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Off the Page

Doreen Baingana and Bruce Wilcox
Writer and Editor
Thursday, February 24, 2005; 1:00 PM

The characters in Doreen Baingana award-winning book of short stories, Tropical Fish: Stories Out of Entebbe are "out of Entebbe" in many ways. The linked stories show three sisters growing up in Uganda, and so they are rooted in Uganda--their experience comes "out of Entebbe."

As an adult, one moves to the United States, and then she is literally "out of Entebbe." And yet, she often still feels her roots--she is still out of, or made from, Entebbe.

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The themes of culture and race, and the social and sexual complications that arise from them, run through Tropical Fish, which won the AWP Prize for Short Fiction. Baingana, now writer in residence at the University of Maryland, joined "Off the Page" on Thursday, Feb. 24 at 1 p.m. ET, along with her editor, Bruce Wilcox of the University of Massachusetts Press.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, And welcome to Off the Page! We will get started any moment with Doreen Baingana and Bruce Wilcox, joining us from the University of Maryland, where Doreen is writer in residence, and the Univeristy of Massachusetts Press. And our first question is...

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Shutesbury, MA: Doreen,
I really enjoyed your book. It brought me contemporary
Uganda in a way that was fresh, modern, unique. Do you
feel you're writing out of a particular tradition, or are you
attempting to craft a new approach to writing about Africa
and Africans?

Doreen Baingana: Unfortunately, because most of my education has been in English, I think my writing tradition is Western, unfortunately. I wrote this book when I was getting an MFA at the University of Maryland, so I was following the format of a classic short story, which is Western. So I would like to believe that having grown up in Africa that I am influenced by the African tradition, perhaps not consciously as such. Perhaps I am more interested in approaching the subject matter in a new way. Most of what we hear and read about Africa is negative, so in that sense, I'm trying to highlight the positives, such as the closeness of families, and how people deal with political chaos around them and still create somewhat normal life, and try to show that perhaps the struggle that people go through in daily life is similar to what people in the West go to. So in terms of content, I'd like to have an approach to African material that is not what you see in the media.

Perhaps what exactly is an African tradition is also contested.

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Carole Burns: Doreen,
Your writing strikes me as very fresh--the first stories in your book are from young girls, and the writing feels appropriate, yet still rich and sophisticated. Well, how do you do it? Doreen Baingana: I have to say that I would like to say that I did it all deliberately, but I think that's not true. I was trying my level best to get into a child's voice without making it childish. Since the stories are somewhat autobiographical, I was looking back to how I felt, how I thought, how I reacted to things as a child, and trying to capture the insightfulness of children and innocence--and I didn't want to condescend. And otherwise, I think I just tried my best, as we all do.

CAROLE BURNS: And that my guess at how you did, trying to drop into the consciousness and memories of a child.

BRUCE WILCOX: I think there's a strong interest in coming of age stories, stories about leaving home, about crossing form one culture to another. And Doreen does a wonderful job of bringing you into the lives of these three sisters, their explorations, their discoveries. There's a bittersweet quality to some of Christine's the youngest sister's, experiences as she adjusts to life in the U.S. And I'm impressed by the way the stories work together to create a portrait of what it was like to grow up at a certain time in Entebbe, Uganda and move out into the world.

_______________________

Bethesda, Md. : What prompted you to write a series of linked short stories rather than a novel?

I haven't read the collection, yet (sorry!;) but wonder if it reads like a novel, and if so, how Mr Wilcox positioned it as a collection rather than a novel.

Lastly, did you publish many of the short stories elsewhere before collecting them?

Thanks!;

Doreen Baingana: Initially, I wasn't ready to write a novel, and short stories were an easier way to begin as a writer. I had not planned for them to be linked, but after writing a few of them, I realized I was following the destinies of what were one or two and then became three sisters. But I still wanted to keep them as individual stories, because they worked well on their own. And yes, six out of the eight stories got published.

BRUCE WILCOX: I think it is worth mentioning that Doreen's collection was selected from more than 350 manuscripts submitted for the AWP Award, (the Associated on Writers and Writing Programs), which sponsors four awards each year, in novel, poetry, creative non-fiction and short fiction. The University of Massachusetts Press has the privilege of publishing the award winner in short fiction each year. Personally, I wish I could take credit for having selected Doreen's story collection, but the truth is, Joan Silber, who served as the judge, was the one who chose Tropical Fish. The AWP hires a staff of screeners who are themselves writers. They review the manuscripts and present the judge with 10 finalists, and the judge makes the final decision.

