Renowned author Umwagarwa on her writing journey

Assumpta Happy Umwagarwa. Courtesy

Sometimes life throws you something different from what you expect, this explains Assumpta Happy Umwagarwa’s journey to writing and storytelling.

Although she loved reading storybooks and novellas, at a young age, she never saw herself as a writer at any point not until she lost her father and big brother in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. It is through the agony that she sought to express her emotions and communicate with them through writing poems to them. With time, her and writing were inseparable, until today.


We caught up with the talented writer, author, novelist storyteller and poet.


Excerpts below:


What first steps did you take to make your writing dreams a reality?

I took a short course on writing, editing, and publishing books. Then, I made the first step any person who aspires to be a writer should do: To write, edit, and publish.

How do your poems develop?

Sometimes, I get inspiration and then sit down to write from the first to the last verse. Then, I embark on editing to ensure I’m happy with the rhyme, rhythm, shape, and language. For most of my poems, I keep notes where I write a verse or two, whenever my head processes some ideas. For example, there is a long poem I have been writing for six months, and I’m now on the 186th verse. I don’t know if and when I will release it.

Who are your favourite living poets and authors?

Unfortunately, my favorites have passed on. For poetry, I am inspired by Maya Angelou. I like the mood of her poems and the simplicity of her language. For fiction books, I am Inspired by Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer, not so much by their literary styles, but for the reasons, they wrote their books. The Nigerian authors, who are still alive, Ben Okri and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, are also sources of inspiration. I love the Africanity in their stories!

Umwagarwa pays tribute to her father. / Courtesy

Tell us some of your books and poems that you have written so far

I have written two books in English and one translation in Kinyarwanda. My first book, ‘Drums Of Success: Ten Steps to Turning Your Creative Potential Into Success,’ was published in 2015. My second book, which is fiction, my debut novel titled ‘Hearts Among Ourselves,’ was published in 2018, and its translation in Kinyarwanda, titled ‘Imitima y’ Abacu,’ was published in 2019. So far, I have released twelve poems (8 in English and 4 in Kinyarwanda) and six short stories, all of them in English.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?

I have a feeling our society is not yet accustomed to fiction stories, especially those I call rainbow stories. I constantly remind my readers that a storyteller’s contribution is to observe, take notes, and write stories that serve as reliable mirrors to society. As a storyteller, I have to guard my independence and make sure the stories I tell are not influenced by some groups or individuals’ opinions, including mine.

What does it take to thrive as a poet in today’s world?

It’s hard to earn a living through poetry. Poets have now understood the need to write poetry that is appealing to a broader audience, and that’s why formal poetry is giving way to free verse poetry. They are as well using different channels, somehow similar to those used by song producers to distribute and sell their poetry. However, most poets continue to combine poetry with a side-hustle to meet their daily needs.

What’s your best advice for other aspiring poets?

First, I would advise them to aspire to be poets and not necessarily bread-winners through poetry. A creator has to create first and watch her creatures do wonders. Many internationally renowned poets did not make money directly from poetry, but from the opportunities, poetry gave to them. Secondly, Rwandan poets; as much as it’s essential to get inspiration from traditional poetry, they should spice up their poetry with some modernity to appeal to the new audience, for instance, the younger generations.

How long does it take for you to write a book?

About two years. Six months for writing, and the rest for editing and publishing. The editing period is often the longest because I like to pause and work on a different project. When I proofread my work with fresher eyes, I'm usually harder on myself and notice many elements that need to be changed.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

It’s surprising how my fictional stories’ characters become like real people, even friends to me. I have a character who dies in my book ‘Hearts Among Ourselves’. Whenever I read that part, I cry for her death and forget she never existed.

Do you ever get feedback from your readers?

Yes. Rwandans love reading. Maybe, they need books that speak to their life experiences. Most readers have reached out to tell me that they identified with one or the other character of ‘Hearts Among Ourselves’. Others said the same about the characters of my short stories. Some call to tell me their stories, maybe because they think I would listen and show empathy since I wrote similar stories.

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