When I visited the exquisite country of Rwanda eighteen months ago, together with my daughter and Errant Hubby (who was not yet errant back then, needless to say), I had no idea what was in store for me.
I’m sure most people will automatically associate the name ‘Rwanda’ with the genocide against the Tutsi that shocked the world in 1994. If you’re too young to remember the indiscriminate slaughter and maiming and hacking of limbs that was daily being relayed to an appalled and disbelieving TV audience, then I’m sure your parents will do. As for me, I will always hold a special place in my heart for Rwanda and its people. Yes, Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills – a Central-Eastern African country so tiny, it doesn’t fit onto some world maps, but so beautiful, it literally takes your breath away, to coin a phrase. And above all, a country so brave in its resilience to the past and openness to the future, it makes me feel apologetic for being a boring, privileged European who has nothing better to do with her life than pour out her poor blogging heart on a certain Philosopher-Hubby who went AWOL last brutal autumn.
But where does the ‘love story with a difference’ come into all of this?
Okay then, here goes. As a writer, I’m always looking for a theme and characters for my next novel. So when my daughter came home from school one inauspicious day, almost two years ago, and announced that her next history topic was going to be Rwanda, I thought, Wow! In fact, I was so wow’ed by the thought, I promptly started reading all her school texts on the subject, and then ordered some books of my own. Within a few weeks I was pretty well becoming an expert on Rwanda, insofar as anyone can be an expert on something that they have never personally experienced. But as any writer will tell you, although personal experience helps, it is not the be all and end all. And so, the seeds for my next novel were steadily being sown. Rwanda, I smiled to myself, here I come!
I already had some ideas about utilising my son’s sex shop experience in Soho (my poor, graduate son, desperate to find work – any work) and my daughter’s conversion to Judaism several years earlier. Those two factors had kindly provided me with my protagonist – i.e. the young, feisty Naomi Lieberman: a non-practising Jewess and recent university graduate who, like my son, was unable to find work in her specialist field, and so instead found employment at the salacious Sugar Lace sex shop in Soho. But that wasn’t enough. I needed a male lead for her to fall in love with. Right? This being a kind of updated, multicultural Pride and Prejudice genre.
Hmmm. Rwanda calling … So okay, I thought, beginning to get a wee bit excited, why not conjure up a gorgeous Rwandan guy? With a tragic past? That wouldn’t be too difficult. It could also serve the noble purpose of enlightening the reader about this tiny African country that most people are no longer all that bothered about, other than, perhaps, seeing the mountain gorillas. But at 1,500 USD per permit into the Virunga National Park (jungle), you aint gonna get many ordinary Jo Bloggs going out there, right?
Anyway, I needed a real role model first; someone to help bring my barely-formed character out of the amorphous mists into the real world of literature.
I’d like to add here that when I flew from Krakow to Amsterdam to Entebbe to Kigali in October 2016, my primary thoughts were not about writing, but rather, just the need to see this amazing country for myself. In person. I wanted to feel it, see it, touch it, smell it, get to know the people, try to talk to the locals – if they were willing to oblige – about the dark theme that still, almost twenty-five years on, looms hugely and inescapably over all Rwandans. The Genocide.
As soon as I stepped off the plane at Kigali airport and clambered down the steps into the lush, balmy Rwandan evening which enveloped me like a nurturing mother, I just … I just … oh, how can I phrase this without sounding corny? Okay, I’ll come straight out with it. I just fell head over heels in love with the place. Simple as that.
For a start, I could see in an instant why it’s called The Land of a Thousand Hills. These were hills that swelled and twinkled and beckoned from all sides; hills that really did seem to have eyes. Eyes that had witnessed an appalling human tragedy on an unimaginable scale, but now, a quarter of a century later, were welcoming me into their proud yet forgiving territory. And then there were the people. Smiling, warm, polite but not over-the-top, every bit as welcoming as their starry hills, immediately putting my uneasy feelings at rest. Uneasy? I mean, come on, I’d never been to a country in the heart of Africa before, or in an environment where I was practically the only white person around, or stood on ground that not so long ago had been covered in blood … literally covered in blood … But I needn’t have worried. Rwanda swept me into its voluptuous and generous bosom with its thousand hills and million smiles. I was in love!
And then – going back to the airport building – as I stood in the queue to get our visas, lo and behold, I found the man I’d been looking for! No, not for myself, sadly, but for Naomi, the protagonist of my novel. There he was, standing right in front of me in the visa queue. I’m not kidding – this guy was tall, dark, lean, and drop-dead gorgeous. ‘Can I take you home, please?’ I sneakily thought, but then slapped my figurative wrists; after all, such outrageous behaviour is probably what led Errant Hubby astray in the first place, come to think of it. Yes, I guess there’s a tiny bit of the naughty Naomi in me, might as well admit it.
So I’d found my Rwandan male lead. And when he turned round for a moment and smiled at me, and I smiled back, and we exchanged a few small-talk words, his voice made me even MORE convinced that this was the one. That distinguished, self-assured voice of his was the deciding factor. Confidence oozed from every pore of the guy’s body. He knew he was bloody good-looking, and had clearly been spoilt by admiration all his life. Prat.
Okay, so now I had not just a face and body, but also a character that was beginning to formulate in my novelist’s mind. Hadn’t I just called him a prat? So why not make him into a real arrogant prat? At least initially. But then, as the novel progresses, why not let Naomi discover – as she gradually nudges herself closer and closer to him in her usual dipsy, giggly, outspoken way – that his arrogance is in fact just a cover-up to hide the wounded shreds of a soul that he lost two decades ago, when the genocide made an orphan of him? Doesn’t that make his Mark Darcy arrogance a bit more forgivable?
My storyline was now rapidly underway! I had already conjured up the sexy Naomi; someone who has a talent for putting her foot in it – searching for meaning in life but always saying or doing the wrong thing, like ending up as a sex shop assistant instead of a Forensic Anthropologist. Or getting engaged to her long-term Jewish boyfriend when she knows this isn’t what she really wants out of life. Or sneakily eating bacon fry-ups on the Shabbat.
And then, one prophetic Friday, she signs up for voluntary work at a local refugee centre not far from Sugar Lace – and guess who the director of this refugee centre turns out to be? Got it! My Rwandan male protagonist, who now has a name! John Paul Chambers. The man who was orphaned in the genocide, adopted by rich British parents, swept across the seas to London, and sent to a posh boarding school. However, despite his arrogance and good looks and his many casual flings with disreputable women, he is also trying to make some sort of sense out of his prematurely brutalised life. Trying to find meaning out of an apocalyptic event that lasted a mere hundred days, but swallowed up a million lives in the process. And, being the only survivor of his family, he has to deal with the memories, the guilt, the fear and the nightmares that refuse to go away.
So, can someone like Naomi, whose sheltered life has never been touched by tragedy, stand any chance of trying to get through to such a man? Can she win his stunted heart?
Ah, but that’s what my novel will reveal! And, when it’s published, it might also inspire my readers – at least some of them – to catch a plane to Kigali and see the brave and beautiful country of Rwanda for themselves.
Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind going back there myself sometime soon. And searching for that gorgeous man at the airport, and telling him that he has now been immortalised in the pages of my novel, whoever and wherever he is!
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If you’d like to read more about the exploits of Naomi Lieberman and John Paul Chambers, here are extracts from the beginning of my novel, Soho Shalom: