The magic of storytelling

Young Rwandan writers, shortlisted for the Huza Press Prize for Fiction, came together last weekend to explore beautiful and difficult themes in their stories. In a workshop at Kigali Public Library, they spoke about their passion for storytelling.

Young Rwandan writers, shortlisted for the Huza Press Prize for Fiction, came together last weekend to explore beautiful and difficult themes in their stories. In a workshop at Kigali Public Library, they spoke about their passion for storytelling.

We open the workshop with a simple question: why do you write? “Sanity,” responds Eric Mutzinzi without hesitation. Eric, a member of the Rwandan writers collective Mellowviews, is also one of the ten finalists in the Huza Press prize for fiction, with whom we are gathered at Kigali Public Library on a sunny Saturday.

All under the age of 30, they come from a variety of backgrounds — students, lawyers, computer scientists — but have one thing in common: their passion for telling stories.

Many write in order to process life. Landry Subira’s writing is perpetually playing catch-up with his imagination. “I think there’s another voice in my head that’s always writing,” he says.

“The words are always running.” I can virtually see the words running through his head as his eyes flash with enthusiasm, adding to the quiet but animated energy in the room.

Writing fiction, Denyse Umuhuza tells us, is an act of magic. As a young girl, she used to write stories for her friends at school, then stand at a distance to observe them as they read the stories, fascinated by the power of words to evoke emotions. “You can create a world. You can create humans.”

Her face lights up as she speaks. “It’s magical. You can help someone realise something, using something that never existed.”

The stories on the shortlist this year open up a striking variety of realisations, questions, and ideas. In her tragicomedy, October, Alfonsina Kayitesi describes life in prison and the anxieties of loved ones waiting on the outside.

Eric and Dominique Uwase Alonga speak of complicated love centred around the imagery of cafes in Kigali. Their two very different stories — Spilled Beans and Safe, respectively — both portray characters finding their way through the fog of loss and loneliness.

Leandre Rutwaza Ganza keeps us in suspense with the escape diaries of a warrior woman from the past. Lucky Grace takes us on an unsettling journey into the mind of a young man with mental illness who, left untreated, is eventually consumed by the violence of his hallucinations. Landry describes his story, Araje, as a “love song to Rwanda”.

In the workshop, he speaks to us about diaspora identity struggles, and how an initial sense of alienation from his culture has gradually given way to a comfortable sense of home. Araje paints a quintessential scene that most Rwandans can identify with: waiting for a gusaba to begin on a languid Kigali afternoon.

Denyse leaves the familiar images of city life to convey the restlessness of a young girl going through puberty in a rural village, and her foray into the forest to search for Inoni, a flower used to colour fingernails.

Arnaud Rwabahizi tells the story of a young boy’s struggle with bullying at school, and what leads him to finally fight back. Isaac Barclay — who started writing because he’s obsessed with reading books, and started reading books after he failed to read the word “register” in a primary school class and got mocked with the mercilessness of children — tells us that he wanted to write a love story.

But he also wanted to write about people’s struggles with forgiveness. So he did both, in Sum of Good Things, which he summarises as “a difficult love story”.

Echoes of Love by Raissa Kamaliza, which eventually wins the prize, is also a difficult love story. It uncovers the quiet tension between a mother and her prospective daughter in law, whom she suspects of seducing her son for his money — which is what this mother did with the father of her son then settled into a long, loveless marriage.

“It takes one to know one,” Raissa opens the story wryly, then swings us back and forth across time: from the mother’s calculated pursuit of a rich husband while at university in 1987, to the intimacy of their marital bedroom 28 years later, where the impact on their relationship is unravelled with poignance and precision.

At the conclusion of the judging process, the thing that leaves the greatest impression on me is the willingness of the writers to tackle difficult stories, and the boldness of their imaginations in doing so.

“To understand just one life,” wrote Salmaan Rushdie, “you have to swallow the world.” It is hard enough to swallow our own experiences of the world, let alone the layers and layers beyond.

Much is said about storytelling, but not so much about listening. Listening is tricky, because sometimes the stories that we need to listen to are not stories that are easy to hear. Some stories are more difficult to swallow than others.

Yet, it is often the difficult stories that we most need to understand. Several of the writers use their stories to explore different forms of mental illness that are anchored in the heavy weight of unspoken things.

Where resolution happens, it is often prompted by characters releasing their fear of honest, difficult conversations. In the ‘real’ world, such fears feel all too familiar.

Whether in intimate or public spaces, most of us have an instinctive sense of which stories are good to tell and which won’t go down well. It is easy to fall into the habit of constantly editing ourselves to make our stories easier to swallow. It is easy to only listen to what we want to hear.

Good stories are more than entertainment: they help us swallow and digest the complexity of the human experience. They give us new ways to understand each other and ourselves, and understanding, in turn, makes it easier for us to tell our stories without fear.

This is the future, Eric believes, explaining why he set his story a few years from now. By then, he hopes, people will feel free to be the truest versions of themselves — “not because they’re thinking people will look at me like this or like that, but maybe because they think: oh, this is my purpose.”

The writer was a member of the judging panel for the Huza Press Prize for Fiction. The panel ran a workshop for shortlisted writers on Saturday.

*Mellowviews is a Rwandan writing collective that explores African art and culture.

 

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