DOREEN BAINGANA: Some people think that the contest is only open to students of writing programs, but it's actually open to anyone.

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Washington, D.C.: Your stories have the theme of culture and race. Did you set out to write stories about a certain theme? Or did the plots and characters arise out of the context? Do you believe fiction has an educational role beyond creating an artistic space. In short -- please address the question of theme in fiction.

Doreen Baingana: I began most of the stories with certain incidents that I wanted to explore. As I did, I realized that I was actually asking myself certain questions that I hoped to answer in the story. As the story progress, in answering these questions, I was addressing the themes of culture, of race, but also of themes that arise out of family love, how that can be difficult and exhilirating at the same time.

I think fiction, perhaps as a side effect, can be educational, but I don't write to teach people. I just write to answer questions for myself and hope reveal some truth. If people learn something from it, that's great.

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Carole Burns: Bruce,
What does a university press look for when it's considering a book of fiction? Something that commercial publishers missed, or something they wouldn't publish anyway?

Doreen Baingana: I think university presses, like all publishers, are looking for really fine works of fiction, however that might be defined. University presses and small independent literary presses publish quite a bit of fiction. They're a little like microbreweries, in that they choose to operate on a smaller scale and give careful attention to the quality of what they produce. If you look at books from Northwestern University Press, University of Iowa Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, you'll see some really good examples, and among the independent literary publishers, houses such as Graywolf in St. Paul, Dalkey Archive in Illinois, or Sarabande Books in Louisville, you'll find some excellent examples of novels and short story collections that are well-edited, well designed and well produced. Authors sometimes use smaller presses as stepping-stones to later commercial success with larger trade houses. We have already had a number of inquiries from trade houses about paperback rights to Doreen's book.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Doreen,

When did you realize you wanted to be a
writer? Did anyone else in your family
write, or tell stories?

What's the status of women writers and
intellectuals like in Uganda? Do you think
you would have been able to "create"
yourself as a writer had you remained in
Uganda?

When's your next reading in the D.C.
area?

Doreen Baingana: My next reading will be at University of Maryland at College Park on March 16. It's an alumni reading with Patrick Phillips and James Hoch. There are going to be a few more around the D.C. area in April.

When I left Uganda in 1989 and moved to Italy, I wrote back letters describing everything, because everything was different--the water tasted different--and it was all new and exciting to me. I would get lost in these letters I was writing. And then when I came to the United STates a year later, I used to go to poetry readings and write poetry, and I was taking writing classes at the Writer's Center, when I became serious about writing.

It's hard to say what I would have done had I stayed in Uganda. I studied law in Uganda, and if I stayed I would have pursued that, and maybe had five or six kids by now. And also the process of moving makes you reflect on a lot of things and work through issues that I put in my writing that I wouldn't have had I not moved. But, back in Uganda, there are women writers that I know who are very good and are pursuing it. And there's a great Uganda women's organization called Femrite, so perhaps I would have been a writer, but perhaps my subject matter would have been different. There are more resources for me here, but people in Uganda are writing with the few resources that they have.

_______________________

Mt. Rainier, MD: Do you think Americans (white Americans) are ready for contemporary African literature? What contemporary African writers do you admire/read?

And of course, who is your favorite writer ... and why!;

Doreen Baingana: Oh, yes, of course they are ready! They had better be ready! I have found a great curiosity and interest among the people I know, white and black, in my work, and I think that people just don't know about the writers. People are interested in writing and reading in other cultures--if they knew more about these writers, they would read them.

African writers I like: Ben Okri from Nigeria, who wrote THE FAMISHED ROAD. His short story collection, INCIDENTS AT THE SHRINE, is excellent. I have had the wonderful fortune to meet some new writers through the Caine Prize. I was a finalist and I met young writers from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and each year the Caine Prize has an anthology of the work of the winners. If they go to caineprize.com, they can get a list of the winners and they can look for their writing.

My favorite writer ever: This may be a standard choice, but Toni Morrison. Her book, BELOVED, had the political, the personal, history, and it's also a great love story. It has everything.

