Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Versus


Very happy to be reviewing this collection. It's a bit of a milestone. The first anthology of contemporary adult fiction I'm aware of in Rwanda. Published by Huza Press (pronounced hoo-sa - Facebook/Twitter). They hope to have it available in e-format by the end of the year.

Each year, Huza run a short story award for Rwandan writers, with a $1000 prize. The eight shortlisted stories from their 2015 competition have now been released as Versus. This is a really big deal. ImagineWe has been making strides into children's books with Oh Rwandan Child! and ABC's of Rwanda, but this is the first time contemporary adult fiction has been offered up, and it spans a wide range of genres including literary, fantasy and science fiction.

I was really excited to get my hands on a copy. 

A couple of the stories that really stood out for me: 

Today I Leave You by Jean-Claude Muhire (Twitter): I first met Jean a couple of years ago when I was country director of a youth and human rights program. He came to give a talk on LGBT rights, and he has been a passionate advocate of women's rights since. Many of my friends in the writing community became friends after I read their work (and gushed about it): Remittance Girl, Will Davis and the like. It's always really awkward when you start as friends first, then sit down to read somebody's work. You're always terrified by the thought: what if I don't like it? It's easy to write honest reviews about strangers, but it's always really hard when there's a personal connection behind the writing. Thankfully, I can honestly say, I really enjoyed this story. A harrowing, and at times poetic, exploration of domestic abuse written convincingly from a woman's perspective. I look forward to reading more of his work. He told me he is developing something at the moment, so watch this space. 

Nomansland by Dayo Ntwari (Twitter): I've never met Dayo, but it's not for lack of trying. When I moved back to Rwanda and heard there was a science fiction writer here, I desperately wanted to read some of his work, but it's only now, with this compilation, that I've had the chance. I even turned up in the rain to a talk he was giving, only to realise the Facebook event was a year old and nobody had taken it down. He wasn't even in the country. Felt like a right plonker. Anyway. Finally got my hands on his work and it stood out a mile. A futuristic, apocalyptic war zone with shape shifting hyenas, spider-based hallucinogens and space castles. I bloody loved it. Very talented writer. Apparently he's working on a collection of short stories and a novel - absolutely one to watch on the scifi scene.

A Little Red Car at the Gusaba by Eva Gara: According to her bio, Eva is a retired teacher who began telling stories to her own children. This was a really touching one exploring childhood tragedy and how love has to battle to overcome family traditions. I just really enjoyed both her style and the flow of the story.

Back in 2007, when I did my VSO training before coming to Rwanda for the first time, there was a session on cultural adjustment. I remember we were shown a drawing of an iceberg, two-thirds submerged beneath the sea. As the little penguins on top, we were told that we would probably only ever come to understand a small amount of the cultures we were venturing into, and that there would always be a huge amount we would never understand.

That was until local authors started writing, and local publishers stared printing them.

At which point, that iceberg starts to rise rapidly out of the water. 

I've been teaching a fiction course in Kigali, and was really intrigued to receive a piece from a local student recently which explored both lesbian and asexual characters. What often stands out about my students' work, and the work in this collection, is that issues are similar around the world: sexuality, love, death, violence, loss, happiness. 

The fascinating gift that literature gives us is to see that, quite often, our thought processes as human beings are remarkably similar globally. What differs are our circumstances. Sometimes our laws, our religions and our social traditions force us to make different choices, or behave in a certain way, but, through literature, nothing is incomprehensible. Reading these stories has filled in a few blanks for me, and offered up some knowledge about local language and culture that I didn't know, but it's also affirmed that, thankfully - people are people. We can understand most things if we're willing to listen. Stories transcend any boundary. 

That's why collections like Versus are so important. 

The Lovely Mr. Jean-Claude Muhire


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