offs in this supposed equalization? 

Is it true for example that the garbage collector who has to continue to expose himself to a deadly virus for a barely livable wage is more essential than the banker who gets to stay safe at home and work remotely for a percentage of his usual pay that is still several times what the garbage collector earns? 

These are the things I think about. If there’s a story there, I am yet to find it. 

Davina: I’ve thought about the equalizer business, a lot, too. When people started saying that the virus had “levelled the playing field,” I thought: “Bagyenzi, what level?—and whose playing field?” 

The question of who is and isn’t ‘an essential worker,’ the manner in which it was framed, seemed simply to reinforce the status quo. How many ‘essential workers’ can expect to receive salary increments for jobs well done in the next financial year? 

If youre one of those whose privilege enables them to ‘work from home,’ moreover in a manner that doesn’t translate into the end of the world as you know it, in what category do you fall? Are you an essential, non-essential worker or a non-essential essential worker? 

Plus, how many tomato sellers do we know that have been in position to say “I’m going to work from home until this blows over?!”

Doreen: This! In the earlier days of the pandemic, anyone who broached the question about whether mandatory lockdown was the best measure, especially for countries such as ours where the idea of social distancing is not practical for a lot of communities and the population that is mostly young and healthy need a daily income to survive, was shut down as ‘an enemy of progress.’ 

Now, several months in, there’s a lot of analysis about the economic impact of the lockdowns flying about. But what about the human impact? What about the numbers beyond Covid-19 deaths and recoveries? What about the numbers lost because they couldn’t access crucial health care? What about the numbers lost to domestic violence and suicide? What about the numbers lost due to excessive use of force by law enforcement in instituting the lockdown? 

Lockdown was framed as a trade-off between lives and livelihoods but it is a fact (that we conveniently choose to ignore) that the poorest of the poor bore (and continue to bear) the lion’s share of the cost and none of the benefits.

Davina: And how has all this affected your writing?

Doreen: I feel like there are two opposing schools of thought on productivity during this pandemic. On the one hand are those who say “You have all the time in the world” and “Ivy league universities have opened up some of their courses for free on-line” and “What are you doing with your life? Here’s your chance to become a Harvard-certified astrophysicist!” 

On the other hand are those that say “There’s a fucking global pandemic going on” and “Everything is in flux” and “It is okay if all you can do is get out of bed at any point during a twenty-four-hour cycle and brush your teeth without collapsing into a heap of despair.”

I am firmly in the second category. I generally write in spurts, and there were none in the early days of the pandemic. A few weeks in, I received back the edits for my manuscript from my editor, and I was working on those. Not quite rewriting yet, more interrogating the story, re-thinking, re-imagining. I was still very much in a creative rut. 

And, then, as the lockdown eased, I got signed onto a script writing project for a TV series, and that helped kick start the creative gears. Writing for TV was much less daunting than taking on a whole novel manuscript. Maybe because it is a more ordered, straightforward process than fiction writing and is also less solitary. 

In fiction, I am the writer and cinematographer and director while as a script writer I have space to say, “But, you guys, me I gave you a good script! I don’t know how you messed it up!” 

I hope to keep the momentum going and hopefully dive into the manuscript soon. 

Davina: I’ve attended both schools, incidentally, so we are OGs! Hah! There’ve been moments when I’ve convinced myself that I’m indeed going to come out of this living happily ever after, with a Harvard certification in astrophysics, and that all I need to do is download and read the right materials.

There have also been days when I haven’t had energy for anything more than despairing thoughts: “What if this never ends?” It’s been very hard for me to be unengaged without feeling disorderly or unproductive.

Isn’t it ironic that waiting can feel so wrong at a time when nearly everyone you know is spending huge chunks of their time waiting, too? It should be possible to have so many unoccupied hours without being lazy or purposeless, right? This has seemed like the best time to listen to audiobooks. It certainly takes less effort to lie down and listen than to sit up and read.

Doreen: I think I’ve always known how to be idle in peace; in school, they called this “over-sleeping.” I called it “refusing to give in to the system.” I can show up and work hard when necessary, but I can also rest hard. 

