Monday, 30 January 2012

Part II: Rwanda - for the first time

The night before we flew to Rwanda, I read the last pages of Philip Gourevitch's essential and harrowing account of the Rwandan genocide. He wrote, 'Even now, as I write, in the early months of 1998, Rwanda's war against the genocide continues. Perhaps by the time you read this the outcome will be clearer (...) Of course, if you're some kind of archeologist who digs this book up in the distant future, five, or fifty, or five hundred years from now, there's a chance that Rwanda will be a peaceful land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you may be planning your next holiday there and the stories you find in these pages will offer but a memorial backdrop...'

Fourteen years on - a sort of distant future - our university friends, and first London flatmates, Steve and Kate, are living in Rwanda. In their emails and brief visits home they've conjured for us, as best they can, the country they live in. They've talked of flying about Kigali on the back of moto-taxis, and buying bright-patterned kitenge at the market; having shirts and dresses run up by gifted seamstresses on ancient Singer sewing machines. They've talked about their house, its padlocked gates and the peak-capped security guard keeping watch, but how these things never felt as though they were really needed. They've talked of evenings spent on wicker sofas on candlelit verandas, a restaurant called Heaven, and spoken word nights where they sang jazz songs alongside Kinyarwandan poets. They've talked about the soldiers who quietly and calmly patrol the streets; ever-present, but merging into the background. Between the not so very old war reports, and my friends' accounts of the life they love in the new Rwanda, I tried to form my own picture. But I couldn't help imagining a tightrope of a place; a line walked between despair and hope. How could a tourist, an ex-pat, indeed anybody, still not find it somehow precarious? The only way to find out was to see for myself.

Now that I'm back, I can't pretend to know it all; for no tourist, however wide-eyed and open-eared, can ever claim to know a place in a week. But for all the aspects of Rwanda that I don't understand, and probably never will, there are some things that I do now know. And I treasure them. They may be only fragments, passing images, barely snatched, but they are mine. And I share them here.

I know that when dawn comes the chorus of birdsong is ballistic and indignant - the sun rises quickly, as if to bring quiet. 

I know that I never once grew tired of seeing children delight in our otherness, watching them break into gulping laughter and chase our car, their cries of 'muzungu! muzungu!' rising in the dust.

I know that I've never seen a patchwork quilt anything like the hillsides of Rwanda. The neatly stitched hedges marking the edges of potato fields, the jaunty patterns of banana trees, the row after row of stiff-tall sweet corn, the rich, dense tea plantations, clinging to the sides of vertical slopes. Not one inch of red earth is wasted.
I know that in Rwanda there are some of the people you would expect; Western do-gooders dressed in khaki, putting the world to rights over a Mojito, pasty-faced Evangelists, intense girls in drawstring pants and Development careerists with red-burned forearms. But my friends are none of these and I am glad.

I know that at a classic Rwandan buffet, the tastiest dish to pile high is the ruby red stew of savoury banana. And the shredded cassava leaves. And the purple peanut sauce. Everything's fresh, home-grown, and delicious.

I know that in Kimironko market, you'll find yourself surrounded by shifting walls of the most cheerful fabric you've ever seen; rainbow-coloured, crazy-patterned kitenge from the DRC, and Kenya, and the Ivory Coast. A stallholder will say, 'if you like it, you can buy it.' And you do, so you do.

I know that at sundown on Lake Kivu the fishermen sing for the day's catch. You sit spellbound, bobbing in kayaks, as their voices carry across the still water. Then you watch them row home, as the deceptively peaceful hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo rise behind. 

I know that when you happen upon a small boy cowherd, wandering behind his tail-flicking charges, eating a knob of maize, you return his grin. You pull over, and shake his hand. You marvel at one another, for a moment, and then you each carry on in your own direction. A little altered, perhaps.

I know that at dusk a sweet and smoky scent pervades the air, and it's the burning of eucalyptus leaves in people's houses. You realise that it's a smell that one day soon you will miss. That, inexplicably, and for all its strangeness, it reminds you of home.  

I know that when you're in the misted Virungas, and a silverback turns his lazy, soulful gaze on you, from barely feet away, something inside you shifts. You stand still, stiller than you've ever stood before. You barely breathe. And yet, part of you wants to reach out a hand, and make solid the connection you know you feel. But it's awe that holds you motionless. 

