Ugandan Writers: Meet Violet Barungi
Jane interviews Violet Barungi, an editor for FEMRITE.
more from author >>
First published: May 29, 2006
She is a writer, novelist, children's writer, playwright and editor who is not only known in the Ugandan literary circles but also internationally. Currently working as the editor for FEMRITE, an association of Ugandan women writers founded in 1996, she is a prolific writer. Her play Over My Dead Body won the British Council International New Playwriting Award for Africa and the Middle East (1997). She has worked extensively in the literary circles, with the Uganda and East African Literature Bureaus. She writes short stories, articles and poems for various social and literary magazines and journals.
Violet Barungi was born in Mbarara district, Western Uganda. She was educated at Bweranyangi Girls' School, Gayaza High School and Makerere University, Kampala, where she graduated with an honours degree in History. Her work as an editor commenced in Uganda when the literary scene had barely had any visible creative literature written by women. Thanks to her efforts, along with a few other women, a new interest in Ugandan women's literature was generated and an increased promotion of Ugandan women's writings and literacy programmes were started.
Barungi herself flourished as a writer. Her publications include The Shadow and the Substance (novel) published by Lake Publishers, Kenya, 1998, Cassandra (novel) published by FEMRITE Publications Limited, Uganda, 1999, short stories for children, which include Tit for Tat and other stories (1997), The Promise (2002), Our Cousins From Abroad (2003) and The Boy Who Became King (2004) and her play, Over My Dead Body (unpublished).Her other plays include The Award-winner, a stage play written to commemorate women's creative works in the new millennium (unpublished) and The Bleeding Heart, a radio play (unpublished). She is married and has six children.
Jane: At which point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Violet: I wanted to be a writer way back at University when my short story assignment was broadcast on BBC and subsequently produced in an anthology of short stories entitled Origin East Africa edited by the late Prof. David Cook
You are the editor for FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association). How did that come about?
When FEMRITE was formed and started operating in 1997, an editor was needed for New Era, a social magazine to be used as a platform for women to air their views. As I had some editorial experience and had just retired from government, I was offered the job of Assistant Editor, and later became the substantive editor of the magazine, and other publications.
You must come across a lot of incredible writing talent.
Yes, I have come across some quite amazing talent during the course of my work.
How does FEMRITE figure out what should go to the slush pile or not?
As a woman's writing organisation, FEMRITE is keen on highlighting the plight of women in society by tackling issues like gender balance, domestic violence, women's rights, girl child education, and of recent, other issues like the plight of women living with HIV/AIDS, problems of women living in war zones, rape and defilement, etc. Books tackling issues of that nature are given first consideration, especially if they meet the expected standard requirements.
What are the challenges of being an editor?
The challenge of working as an editor, especially when you are a writer, is that you don't have enough time to spare for your own writing. I also suspect that the analytical approach to every written word an editor acquires over the years impacts negatively on one, drying up ones creative juices, leaving you only fit to critique other peoples work. The same occupational hazard interferes with one's enjoyment of reading as a hobby.
You have a full time job; you are a mother and a wife. When do you find the time to write?
I don't have a young family to worry about per se as all my children have left home. My husband is retired and less demanding on my time.
You have been described as a skilled storyteller who exhibits impeccable mastery of language and style. What inspires you as a writer?
I usually write about relationships, especially between men and women. I find them quite intriguing and while I know that society was basically designed to suit men's needs and subjugate women, I also feel that there's a lot more women can do to free themselves from the yoke. I try to encourage women, through my writing, to believe in themselves and take positive steps to improve their status, especially through education, the most effective means to attaining social and economical freedom.
How did being at Gayaza High School shape you as a writer?
At Gayaza, we were encouraged to read outside the classroom and had a wealthy supply of reading materials in our school library. This sharpened my interest in reading, and later, gave birth to my interest to write.
Let's talk about your novel Cassandra. For those who may not have read it, what is it about?
