Umwagarwa on how the genocide inspired her writing career

Happy Umwagarwa. Courtesy.

Happy Umwagarwa is a writer, who writes both fiction and non-fiction literature about why people think, feel, and act the way they do.

She also combines her writing endeavors with her full-time job as a Human Resources Professional.

She is the author of Hearts Among Ourselves, a book that she released last year. She had a chat with Sunday Times’ Sharon Kantengwa about how the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi sparked her writing career.

What made you want to become a writer?

 I discovered the taste of writing after the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Since then, writing has become my escape. It’s only through writing that I can express my feelings. It’s only through writing that I can untangle my puzzles. However, for years, I had never shared my writings with anybody. It was never my intention.

 In 2011, I tested the waters with a mixture of a scientific and self-help book. My first book, Drums of Success: Ten Steps to Turning your Creative Potential into Success, was published in 2015. The feedback was generally positive.

After Drums of Success was out, with the confidence I had gained that I could write a book, I started writing another book. Something told me, that as a survivor of the Genocide against the Tutsi, I would be cheating the world if I did not share my real life story in form of a memoir. In less than six months, I had finished writing the book of over 300 pages. However, when I sat down to proofread, it read like an intimate story that I couldn’t share with the world. I decided to keep the manuscript to myself, until I am ready.

When I failed to publish my real life story, I understood why some of the non-fiction books I read lacked candidness. I decided to look for inspiration from fiction books, for example the books of Toni Morrison about black culture and segregation in the US, and the books of Nadine Gordimer about Apartheid.

When I read Ms. Gordimer’s book, Burger’s daughter, I said to myself, “This is how it should be. With fiction, I will not only write about myself, I will also write about others. I will write about all of us. I will write rainbow stories. That’s the only way I will be able to understand myself, my surroundings, and what really happened to my beloved country.”

What do you love most about writing?

 With all the noise around us in this era of TV, internet and social media, we hardly take time to listen to ourselves. Writing helps me listen to the inner me. When I take a moment to write, it feels as if I am meditating. I ask myself silly questions and I try to get simple and crazy responses to those questions.

 I am glad I discovered fiction. It helps me live different lives at the same time. I do not only listen to myself, but to others as well. I weep when they weep. I jump when they jump. I simply love to discover the mystery of who we are; human beings able to love, hate, get angry, and jump of joy.

 A few years ago, I discovered poetry. I had tried to write poems before, but I never thought they were good enough to be shared with anybody. I could not put musical words together. I had to learn and practice, and this year, I have written four poems, two of them shared on my blog.

Poetry helps me write what I would not write in plain English. When I revisit my poems, tears flow on my cheeks, because each verse is a full book about me.

 Tell us about your book Hearts Among Ourselves?

 “Hearts Among Ourselves” tells the story of Karabo, a survivor of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Her father and sisters are not so lucky, and Karabo is left alone without her immediate family, not even knowing where her mother is. A former neighbor becomes her version of family.

 When Karabo goes to live with her paternal uncle Kamanzi, a colonel in the new army, she meets Shema, another genocide survivor, one of her uncle’s young escorts. Shema’s charm gives Karabo some jingling. She will surrender her heart to him, but it’s complicated —Shema knows only a part of her story. Shall she reveal the other part of the story to him? She is bamboozled.

 Hearts Among Ourselves is a story of love, hatred, and the intersection of the two. Karabo and Shema, two grieving orphans, grow up in a torn society—caught between the world of the living and the dead, and the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

What was inspiration behind it?

 A number of books, I wouldn’t say enough, have been written about the Genocide against the Tutsi. However, only probably a few books have been written about the aftermath.

 One of the most important realities of the genocide against the Tutsi is that, although masterminded by the politicians and the soldiers, the killers were ordinary individuals who hunted, tortured and slaughtered other ordinary community members. Neighbors killed neighbors, spouses killed spouses, sons killed mothers, and uncles killed nephews.

 After the genocide, the same people had to live again together in the same communities and/or as members of the same families. The government of Rwanda has invested a lot in the reconciliation, and there are testimonies of survivors who reconciled with the families of the perpetrators. However, we do not really know what these people go through in their healing process and reconciliation journey.

What message were you trying to convey?

 I believe reconciliation is not just an event of ‘asking for forgiveness’ on one hand, and ‘forgiving’ on the other.

 The person who ends up asking for forgiveness goes through a painful process of self-criticism, denial, before he/she surrenders.

 The same applies to the person who forgives, who also goes through a process of denial, anger, coping, before he/she surrenders. In the process, these two people express anger, sadness, hatred, love, and confusion.

 Hearts among Ourselves gives its characters the freedom to put to light what some of us cover with fake smiles.

 Hearts Among Ourselves does not only cover the stories of the survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. Its protagonists live in the society of other people who have, not only their own views, but their scars to scratch as well. These may be friends, classmates, neighbors, or even family members.

 My utmost aim was to get the reader understand two important things: 1) We should learn to notice the tears of others and share their pain. 2) Nobleness and greatness have nothing to do with the so-called ethnicity.

What other books have you written?

 As earlier stated, my first non-fiction book was published in 2015. It’s titled: Drums of Success: Ten Steps to Turning your Creative Potential into Success.

Have you done book tours yet?

 Not yet. I have been interacting with readers and potential readers via my website as well my social media pages. 

I recently finished the translation of Hearts Among Ourselves into Kinyarwanda, and hopefully, the Kinyarwanda book shall be out before May this year. After its publication, I plan to come to Rwanda for book readings in all major cities.

 Later, I will also plan book tours in other countries, especially those in East Africa.

How do you envision the future of your writing career?

Today, I combine writing with my full-time job in an international organization. My dream is to, one day, reach to a point, where I will drop everything else I am doing, and focus on writing. For now, I simply keep on.

 I measure my success as a writer when the issues and themes I write about are discussed where they have to, and among the people whom my messages are addressed to.