Okay … so what do Africa, Jews and sex have in common?
Not a great deal, unless you happen to be part of Naomi’s world. Or John Paul’s. (More of them in a minute.) Or have some interest in the Land of a Thousand Hills – a tiny country right in the heart of Africa by the name of Rwanda. A country so deeply locked inland, so fiercely protected by its natural habitat of hills, rivers, lakes and volcanoes, the slave trade never even reached it.
What comes to mind, if anything, when you hear the name Rwanda? The mountain gorilla? (It’s apparently the best place in the world to see them – if you’re prepared to fork out $1500 for your permit.) Or the genocide of 1994 that swept across the country in a savage killing spree that claimed almost a million lives in the space of one hundred days? That’s probably the largest number of people killed in the shortest period of time since history was recorded. Brother against brother. Hutu against Tutsi. If you’re old enough to remember the horror of those international news broadcasts back in 1994 – all those shocking reports of helpless victims being hacked to death by machete, all those mounds of butchered bodies – then I’m sure the name Rwanda will still hold a special chill in your heart.
As it did in mine, when my daughter came home from school one day about two and a half years ago and announced that her next history project was going to be Rwanda. She looked decidedly pissed off. “It’s some tiny country in Africa,” she grumbled. No one in our class has even heard of it.”
The chill in my heart was instantly reactivated. “Rwanda?” I echoed. “Oh my God. Terrible things happened there, before you were born.”
“Really? What kind of things?”
So we started talking. I told her the facts that I remembered; we looked up the genocide on the internet and started browsing through her IB history textbook. Then my husband joined in the conversation. (The Errant Philosopher.) Suddenly Rwanda had become a matter of family interest. Not just some tiny country in Africa. One thing we all agreed on – it looked incredibly beautiful.
To cut a long story short, our fascination grew and grew and grew, until in October 2016 we flew out to Rwanda to see the country in person and meet the people – to try to somehow be part of this Land of a Thousand Hills and a Million Smiles, as the Rwandan visa states. Our friends and family thought we were mad.
“But isn’t it dangerous?” we were asked time and time again by concerned well-wishers. It seemed that for anyone who had heard of Rwanda, the genocide was the first thing that came to mind.
“No, it’s now considered to be one of the safest countries in Africa,” I proudly replied, having become something of an expert over the past few weeks of intensive research.
So, back to the title of this post. As a writer, anything that stirs my heart inevitably sets the old inspiration flame burning again – whether it’s personal experience or a subject that fascinates me. And so, as soon as I stepped off the KLM plane at Kigali airport one balmy October evening, and gasped in awe at the surrounding hills with lights twinkling and blinking amid the darkness as though welcoming this strange white family, these curious muzungus, into their lush, sub-tropical bosom, I knew what my next novel would be about. And, more to the point, I knew why I wanted to write it. I wanted to let the world know more about this small but brave African country that has come so far since those horrifying days of slaughter and carnage of twenty-five years ago. Do not let the tragedy be forgotten, a deeply moved part of my soul cried out. But at the same time, do not write about it in a turgid, history-book kind of way.
No. Definitely not turgid. That’s not my style. I like humour. I like sex. (Who doesn’t?) I like romance. I like a bit of mystery, eg. inner-conflict and dark secrets that need to be unfolded before any resolution is reached. Hence the title for my novel (which I have finally decided on): Once Upon a Thousand Hills. And the tag: In the shadow of secrets, lies and shame.
So, the thousand hills represent Rwanda. The Once Upon represents my Jewish protagonist, Naomi Lieberman, who likes writing stories for her landlords’ children when asked to babysit them. She also likes sex, and being a free spirit, and she does not like the restrictions that her Jewish upbringing has imposed upon her, no matter how hard she tries to break free. The only way she has so far managed to do so is to lead a secret life – working as a sales assistant at a sex shop in Soho, which her Orthodox family in Liverpool believe to be a trendy little boutique. Eating fried eggs and bacon on Saturday mornings when her Jewish landlords are at the synagogue, out of harms’ way. And so on and so on. My protagonist is a very naughty but nice, voluptuous young woman. I’m sure most male readers will fancy her like mad, as my errant husband did.
And when she volunteers to help out at a local refugee centre and meets its tall, enigmatic Manager, John Paul Chambers from Rwanda, things really start to skyrocket. The more she learns about him, the more she gets drawn into the turbulent world of his past – a world that encompassed being orphaned in the genocide, adopted by a British couple and brought up in an elite London school. But he is unable to break free from the memories that keep him locked in trauma, unable to associate sex with love, unable to share his dark memories with anyone. And there’s one memory in particular, the darkest secret of them all, that he never thought would have to be revealed. Until he met Naomi.
So, folks, there it is. A taster of my upcoming novel, Once Upon a Thousand Hills. My hope is that it will be released in time for the 25th anniversary of the Genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi, when there is likely to be worldwide coverage of the commemorative events being held in Rwanda, and therefore a rise in public interest in this fascinating, breathtakingly beautiful country that no white man set foot on until 1892.
As for me, I’ll be setting foot myself in the capital city of Kigali, when my plane lands there on April 4th. President Kagame, the fearless general who succeeded in bringing the country together in the wake of a million corpses and almost complete bankruptcy, will also be attending the events. And, seeing as it was my tweet to him in October 2016 that brought me fleeting fame and made me a friend of so many Rwandans, who knows, maybe I’ll be allowed to present him with a signed copy of my book?
That would be nice. Please, Mr Paul Kagame, could you oblige?