Beatrice Lamwaka was recently shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. She was born in Gulu in northern Uganda, and now lives in Kampala, Uganda, where she works as a journalist and is currently studying Human Rights at Makarere University. She is working on a story collection called The Garden of Mushrooms.
Let me start by congratulating you for your story being featured on Stories on Stage, and for being on the shortlist for the 2011 Caine Prize. How do you feel about this recognition of your work?
Many thanks Emmanuel. I am just a girl from Alokolum, Gulu happy to know that my voice can be heard in places that I may never reach. I am excited that my voice keeps traveling further and further away from home. My writing performed to an audience that appreciates African literature gives me the confidence to keep writing because this is beyond what I had dreamt of as a writer. I hope that more of my work will travel further and further.
Your short stories have been anthologized in different publications, such as Speaking for the Generations (USA), and New Writing from Africa 2009, selected by J.M. Coetzee. Your shortlisted story is also appearing in To See the Mountain and Other Stories compiled by The Caine Prize for African Writing 2011. These publications show a significant contribution to African literature, and to writing in general. Do you believe your work is contributing to something larger than you had anticipated? What effect has the publication of your work in these important anthologies had on your writing career?
However hard I try to stretch my mind, I could never imagine that this year my short story would be performed in Sacramento or be shortlisted for the Caine Prize. The publications give me the confidence that I can make a contribution in Ugandan (African) literature.
In the Stories on Stage series, the stories are read by professional actors. What do you think is the importance of a process like this to the writer? Have you ever read your stories in front of an audience?
It brings to life what I have created and it sort of makes me feel like a god…creating something which is real. I am happy to know that my story lives without me. And that is what I want from my work. Yes, I have read my work to an audience before: Le Chateau de Lavigny in Switzerland; Nairobi, Kenya; and around Uganda.
Tell us a little about yourself as a writer. When did you start believing you were a writer? Who were your influences?
I have always wanted to write, but I seriously started to believe that I could contribute greatly to Ugandan literature around mid 2008 when I tuned myself to write, write, and look for opportunities to get my stories published, and that is why I am in different anthologies in various countries. I went ahead and founded a book club that focuses on contemporary African writers, which also gave birth to the writing club. Most of the stories that I sent out have been read by the club. I read a lot of contemporary African writers like Brian Chikwava, Chimamanda Adichie, Segun Afolabi, and Goretti Kyomuhendo and they motivate me to write.
In what ways has your background as a journalist helped or hindered your creative writing?
My background as a journalist diversifies and amplifies the issues that I strongly feel that I should write about. If I can’t voice a story as a creative work then I write articles.
Most of your stories deal with war. Why this preoccupation with war? What other issues have you explored, or wish to explore, in your writing?
I grew up in northern Uganda, which was savaged by two decades of armed conflict. This has greatly impacted my life and it is one that issues I find myself ‘easily’ writing about. My home became an IDP camp and it is one of the issues that crop up unconsciously or consciously in my writing because every time I go home it is a different experience. I have written about HIV/AIDS, university experiences, etc.
What inspired the story selected for Stories on Stage, “The Queen of Tobacco?”
I eavesdropped on a story as someone narrated it to a friend, about a woman who went out in the middle of the night to get cigarette from whoever was smoking. As soon as I heard the story, I knew that I had to write it, although I didn’t write the story right away but it played in my mind so many times and when I sat down to write it. In one sitting the story had come to life, and then I emailed it Thomas J. Hubschman, editor at Gowanus Books, who accepted it for publication in summer of 2002. It is one of my favorite stories. This was my second story to get published and the first to get published outside of Uganda.
What is the state of creative writing in Uganda? What direction is African literature in general taking?
Many Ugandans are writing, although most of the publishers focus on textbooks, so that many writers are getting published outside of the country, hence robbing the people of the chance to read such work. The establishment of writers associations like FEMRITE, Uganda Women Writers Association, and Kwani (Kenya) are encouraging young, vibrant writers who are exploding into the writing arena.
What do you think of the readership of African literature?
In Africa, many people enjoy reading what they relate with. And there is a big thirst for African literature outside of Africa, and this is a huge compensation for the high percentage of those that do not read in Africa.
In what ways has the internet affected African writing?
Internet has opened doors to the world that were otherwise closed to most writers. Our work can reach further than we anticipated.
What other words would you want to share with the lively audience of Sacramento’s Stories on Stage?
Thank you very much for listening to my story. There are a lot more stories where “Queen of Tobacco” came from. I hope that you will enjoy my story.
Emmanuel Sigauke grew up in Zimbabwe where he studied English and Linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe. He is based in Sacramento, and he teaches college composition, literature and creative writing at Cosumnes River College. He is a co-editor of the annual short fiction series called African Roar. He has published short stories and poetry in various literary journals and anthologies. He is also a board member of the Sacramento Poetry Center, where he hosts poetry readings every second Monday. Emmanuel will guest host the June 24th Stories on Stage event.
Here’s a link to the video of Katye Ridgeway reading Beatrice Lamwaka’s “The Queen of Tobacco”