Q&A Caine 2021: Words on the Times – Doreen Baingana


AiW note: Last week we ran reviews of each of the five shortlisted stories for the AKO Caine Prize 2021 by five new AiW Guest authors, re-opening our now annual critical conversations and feedback around the writing, the work, and that of the literary prize.

In a joyful offshoot this week, and as the writer events and public conversations build to the specially curated winner announcement on the AKO Caine Prize’s YouTube channel on Monday 26th July at 5:00 P.M. BST, we are delighted and grateful to be able to offer the first of our shortlisted writers’ responses to a Caine-related Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A subset we initiated last year as our arts and books communities entered our various #Covoids and the challenges of the pandemic. 

This Words series is not just with the shortlisted writers but others who are working with the AKO Caine Prize this year, a year in which the workings of the prize have been wholly undertaken during pandemic conditions. For all, they expand on experiences of the prize beyond the shortlist, as well as discuss wider shifts, in other work and writing practices, and living through these, our times…


Yesterday, we published a Words on the Times with Goretti Kyomuhendo, chair of the AKO Caine judging panel this year, in which she talked, as well as about her work with the African Writers Trust and her own writing practice today, the shortlisting process and profound shifts in publishing on the continent in relation to the prize and the recent change in the prize rules:

“As African writers and publishing professionals, we should strive to create our own centres of gravity when it comes to publishing; and to own the production processes of our literature.” Goretti Kyomuhendo, Chair of the Judges.

Today, we are delighted to hear from Doreen Baingana, whose shortlisted story, “Lucky”, published in one of the “homegrown” literary magazines and journals from the continent that Goretti has been encouraged and enthused by, Ibua Journal, was reviewed for us last week by Karen Lauterbach – “Acts of Humanity and Metaphors of Freedom“.


TropicalFish_CoverDoreen Baingana is a Ugandan writer. Her short story collection, Tropical Fish, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region. She is no stranger to the Caine Prize shortlist – two stories from Tropical Fish were nominated, one each in 2004 & 2005.

She has led creative writing workshops in the US, the UK, and multiple African countries. She was a Managing Editor of Storymoja Publishers, Kenya, and Chairperson of Femrite: The Uganda Women Writers’ Association. She has also sat on the judging panels of prizes including the Hurston/Wright Prize for Debut Fiction, the Golden Baobab Prize for Children’s Literature and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.


Doreen Baingana & Farida Bagalaaliwo, the team at Mawazo Africa Writing Institute.

In September 2016, with Farida Bagalaaliwo, Doreen co-founded and continues to run the Mawazo Africa Writing Institute, a creative arts company based in Entebbe, Uganda. Her mission as a writer goes hand in hand with the mission and aspiration at Mawazo Africa:

“to nurture African writers so as to enhance literary production across the continent, with a particular emphasis on creative writing workshops in all genres. We believe cultural production and exchange is essential for social change.”
– Mawazo Writing Africa Institute, About us…

doreenShe has also published two children’s books, as well as stories and essays in numerous international journals. Other awards include a Miles Morland Scholarship, a Rockefeller Bellagio Residency, a Tebere Arts Foundation Playwright’s Residency, and, in 2021, a Sustainable Arts Foundation grant. 

In her Words on the Times for us, Doreen discusses the genesis of her Caine shortlisted story, the collaborative experience of theatre work as she adapts her award-winning collection Tropical Fish into a play with the Tebere Arts Foundation, and the escape and refuges writing offers…


AKO Caine Words on the Times with Doreen Baingana

AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Thank you for your story.

Could you tell us a bit about “Lucky” and/or how it came about, perhaps something that our readers might need to, or might not yet know about? Were there any inspirations, pre-lives, and/or stories of the story that you can share with us?

Doreen Baingana: “Lucky” was extracted from a novel I’ve been working on for many years based on the life of Alice Lakwena, a Ugandan charismatic rebel leader who led a war in northern Uganda in the late 1980s using conventional weapons and a mix of traditional and Christian charms. 

When I told a good friend, David Kaiza (the writer and literary and art critic), about my novel, he told me he’d got stuck at school because of that war and the Lakwena army ran through the school compound. This image sparked the writing. It was a good way to explore the ways in which the real victims of war are the ‘innocent bystanders’. As a common African proverb says, ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.’

A second impetus was something that has always bothered me: why are we Ugandans so violent? We are known as being friendly people, so why the violent history, which continues unabated to this very day? A big question, with a smaller one being: do we perhaps pass down violence as a legacy from generation to generation? How so? This is what I set out to explore.

After writing it, I saw that the chapter could work as a stand-alone piece and so I developed it into a proper short story.