When I’m on leave from my day job, for example, I don’t answer work phone calls. I tell my colleagues to assume I’m dead and carry on. And they do manage without me. The idea that we must always be productive is not one I subscribe to. The world won’t stop turning if you take a nap in the middle of the day.

Struggles with idleness are not my portion. I embrace the idleness and roll with it. Maybe I should write a how-to guide for people like you. 

Davina: This is me exclaiming with joy! I’d be greatly honoured if you wrote such a guide for me. But, you were saying?

Doreen: That’s an interesting point you make about listening vs. reading. I have struggled with reading too and so have a lot of other people. I did some research and found this interesting Charles Darwin quote: “Man has the instinctive tendency to speak as we see in the babble of our young children but no child has the tendency to bake, brew or write.” 

How do children learn to speak? By picking up and absorbing the sounds around them. And so I think listening is just more instinctive than reading. In times of heightened stress and anxiety, it makes sense that most of us struggle more with reading (a skill we have learned and honed over many years) than listening, which we have been doing without any training for all of our lives. 

Davina: Let’s talk a bit about your novel, starting with whether when people ask what kind of novel you’re writing, you say a literary novel. And what would happen if you can’t find a publisher for it. Would you consider publishing it yourself? Or are you one of those snobs who disdain self-published books?

Doreen: I’m not sure it is my place to categorize my own work. However, if pushed I would say ‘contemporary’ (is that even a category?). It is about a young woman in present-day Uganda whose life is turned upside down when her boyfriend commits suicide. But it is more than just a novel on mental health. It’s also a novel about friendship and family and womanhood and love. My editor thinks it’s literary. Someone else might think otherwise, and that’s okay. What is important to me is that I write the best story I can. 

I wouldn’t self-publish a book myself unless it was to make a few spiral-bound copies to force onto friends and family. And this is not because I am a snob or look down on self-publishing but because I know I don’t have the required skill set to self-publish. 

I don’t have the bandwidth to be author and publisher and publicist and book-seller and marketer and agent. I have a lot of respect for people who can juggle all those roles. It takes confidence and a certain high level of belief in one’s own work that I aspire to but sadly don’t quite possess at the moment. 

Davina: The debate about what constitutes African literature rages on. At one extreme, you have those who insist that if it’s not written in an African language, it doesn’t qualify as African literature. At the other extreme, those who say that if it’s written by someone who identifies as African, then it automatically qualifies as African literature. 

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t engage in these debates; it’s simply that they often require that I invest so much mental energy, mental energy that I would rather channel into my writing. I feel as if the endpoint is always everything else BUT the writing, the process, the revising and editing, that you spoke of. 

Doreen: You forgot the heated debates around the term ’emerging writer.’ How does one ’emerge’ as a writer?

Davina: When I think ’emerge,’ I think of a butterfly leaving a cocoon.

Doreen: You think maturity.

Davina: A kind of, yes. I can’t say I’m an authority on emerging but ‘emerging writers‘ are described variously as “writers whose fiction has not appeared in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000,” “writers in the early stages of their careers as fiction writers…who have not had the support needed to achieve major recognition for their work,” and “writers who have never published or self-published a book.”

Doreen: When does the ’emerging’ end? Who decides when a writer has ’emerged?’ 

Davina: I think the ’emerging’ stops as soon as the recognition starts. Possibly when the gatekeepers can say your name, ahem!

Doreen: Anyway. Like you, I think these conversations and debates are healthy up to a point. I also agree that sometimes they degenerate into useless banter and ridiculous takes that are just a distraction. 

Africa is large and contains many realities. There are skyscrapers and there is biting poverty. There are corrupt politicians and there are honest, hard-working people. There are brutal dictatorial regimes and there are progressive, forward-thinking governments (a handful). There are horror stories of abuse and there are beautiful love stories. There are those who leave the continent in search of better opportunities and those who stay. There are rags-to-riches stories and born-into-privilege-and-wealth stories. All these things co-exist and are equally worthy of representation in my opinion. 

