Writing is Freedom, Says Award Winning Ugandan Author Doreen Baingana
Doreen Baingana is the Ugandan 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. She has twice been a finalist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. A Bread Loaf Writers Conference Fellow and a Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre, Baingana has also won a Washington Independent Writers Fiction Prize, and an Emerging Writer’s Fellowship from the Writer’s Center.
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 Bethesda, Maryland, the SLS/Kwani? Literary festivals in Kenya and with FEMRITE in Uganda.
For ten years, Ms. Baingana worked as a journalist at Voice Of America (VOA) and has taught creative writing at various workshops in the US, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya where she also served as a managing editor of Storymoja, a publishing house in Kenya that organizes the Storymoja Hay Festival. 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 was not really a lawyer; I only worked for one year when I finished University. I think the life of a writer is very freeing, also very challenging; a challenge to yourself, in terms of dealing with issues like discipline. The rewards especially the monetary awards, they may come or they may not come. You may really be a good writer but it does not necessarily mean you’ll be a millionaire, unlike other businesses; say the best banker gets the best monetary reward.
But, the price we are paid, is freedom, to explore the life of the mind, to create our own worlds, having made a choice of doing what we really want to do as opposed to just a career for the sake of a career, and many other careers people do them because they really want to do them but very rarely are people forced into writing when they didn’t want. So with that freedom comes the responsibility, due diligence to then produce, and then there is always the question, am I good enough, am I producing quality work and I think that question will follow you. For as long as you are writing you always feel like you can do better.
Would you say writing is a calling?
Words like a calling are just words that you choose to use to make certain situations perhaps fancier than they actually are. I think it 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 have to follow. I don’t think so. I think there are really good writers who are bankers, doctors, you could say they haven’t followed their calling I don’t know.
I always think that in life, as writers we are more aware of this, but every single person, ties to make a narrative for themselves, what is my life about, what am I doing, what motivates me? I would just say it something I do very well, I hope, something I really enjoy doing. But I could have been other things as well, I also do editing, I’ve done a bit of journalism, so I don’t see it as a calling –a choice, maybe.
Do you write full-time?
I was an editor at a publishing company in Nairobi and I left to write full time, so it is my job. And sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes I don’t. There’s a lot of writing, let’s say writing I’m commissioned to do that is creative, but it is not something I would have done unless I had been paid to do, right? So, the short answer is both. Publishing in Africa for the most part meant textbooks.
What has been your experience finding publishing opportunities?
Well, I myself I’m not a publisher. I’ve been published in South Africa, US and also in West Africa. I tried to approach a Ugandan publisher, but I could see kind of a lack of interest mostly because, I think, there was no guarantee that the books would make money because like you said, books that make money here tend to be text books that the publisher can guarantee will get a market. However, I still think that there is space for an innovative, active publisher to try and do something. If you say the publishing industry is not very active; that’s room for someone daring, innovative with a real love for books to come in and do something.
And I worked with a publishing company like that in Kenya (Storymoja). They felt we have to get people to love reading, we have to have a sort of campaign for reading, just like we have a campaign for powder milk, to make people feel they need this to survive, and I think they are doing a good job in terms of the marketing starting with the big festival to attract people to come, Story moja Hay festival.
Some people question the future of books. Are books dying out?
If people cease to own books, that would mean that books are available to everybody, maybe on an online platform (digital). My interest is the content of the story, whether oral, print, or digital. For me it’s just format. The important thing is the story to be told and people to know as many stories as possible from as many areas as possible and the talented people who are good at story telling get their stories told and read. For me, as long as this story telling tradition does not die.
It’s like saying radio’s going to die because now we have television, it didn’t die, it’s like what serves the needs of the people will continue being as it is. I love the physical books, I love them because it’s what I’ve grown up with, it’s like I think matooke is the best food in the world but that may not necessarily be true. It’s because I grew up eating it. So, I’m fine, if other people read in other ways as long as all the different stories being told, and more people can access them. For instance, it is very hard to get a book to a school say in Karamoja, if we can get it online faster then great.
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?
I was very much, starkly aware of class differences in boarding school, from my experience in high school and I wanted to explore that. It was about the posh and the poor; those who are minister’s daughters and those who come from the village. And the way girls (teenagers) are so, without even knowing it, perpetuating all these societal structures they have just received without even questioning and they just perpetuate, me included of course. I think I learned more about these class differences than I did maths and physics. This experience provided the raw material for the stories in Tropical Fish.
Are you into anything else, besides writing?
I’m currently Chairperson of FEMRITE; a platform we created to promote women’s writing. This is organized through training workshops, advocacy, networking, etc
WAZO is a new initiative that brings together the Arts disciplines under one umbrella; talk about what they do; in literature, visual arts, film production, etc. So far we’ve had seven meetings, usually meet first Tuesday of the month at the Hub (Oasis Mall) I teach creative writing classes quite often and I’ve just finished co-facilitating the 4th Femrite African Women’s Writer’s Residency.
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 difficult to pen?
Tropical Fish was the hardest; different stories which both had intricacies, each story was explaining a different idea from a different point of view. Of the children’s books, one was birthed out of my son’s curiosity, as well as from telling stories from a project I did at Storymoja roughly six years ago. I would say I merely wrote the stories but the complex work was for my illustrator, Muthoni Garland.
What is your next writing project?
My goal is to finish Somaliland this year, but I’m working on another novel.