Are there any particular challenges, joys, or experiences specific to this particular story being shortlisted for this Prize, in 2021 that you would like to tell us about?

IbuaJournal_logoI’m pleased that a story published in a Ugandan literary magazine, Ibua Journal, has been shortlisted. My patriotism has woken up! Also, the nomination affirms the work I’ve put into the novel itself that has taken years to write, and that has received a few rejections in earlier incarnations. 

Perhaps my luck has turned (Word needs to add emojis!). Also, amid all the terrible news in this ghastly second Corona wave here, any good news is such a relief.

AiW’s Words on the Times Q&A was initiated at the beginning of the pandemic, when our communities entered the various #COVOIDs for books and literary production; as it continues, it is still inspired by the spirit of connection in our varied experiences of working, making and living as we share in the challenges of these times.

On this note, how have things been on the ground for you? Could you tell us a bit about your (other) work — your writing and/or other kinds of work, roles, more general and different sorts of professional hats you wear — and any ways the pandemic has affected it?

It does feel a bit ridiculous thinking about writing and literature when almost every single day someone I know or know of here dies. Are we fiddling while our communities burn or should we strive on or ‘COVID-19 would have won’? What choice is there but to go on? It’s making me reassess the importance of what I do in the big scheme of things, and I am humbled by its relative unimportance.

TEBERE-LOGO-PNGNevertheless, I’ve been very fortunate to still have work to do that I love. Apart from putting the final touches on my novel, which I must send out this July, my play, adapted from the title story of my collection, Tropical Fish, is being produced by the Tebere Arts Foundation

It’s been fun to stretch myself and learn the playwriting craft with a hugely talented team. Of course, this has been immensely challenging as the lockdown has disrupted our schedule and ability to work in person. Everything is so uncertain, but we can only hope something good comes out of this experience.


My work at Mawazo Africa Writing Institute is in hibernation, although I taught three courses online in 2020, which was great. I’m also a freelance editor, which hasn’t changed over this unusual period.  I am grateful to still be getting assignments.


Do you find yourself working in new ways, and/or writing through new modes, forms, or genres that you weren’t before the pandemic?

I have worked from home for many years, so the lockdown has not changed my work situation in general, except for holding meetings online instead of in-person. I enjoy solitude (which is one of the reasons I am a writer), but it was more fun when I could come out of it when I pleased. 

I desperately miss traveling outside Uganda for literary festivals, conferences and the like. The engagement, conversation and camaraderie fed my mind and spirit. I’m starved!

The writing itself has not been affected; it’s always been an escape from the here and now.   

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time? What has inspired you to write and keep writing? In what ways have writing and books communities supported you?

Continuing with the theme of escape, writing can be a refuge from reality. I create a world I can control, for the most part, as opposed to this uncontrollable and unpredictable real world. Also, in fiction, tragedies aren’t real.

Working on my play with a team has been uplifting. Theatre work is much more collaborative than writing fiction, and it was really lovely to be physically in the same room – something so simple that we can no longer take for granted – with the production team, led by the brilliant Deborah Asiimwe, and the actors Esteri Tebandeke and Gladys Oyenbot, and confer online with the director Mshai Mwangola in Nairobi and dramaturge Karishma Bhagani in Mombasa. I can’t wait for all of us to get together.  

How can our AiW and wider blog communities best support you and your writing/work practice?

I honestly cannot think of ways. Hold literary parties online? Send us money or better yet vaccines? Publish Covid fiction from Africa?


Watch this space for more Caine-related Words on the Times on new modes of writing and working practices, and more, all to come this week…

Our first Words, offered by Goretti Kyomuhendo are here – as chair of the judges, she talks judging the submissions in this particular year and the importance of publishing on the continent, as well as other personal and professional joys and challenges of the pandemic — working with others as a novelist, and plans in her role as Director of African Writers Trust — and emergent ways of working going forward…

caineAnd catch up with the stories and reviews that are round and about, ahead of the revelation of the 2021 winner, happening this year via a virtual announcement on the AKO Caine Prize’s YouTube channel on Monday 26th July at 5:00 P.M. BST. 

Every day last week, as part of our longer engagement with the Caine Prize and prize cultures around African literature, we published our AiW Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn – read the stories in full at the AKO Caine Prize website and our reviews as follows:

These reviews are part of our extended conversations over the years about prizing African literatures and the Caine Prize’s contributions to (or detraction from) discourses and critical appraisals of the cultures it promotes. You can dig back into our previous years’ shortlist reviews, interviews with the writers, and other coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our discussions of the Anthologies.


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