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Denise Kavuma

It was about 3 or 4 am that night, I don’t recall which, when someone came into the emergency room, carrying an unconscious little girl, with her braided hair rather damp and clammy skin.

“She followed me and my friends! We wanted to go for a late night swim! She followed me and my friends! We wanted to go for a late night swim! I didn’t know she followed me, banange, I didn’t know!”

He was in a panic and almost yelling, so we put who we later learned was his 6-year-old sister on a free bed and set to work. The nurses in the emergency room were always more reliable and so we moved quickly but that little girl just wasn’t stabilizing. Her oxygen stats kept fluctuating and we did what we could in our limited resources setting without trying to panic too much.

30 minutes later and the girl was awake but her vitals still kept fluctuating. In a moment of frustration, as her brother stepped out to talk to other family members and inform them of our progress—or lack thereof—the little girl turned to me and smiled.

My pulse quickened as I allowed a little hope to return to my heart and I reached out to hold her hand, refusing to flinch even as I felt its clammy skin. She was a little girl after all; she deserved to see joy, unicorns, and rainbows, not the worried eyes of her primary doctor. Her eyes brightened slightly and I gave her a small smile, thinking that perhaps I had succeeded in giving her some comfort, as little as it was.

“Doctor, I am going to die,” she rasped, her voice soft and hoarse.

From “Last Word”

“Last Word” is the first speculative fiction piece written by Denise Kavuma, a convincing, rather gruelling read about a depressed young intern who keeps killing her patients. Not only do they die—despite all her best and very professional efforts—but they know they are dying, and tell her. Even babies give her a last smile before dying. What is she? An Angel of Death?

Denise: “That was actually my very first fantasy or speculative fiction story. I wrote it about three years ago. I don’t remember my processes.

“Before that, I was writing nonfiction and fiction prose, mostly writing about my medical experiences in humorous ways, and putting them up on a blog. Then Reader’s Café Africa picked it up, so I do a column for them called The Doctor’s View every week, mostly my medical experiences in humorous ways. It was a long time of just writing nonfiction because I thought that was all people would ever read from me.

“The peculiar thing with local Uganda schools is that they don’t encourage children to read fiction. If it is fiction, it has to be classical European fiction. So, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. That kind of book. For children, yes. And the rest are textbooks. If the teachers caught us reading even the tiny little Lion King books from Disney, they were always confiscated.

“When I was eight years old, my parents moved to Kenya. I was enrolled in an international school. For the first time in my life there was a library with all kinds of stories that were not European classic fiction. I found more satisfaction in fairy tales. I would read five books in a day and bring them back the next day. The librarian would be like ‘Are you sure you read all these books?’

“I was so in love with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. I got lost in that world. So I thought to myself if I were ever brave enough to put a story on paper, it will always be like this.

“I was used to reading stories about white people and descriptions of the colour of their eyes and their surroundings which are developed, so that is what I wrote in my first stories. Then someone asked me, ‘Why can’t you base this in Uganda? You know the layout of the city. You don’t have to imagine the streets. You know the people, you know how they would react, why not do that here?’ That’s when I switched over and decided to write this.

“I’ve always thought that if I were to write fiction, it would have to be fantasy, and the kind I enjoyed most as a child. One of my early stories was “Family is Family.”

“At the time, the vampire craze was still going on and I thought, what if the vampire were feeding on emotions instead, would love be more satisfying? Or would it be enough to feed on depression?

“I had my first year Master's exams to so do, so I just wrote it out and put it up on my blog. And a lot people expressed interest. People liked it so I polished it up and sent it to Reader's Café Africa, and they put it up. I was very surprised. It encouraged me.

“Then I came across Omenana calling for submissions. I thought I’d write something and see what they say. I sent it and when they published it, that got the ball rolling, and I began to think ‘This is something I would like to do.’”

That story was “The Dreams We Never Remember” and the editor was Chinelo Onwualu.

Denise: “She wrote back to say, ‘We’re interested in the story and the themes you are playing with.’ She was editing the piece and letting me know what didn’t flow right, or what I could think about changing if I wanted to change it.”

In “When Death is on Your Side,” an outcast sixteen-year-old abused all her life for being a witch is cast out of her village and meets Walumbe, a personification of Death.