I know that in Rwanda most of the people I pass who are my age - or a little younger, or a lot older - will have seen their whole world torn to pieces. They will have been to hell and back. Lost more, perhaps, than they can ever hope to find again. And yet everywhere I see grace and laughter. I swap more true smiles with strangers than I ever have, and hear more gentle words of welcome spoken. I know that respect is due. I also know that Rwanda calls itself 'the land of a thousand hills'; its beauty is soft, and undulating and verdant. And while it would be presumptuous and uninformed to weigh the verity of Gourevitch's words, 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,' I will say this - whatever is has been, whatever it will be, and for all I still do not know, to me, this passing visitor, Rwanda feels like a place of warmth and healing. 

Finally - I know that now I'm home, I miss Rwanda. Even if, after so few days spent, perhaps it's not really mine to hanker after. I know I want to try and hold on to the memory of it for as long as I can, but I can already feel it slipping; soon it will feel a world away again. I know the only answer, therefore, is to keep remembering, to keep writing, to keep discovering. And perhaps, one day, to go back.  

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Part I: Kigali - for one night only

My first official appearance as an author, and my first public reading from The Book of Summers, took place in Kigali, Rwanda, last wednesday evening. The venue was The Goethe Institute in the district of Kacyiru. To get there we bumped down a red dust track, hemmed by banana trees, before rolling into the creative enclave that's home to the German cultural centre, an arts house, and a sprawling bar that was showing Libya versus Zambia (2-2) on the big screen. 

Just after 7pm a group of musicians finished their rehearsal and we took over the dance studio they'd been using, making a small, modest circle of chairs. But as participants continued to arrive the circle widened. In all, twenty-eight people joined us. My dear friend Kate Haines was the event's organiser, and I had her to thank for the fantastic and diverse attendance; there were regulars from her creative writing group - workshops run in coffee shops and classrooms across the city - as well as a number of students from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. There were some who had already published non-fiction, avid screenwriters, freestyling poets, advertising copywriters, feature writers, and many more who were simply 'interested in writing.' 

I guess every author remembers their first public outing but I can't help feeling that mine was particularly memorable. The windows of the room were open to the night and I was forced to speak loudly above the roar of cicadas. The heat was intense. I gave an introduction followed by a reading, then just as we were about to launch into some writing exercises my voice creaked and croaked. I coughed. Sipped some water. Coughed again. I tried to speak but there were no words - my voice had entirely gone. Thankfully, several bottles of water and only a short spell of embarrassment later, it returned. I conducted the rest of the workshop testing each word before I said it, downing water, the frog in my throat only just kept at bay. The next excitement was that we lost the lights. Power cuts happen fairly frequently in Kigali I'm told, but not usually for so long; the Goethe Institute was plunged into pitch black for the next two hours. Our gathering took on a clandestine air as we sat in the dark, the pricking lights of mobile phones just enough to write by, and for me to follow, more or less, my notes. Undeterred, we carried on. People read aloud, in cautious voices. I kept my cough at bay. 
... after!
When I was first asked to run the writing class I'd jumped at the chance, only wondering later whether, as a debut author, I'd earned my stripes yet. A fair question. So I thought about the workshops I'd attended and the authors I'd heard speak - and how I'd always felt as though I was moving forward just by being there, listening, my mind switched on to writing. So that night in Kigali I decided I'd pass on the wisdom I'd received, and some of what I'd learned myself along the way. Perhaps that's all anybody ever does. And it seemed to work; people listened, scribbled notes, even laughed at my feeble jokes, and there were plenty of questions at the end. Two and a half hours after we'd first sat down in our circle, the group and I went back out into the Kigali night. We said murakoze (thank you) and murabeho (goodbye) to one another, and email addresses were swapped. I couldn't stop smiling.

Kate Haines, founder of Material Books, and I.

On the way home we stopped off at for a late dinner, eating spicy chicken rice beneath a thatched gazebo, as around us a tinny kind of reggae hung on the night air. I was buzzing. My husband Bobby, once a drummer in a band, said to me, 'it's the post-gig high, isn't it?' and he was right. It was. But a different sensation too; In Kigali, for one night only, I realised I felt useful. And more like an author than I perhaps ever had. I drank a well earned beer, and watched the hills of the city strung out below us. I whispered a quiet word of thanks. Murakoze. And I tried not to cough.    

Friday, 27 January 2012

Literary remixes - a Book Slam blog

After reading P.D. James' 'Death Comes to Pemberley' I set to thinking about literary remixes, and what, to my mind, makes a classic. Despite James' virtuoso rendering of Austen's world, it's another remix that tops my playlist. Find out what, over on the Book Slam site...   

