First published in 2005, by Oshun books, Tropical Fish is Doreen Baingana’s debut short story collection. There are eight linked short stories about three sisters; Rosa, Patti and Christine.
Set mostly in Entebbe, with short glimpses into the cities of Kampala and Los Angeles, the story focuses on these three sisters and their growth from childhood, through adolescence to adulthood. They have been brought up in a middle class family, and have enjoyed the simple comforts life can offer. Christine starts her narration by going back to her childhood: “I was once a child, growing up in Entebbe, spending most of my time with Rusi, the house girl…………’ the reader gets to know her young life- her stolen moments in her parents’ bedroom, the lighter moments she enjoyed when Taata was away on trips…. Christine vividly recounts the numerous times their father went abroad for important conferences and always came back with gifts for all of them. Her family is portrayed as a happy one but then she mentions her parents’ arguments, an answering mocking laugh….. and worst of all her father’s drinking – a habit cost him his job and grew till the day he died. And then the real story begins.
The three sisters grow into young women trying to find their place in an unpredictable society. Although they share a family bond, it is evident that they are drawn into strong contrasts and different parallel paths- Rosa is more vocal and liberal and seeks the comfort and support in a group of friends and later in the arms of a young man at university. Patti is reserved, and at school she fails to ‘fit in’. She wonders, “Why can’t I be happy and chatty and simple like the other girls?” She immerses herself in a society of born again Christians in search of God for answers. Christine is more liberal and explores many paths, including those already taken by her older sisters. She finally ends up in Los Angeles as she seeks and tries to find out who she really is. As the story unwinds, it is clear that that paths that each of them takes leads to diverse destinies.
Baingana’s book is one that opens a whole new world to the reader. Even though it is set against the backdrop of the instabilities in the Idi Amin regime, the story is not political in nature; she focuses on the characters and their challenges in growing up in such an era. Her prose is a serene kind of writing, deeply engrossing that the reader feels like a witness in all the events narrated by the three sisters.
The author is from Uganda, but currently lives in the United States. She has won the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award in short fiction, the Washington independent writers’ fiction prize and was nominated twice for the Caine Prize in African Writing.