Doreen Baigana on Building a Writing Career

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Doreen Baingana (DB) on Building a Writing Career

RK: Thank you Doreen for accepting to join us.

DB: Thank you for inviting me. I was really excited. I have heard good things about #360Mentor.

RK: There is a question I ask every one here, for you, I will ask, were you born with a pen in your hand?

DB: Ahhhh, no! I wish I was. But I can say, I was born with a book in my hand. I think I got the pen through reading. Together with my sisters, we’ve been reading all our lives. And I got the reading infection from them.

RK: That’s a very good point for us to start our conversation. Let me ask you, what is reading?

DB: Oh my goodness! These are questions that appear to be so simple but they are not. There is this thing called speed reading. I think what I was doing was different. There is always reading which is cramming for class. But reading where you engage your imagination through stories, poems, creative nonfiction, that is what I call reading with a capital R where you are engaged as the author in the content you are reading.

RK: I’d like to stay with you on that, I want to make sure I understand you well. So you’re saying the experience of reading what someone has written or getting immersed in what someone has written and creating an imagination of your own, is that what you are talking about?

DB: Yes. you’re actively engaged and you are doing as much work as the author. For example when you’re in a movie, they create  the sound, the light, the atmosphere, you do all that with a novel in your own head.

RK: And this happens in the head?

DB: Yes. I guess for everyone.

RK: Doreen I want to take you back to your earlier life. Do you know how reading became a way of life in your family? At what point did it become second nature to you?

DB: I think many people can relate especially if you are a family that respects education. Education outside the school setting. Education happens all the time. We had books all over the place. Our parents read. We had a library at Lake Victoria Primary School, Entebbe. We had horrible TV. That helped a lot.

RK: You see, some of you had horrible TV, some of us had no TV  at all.

DB: That’s better. We didn’t have all these things to tempt us; to take away the value of reading. And then I combine it with my history classes. I really like my primary history teachers. Did you ever use a book titled; People on the Move by Joyce Masembe then now Joyce Mpanga. Together with her friends they wrote about Ugandan history. It was for about P4, P5, P6. I was fascinated by the way history was told.

RK: I am not letting you off the hook here, can you describe this fascination for us?

DB: I thought that words on a page took me to different places, different ages for example imagining Gipir and Labong or Kintu and Nambi, I don’t know how many centuries that was. The maumau rebellion. Reading all these stories and seeing them become alive. This is when I was struck by the power of these words. I think through the descriptions and narrative flow, the imagery, poetic language makes books come alive.

RK: Was there a time in your younger years that you made something and you saw yourself in it?

DB: That’s a tough one. We read a lot of English texts. I didn’t really see myself in those characters.

I used to think initially that what’s on the page is not our everyday life. It was more like writing about something else. And I think that’s part of our mission as writers to show our lives on page. I think it is getting better now. But we want more children’s books on lives that they identify with. Our everyday lives. Stories with traditional folktales.

RK: You didn’t read Ishe Katabazi, did you?

DB: Aha! No. You’re making me look bad in public. I didn’t. I should have but no. Did you read it yourself?

RK: No. I didn’t. By the way, I took to reading way later in life. Actually my own family way out was conversations. We didn’t have TV, we entertained ourselves by conversing with each other. And there is no money for guessing who was the best at it. hahahah

DB: You did. It’s an amazing skill by the way. Holding the audience’s attention through conversation is such a great skill.

RK: Did you also borrow books? Exchange books? Cover books with newspapers? Borrow novels with missing pages?

DB: Oh yes, we did. Anyone who went to Lake Vic remembers a Cathoic Father who came and manned the library at Bugonga Church although it was not connected to the school. He kept the library going. There was the borrowing and exchanging of books.  In fact, when the Asians had to leave, they left us many of their comic books. That’s the childish angle from that horrific history of ours. From the child’s point of view, we were left with all these books to read.

RK: One of the things that bothered me is that I didn’t know which books to select when I went to the library.  I was trying to be what those days they called wiseacres. Later on when I started building a personal library, there is one thing I don’t do, I don’t lend out books any more. If I am going to give you a book, I will buy it for you.