Denise: “I remember wondering, how come I have never seen stories about our own traditional characters or the origins of the Ganda people? These stories are not personalized, dignified, expounded upon.

“So I thought to myself, I really want to write about what is considered death in the Buganda culture. Death himself visits the main character. The backstory of Death and his father Ggulu, and killing his nephews, all that is traditional.

“I was curious to know how this character would fare if I were to give him a personality. How would people perceive this?”

The villagers throw the heroine out because of a prophecy that she will destroy the village. Walumbe gives her the choice: does she want Death to kill everyone in the village who tormented her?

Denise: “I left the ending to the reader. To have her destroying the village would be very petty. She destroys the village and then what? It would have to be something much bigger. Being excommunicated for witchcraft is something that happens in the deeper villages where you have little children being starved or kicked. People believe the children are practicing witchcraft for some strange reason.”

I asked if she would mind if I described the story as “traditional belief speculation.”

Denise: “I wouldn’t mind it. I don’t see a problem with the term. But I would say it was more fan fiction than anything else. The idea isn’t mine; it comes from the community. So maybe fan fiction is the traditional belief fiction of the fan community.”

Fan fiction is the traditional belief fiction of the fan community? I like that idea, and we talk about traditional belief in relation to her other stories.

Denise: “‘Brand New Day’ is not traditional belief realism. It’s remote from anything traditional in Uganda. Going a bit more intimate with that story, I struggle with depression. The time that I was writing that, I was just coming out of a very dark time. The question was: if I had the chance to shirk every responsibility and every single thing that was compressing my life or weighing me down, would I still feel the way I do? The story began to form in my mind: the reason why people struggle with depression is not always electrolyte imbalances or a physiological process. Sometimes people are dragged down a dark path because of experiences that they have. If that experience were taken away would this person still be in that dark place?

“I didn’t know the answer to that so I wrote a story around it. If the reason the main character wanted to end it all was taken away, if the stress was taken away, would he still be as hopeless as he was at the beginning? I left it to the reader to decide, another ambiguous ending that leaves it to the reader to imagine the outcome.

“The idea of the painter—the ‘witch’ or jajja in that story, who seems to be able to paint the future—what she paints comes true ... I dabble in art and painting and people do say ‘Can you paint me how you see me?’ I don’t do portraits, I do interpretations of people. What if I could have a character who takes everything the person is by painting them, and takes them out of the world?

“So the people called jajja in the community or the traditional healers—people believe that they might have mystical powers. I’ve never encountered any one of them, there are very few. I was wondering, what if is there an aspect of the future she could peer into and what she paints happens that exact way?

“I wanted to base it on Kampala City at night. It can be kind of strange how silent it goes. The hills really do make it beautiful. Kampala at night is a beautiful city to look at if you’re not stranded. If you are stranded it becomes a bit of a problem. You meet people who have nefarious ideas or make a living in less than honest ways.”

Denise is from Kampala, but when we spoke in November 2016, she was studying ophthalmology at Mbarara University, where she also did her undergraduate studies. At that time, her MA was going to last for another two years. Like Mehul Gohil in Kenya, Denise became a book hunter.

Denise: “I read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan in the first year of medical school, rather late. Trying to track down books was darn near impossible. Books were expensive to get online, so I had to go around bookshops and ask—book hunting. I would have to try to find the fifth book in series. I never got to finish most of the serialized fantasy series, it was impossible to find them online or in bookshops.

“The first time I encountered a secondhand bookshop, one of the tenants at home was going to start one. She came from the USA with boxes of books. That was when I saw Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I still remember that it was a big red book. I was like ‘I have to read this.’ She was like, ‘Come over to my shop and get it,’ and it was 5000 Ugandan shillings. That was Fareed’s Book Store.

“I went over to the shop but didn’t find it ... but I found the combined The Lord of the Rings for the same price. I was like: ‘OK.’ I could not believe they had that and it was for just five thousand shillings.

“I especially liked Garth Nix. I think he writes for the younger generation. His stories are dark, really dark, and that appealed to me in a strange way. Weirdly enough he was readily available in the bookshops, so I got his Old Kingdom series very easily. The Harry Potter series came much later. I didn’t get to finish those because I started reading the books when I was in Kenya and they were readily available. But I came back to Uganda and most bookstores were secondhand bookstores and they couldn’t get more copies. When they finally did, I had moved on to more complicated, much deeper fantasy.

