Interviewed by Sarah James
I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Sarah James 'In the Booklight' Series, about writing The Africa In My House. Problems with the html have led me to copy and paste the interview here, but please, please check out her website, which is a treasure trove.
In my twenty-eighth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Andrea Mbarushimana about her poetry, art and fiction collection The Africa in my House (Silhouette Press)…
‘The Africa in my House’ is a beautiful and also heart-breaking book. Could you tell us how and why the collection came about?
Thank you, Sarah. The poems began as far back as 1999, when I was a VSO volunteer in Rwanda. They chart a kind of awakening – living in another culture makes you question your own and the norms of behavior you grew up with. It began a journey for me, a long time of writing and thinking, being married to a Rwandan and having our daughter. That led to telling stories, things I thought she might be interested to read about when she’s a little older. I feel very fortunate that Silhouette Press wanted to publish a book that focused on those things.
The book contains a beguiling and thought-provoking mix of poetry, stories and art. How does inspiration strike you? And do you automatically know what form or genre it will take, or is there a particular process or processes that you go through in deciding?
I begin with short phrases and if I can’t express myself with them, they get longer and become narratives. There are things in the collection that just came to me pretty much complete and things that I struggled with for years. The collection had a different title to begin with, then I found a drawing I’d done, titled ‘The Africa in my House’ which became the cover image. Once that happened, I wanted to paint and the paintings in the book came very fast. Some of those images had been in my head a long time and people who know me well might recognise them. The hyena figure is one I’ve played with over and over and there are several stories attached to it. I let things ruminate and find their form organically over time, but this might take several attempts.
I found the book both very moving and unsettling in revealing sides to human nature that do exist however much we wish they didn’t. Which piece was hardest to write and how did you overcome this?
The hardest poem was Murambi. I had written and rejected lots of poems after visiting the Murambi genocide site with a neighbor. It was a turning point for my relationship with Rwanda and although I wanted to tell people about it I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to express. I had also struggled to write about my Dad’s death. One day, I began to write about both at the same time. I realised what I wanted was to make the point that those thousands of deaths were all personal. Those people were all loved. I put my last moments with my Dad into that context and that’s what created the poem.
I’ve never been to Rwanda, but reading ‘The Africa in my House’, it feels like it gives a very vivid and real portrayal of lives there. It also exposes many ‘unthinking’ stereotypes – on both sides of the world. I wanted to ask how you see the role of writing and art? Is it an act of witnessing, of understanding, of protest or change…a mixture of these and other things?
I’m so glad you’ve said that! Unthinking stereotypes is a great phrase – it’s exactly what I wanted to get to. In making something, whatever form it takes, I am thinking through something, trying to reach something true, moving towards an understanding of the world. Sometimes I never completely reach an understanding and I think sometimes that makes the most interesting art. Social justice is very important to me. The damage wrought by Colonialism on people’s personal lives that I saw in Rwanda was shocking to me. I had though Colonialism was consigned to the past. Initially there was that imperative. Now, making an effort to understand and expose racism is also my way of trying to protect my husband and our daughter. I’m using the tools I’ve got.
‘God of the Shadows’ is a particularly haunting story, and one that will stay with me. Partly, following on from my previous question – but less directly writing-related – how important do you think remembering is in terms of changing things for the better?
In the space of a generation, Rwandans have rejected so much of their indigenous culture and religion. These things tell Rwandans that there was a time before the genocide, before colonialism, where the most important things in life crossed the boundaries of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. I think that memory is an important piece of Rwandan identity. I wanted to bring some of that culture up to date, to preserve it, to show how it could make sense in the now. In knowing something of her culture, Conny has a choice, she accepts all of herself. I’ve had to do that, too – accept my whiteness and everything that means. It’s not always easy, but I can’t function in deliberate ignorance of my privilege, just as Conny can’t function under the illusion of her spiritual inferiority. I think this kind of awareness is a strong catalyst for reconciliation and change.
Is there a question I haven’t asked about ‘The Africa in my House’ that you’d particularly like to talk about – and why?
I feel I’ve already said too much! Thanks so much for all your questions and your interest in the book. I’m just delighted that people are reading it and (kind of) enjoying it.
Where can people get hold of a copy of ‘The Africa in my House’?
You can get a copy from www.silhouettepress.co.uk in the BOOKS section.
Thank you, Andrea, for these interesting and thought-provoking insights into the background, inspiration and writing process for into ‘The Africa in my House’.
To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.
Anyone interested in being interviewed for In the Booklight about a new poetry project or book can email Sarah on lifeislikeacherrytreeATyahooDOTcom. Thank you.