Cassandra by Violet Barungi
Briefly, Cassandra is about an intelligent, self-confident young woman who plans to achieve her goals in life without using men or compromising her integrity. She makes headway until her path is inexorably barred by her awakened needs and desires for fulfillment as a woman. The conflict is whether even in this aspect she dictates her terms or gives in to social rules.[Read more on "Cassandra"]
Was it Nuwa Nyanzi by any chance who illustrated the beautiful cover of your book?
Yes, the illustration on Cassandra is by Nuwa Nyanzi.
Women empowerment issues are important to you. Why is that?
Women empowerment is important because it is the key to social and economical freedom, the surest way a woman can realize her potential. And as I said before, women empowerment begins with education.
In Cassandra, you warn that "Feminine liberation does not mean rejection of men and repudiation of a woman role in the family." I am glad that you clarify that because I find the term feminist has been misunderstood and wrongly defined. Would you consider yourself a feminist?
If being a feminist means being concerned about social injustices to women, and fighting for their rights, then yes, I think I fall into the definition. Beyond that, I am not sure. I believe that men and women should be treated equally, given equal opportunities, and so on. But I am not the ultra type who will not ask a man to help me change a car tire because physically, he is stronger than I am.
Your play, Over My Dead Body (unpublished) won the British Council International New Playwriting Award for Africa and the Middle East region, 1997. What was the play about?
Over My Dead Body deals with issues of girl child education and empowerment. Briefly in the play, the protagonist Boona has a chance to continue with her education after excelling at her A levels. But at the same time, she has a rich boyfriend who has offered her marriage. The conflict centers on whether to take a short cut to rid herself of poverty by marrying her rich boyfriend or to go to university. The entire family gets embroiled in the argument until a near-tragedy helps Boona to make the right decision.
I asked this to Mildred Barya Kiconco and I could be wrong but I'll ask you as well. Why do you think that right now there are more Ugandan women writers published than men?
I don't believe there are more published Ugandan women writers than men. In 2001, FEMRITE published a directory of Ugandan creative writers, which showed published women as only 26%. I don't think the picture has drastically changed since then. What has happened though, is that, thanks to FEMRITE, women writers have had more exposure nationally and internationally, and won more literary awards.
What inspired the Read Me Series?
Read Me Series comprise folktales, which were inspired by the need to bridge the gap between the past and the present for the modern child who has not had the chance to listen to African tales by the fireside. The tales offer children a glimpse of the rich and glorious world of their ancestors, while at the same time teaching them their history, culture and customs.
Do you find writing children's books any more challenging than adults books?
Writing for children is more challenging, especially trying to adjust to their level of thinking.
Where can those who want to buy your books find them? Including those who may be abroad...
ABC stocks all FEMRITE publications and has an outlet in the USA. In Uganda, our books are available in most bookshops and bookstores.
Do you think the government is doing enough to promote national literature and the growing crop of Ugandan writers? How can they improve?
The government could do a lot more to promote national literature and the growing crop of writers. Currently 10% of UPE has been set aside to buy supplementary readers for UPE schools but that is not enough. It could go a step further and make Literature a core subject and train more teachers to teach it.
What did you think of the government's preference of sciences over the arts controversy which happened last year?
The preference of sciences to arts is, in my opinion, misconceived and does not augur well for the development of this country. You cannot promote the culture of reading if the subject is relegated to the periphery. There is no earthly reason why the two branches of learning cannot complement each other.
Are you working on any current writing projects?
I am currently working on two novels with the working titles of On the Side of Angels and Belated Harvest respectively. I have a series of folktales ready to go into print and I am thinking of putting together a collection of short stories, most of which I already have.
Any words of advice for those following your footsteps?
Writing is fun but it can also be frustrating and isolating. Patience and perseverance are two important qualities a writer cannot do without.
For more information on Violiet Barungi go to: www.violetbarungi.com
more from author >>
First published: May 29, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.