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 our third 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 2021, 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…
Today, we catch up with Iryn Tushabe (Uganda/Canada), whose shortlisted story, “A Separation” (EXILE Quarterly, Canada 2018), was reviewed for us last week by Bester Makombe, ‘“Repeat after me – my mother has been ushered into the spirit world”‘.
Iryn Tushabe is a Ugandan-Canadian writer and journalist. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Briarpatch Magazine, Adda, and Prairies North.
Her short fiction has appeared in Grain Magazine, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology, and in The Journey Prize Stories 30. The winner of the 2020 City of Regina Writing Award, she’s currently finishing her debut novel, Everything is Fine Here.
AKO Caine Words on the Times with Iryn Tushabe
AiW: Congratulations on being shortlisted for the 2021 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Thank you for your story.
Iryn Tushabe: Thank you very much! It’s a great honour to be included on the shortlist this year.
Could you tell us a bit about “A Separation” 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?
The seed for the story was a real event, the death of my grandmother. But the narrative itself is largely invented. The 2013 death of my grandmother was really hard for me to take. In part I think it was the vast distance that heightened my grief. I was a university student at the time and couldn’t afford to fly home for the funeral.
When I read the text message from my sister, and after my husband had cried with me, I sat again on my bed, staring at the wall, remembering my Kaaka. That’s when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to look, but of course there was no one there.
And I’m not a person who believes in these things, that the dead can physically lift the veil of death and touch us, but it felt so warm that hand, so firm, as if Kaaka were asking me, “What did you think, that I’d be here forever?” She always did have a wry sense of humour.
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?
I wrote A Separation during a time when it was illegal for me to work in Canada. My post-graduation work permit had expired and I’d had to quit my journalism job. I was allowed to stay in the country while my application for permanent residency was being processed, which can take longer than a year.
I’d always wanted to become a writer and now I had the time, fraught as it was with worry over what would happen if my application wasn’t approved. A Separation was my first attempt at fiction. I rewrote it many times, in many different ways, attempting different points of view. Beside using it as a means to learn such basics as narrative arc, I was experimenting. I wanted to see whether I could shift the worldview of a young scientist who only believes in logical explanations of the world, in verifiable, quantifiable data.
I watched as her grandmother’s death softened the walls of Harriet’s beliefs, making them permeable enough to allow for the unknowable to seep through, creating room for the unexplainable. Perhaps the success of this story was in teaching me that I can never be too certain about what I know or believe. A world without contradictions and doubt is a false world.
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?
In late 2019, when the novel coronavirus started wreaking havoc on humanity, I’d just started rewriting my debut novel. Tentatively titled Everything is Fine Here, it explores the moment when a young woman decides to assert herself outside the religious and cultural limits of her family in order to stand with her sister and emerge — disastrously, tragically, but ultimately with renewed compassion — into adulthood.
The rewrite was going fairly well, more good writing days than bad ones. Then we went into lockdown and schools shifted online. I became my children’s at-home teacher. I tried in those first weeks to wake up early and write, sometimes as early as 5:30am, but soon I lost steam. I’m not an early-morning person. Waking up too early made me a cranky mum and teacher. My ten-year-old son complained that I was yelling at him, which, in his opinion, was characteristic of bad teachers. He wasn’t wrong.
We kept the kids in online school even after schools in Saskatchewan opened, cautiously, for physical attendance. Eventually I allowed myself to take it easy, to write when the opportunity presented itself. But mostly I read. Now school is out for the summer and I’m spending more time with the novel and realising that it wasn’t such a terrible decision to allow myself a bit of fallow. I feel more productive now.
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 find that now I’m not very picky about when to write. I don’t sit around waiting for inspiration. I show up whenever I have the time, even if all I’ve got is a few minutes.
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?
People in Europe singing to each other across distant balconies. Residents of locked-down cities shouting their appreciation for ‘healthcare heroes.’ It has been heart-lifting to see that we can always find ways to remain neighbourly even from a distance of at least two metres.
Here at home, we put up birdhouses in the trees behind our house and added a few bird feeders. A robin laid her blue eggs in a nest she built on the top of a ladder behind our shed. When they hatched, we watched the babies grow. Before their wings emerged, they had only fuzzy fur and we could see their rapidly beating hearts. Then we watched them fledge, first hopping around in the yard, then taking first flight. These days were magical. To witness life coming into being. It gave us many happy hours.
Writing and reading continue to be my refuge, an escape from all the uncertainty. I write to witness, observe, and understand this particular moment in time. And it wasn’t just the pandemic. There was the Black Lives Matter movement. A surge in attacks on Asians. Here, in Canada, they are still discovering unmarked mass graves where the children who were removed from their families were buried when they died in residential schools.
This moment generally is heavy. For me it has had the effect of nourishing my desire to get to know people, both real and invented ones. One life — as the Canadian author Rita Wong writes — if you listen and observe it carefully, always opens a window into other lives.
How can our AiW and wider blog communities best support you and your writing/work practice?
Make room on your shelf for diverse voices and engage with the work even if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable.
- Our first Caine-related Words on the Times Q&A, was offered by novelist, Director of the African Writers Trust and chair of the AKO Caine Prize judges, Goretti Kyomuhendo;
- Doreen Baingana, writer, publisher and co-founder/director of the Mawazo Writing Institute, shortlisted this year with her story “Lucky”, offered us her Words here;
- Meron Hadero’s Words, third in the Caine Q&A series, gave us an insight into the significance of her writing practice in an unpredictable time
Ahead of the winner announcement on Monday 26th, you can read the stories in full at the AKO Caine Prize website, and catch up with our reviews written for us by our Guests and published each day last week as follows:
- “Acts of Humanity and Metaphors of Freedom” – ‘Lucky’” by Doreen Baingana (Uganda), reviewed for us by Karen Lauterbach
- “Misunderstanding the Game – ‘The Street Sweep’” by Meron Hadero (Ethiopia), reviewed for us by Tiwonge Carol Katemecha
- “Satirizing Injustice – ‘The Giver of Nicknames’” by Rémy Ngamije (Namibia), reviewed for us by Victor Zuze
- “Leaps of Faith – ‘This Little Light of Mine’” by Troy Onyango (Kenya), reviewed for us by Sanja Nivesjö and Sigi Vandewinkel
- “‘Repeat after me – my mother has been ushered into the spirit world’ – ‘A Separation’” by Iryn Tushabe (Uganda), reviewed for us by Bester Makombe.
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.
Tonight! – don’t miss the finalists in the remaining shortlisted writer event ahead of the winner announcement – they will be in conversation at SOAS’ Centre of African Studies later today – Thursday 22nd July:
And for more insights from the shortlisted authors, see their interviews with OkayAfrica here: