There’s probably no contemporary Ugandan fiction writer as decorated as Doreen Baingana. Her clout has everything to do with her 2006 Commonwealth literary prize winner for Africa –Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe –a collection of six linked stories about three sisters and the divergences that characterise their life journey. This nostalgic work is not only a captivating commentary on what makes people take different paths in life but equally embodies the quality and maturity of writing, rare in Ugandan works.
A year after garnering the prestigious accolade, Baingana packed her bags and returned home from the US where she had lived for over a decade. I bumped into her at a Femrite writers’ workshop in 2008 and she told me she was crafting her first novel. Soon after, she disappeared from the radar, leaving her tantalised readers anxiously waiting for the promised novel.
It’s the same mysteriousness with which she vanished that she resurfaced at the opening of this year’s Femrite literary week in July. Turns out she had been working in Nairobi as Managing Editor at Story Moja. It is evident how much the Kenyan experience has changed her. The heavy and withdrawn Baingana of 2008 is today a radiantly lean and effervescent woman that gladly obliged to strike me a ‘seductive’ pose when it was time to take her picture.
When we met at the National Theatre restaurant for this interview, she had come in from a swimming session and told me how crazy she’s about dancing. The single mother of a three-year-old son loves her independence, and says writing is such a consuming passion –the reason she will not marry. Still, I could not help thinking how slow we Ugandan men must be that none has swept this urbane and erudite beauty off her feet and charmed her into changing her stance on marriage.
Well, Baingana is back home as the new Chairperson of Femrite.
All eyes will be on how she will apply her literary expertise and global experience to improve the quality of the overall output of Uganda’s most active literary organisation and help take home-baked literature to the mountaintop. The pro is the theory that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” –her unflaggingly belief being that quality does not come by osmosis but through passion and a willingness to read widely and work hard enough. That she is particularly inspired by the works of African-American writer Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) is another pointer to the lyrical prose and literary profundity she wants Femrite writers to strive for.
Born in Entebbe, Baingana left the country in 1989 for Italy from where the process of putting words together in form of letters to her family stirred the writer in her with such intensity that she has never really disentangled herself. When she went to study and live in the US, she hounded poetry sessions; fascinated by the sheer beauty and intricacies of that genre. She also links her love of writing to the “wonderful times at Gayaza High School where teachers made books alive and showed us how to relate to our lives.”
The rest you have heard it all; how she shelved her law degree for fiction; weaving works with moving storylines and a rare spark of originality that her contemporaries could only dream about. To understand her literary sway, you have to peek at her trophy trove which includes the Association of Writers & Writing Prize (AWP) for Short Fiction, the Washington Independent Writers’ Fiction Prize, on top of the Commonwealth Prize, and cake all that with her 10 years as an editor for Voice of America (V.O.A).
With all that distinction and exposure, it comes as potent news for patriots and books freaks alike that Baingana resigned her job at Story Moja and returned home “for good” because “I love my country; east, west home is best, and I wanted to bring up my child in Uganda –he has already learned the national anthem!” Also, her preoccupations were making it impossible for her to focus on full-time writing, which is now doing on top of part-time editing.
She was commissioned by the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers to write a travelogue about Somaliland, but she is also working on a fictionalised account of a female rebel leader: “I am interested in how she manoeuvres her way to the top position in a male domain such as war; particularly what goes inside her head –the psychological underpinning.”
This could be the book she promised in 2008, the book by which her novel-writing competences will be gauged, or will she continue to be distinguished for the luster and force of her short stories?