I am a strong believer in Toni Morrison’s injunction to write the story you want to read. Pick your story and write it to the best of your ability and allow other people to do the same in peace. 

Davina: You mentioned working with an editor, which reminded me of an editor who said he wonders if he completely understands my story or if he’s just seeing things [in it] that he wants to see. 

I said I wasn’t quite sure either that I fully understood my story. But that I liked that; those are the stories I have the most fun writing—the ones whose full meaning evades me—possibly because I seldom care what ‘the takeaway moral’ is.

You spoke earlier about themes, thinking about them, making analytical and deliberative decisions. Are you sensitive to and about interpretations of themes in your stories?

Doreen: The writer Marlon James said in an interview I saw somewhere on YouTube that, “As a writer, I’m guided by the things I’m haunted by” and that statement really hit home for me.

The thing that first draws me to a story idea is a curiosity about a particular thing or situation. Something about it that makes me go “hmmm.” Often, I write from the starting point of articulating that “hmmm.” 

Questions about themes come later during editing because I do believe that good fiction makes a larger point than just the story itself. Of course, I do have my opinions and beliefs as a writer and they will come through in my writing, but I never start off a story by asking “What do I want to say?” That becomes clearer as the writing progresses. Or doesn’t. And I think that’s okay. 

Davina: You’re familiar with what I’ve come to call ‘list seasons’…those periods when short and long lists for prestigious writing prizes start coming to WhatsApp writers’ groups near you.

One writer might say “Oh, I loved this story” and I’ll say “That’s because you have no taste.” Or I might say, “There’s nothing on shortlist C that I’d choose if I were a judge!” but another writer will say “That’s because you have no grasp of what a good short story is!” And so on. 

I trust that we all eventually move on from the stage where such exchanges are purely about ‘sussing out the competition,’ ahem. But even if we don’t, writer A will always have an opinion about what writers B, C, D and E have written.

Something changes after one’s name appears on a list, though, I assume. Has being on lists changed the way you feel about and interact with list seasons?

Doreen: I think my attitude towards literary prizes and lists changed once I realized that winning a prize is an unrealistic goal to have as a writer. I will submit my work for prizes and have opinions on the lists which I’m not on, of course. But nobody is paying me for my opinions (yet) so I will generally let my words be few. My days of arguing about which prize is unfair to whom and why are long behind me.  

Davina, these things are very, very, subjective. A different panel of judges with the same pool of stories will probably come up with a different shortlist and winner. There is too much about the prize landscape that is out of my hands as a writer for me to be so invested. It is very validating to be seen and acknowledged and I’m sure the ka money is wonderful for the winners, but winning prizes is not all that there is to writing. 

So hone your craft and submit, submit, submit but realize that if you never win a prize or make a list, it is not necessarily because your writing is bad. Also, 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. 

Davina: If you knew that your writing would never win a prize, not in this or any other lifetime, would you continue to write?  

I bet you’re going to say, “Definitely! I’d continue to write!” No doubt you want to be perceived as a romantic who writes purely for the love of writing! 

So let me rephrase the question: What other ways are there to reward writers that we feel have done work worthy of rewards? 

Doreen: Buy their books. Stop asking around for free pirated PDFs. If you can, reach out to them and tell them you loved their story or their book and encourage them to keep on writing. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that your writing has touched someone in some way. 

Davina: I agree to all your conditions. I hereby swear that I shall not ask around for a pirated copy of your novel, and that I shall email you about how much it touched me.

Doreen: Go in peace, my child.   

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina is a reader who happens to like writing. She writes in several forms (including poetry and essays) but is for some reason most drawn to the short story. Stories are how she makes sense of the world, and of her (imagined or otherwise) moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical place in it. She’s committed to the creation of a legacy that equalizes the telling of stories. Her range of interests include [eu]social media, the mothering of the tongue, and English which, despite our sincerest efforts to preserve it, keeps breaking (sometimes into more pieces than we can pick up).

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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