There was a time in the history of Uganda when a beast ruled, hunger triumphed, hospitality forsaken and economy brutalised; that some would die, many would become ordinary time-markers and mysteries would be archived for posterity. Tropical Fish is such book that registers haunting past with natural telling skill. Only a skilled writer could relay weepy stories with reinvented taste. Without any dubiety, Doreen’s Tropical Fish rolls out stories with simple yet compelling naturalness. Tropical Fish is filled with riveting prose.
These lines speak more of the book’s hypnotic simplicity;
“Finally, I put on as many of the necklaces as I could, moving them over my head in worshipful dance movement, head bowed solemnly, then up with secret ritualistic pleasure. My chest grew heavier and heavier as the beads and stones and glass trailed down my knees… Carefully, I climbed down the chair, necklaces and earrings swaying, moved the chair away and faced the mirror… I stared at the girl in the orange-reddish glow. Who was she? …She could be anyone: a queen, a bishop, a rich loved wife… I was decorated, celebrated, Christmas tree, here to make the room shine, to turn the world to happiness” (pg 18-19)
Tropical Fish is the stories of individuals as well as a country ran aground by tyranny. It follows the stories of three sisters at the various stages of their lives. Doreen narrates the story of a horrendous political era through the times and lives of its citizens. Rosa, Patti and Christine are the three sisters whose separate horrible encounters become the microfilms of the survivors, the victors and the fallen in the 1970s' Uganda. These sisters are once kids galloping around realities, then teenagers exploring indulgences to stab boredom. Later on, they grow into adults paying for political and parental malformed pasts. Doreen spares no detail in narrating the story of a once battered Uganda. This book fumes with so much political anger, and that indeed does it in.
Idi Amin was a beast in a human materialisation. Tropical Fish charts Idi Amin’s multiplicity of wickedness. Doreen’s effort to garb her strong political emotion in subtleties fails and soon degenerates into sizzling outburst oozing from both ends of her prose. Our happiness and unhappiness may quite be important factors in determining our writing, but when creative writings change into sermons, the author’s sense of meaningful brevity is lost. Sure, Uganda was repeatedly walloped under Idi Amin in the 1970s. However, dedicating a whole prose work to crucify his dusty bones only makes him a personage of some kind. It makes his image live on in our minds. No one should give that hell of a man such pleasure of fame. There are countless instances where Doreen’s truculent tone and characters’ reminiscences get in the book’s way. It is as if Tropical Fish is Idi-Amin’s scrapbook. This is piteous. This man shouldn’t be put into reckoning. He is dead. Let’s not give him the opportunity to scorn us in our winding recollections. That only ends up adorning his image.
Tropical Fish is segmented with the lives of the three sisters of Mugisha’s family. There are Greenstones, Hunger, First Kiss, A-Thank You-Note, Lost in Lost Angeles, Tropical Fish, Passion and Questions from Home. These are eight miseries of a nation and of the hurdles of individuals. The book packs a bit of humour with juvenile diffidence to relishing effect. With Christine’s simplicity, Patti’s religiosity and Rosa extremity; the book is wrapped up in revealing stories, though trickling with the pus called Idi Amin.
Depressions and Stories
Green Stones – This introduces the reader to the early lives of the Mugisha’s family. As it is with most subsequent parts of this book, this story is much focused on Christine. Christine recounts her story of the things that fascinate her as a child. Though this is told through the observance of a child, the details of the story are not infantile trash. Christine’s secret love for her parents’ room, her mother’s jewellery and her disillusionment with her father’s personality-switch set off her challenging adulthood. In this piece, there is a justifiable strong urge to question the credibility in Taata’s personality degeneration. It is believable he is a drinker, but the manner his leisured drinking habit deteriorates to binge drinking is quite incredible. Taata’s trait suddenly swerves only to fulfil Doreen’s ambition of a depressing story.
Hunger – Patti is the less exuberant of the three sisters. This makes speaking through her diary understandable. Hunger is where one is allowed into the depth that is Patti’s life. Patti is too reticent to speak all the time. Hunger is the only place her horrible childhood is revealed. Patti communes with hunger at Gayaza Secondary School where she is a boarder. She nearly subdues hunger with obsessive religiosity. However, religion almost always fails her. In fighting hunger, she loses dignity.
First Kiss – Christine’s first-kiss changes everything for her. With her first kiss, her womanhood immaturely blossoms at a preteen stage. On her way to Nicholas’ planned rendezvous, some other things turn up. The story might have been a delight without the intrusion of Idi Amin’s evils. If the whole idea of this book is to reflect on Amin’s highhandedness and have his dried bones nailed to a cross, First Kiss surely has an overdose of that. I cannot take in Christine’s unbridled reflections on the decrepit building and abysmal conditions of her primary school. If that is also to portray the wickedness that ruled at that time; the portrayal is certainly overdone.
Lost in Los Angeles – Christine seemingly survives all to find rescue in Los Angeles. She struggles to define herself as she finds meanings to her living. This story is in black and white; the degradation of Uganda and the cosy hospitality of the West. The rushed pace at which both worlds are compared is irritating and too overreaching on Doreen’s part. This smears the pleasure for the reader. Aside tracking the development of Christine, the story is insignificant in the book. It is filled with excessive grouchiness. It shoves the stark inhumanness rocking Uganda in the reader’s face.
Doreen’s prose is sticky. Your attention is rarely lost. She is good at opening up even the tiniest of details to the reader’s interest. She does this with Green Stones and Tropical Fish. In Green Stones, she maximises on the childishness of the lead character to reveal the shocking episodes playing out in Christine’s family. Through the anal eyes of Christine, nothing is left untouched; the boredom of a disarrayed home is fully explored, the two-facedness of ethnicity is bared and the unattended emotional yearnings of vulnerable children are fully rendered. In the course of Christine’s furtive visits to her parents’ bedroom, more interesting stories are exposed. In Green Stones, Doreen uses the naïve to achieve great depth.
Tropical Fish highlights powerful literary descriptiveness. This is among the few pieces that I have read which succeed well at pulling out the psychology of a character through sex. Consenting sex is usually presented in the light of mutual engagement. That may not always be the whole truth. What if sex is also the display of differentiating moments between varied emotions? Christine’s fling with Peter is presented as such. At her sexual engagements with Peter; the inferior-superior distinctiveness between them is shown.
“I lay on the bed in my clothes. Peter took off his clothes and draped them neatly folded over a chair… Then he took my blouse and pants off methodically, gently, like it was the best thing to do, like I was sick and he was the nurse, and I just lay there. In the same practical way he lay down and stroked me…, put on a condom, opened my legs, and stuck his penis in. I couldn’t bring myself to hold him in any convincing way… One thought was constant in my head…: I was having sex with a white man. It was strange because it wasn’t strange” (pg. 94)
Christine’s affair with Peter is a story of a country being slowly raped and speedily vanquished by the Western economic incursion.
This book is an expressive adventure through the stark reality of a nation’s past gloom. Tropical Fish is dunked in the past memories of Uganda's fiercest political time. The stories in the book are not cobbled together. Doreen indeed writes them with genuine empathy. Tropical Fish was worth the reading.