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


Over eleven years ago, when I was a green, green graduate, I took a job at an advertising agency in Soho. I thought it'd be a sparkly kind of profession, and in some ways it was. In the beginning I always got a kick out of seeing my agency's ads out there in the big, wide world. They didn't need to be Cannes-worthy, simply to point at something and say 'I helped make that' was novel enough for me. Sometimes, in the very early days, I even snipped ads from the paper and sent them home to my ever-encouraging mum; anything from budget travel to posh cars, from power tools to kids' TV, with the breathless note, 'this is mine!' It's been a long time since any press ad has given rise to such bursts of unbridled pride. And an even longer time since I sent one home to my mum. But the below, as it appeared in the inside front cover of the Debuts supplement of New Books Magazine, is, to me, deserving of both. Call me sentimental (and, okay... self-indulgent), but in all my time in adland I don't think I ever saw one lovelier. Thanks to Vicky Cowell and Headline for such a splash!     

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Bristol fashion

I moved to Bristol four years ago, around the same time that I first started writing The Book of Summers. To me the city is synonymous with every stage that my manuscript went through, in its writing and re-writing. I played with plot as I walked the Bristol streets, to and from work. I sat in Bristol cafés, tinkering with characters. And I did a lot of dreaming, in Bristol supermarket queues, in the corners of Bristol pubs and across the Downs parklands. So it's rather fitting that my first interview as an author should appear in Bristol's local paper The Evening Post. Many thanks to Suzanne Savill for such a great write-up, and for this line perhaps above all:

It is a book that is exquisitely written, with a plot that is both uplifting and heartbreaking, and a sense of place that has the potential to do for Hungary what author Peter Mayle did for Provence. 

A Year In Provence, j'adore. You can read the piece in full here.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012


One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot over the past few months is, ‘did you always want to be a writer?’ And the answer, of course, is ‘yes’. When I went home for Christmas I found signs everywhere that the path I’m on is one my ten-year-old self would approve of…

My family home hasn’t changed for decades. Maybe it’s a sign of my parents’ nostalgia, but you won’t find spritzed and neutral guest quarters in their house – my bedroom is more or less the same as when I left it. The bookcases creak with pony club paperbacks and college texts, Daniel Deronda sharing shelf space with Arthur Ransome, Le Morte d’Arthur nudging up against a book of fairy spells. My old typewriter sits on the window sill. I remember being a lousy typist and in the end I got fed up of spending my pocket money on eraser ribbon and went back to my notebooks and blobbing fountain pens. And behold this for vanity: In the kitchen, a piece of my writing still hangs framed on the wall, approximately twenty five years after I decided it’d make the perfect birthday present for my mum. It’s a piece I wrote at primary school when we were set the task of describing the houses we lived in. I wrote about our Devon cottage, huddling under its thatch on the side of a hill. I noted the crumbled patch of wall where I leant my bike, a head of straw poking through the cob. I mentioned the quiet corner, where beneath a spindly apple tree our old cat is buried.

But despite the copious books, the tools of the trade, the celebrated, um, early works… it’s when I go into the garden of my childhood that I remember all over again why being a writer was always the right thing for me. The garden was the place where I dreamt up my stories, where I slipped into worlds of my own making. It wasn’t the biggest patch of land but it felt like it, the way it ran in a slope that gathered speed, the edges of the earth falling away into the neighbouring field. The way the hillside opposite seemed to be in touching distance, but really lay beyond a line of gangly birches, a twisting lane and a knee-deep stream. I’d stay out in my garden until darkness fell and the foxes started barking in the high woods, and, come morning, I’d be the first to dance away the lawn’s dew. Sometimes I kicked a football or batted around a shuttlecock, built a den or a bike assault course, but mostly I spent my time exploring; my feet treading the same old ground, my mind somewhere else altogether. My mum used to open a window and call out ‘are you talking to yourself?’ I’d shake my head, then pick up the story where I’d left off.

This Christmas, upon my return, the garden was etched out by winter. Old sweet corn stems stood cracked and white. A new crop of leeks persisted messily. Long rotted apples were scattered like billiard balls. The birches had lost their leaves and the distance hillside seemed closer than ever. So too, did my memories of a childhood spent roaming the edges of a page. Plucking words from thin air. Travelling, ad infinitum, in my garden of verse.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Resolutions for life and reading

For 2012 I'm making resolutions on reading - with a little help from Raymond Carver. You can read them over at the Book Slam website, where I'll be blogging through the year. 
Happy New Year, one and all. May 2012 bring us books to make our souls sing, and plenty more besides.