DB: I completely understand you. We have this woeful habit where once a book is borrowed is never returned. They think it is a gift. I don’t know where  this culture comes from. On the one hand if one is an avid reader and they want to read and keep your book, I think that it is a plus. But on the other hand, it is just our lack of respect for people’s valued personal property.

RK: Exactly.

Doreen, I want to go into your personal discovery, your educational journey and what you have now become, would you like to share? How it happened. The challenges you faced.

DB:  I took the traditional path initially where you have to get a degree. I studied law at Makerere University. But right from the very start I knew, this was not the thing for me.

RK: Wait. Wait. What made you start thinking like this?

DB: Well, I was on campus and going to class was a drag. After the first two weeks, I figured out what was expected of us and kind of figured out how the classes were going to be presented. And it just wasn’t as engaging as my literature classes at A level. And if it wasn’t for my friends whose notes I used, I don’t know. Because I started cutting classes (which I don’t recommend). I wanted to switch to literature. And I was advised that it was going to be much harder navigating life with a BA than with law. And it helped in the end. I finished the degree and graduated but my heart was not in it. There’s a bona fide classmate I met years later who said “ I remember you in class with a novel in your hand.”

RK: I also wanted to switch to journalism but my parents would not allow me to. I had to study law and went on to work in the media.

But when does the search for the writer begin?

DB: After graduating, I did my internship at Kagumire and Kateera Firm, I went in and did whatever I was supposed to do. But that was the time when many graduates were leaving the country. Much more so than now. The proverbial search for greener pastures. So it was one route I took. I moved to Italy. That is when I started to write. I would write back letters to my family explaining everything from the air, the food and everything. I wrote and got myself immersed in it. But it didn’t really sink in that much.

I later moved to the States. I began a Masters in Law but I also began taking a lot of creative writing workshops. I was still trying to do what was expected of me. Luckily, in the US, there are many opportunities to learn about the craft. I tried my hand on all manners of writing, from journalism, poetry and I found my interest in fiction.

RK: How did you know that fiction is it?

DB: I think the good thing with the workshops was the feedback you’d get from the fellow writers and the facilitators.  And then there is a process of trying to get published. You get rejected here and there. But I found the short stories were getting an audience. They were getting published in magazines.

RK: Was there a point where you felt misunderstood with what you were trying to achieve with yourself?

DB: Uhhhm! People would say, why don’t you do this as a hobby. Which was perfectly  logical. At the end of the day, I had to put food on the table and I had the degree. But then I had this thing which appeared to be a dream, people gave me a lot of pragmatic advice; do it on the side, do it at night… but I am rather stubborn or rather if I do something I don’t’ like, I don’t put in 100%.

Luckily, I was very far from the people who cared and gave me advice. So it was a lot easier not to follow the advice. On the other side where I was, there was a whole world that showed me the value of a literary life. It was really stimulating. It was much more reliable and viable than when you’re here.

RK: You achieved eventual success and recognition. How did that come about?

DB: I did an MFA. I believe I am the first Ugandan to have done a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. My masters thesis was my short story collection which won a US wide prize, there was a competition across the US. It was a manuscript award and the prize money paid for my publication.

When stories in it were nominated for the Caine Prize that’s when people across the continent and Uganda began hearing about Dorren Baingana. And the book went on to win the award.

RK: And at that point we all went on to say, we know Doreen. Before that none of us was willing to own up that we knew you. That is the one that is Tropical Fish.

DB: Yes.

RK: Noah Herari has written and said the tools of the future are collaboration, creativity and communication. I want to stay with the one who communicates. You studied all these things, what does telling a story mean?

DB: I think what a story does that is different from other forms of communication is that you engage with what the other person is saying not only with the mind but with the heart and the senses. And that is the power of storytelling. It is easy to say “stealing is bad but if you have a story that conveys how bad stealing is, then the reader will understand it without feeling being lectured to. They will say it like it was from them.

RK: Wow! And that is where they become owners of whatever it is that you are trying to convey.

DB: Yes. They own it. It is a very sneaky way of putting ideas into people’s heads. On a larger level, if a group or a nation does not know their story, they can’t act as a community. 

RK: And they don’t have an identity.

DB: The story of the community creates the identity. So what stories are we telling ourselves as Ugandans for example?

