Thursday, October 11, 2007

Guest in Progress: Doreen Baingana

This came in while I was away, and while the Brooklyn Book Festival was a short time ago, on September 16, the observations remain insightful. We’re all looking for a writing community—whether it’s at a festival, in a class at the Writer’s Center, through an MFA program, in a writing group, through blogs, and so on. One of my favorite things is how these various communities overlap one another, as seen by how my paths cross with the author of this piece, Doreen Baingana.

I had heard of Doreen when she won the prestigious AWP award for her first book of short stories, but I believe I hadn’t actually met her (briefly) until we were both reading at a book party for Richard Peabody’s first anthology of DC women writers, Grace and Gravity (my memory is a bit fuzzy because there were something like 20 women reading!). A year later, we crossed paths at an event at the Writer’s Center, where we both teach. After that, I invited her to participate in a panel I was moderating at the Washington Independent Writers conference this past June and we hung out together at the conference. (I certainly agree with her comment below: “Attend festivals, writers!”) She’s fun, funny, and sharply smart (raising her hand to question WIW conference keynote speaker Francine Prose’s sweeping allegations about writing classes in front of 300 people also makes Doreen brave in my book!).

I guess all this is not to drop names (which I, too, can “drop giddily”!) but to note that the writing world is both small and large—and yes, it is important to get out there and meet people. Not to “make connections” and “network”—but to find your community and to explore what other communities are up to. I see the writing world as not having pigeonholes—rather, places in which to nest.

The Brooklyn Book Festival

Ah, fame! Actually, not quite, but there I was, in a room full of other authors, everyone chatting nonchalantly, and I couldn't help but think, is this really happening to me? Edwidge Danticat was serenely holding court in one corner surrounded by about four other writers I didn't know, except for Walter Mosley. Well, I know his hat and longish face, so I knew it was him. One of the organizers mistook me for Gloria Naylor! Was that a good thing or not? I look nothing like her, except for our skin color.

I was sitting with Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House, which I think is one of the best lit. mags. there is right now in America, and he is my friend! I know, I am awful at dropping names; I drop them too giddily! I met Rob in Kenya last December at the SLS Literary Festival, so when he organized a panel on African writing for the Brooklyn Book festival, he thought of me. The moral? Attend festivals, writers! Of course, if I had been among millions of other writers at an event here in the States, he wouldn't have known me from Gloria Naylor's daughter, so I should amend the moral to read, "Attend foreign festivals!" And perhaps there not being too many African writers who could hop across the Atlantic and get to New York easily helped too. Well, perhaps he likes my writing too; I shouldn't be too modest.

Our reading should not have been called, "Africa Now," but "Africa Based in America Now." It always tickles me how, after only one book, I am a kind of a "Voice of Africa," here, but I am not complaining! I read with Uzodinma Iweala, a Nigerian writer also from Washington D.C. His book, Beasts of No Nation, a harrowing story of a child soldier, has won lots of prizes, including the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Award. The third reader with us was Mohammed Naseehu Ali, author of The Prophet of Zongo Street, a collection of short stories of such startling variety and deep humor, set both in New York and Kumasi, Ghana.

What I enjoyed most about it all was the camaraderie among us -- dare I call it a real community -- among African writers who knew each other mostly by name. I had met Mohammed at another reading earlier this year, and e-mailed back and forth with Uzo. There we were outside later, enjoying the glow of praise from the audience, chatting, laughing, being photographed, as Chris Abani joined us too (his latest book, Song For Night, was recently reviewed in the New York Times Book Review), and Walter. Sorry, I must mention him again. He is hilarious, by the way. So, unlike most writing events I attend in the US, I was not one out of one, two or three black people in a sea of white, or the only one with an accent. I guess this is New York, this is Brooklyn: everyone is different and the more different you are, the more hip. The ambiance was so much more relaxed and cool. I suppose it is unfair to compare this to the Washington Independent Writers events, for example, but they are so cold and official, so DC!

It is events like this Sunday's that remind me how much fun it is to be a writer, but this is 1% or less of the writing life. How did I get there, with only one book, I ask myself. By writing that one book. And how long can I keep being invited with only one book? Yet one more good reason to get off my ass and finish my second one, if only to chat with Walter like we're old friends, as we watch a long line wait patiently to get their latest Edwidge Danticat book signed. Now she writes: she publishes a book every other year, it seems. Good for her. My other hero is Junot Díaz, who has his second book out now after eleven years! Yay! It's not too late! There is hope! ~~Doreen Baingana

Doreen Baingana is a Ugandan writer and author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005, Harlem Moon/Doubleday, 2006), which won the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Award in Short Fiction. She teaches at The Writer’s Center, among other places.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.