_______________________

Washington, DC : Do you ever want to go back to Uganda? Is Ugandan story telling through an oral tradition? Was it difficult for you to transist to a Western type of writing style?

Doreen Baingana: Every day. I want to go back to Uganda every day. But I've resigned myself to living in two places. I belong to both Uganda and the United States, and I go back often.

The oral tradition... I feel that when people started using the computer, to me it's just a matter of medium. The oral tradition still exists, except we are putting it down on paper. I have been asked whether writing will lead to the death of the oral tradition, but I feel as long as there's people, there will be culture, and they will express their culture. Of course, there's something we lose by not transferring our culture orally--we no longer memorize our stories. But there's a lot we gain by having them printed--many more people get to read them, and so on.

A Ugandan writer I admire, he used oral techniques in his writing: Okot p'Bitek. He assimilated oral tradition into his writing. For example, he got a lot of the folk storees and incorporated them into his writing. He wrote contemporary stories in song, the book, The Song of Lawino, for example. I believe we can keep the best of oral tradition using techniques like that.

_______________________

Carole Burns: Doreen,
What is your experience of race in the U.S.? In what way is it different from your experience in Uganda, and in other countries you've visited? Doreen Baingana: That's a book right there! Living in America has made me so aware that I'm black, which in many ways has been a bad thing, but in many ways has been a good thing. It's good to be aware of your identity. I was lucky enough to come to America after living in Italy, and in Italy, in race relations, they still have a long way to go. Being an immigrant in Italy, and being an African immigrant, you receive no respect at all. And so coming here, where at least you have a right to a job, for example, and this country has tried to deal with race relations, and there's a group of black Americans who have made things easier for me. It makes me complain less. But I think the experience of a black immigrant is different from the experience of other immigrants.

_______________________

Bethesda, MD: Do you consider that fiction has to have some sort of exotic hook -- take place in another culture, or time, or have mystical happenings -- in order to catch people's attention these days? Are old-fashioned, all-American, middle-class, suburban, domestic dramas old hat?

Doreen Baingana: Well, I haven't seen any African writer on the bestseller list of late. But yes, I think people might be drawn to what I write because they are curious about the unknown. I think it's a healthy curiosity, when you're curious about another culture. But books like THE CORRECTIONS was a big seller, and it's a domestic American drama. I think perhaps the quality of the writing and the quality of what you have to say is in the end what matters most.

_______________________

Washington, DC: Christina is such a vibrant and vivid character that I feel as
if I know her...or could know her right here in America.
To what degree is this sensitive and very complex
character autobigraphical?

Carole Burns: You feel you might know her right here in D.C., perhaps?! Well, Doreen?

Doreen Baingana: In the last story she goes back to Uganda, remember. She's not in the United States anymore.

I would like to quote a famous writer who, asked Is this story a fact? No. But is it true? Yes. I'm trying to get to the emotional truth. So, yes, some of what I write about is based on experiences I have had. But, to get the emotional truth, I have had to move away from what actually happened to what I wanted to have happened in the story. As a small example, I have six sisters in real life, and they told me not to write about them. But then when I wrote about three sisters, they complained. So you can't win.

_______________________

Carole Burns: I just read a great quote from Nabokov the other day, who said that fiction began when a boy came running out of the woods crying, wolf, wolf, and there was no wolf. Doreen Baingana: But there is a wolf! Because imaginary fears are real. And that's what fiction is all about--the imaginary fears that are real. The thing that we don't actually see but maybe fiction reveals.

_______________________

Munich, Germany: I wasnt quite sure if you are still in Uganda. Is the legacy of Idi Amin a thing of the past for a writer like yourself?

Doreen Baingana: No, we eat and drink Amin. As Ugandans, we are trying to forget, but he's an ever-present ghost. The effects of his regime will take many years to erase. For example, I think deep down we still feel that the gun rules, even though at the moment we have sort of a democratic system, military power still seems to be what counts. Another example is that those of who were young when he was presdient have a very deep mistrust of government, and that's going to take a long time to erase. But I believe there are lots of stories that have not been told, and we need to tell them--that's part of the process.

_______________________

Carole Burns: Thanks, Doreen and Bruce, for staying on a bit longer today! It was a pleasure. Get announcements about "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.

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