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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is Doreen Baingana Uganda’s star of the short story genre?

Ugandan lovers of literature are not known to compliment their own but it was a different case for one literary figure after her book won the Africa region Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.

Suddenly, songs of praise flew all over the Ugandan blogsphere, with one blogger going out of her way to say she would do everything to make friends with Doreen Baingana. As a student of Ugandan literature and collector of award-winning books, I paid Shs20, 000 for Tropical Fish, hoping it would resonate like its online approval and that I would be looking forward to meeting its author and convincing her to autograph my copy. Part of my wish was granted on July 18, 2008 when I met Ms.
Baingana at a literary do organised by the Uganda Female Writers’ Association at Hotel Africana. There she sat through the event, following the presentation as if entranced and colouring her concentration with some brisk writing.

At the end, I told her her book made good reading and she smiled and her eyes shone brightly as she autographed my copy of her work. Later that evening when I opened to see the shape of her signature, I was surprised and at the same time pleased that she had, before appending her signature, written clearly: “To Dennis – tell your story as well!”

God! Was this reassurance; a sort of go-for-it boy, considering I had admitted my ambitions of writing a book? Or was she challenging me to write a better one since I had told her hers was “good” rather than excellent? The answers to the two questions remain elusive but the verdict on her book stands. No doubt there are flashes of excellence in the seven stories but in one or two I got the feeling the author was struggling to attain the depth and masterly stroke synonymous with great works.

Let it not skip you that Tropical Fish is a collection of short stories, six of which originally appeared in some journals abroad between 2002 and 2004. This means they must have gained from the editors’ sharp pens and again during the compilation. But the author deserves the creator’s plaudits. Of the entire collection, Green Stones, Hunger, A Thank You Note and story from which the book title is derived, Tropical Fish, are works of a genius. They are deeply personal and written incandescently – the reader appreciates.

Early in the book, one meets the precocious Christine and falls for her. The author uses the techniques of point of view and consciousness to stimulate emotional and imaginative responses in the reader as you go on a journey of discovery with Christine.

Turn the pages and there’s the adorable Patti writing in her private diary about the school circumstances that trouble her little soul. Through her, the author juxtaposes the better off lifestyles of the rich children at school with thorough description of that of their poor counterparts to reveal the frustration and alienation experienced by the latter.

And oh, there’s the non-conformist in Rosa; stunning, but too reckless for her own good. In A Thank You Note, she really draws you to her inner conflicts. So we see the trio of these sisters evolve; trying to decode the complexity of life; and at the end we are still uncertain of what drives them, and life remains a paradox to them and to the reader. Perhaps that’s the whole beauty about the book; the subtlety the author deploys while exploring the tacit harmony and disharmony in the family, the question of gender, religion, politics, dissatisfaction and the trouble of not taming the lusts of the flesh.

As Christine says, “There’s a lot to untangle, to make sense of…” You realise it’s a poignant commentary on the vulnerability and fragility of humanity in which the author seems to stress the point of sticking together as family (Christine returns home) and choosing light from darkness (Patti) in order to overcome. There’s a formidable display of skill in the way the author contrasts her heroines. Her ingenuity and the candour with which she weaves her stories in line with the sensitivity of her characters is empathy-inducing and quite enviable.

In all ways, truly, Doreen Baingana, just like Monica Arac de Nyeko, has distinguished herself as a distinct Ugandan literary voice in the short story genre. After all, she has received critical acclaim for her book complete with a literary prize of no insignificant stature.

But those who understand these things know that in one moment of brilliance, it’s easy to create a great short story. So Doreen Baingana will be judged by her first real novel the day it appears on the scene.