Doreen Baingana is the author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe, which won the 2006 Commonwealth Prize for First Book, Africa Region, and the AWP Award for Short Fiction (US). She also won a Washington Independent Writers Fiction Prize and has twice been a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Ms. Baingana obtained a law degree from Makerere University, Uganda, and an M.F.A. from the University of Maryland, USA. She has taught creative writing at various institutions including the University of Maryland, the Writers Center in Maryland, the SLS/Kwani? Literary Festival in Kenya, and with Femrite in Uganda.
For ten years, Ms. Baingana worked at Voice Of America (VOA) and for two years was the managing editor of Storymoja, a publishing house in Kenya. She talked to Africa Book Club recently.
Let’s start with writing, how would you contrast life as a writer versus being a lawyer?
I worked as a lawyer for only one year after university so my experience is limited, but in comparison, I feel the life of a writer is freeing despite its challenges; for me, the main one being discipline.
The monetary rewards may come or not; the most excellent writer will not necessarily become the richest, but the award we receive is the freedom to explore the life of the mind and to create our own worlds. It’s wonderful to have made the choice to do what I really want to do as opposed to being coerced into a career; it’s rare, if at all, that anyone has been forced to become a writer.
However, with this freedom comes the responsibility to produce work, and the anxiety about quality. I ask myself always, am I producing quality work? For as long as you are writing you always feel that you can do better.
Would you say writing is a calling?
Phrases like ‘a calling’ are just words that we choose to use to make certain situations fancier than they actually are. I think writing is work like any other; you have to sit down, put your nose to the grind stone and do it.
A calling brings in this idea of the spiritual – something that you cannot fight, you simply must follow. I don’t think it is for every writer. There are some good writers who have become great bankers or doctors; would you say they haven’t followed their calling? I don’t know.
As writers we are more aware of the fact that every single person tries to make a narrative for themselves: what is my life about, what am I doing, what motivates me? We are aware that the answers are stories we tell to explain our lives to ourselves and others, including the choice to call a career ‘a calling’.
I would just say that writing is something I really enjoy doing and it seems to be what I do best. But I could have been other things as well, and I do other kinds of work too: editing, a bit of journalism, teaching and so on. So I would call it a choice rather than a calling, to emphasize the element of self will.
Do you write full-time?
Now I do, yes. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don’t. I am also commissioned to write various things which I do to earn a living, so I’m happy to be able to live off writing and writing-related work such as editing and teaching.
Publishing in Africa for the most part means textbooks. What has been your experience with finding publishing opportunities?
I’ve been published in the US, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and most recently ‘Tropical Fish’ came out in Swedish. I have actually found it easier to publish outside Uganda than in it. I approached a Ugandan publisher some years ago, but there was a lack of interest, I think because there was no guaranteed market for my book. Like you say, textbooks get published because the publisher is sure of a steady market.
However, I still think that there is space for an innovative, active publisher to try and diversify publishing in East Africa and Africa as a whole. The gaps in the industry create room for someone daring and innovative with a real love for books to come in and do something. I worked with a publishing company like that in Kenya: Storymoja, led by Muthoni Garland, who is also a writer. She and her colleagues feel that we have to get people to love reading, to make people realize they need to read to survive and succeed, and that the books published should be relevant, and well done and marketed aggressively through various channels. They are doing a good job in terms of the marketing, including holding the biggest literary festival in East Africa: the Storymoja Hay Festival, every September in Nairobi.
Some people question the future of books. Are books dying out?
My interest is in the content, whether oral, print, or digital. To me, they are simply different formats in which to tell stories. The important thing is that the stories are told and people get as many stories as possible from as many places as possible and that all those with talent are able to get their stories told and accessed. The storytelling tradition will not die. It’s like when people said radio use would die out because of television; it hasn’t. The more ways people can tell and access stories, the better.
In Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe, one of the profound themes is that of equity especially in the character of Rosa (Story of Hunger). Why is that?
One of the things I was very much aware of, from my experience in boarding school was class differences and I wanted to explore that.
I learnt more about class difference than I did maths and physics in high school. It was about the posh and the poor; those who were ministers’ daughters and those who came from the village. It was interesting to me how teenagers, even without being fully aware of it, perpetuate these social structures and inequalities that they have received, without even questioning them, I included, of course.
This experience and more provided raw material for the stories in Tropical Fish.
Are you into anything else, besides writing?
I’m currently Chairperson of FEMRITE – the Uganda Women Writers Association, which promotes women’s writing through training, advocacy, publication, networking and more.
I am also involved with WAZO – Talking Arts, a new initiative that brings together artists and art lovers of all disciplines to talk about what they do, why and how; in literature, visual arts, film production, etc in a structured way. We held our tenth discussion forum in April 2013, and continue to meet the first Tuesday of every month at The Hub in Kamwokya. Check our facebook page for details.
As I said earlier, I teach creative writing classes quite often; for example in January I co-facilitated the 4th Femrite African Women’s Writer’s Residency, which brought together writers from across Africa to write, workshop, network and exchange ideas for ten days outside Kampala. I enjoyed that immensely.
Besides Tropical Fish, you’ve written two children’s books namely; “Gamba the Gecko wants to Drum” and “My Fingers are stuck” Of all the three, which one was the most difficult to pen?
Tropical Fish is the more complex book; each story had its own intricacies, structure and point of view.
The children’s books were birthed out of my son’s curiosity and stories I tell him, and I was guided by my publisher, Storymoja.
What is your next writing project?
My goal is to finish a travelogue on Somaliland this year, and then continue with my novel-in-progress.