Excerpt: 'Tropical Fish' All Things Considered book critic Alan Cheuse recommends this collection of stories from Ugandan writer Doreen Baigana in his roundup of summer reads.
NPR logo Excerpt: 'Tropical Fish'

Excerpt: 'Tropical Fish'

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Get more suggestions from book critic Alan Cheuse.

All Things Considered book critic Alan Cheuse recommends this collection of stories from Ugandan writer Doreen Baigana in his roundup of summer reads.

Excerpt: From 'First Kiss'

Christine's romance was one day old. She was going to meet Nicholas again this afternoon. It was a hot empty Sunday in Entebbe, so bright you couldn't see. She didn't want anyone to know, but wondered how her sisters, Patti and Rosa, could not sense her excitement. The air itself felt different. Christine lay in bed late into the morning, plotting her escape. Her first date! With a boy! She was fourteen. Nicholas was older, eighteen maybe? Not Nick, or Nicky, but Nicholas. That was classy, she thought.

Having older sisters made Christine feel and talk older. She learned a lot that her school friends didn't know, like the words to more than four Jackson Five songs, and that the fashionable narrow trousers were called "pipes." Christine couldn't wait for adult things to happen. To wear a bra for a good reason, dance at parties, talk to boys nonchalantly, then giggle over them with her girlfriends. Move to Kampala instead of dying of boredom in Entebbe. But however much she copied her sisters, she still felt smaller, thinner, inadequate.

Anyway, what would she wear? How would she escape the house without anyone knowing? They would poke their noses into her business, ask her this and that. She had met him, Nicholas, the day before. He was as tall as a windmill. As foreign and familiar as one, too. A boy. No, a man. Help! Christine's world had been made up of women even before Taata died three years ago. He had been quiet and remote or drunk and to be avoided. Her sisters, mother, and aunts had converged protectively over and around her. In primary school it had been a scandal even to talk to boys; they were alien creatures.

Nicholas wasn't a stranger, though; she knew the whole Bajombora family. They had all gone to Lake Victoria Primary School — Lake Vic — once the best school in Entebbe. Back before Uganda's independence, in the early sixties, it had been for whites only. Some textbooks still had the stamp "The European School." But by 1973, with Idi Amin's regime in full force, there were about two bazungu left in the whole school.

Nicholas's youngest brother had been in her class. Even though the Bajomboras were always last in class, they were the best dressed in the whole school, with sharply ironed khaki shorts, shirts new and dazzling white, and black shoes so shiny you could see your face in them. Not that she got that close; they were boys! Rough and rude, or should have been. Their shoe heels were never worn down to one side like most of the others'; that was a sign of money. The dumb, handsome Bajombora boys, six of them. They were a deep, dark, smooth black and were all prizes. Although they belonged to Christine's ethnic group, the Banyankore, they were Catholics, which made them completely different, at least in her mother's Protestant opinion. To Maama, Catholics were misguided fools, though she never said this, of course, but clearly let it be known by turning down her mouth, raising her eyebrows, and hurrmphing heavily. Don't even bring up Muslims.

The day before, when Christine's sisters were dressing up to go to the Bajomboras' party, she had asked jokingly, "Can I come?" She was bored. She had spent the whole day in bed reading a Georgette Heyer romance. They were best read all the way through, at once, to keep up the excitement. To keep believing, hoping, fantasizing. Fantasy was so much better than real life. Christine became the plucky heroine waving her fan, singing, "my ship sailed from China / with a cargo of tea...," as she strolled through spring gardens or the drafty halls of Rossborough Castle. She inevitably fell in love with the hero, the tall, dark (African?) Lord Wimbledon, long before he won the heart of the rebellious witty heroine, Lady Thomasina. She imagined his shapely thighs in tight white knickerbockers, his ponytail long like a pirate's. No, not a pirate; he was an aristocrat. No one could resist him, not even Lady Thomasina, who had a mind of her own, but no fortune, alas. It was a fun read, but left Christine with a vague feeling of disgust, the same sick satisfaction she felt after eating too many sweet oily kabs.

Christine was on holiday, which was better than starving at school, but flat. She listened and watched her sisters talking on the phone, going out, working on their figures, doing sit-ups, drinking endless glasses of lemon juice that supposedly were slimming, walking with books on their heads to learn grace, wrapping their hips tight to stop them from growing too big. Rosa and Patti were seventeen and eighteen. They had purpose. Christine read romance novels and napped.

Rosa brushed away Christine's plea the way she usually did, as though her sister was a bothersome fly. "Don't be silly, the party is not for kids. Me, I won't have time to look after you."

Patti, as expected, took Christine's side. "Bambi, you want to come with us? Why not? But ask Maama first."

"Don't waste your time; she won't agree. Bannange, who last used the hot comb, and left their bi-hairs in it! Eeeh!"

Christine found Maama in the sitting room watching a TV play. Ensi Bwetyo —"Life's Like That"—had run forever. Maama was drinking her usual black tea. Christine's voice squeaked nervously. "The Pattis said I could go with them to the Bajombora party."

"Since when, at your age?" Maama talked to the children in Runyankore, but for some reason they answered her back in English. Probably because they would have been punished at school for speaking their own language.

"It's for all ages."

"Are you sure?" Maama's attention was on the TV show; she didn't want to miss a word. Patti came to Christine's rescue. "Bambi, let her come. She'll stay with me full-time."

Maama slowly turned her eyes away from the TV and swept her gaze over the two of them, down, up, and back down again, as if she was trying to figure out who they were. She shrugged her shoulders and turned back to the TV, torturing them with time. "Don't come complaining to me about her afterwards," she said. Maama never came right out and said yes. That would be too kind; she might get taken advantage of.

Copyright Doreen Baigana. Excerpted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.

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