In May 2008, the International Cities of Refuge Network had their 3rd General Assembly in Stavanger, Norway. Once the ICORN guest writers had finished their poetry readings, I, in town with Actors for Human Rights, volunteered to perform one of my poems.
Ren Katherine Powell, Editor of BabelFruit.org was there. On 26 June I took time from my acting and writing work to submit to an interview.
Click here to read the interview on BabelFruit (opens in new window).
You were young when you left Rwanda. How much does your experience of the war affect your writing and how?
I think that creative writers always draw inspiration from own experiences, to a certain degree, particularly when those experiences are 'unusual'. Experiencing a war at a young age is certainly unusual; it's traumatic. Much of my current writing is influenced by that experience. For a long time I avoided the subject of Rwanda. I avoided thinking about Rwanda; I didn't even want to say I was Rwandan. You don't want to talk about the genocide, what you saw, what you think, etc, so you just don't mention you're from Rwanda. But now that I'm older, I've learnt and am still learning to deal with the past and to open up. So writing and acting are my outlets, actually the only way I can express myself.
You lost both your parents at a young age as well. Do you think that living in a foreign country during the grieving process make it more difficult for you?
Strangely enough, it was the opposite. My dad died while we were still in Rwanda, during the civil war/genocide (June 1994), and somehow, maybe due to my young age or to what was happening around us, it didn't really register with me (until much later). My mum died after we'd arrived in Belgium (January 1996) and that was different, it did register. But being in a foreign country, far from the kind of scrutiny that the Rwandan society can have, made it, for me, easier to deal with it. Being on our own, far from home, certainly deprived my sister and I of the emotional support we could have used; but it made it easier for me to bottle up everything, cast the past away and move forward.
Did you ever write in your first language? Many countries in Africa have a wealth of oral literature; was literature (oral or written) a part of your early life? Did a love for language lead you to theater, or did you come to language as a medium of expression through your acting?
I've never written in Kinyarwanda. I've always hoped to reach as big an audience as possible with my writing and never thought I could achieve that in Kinyarwanda. And today I don't think I would be able to write in Kinyarwanda. I've grown up and matured thinking and speaking in French and English; I guess Kinyarwanda is no longer my first language.
Literature, oral or written, wasn't part of my early life. Like most kids at that age, I was mostly into popular music and my first writings were indeed songs' lyrics. I have always been interested in languages; at fifteen I was already fluent in three: Kinyarwanda, French and English. Today I also speak Dutch, Spanish, Swahili and German fluently. My interest in theatre/acting came later and coincided with a still growing need to express myself. Through acting (and writing), I can say things I wouldn't say, I can express emotions I wouldn't otherwise express, because I'm covered by 'the character'. It's not me, it's the character. With that license in hand, there's no place I wouldn't go.
Do you feel differently (that is, like a different person) when writing/performing lyrics or verse in French or English? One can see in your writing that you are very aware of rhythms; do these vary from language to language without changing your identity and what you want to say?
Throughout the years, French has become my first language. I spoke it in my early years and I spoke it in Rwanda so I feel towards French what one would feel towards one's mother tongue. On the other hand English is a language I have mostly spoken while in Exile. So French somewhat connects me to 'Home' (I also speak French to my sister) while English relates to 'Exile'. Without helping it, I feel like a different person when writing or performing in French or English; in English I'm more aware of my 'African-ness' and 'foreign-ness'. And this always reflects on 'my character'. This is mostly due to my work as an actor. In acting you're constantly pushed to use bits of your personality, bits of your history, bits of yourself… you can't help but question who you actually are. And to me, that process has mostly occurred in the UK. First whilst training and now whilst working as an actor.
My use of both languages also emphasize this dual personality. I sometimes do the exercise of translating a piece I've written, from French to English (or vice versa) and they always end up as two totally different pieces in form, shape and meaning. And in terms of performing, I'm more aware of the rhythms in English than of those in French. For a start, there isn't much rhythm in French. As long as you hit the last beat of a phrase, you're fine. But in English, the rhythms are as important as the actual words. As a foreigner if you hit the wrong stresses in a word or sentence, you won't be understood. Because of this 'rhythmicality' in English, my inherent African rhythms tend to manifest and superimpose themselves more when I perform in English, than when I do in French (if at all). Thus enhancing my African-ness. So my use of rhythms in French and English does not affect what I say but does affect my (character's) id/personality.
In a few years English will probably become my first language and that 'exile connection' will probably be weaker if existing at all. I would then probably have a different opinion of what my identity is, of who I am.
I'm currently working on a project about the writer Dambudzo Marechera from Zimbabwe. He's known for his book The House of Hunger. In his time he was criticised for writing in English instead of Ndebele or Shona, and of not writing about the 'African Revolution' (it was late 70s and his country, then Rhodesia, was still fighting for independence). And he found himself being called an 'African' writer in the West, and not African enough by his African peers and in his homeland. I can relate to that.
Can you elaborate?
'Yabaye umuzungu' ('He's become white') is what I used to hear, back in Belgium, where there's a big Rwandan community. I hadn't whitened my skin, that was not the issue. They said this because I had chosen French above Kinyarwanda, as a mean to express myself. The fact that I'd chosen acting as a career would reinforce their belief.
Today, as an actor in the UK, I'm often asked to make my accent more African because mine isn't African enough. Yet the same people would only cast me to play an African. But then they want this typical African accent. And so we have these situations where British black actors have a better African accent, are more African, than an African actor. The same goes with writing: people expect me to write in my 'African' language. And I'm naturally expected to write about Africa in some sort of way. I have nothing against these expectations, they're possibly, well, to be expected, and I'm not trying to respond to them or go against them. But as Marechera said: "Either you're a writer or you are not. If you're a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then **** you." I want to be seen as a writer, an actor, without an epithet.
Do you plan on doing more spoken word/performance poetry in London soon?
Spoken word/Poetry performance has become a big part of my acting work now. Last week (14 - 21 June) was refugee week in the UK and I performed a few times. I was also invited to do a master class in poetry at a school in London. On 6 July I'm performing at the Cowley Carnival in Oxford. And I regularly appear at a poetry club called The Catweazle in Oxford. I hope to do more in the future, in London and elsewhere.