RK: One of the most interesting things is when you go to these cultural functions and there is the pride with which people introduce themselves by 12 or 13 generations and they stand out with pride that I belong to this clan. That identity, is that what you mean?

DB: Yes. Clans have their stories and their origins. But think about nations. What does it mean to be a Ugandan or an American?

RK: I recently interviewed Ham Serunjogi, a tech guy and he was telling me about how they prepare for pitches; it is about the stories you tell. If you had to work with someone who wanted to develop their story telling skills, what would you teach them?

DB: By the way Robert, we are always telling stories to ourselves and  to others in terms of what we do and why we do it. It’s all a story. The first thing to think about is your audience you are telling the story to. Even us fiction writers are not always writing to ourselves. If you are exploring a particular idea, in what ways can you explore that idea to your audience.

Secondly, it is about language that is most engaging. Even though we are using print, when someone picks up your first paragraph, it speaks to the ears. It’s almost like music. Using language that appeals to the ear. The musicality of language can help your story rise to another level.

Then the characters. Fill your story with people the reader wants to follow from the beginning to the end. Compelling and intriguing.

The other is description.

The ideas you want to carry across

And lastly the plot. The different events happening in the story.

That is a whole class though, I can’t give it all here.

RK: This is what I hear;

1)  The first thing is that you must have a good command of the language in which you want to make your narrative.

How is that important?

DB: It’s about reading. The more you read, the more you understand how language works. If you are a good reader, you are going to know how to write a good sentence that grabs the reader. The other important thing is that we are taught English in school which is not our mother tongue and we also speak another form of English. I try in fiction not to write the English I was taught in school but rather the English that we actually speak. These are real life characters on the street communicating. We don’t speak the Queen’s English on the streets. Use language that reflects the environment that you are talking about. It’d be Ugandan English for our case. It’s not about proper grammar but language which reveals the character.

RK: The reason I am pushing on this is my own experience in the farming world. We are now told that if we are going to be persuasive in selling coffee in certain markets, we must have a powerful narrative that shows we are changing the world and that we are sensitive to climate change. Otherwise coffee without a narrative will not be bought and many businesses are finding themselves in the same situation. How do you create a narrative? How do you stick to it? What is discipline?

Now, what other forms apart from fiction do we need to look at? For example you have been previously working with the guys in theatre, what are your lessons from that experience.

DB: Let me first talk about narratives. I think the narrative will come from your own purpose for growing and selling coffee. Apart from the money there is something particular why you would want to sell the coffee. It is about finding your motivation. It is about sincerity. That’s where you will find the story.

RK: I guess the same goes for other endeavours. You have to have a purpose for why you are selling what you are selling.

DB: Yes.

On theatre. There is a cliché that we don’t read yet actually we do. Theatre has been very vibrant in uganda. Before the theatre, we had oral literature. Poetry is a great way to bridge that gap between the oral tradition and today’s audience. Something that happens in the moment. However, we have a big divide between theatre in English and the theatre which appeals to the local audience which appeals to very many numbers in Kampala alone. How to bridge that gap is a big question. There is a need to reach a larger audience.

RK: In the 70s and 80s plays on Radio Uganda, my mum used to listen to one by a man called Kyeswa.

DB: I remember that name.

RK: How do we get the youth to love writing as you wrap up?

DB: Our population is very young. Where the youth congregate and have a bigger audience are schools. That’s the best place for them to get to interact with reading and writing. That’s one place to start. Make writing clubs as exciting.

There is social media today and there are many young people there. Find them there and interest them. We need to find a way of translating that into an educational tool without them realising it is one.

One thing I should say though is that the new S1 curriculum literature is optional. I almost  collapsed when I heard that. Now that the children are still out of school, get them into small groups and encourage them to read. Interest them in things that appeal to them.

Also there are organisations like Ibua which have classes. They are trying to fill in the gap. There is a call out by Storymoja for those interested in young adult fiction. They want writers from Uganda and Rwanda.

Thank you very much Robert for this opportunity. I hope you can pick a thing or two. Grab a book and read, the benefits are humongous. Let’s use storytelling to make life more meaningful to each other.

RK: Thank you Doreen.

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