The book Tropical Fish, written by Doreen Baingana, is a collection of linked stories about the coming of age of three Ugandian sisters, Christine, Patti and Rosa. More than that though it is about a range of things that face the modern African women who grows up in our era with an idea of developing herself through education. It touches religious influence in Africa, boarding school life in missionary schools, first love, superstition, inevitably AIDS, love across the colour with a sugar daddy syndrome, the sense of alienation that comes with migrating to another country (USA) and that of displacement after coming back home.
Tropical Fish has a strong biographical element about it, in a sense that it uses, dare I say, Doreen Baingana’s experiences as a starting place before spiralling away to explore its themes. The act of creation is never an entirely isolated thing of imagination alone. The three girls learn in different ways that our lives teach us who we are, and that our characters are usually the vehicles our destinations.
Christine, the youngest, is about the assertion of pride and identity and the use of narration as a process of arrival. The quiet Patti is a soul in crisis, choosing to burry herself in the lap of God with iron serenity when things don’t go her way. She sings herself into significance in her diaries, wearing a dress of desperation. The feisty Rosa is about sexual liberation and dare devil attitude of not wishing to be part of the righteous who die of boredom in heaven. Despite her excesses, that sometimes can be cloyingly vapid, she’s the most fun to be in company of. Things in her world go bump in the night. She’s also about turning insults to strengths. What the girls have in common is the stultification they feel about their lives in Entebbe, Uganda.
The strength of the book Tropical Fish is the manner by which it manages to make the experiences of the three girls a metaphor for an African contemporary experience. The problems of women liberation, hybridisation, ghettoization, and reconciling the old with the new are masterfully tackled through the experiences of the se three women. I’m still trying to figure out how she did it, but Doreen Baingana in the book manages to make fresh the language of contemporary clichés. She’s elegiac in her tone, and things happen to her character with an inevitability of dreams. Most of the things you read about you know you’ve heard them before but you become mesmerised by the quality of her descriptive language all the same.
The language of Tropical Fish aspires to the condition of literature, which is a fresh thing in our age of journalistic writing. There’s an energetic brilliance about the book you feel would have gone even further had the author taken sometime to develop her ideas in a slower pace and depth. One can see that most of the stories were written for American leading literary journals, hence lacking percolation, the development of depth. The problem with those journals is the manner by which they don’t tolerate divergence from the consensus. They’ve fixed ideas about form, structure and language. As the results events are sometimes left hanging and unexplained because, I assume, the author had run out of space for the specified word count of the journals.
The stories in the book criss-connect as moving vignettes and autobiography of at least the mind. It was pertinent that they chose to name the book after one of the strongest story, Tropical Fish, which is also the most rounded off and enjoyable. The story has virtues of high literature, weight and lightness. The entire book, for that matter, is a magnificent raconteur of modern Scheherazadean inexhaustibility and inventiveness of a mind fully alive to its surroundings.1
1 Tropical Fish is published by Oshun Books.