“I should also mention Frank Peretti. He wrote a bunch of Christian books, except the difference was, he had angels and demons as characters. They were given personalities. It was something I had never seen done before anywhere. I’d read Christian fiction before but this felt more like fantasy. That fascinated me. It pushed me deeper into the pit because I wanted to see what other writers had done with that, but I never found anything like it again.

“I liked Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett ... God rest his soul. So it was step by step, like I was on a staircase with each new book, each new series I jumped into and then couldn’t complete reading, it pushed me onto another step. Now I could buy them online but, you know, medical school and all that.”

We start talking about her writing in the future.

Denise: “The people you have interviewed so far (for this series), they have such big dreams for writing. I’ve never wanted to write a novel or to be world-renowned. Even looking for publishing was not something that I ever had in my plans. I sent something to Omenana because I loved their work. I thought to myself, maybe if they didn’t like mine I could ask them why and be able to move on, improve. That was my reasoning behind that.

“But there are still hundreds of little short stories I want to write. I want to do something for women in Uganda. I want to join the cause. I’m a feminist. I want to write an alt-history where we are in this world, but in which women are the more dominant gender. It’s a matriarchy. I want to write it from the point of view of men who are assaulted or who are made to feel like they are prey. That is going on around me every day and it enrages me every time I see it.

“It’s not yet completed. Every time I meet someone who tells me a different story (about patriarchy), I get a new story and realize that it’s much deeper, more profound than I ever fathomed, and I want to do it justice.

“I have experienced a lot of discrimination. I didn’t know if there was a movement when I was a girl. All I know is that I was very uncomfortable with certain situations, and I would always stand up for women in my circle. I wanted to fight for their rights and stand up for girls and be sure the whole class knew don’t do this because of ABCD. It wasn’t until much later when I came across feminism and I thought: this is something I want to join.”

As a resident in a hospital while continuing her studies, Denise regularly sees women who have been injured in domestic violence.

“Everybody is a feminist in their own way. As a doctor I see a lot of women come into the hospital and when you talk to them, they tell you they have no other option other than to go back to an abusive home because they have children, because they have no source of income.

“I am limited in what I can do for them. So it’s usually an administrative issue. The administration decides if they are going to send this woman back to the home that did this to her. Or are they going to find a way to contact an organization. And usually they send her back.

“I would like to be able to do something to help. I don’t know if it would be through writing. I feel a little confused. But that’s what pushes me at this point. I would like to help the women who haven’t had the opportunities that I have had.

“So, like FEMRITE is a pro-women movement. They also encourage writing. For me that is the ideal step. But I could never shy away from feminism. Because I’ve seen what they’ve done for me.”

I say that a lot of the writers in Uganda are mentioning FEMRITE and it seems to me to have made a huge difference. I haven’t heard of a similar organization in Nigeria or Kenya or South Africa.

A FEMRITE Discussion

Denise: “It has, it really has made a huge difference. About two years ago I was still working as a general medical practitioner. I knew about FEMRITE and their website and I looked up what matters they deal with, and gender violence was one of them.

“Every time I talked to these ladies I would give them FEMRITE’s information. ‘If you ever need help or advice or someone to talk to, these women will help you. Here's the email address. Here’s the phone number; it’s your decision.’

“Right now I don’t like being identified as a doctor. If I’m talking to people as a writer, I’d much rather that they identify me as that, rather than the doctor who writes. I like to keep medicine out of my pieces. After you tell people you are a doctor that is it. They will always see you as that and they ask ‘Why do you write? What’s the point? Why did you do medicine if you want to write?’ You have no idea how many times I hear that question.”

I ask her to sum up.

Denise: “I would say that African science fiction and fantasy has such potential. I think that most of the people who end up getting interested in this genre are inspired by what they read, which comes from the US and Europe. Very few of the local ones do we get to read. Most of the people who get into it are reading the best American or European fantasy. If we could find a way to integrate that level of dedication and success here, there would be an explosion of stories that would be coming out of Africa. I would love to see that, I would love to live in the era where we have fantasy and science fiction coming out of the ground here in Africa.”

In the year since this interview Denise has not been able to get to her writing—medical school is taking up all her time.

                                       Stories Online from Denise Kavuma


Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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