Off the Page
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.
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
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.
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
Perhaps what exactly is an African tradition is also contested.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
When's your next reading in the D.C.
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.
And of course, who is your favorite writer ... and why!;
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.
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.
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?
if I know her...or could know her right here in America.
To what degree is this sensitive and very complex
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.