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.