Doreen Baingana on fishing for tropical tales

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published in Next Newspapers, July 18, 2010. Reproduced for archival purposes only.

Doreen Baingana’s collection of short stories Tropical Fish examines Uganda and the Diaspora in black and white, with history graying in the fading distance. Idi Amin was a deadly buffoon. Up to 400,000 people may have perished under his reign of lunacy. Amin’s atrocities were perhaps dwarfed by Milton Obote’s. Then there is AIDS. Up to 800,000 people may have died already. Amin and Obote died in peace in exile without any credible attempts to hold them accountable. So much for justice. In Tropical Fish, Baingana says virtually nothing about Obote’s evil reign. This is baffling. How do you forget? Should fiction not document the lived history? Baingana says in the book that Idi Amin gave Asians 72 hours to leave Uganda in 1972. They were actually given 90 days because Amin claimed that Asians had the habit of giving Ugandans 90 days credit. Baingana is inattentive to historical detail.

The story, “Green Stones” is a delightful conversation about relationships, marriages, and life. In Christine, the main character’s world, alcoholism and infidelity hold sway in the form of Taata, her father, a mean drunk, the sauced burden of her mother, Maama. It is a look at family relationships, warts and all from the eyes of a child, a revealing exploration of familiar issues: Infidelity, alcoholism, the extended family, patriarchy – all within the stifling confines of a traditional marriage. ”Green Stones” is written with all of Baingana’s literary muscle. Tart luscious prose bear nice turns of phrases and they delight the palate.

”Passion” and “A Thank-You Note” are the only previously unpublished stories in the book. No wonder. They are awful. They sit in the centre of the book, smug, like badly cooked rice, hoping to be saved by great stew. ”Passion” is an imperfectly designed, puzzling story leaning on the pretense of magic realism. ”A Thank-You Note” is an overwrought introspection on AIDS. Baingana tries – and fails – to put herself in the mind of an AIDS sufferer. The story does serve a useful purpose: the inchoate main character Rosa is mercifully killed off by bad writing. ”Hunger” and ”First Kiss” are rambling, pointless exercises in self-absorption.

You must read ”Lost in Los Angeles: and ”Questions of Home.” They are thoughtful reflections on immigration, the immigrant, exile and homecoming. One is taken by the unresolved pain and anguish that are unearthed in these stories. There are some good observations about the impact of technological advances on community and relationships. The stories spoke to me. Nonetheless, the immigrant of color in Baingana’s book is painfully self-conscious. There are strong hints of self-absorption and narcissism. For Baingana, even lovemaking is an opportunity for deep introspection in search of meaning where none probably exists. Sometimes folks just want to get laid.

The book’s attitude to sex is fascinating; sex is described in near indifferent terms – a few minutes of heaving and pushing. The book makes a grand failure of exploring sensuality and is hugely successful at remaining mum on the sum total of our sexuality. It is a poorly kept secret that same-sex relationships in Africa’s boarding schools are common. Baingana gingerly navigates the fringes of tradition as she rides around on wheels of modernity.

Baingana is unsuccessful at being more than one character, Christine. The other sisters, Patti and Rosa are merely afterthoughts. They are identical triplets cannibalized by Christine’s strong character and weak writing. Baingana asserts Uganda’s otherness as she carefully separates Ugandan words from English words, like a cook separating stones from beans. To her credit, she does not provide a glossary of Ugandan terms. Yes. Let the reader do the research. Tropical Fish is slightly burdened by some editing issues. Baingana should shop around for a more organized publisher next time.

Africans are victims of uncritical acculturation. Questions of identity abound: Who are we? Who should we be? Why are we the ones who keep trying to be like the other? What does exile mean in the age of Facebook? Who really leaves home these days? Who stays home these days? Where is home? Expecting Baingana’s book to answer these questions is like asking the slide rule to compete with the iPad. Our intellectuals have no answers; they are too busy navel gazing, whining about racism and drinking the white man’s best wines. See, they wail to the West, we are human beings too; we eat ice cream!

Baingana’s stories are sleepy, like passengers on a red-eye bus to the city struggling to come alive at every junction manned by thieving policemen. We see the self-loathing that Western education confers on Africans as they flee anything remotely African or indigenous. In the fashion, in the food, in the literature, Africa desires to be white. Africa is turmoil but the book ends on a hopeful note. The exile begins the long process of re-introduction to her ancestral land. Culture shock streaks out of cultural attitudes to work and life. Still, she is here to stay, says the book. Did she stay? I suspect that “Christine” is back home in Washington DC, subversively pinching cantaloupes in farmers’ markets. And the beat goes on.