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Tropical Fish (thoughts)

February 18, 2010

Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe by Doreen Baingana is an interlinked short story collection; each of the stories is told from the point of view of one of three sisters, and the stories move forward in time. It’s a neat format, and one that Baingana pulls off very well; while most of the stories are about Christina, the youngest sister, the occasional change in point of view helped round out the book. Baingana is a wonderful writer, and one of the things I love most is the sense of place she brought to Tropical Fish. I’ve never been anywhere near Uganda (though I do hope to visit one day), but I was able to walk the streets of Entebbe, party at Makere University, and experience boarding school life thanks to Baingana.

For some reason, my writing feels a bit formal today, so I hope I’m getting across to you how much this book delighted me! I really loved it; in addition to that wonderful sense of place, the book is full of the universal issues girls face as they grown into womanhood. I identified with all of the sisters, and while Baingana occassionally broke my heart, she also made me smile and laugh.

All of the stories in the collection are wonderful, but the one that took my breath away, that I would make everyone read if it was available anywhere online, was “A Thank-You Note.” It’s written in the form of a letter, and it’s about AIDS and the horrible irony and being a carefree college student and knowing you’re dying when you’re twenty-three. Just now, I was looking for a passage to share with you, and I wish I could just type up the whole thing. But since I can’t, here’s a bit that really caught me:

David, we whispered these rumors about them, the villagers, but didn’t talk about us, did we? Now we know we are all connected: one big loving community. Back then, we thought we were different, serparate from the Rakai kind; they were born suffering, after all, but not us, oh no. We were at Makere University; we were the cream of the crop. We had dodged the bullets of Amin, Obote, all the coups, the economic war, exile and return, and here we were on the road to success. We were the lukcy ones, the chosen few. No one said this out loud, of course, we didn’t consciously think it, but the knowledge sat at the back of our minds like a fat cat. We were intelligent, read books for fun, had worn shoes and socks to school while villagers went barefoot; we spoke proper English; listened to Top of the Pops rather than Congolese music; ate with forks, not our fingers. And, of course, we would one day leave this place to work in southern Africa, or go to Europe or America for further studies. Escape, but not by dying.

What went wrong, David?

I’ve read a lot of short stories over the years, and there are a special few that touch me, that I will always remember and think about. I am positive that “A Thank You Note” is one of those stories.

That being said, I almost didn’t want to tell y’all that it was my favourite. Why? Because it seems a touch stereotypical to have a story about AIDS in a collection set anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Tropical Fish is anything but stereotypical. The sisters are from privileged Uganda, and they always feel like real people dealing with real issues, not like mouthpieces for ‘African issues,’ whatever that might be. And “A Thank You Note” is intensely personal, which is what makes it so searing.

I thought I’d have more to talk about in this post, since the book makes me feel all gushy! But I went into it not knowing anything (I didn’t even realise the stories were interlinked until the third one, lol), and I find I don’t want to talk about specifics, because I want you all to experience it for yourself. Even if you’re not a big short story fan, I think you should try it out; it has the continuity of a novel, with characters growing over time. If you value wonderful writing, or characters who feel like they could step out of the pages, or coming-of-age stories or a powerful sense of place, do yourself a favour and read Tropical Fish. It exceeded every one of my expectations, and I can only hope that Baingana publishes another book soon.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention that I read this book for the African Diaspora Challenge, as an Eastern Africa selection. :) I’ve loved every book I’ve read for the challenge so far, and I highly recommend you sign yourself up for it, or at least check out the recommended reading and participants’ reviews.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2010 6:39 am

    Wow! Sounds like quite a book. I’ve actually gotten into short stories (after reading Interpreter of Maladies, how can you not?), so this one sounds like it would be right up my alley. I’ll have to add it to my super long list of books to buy.

    By the by, I didn’t think your tone was too formal or anything, I thought it was just write. I know what you mean though, sometimes when I blog I’m not sure how effusive I’m being because it sounds a bit stodgy to me when I’m writing it. I feel like I’m still trying to find my voice with my posts.


    • February 19, 2010 12:13 pm

      Thanks-I’m glad my tone sounded good! And I think you’ll really enjoy this collection, since I’m also a fan of Lahiri.

  2. February 18, 2010 9:53 am

    Sounds amazing. Adding it to my growing tbr list. Great review, Eva.

  3. February 18, 2010 9:59 am

    I’m always so impressed by the international scope of your reading! However do you do it? Whenever I go looking for books from a particular region of the world outside my comfort zone (i.e., UK or North America), I always seem to come up with a few titles but never a bounty like you seem to find!

    • February 19, 2010 12:14 pm

      Well, at this point it’s a habit; I put together international booklists, and whenever another blogger reviews something international, I automatically pop it on my radar! It took time, though. :)

  4. February 18, 2010 10:40 am

    This collection of short stories sounds like a good way to get me out of my reading rut and will expand my reading horizons this year!

    • February 19, 2010 12:14 pm

      I hope you enjoy it! I think short stories are a great way to end a reading block.

  5. February 18, 2010 11:25 am

    Thanks for the lovely review. Sadly, AIDS is far from being a stereotype in Africa; it’s an all-too harsh reality. That being said, to write about AIDS but not turn the characters into didactic awareness-raising mouthpieces sounds like a real achievement.

    Have you read “Murambi: The Book of Bones” by Diop? It deals very straightforwardly with the Rwandan genocide, but in a way that doesn’t force you to demonize the Hutu and lament the Tutsi. It also deals with the moral implications of creating an artistic account of very real tragedies (the main character wants to write a Sartre-an play about the genocide).

    Anyway, greatly enjoy reading your blog!

    • February 19, 2010 12:16 pm

      I’m well aware that AIDS is a horrible scourge in Africa.

      I haven’t read the Diop book, but I’ve read other books on Rwanda that I thought were strong and didn’t demonise either side. They were nonfiction, though!

      • February 19, 2010 12:51 pm

        I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t aware of the monumental problem of AIDS in Africa. I’m sorry if my comment came across as curt and condescending, in any way.

  6. February 18, 2010 11:47 am

    This sounds great. I really need to read more African lit.

    • February 19, 2010 12:17 pm

      I started consciously reading more African lit last year, and now I love a bunch of it! :)

  7. February 18, 2010 12:13 pm

    I’m not a big short story fan, but I sometimes think it’s because I’m reading the wrong ones. I’m adding this to my wish list.

    • February 19, 2010 12:17 pm

      I’ve been a short story fan since high school, but that might be because I started with some incredible authors. :) If you ever want suggestions, feel free to e-mail me!

  8. Chelsea permalink
    February 18, 2010 6:40 pm

    I agree with Steph – I’m totally jealous of the international scope of your reading! I never seem to turn up titles the way you do! Loved the review, can’t wait to pick up the book – it’s so refreshing to find a book written from and about sub-Saharan Africa that just lets the issues be without…pushing them. And great vlog this week – glad to see you back up and around!

  9. Juanita permalink
    February 19, 2010 5:39 pm

    I’m going to have to put this one on my ever expanding list. Great review.

  10. She permalink
    February 19, 2010 8:52 pm

    What an awesome cover.

  11. February 21, 2010 12:39 am

    I’m about ready for my next collection of short stories, so I’m going to get this from the library as soon as I can get there. Thanks for the heartfelt recommendation!

  12. February 22, 2010 8:09 am

    I bought this on impulse about two-three years ago (I admit to being dazzled by all the praise and awards), but I’ve never gotten around to reading it. Your review’s bumped the book up the TBR LandMass! :) So, thank you!


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