Literary Voices from Rwanda is a project inspired by The Huza Press Anthology 2015: Versus and other Stories. In this series of interviews featuring writers from the anthology, we’ll be talking about the Rwandan society and literature; a way of promoting new tales from Rwanda, different from the regular genocide-related themes. Enjoy this feature from Jean Claude Muhire, a young Rwandan storyteller, filmmaker, peer educator, and advocate for children and women’s rights. He is the founder of Love the Kids Foundation and a finalist of the 2015 Huza Press contest.
‘I Leave You Today’ is a story about domestic violence and it’s written like a diary. Did that style have anything to do with the kind of story it told? What made you decide on it?
Yeah! Violence happens anytime and anywhere. Then, that was my style as a storyteller. ‘I Leave You Today’ is fiction with an implied criticism. There are plenty of people who face domestic violence in this world. We hear them or we see them or we live with them. Personally, I decided to write this because I’ve heard terrible stories from distinguished people who became victims of violence due to different heart-breaking factors. I thought of writing it when I was about to participate in a contest for a prize. I worked on it wisely and later I was honoured by the jury team.
Congratulations! While reading the story, one could really relate and connect to the pain of the abused character. As a male writer, how easy or hard was it for you to assume the voice of a woman and write so explicitly of her experience?
A human needs to be enthusiastic and compassionate about the painful struggles of someone else to save their life possibly. For few people who have had a chance to learn about the living conditions of women facing violence, it is very important to support them. Maybe the aid can be financial or emotional or technical or even medical. All the supporter needs is commitment. Then they can impact lives! Well, my willingness to write a story about a woman’s journey with an abusive partner came from a careful imagination and intense reflection on many types of violence perpetrated against the female gender at home and beyond. Truly, it was not easy to talk the womanly pain as a young man, but I relied on my skills as a storyteller to make this very touching story.
I’d like to think you did quite a good job. In addition to speaking out against domestic violence, you have an organisation that caters to and supports the rights of children. Would you say then that writing for you is also a form of activism? Do you agree that writing should go beyond aesthetics to becoming a tool for societal change?
Yes it is! Sometimes, art can meet activism to produce an amazing combination. And the person who can combine both well is a kind of change-maker. This is the reason why I describe myself as an artivist. With this story, I’m telling the world through writivism. Additionally, our charity organisation called ‘Love the Kids Foundation’ is trying to advocate for a social positive change by supporting less fortunate children to access basic human needs. I’m pretty sure that all of these works have a good if not a little impact to the Rwandan community. Therefore, I can only agree that writing is a tool which can be used to ensure that change happens in many societies.
What does ‘writivism’ mean in this context?
Writing this story was a kind of writivism. I was reflecting on the things that I have experienced myself. I just combined creative writing with personal skills and this was being done mutually and independently.
I get what you mean now. You’re also a filmmaker, renowned for the film, LIZA which is based on violence against women and young girls. And here you are again writing a story on domestic violence. I believe it’s very important that these stories are told. Regardless of the teller’s gender. In the words of Adichie, we should all be feminists. But it makes me wonder, do you consider yourself a feminist and what are your thoughts on feminism?
I can consider myself a feminist if I’m positively known as a young advocate for the rights of women and girls in Rwanda. Otherwise, I am an open-minded social entrepreneur who can do storytelling or film-making as a form of sharing some people’s wrongs to an interested audience for further improvement of their lives. All people’s lives, regardless of who they are or where they belong to, matter. To me, feminism is all about raising awareness to fight for female gender’s difficulties because women’s rights are human rights and reciprocally. Nobody has the rights to violate a womankind.
As a man who writes and tells stories about women in a society that constantly seeks to shut women up, what has been your experience like? A woman writing women stories as such would generally be labeled angry and lonely. I’m curious to know how the Rwandan audience perceive your tales.
I think I’m still waiting to get a better experience of my stories. I am looking forward to receiving many feedback from various people who read my short story with the support of Huza Press – a Rwandan publishing house, or watched my film which was released on YouTube for free.
I really appreciate the Rwandan audience. It has been very supportive of my works. I cannot write all comments for the LIZA Film from social media outlets, government and private institutions and from personal encounters. It was amazing to hear from them all and with their encouragement, I learned to be a better filmmaker. Back to ‘I Leave You Today’, some women living here became very emotional and cried a lot while reading it. That’s what they told me and they congratulated me! Others have enjoyed reading it like a diary of a woman’s struggles because they learned a lot of from it. My story which was published early in this year will have to be told slowly or patiently and I would be able to learn a lot from it too. I am still on the way.
As pleased as I was that the narrator in your story was finally able to walk away from abuse albeit it took a long time (as many victims tend to take, actually), it hurt me that she’d refused to press charges against her abuser. Makes me wonder how we can have any changes if perpetrators of domestic violence and other forms of abuse are allowed to go scot-free. What are your thoughts on this?
Perseverance and self-confidence are good proposals to every abused person. I think that the later should try to enjoy life after a tough experience. It is sad to be a victim of domestic violence, but it is very interesting to express yourself when you plan for another lifestyle. Allowing your abusive partner to go scot-free is a negotiable affair. Never mind much about the perpetrator because you only need to live better than worse. You have to pay attention because you can be more problematic. You should have a big eye and look beyond your previous struggles. You are the right person to drive your steps.
I agree victims should focus on healing. But are there active organisations in Rwanda that protect and provide closure for women and girls willing to speak up in abusive situations? Because fear of rejection most times is what keeps the victim’s mouth shut.
Yes, there are! Government and Non-governmental organisations are taking the lead to fight against all forms of violence and abuse. For example, the Rwanda National Police is the right institution fighting against violence countrywide and it has a public phone number which is known to be called when anyone faces violence. They also provide guidance and support for free. Rwanda is a country known for pushing women at first sight. These Rwandan organisations have good initiatives in trying to speak for abused women or girls but violence usually happen. They are doing a great work and are on the right way. They should keep up. No one should be left behind.
It was refreshing really reading Versus, with the diverse themes the collection dealt with. Are you currently working on anything? A book maybe? Or another film?
Yes! I’m trying to find courage to put a full stop on my next film script. On behalf of Love the Kids Foundation, I’m working on a documentary film. I think I will continue to tell other stories. Story-writing is my passion and film-making is a great job to me. Not only I’m a mega-talented man dealing with a lot of tasks, but also I’m a committed and determined person. My next work in this era is going to be great again. Do not ask me how or why. Be patient because I will present it to you soon!