Occasionally a writer I meet at a conference (or online) confides that it’s hard to find other writers where they live. I have no idea what that might be like: the part of northern New Jersey where I live might be dubbed Writerville. Stephanie Urdang lives here too, though she was born in Cape Town, South Africa. Her memoir, Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia, and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa will be published this month. She is also the author of two books on Africa, including And Still They Dance: Women, War, and the Struggle for Change in Mozambique. Stephanie is currently working on a book with a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (forthcoming in spring 2019).
Please welcome Stephanie Urdang
It took me about ten years – but who’s counting – to complete my memoir, Mapping My Way Home. It is taking me about one year to write a book with a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, who was eleven at the time.
The first book is my story, my history, my memories. It charts the events on the international stage -- in which I was a participant or close observer -- that contributed to the end of apartheid. In the process of writing it, sub-themes raised their heads and demanded space as leit-motifs: the sense of home, the nagging of nostalgia, the concept of exile, all interlinked.
The second book is Gustave Mukurarinda’s harrowing but courageous story. It is his story, his history, his memories. I am writing it in close collaboration, in the mode of creative nonfiction. We are co-authors. I am the writer. But he is the storyteller.
My memoir was my first sortie into creative nonfiction. It was a learning curve. I had to tap into a more literary style of writing, freeing myself to explore more evocative and lyrical ways to bring a scene to life, to describe a context. I had to rein in my tendency toward streams of consciousness that sent my narrative veering off course; I had to subdue, no exorcise, an inner voice that would exclaim “Who the f*#k I am to write about my life!”. I had to learn to scale the inevitable writer’s blocks that told me I was incapable of doing justice to this project. And I had to allow myself to relish, in the moment, the highs when my writing was flowing and it felt right.
Writing my own memoir provided basic tools for writing the Rwanda book, which is still in draft. But writing a memoir in collaboration is a very different undertaking, although some of what I had practiced in my own memoir could be applied: forgoing my first-instinct journalistic style and adopt a more literary style; thinking more intentionally about craft; taking a critical scene remembered in just a few snippets, and fleshing it out, completing with dialogue; transforming an often fabulous but too lengthy anecdote or scene and trimming it to size so that it doesn’t dominate.
Writing in collaboration is another learning curve entirely. From it I can tease out a few lessons that for me were “musts”.
The need for trust. Without mutual trust and respect the collaboration will founder. In our case, trust began some ten years ago. I had established a small US-based NGO, Rwanda Gift for Life, that partnered with African Rights, in Kigali. The project supported women who had been raped during the genocide and were living with AIDS. Gustave was on the staff of African Rights and acted as my interpreter when I visited Rwanda. We spent many days together. Later, he stayed at my New Jersey home for a few weeks on his way to Canada where he now lives. Once we began working together, I could appreciate that more than friendship was needed. Without a deep sense of mutual trust, a writing project such as ours could not move forward. There are times when this trust is tested. When he doesn’t approve of the way I am casting a scene, when he thinks the narrative is veering in the wrong direction, we are able to discuss, and where necessary, come to a compromise. We move on, knowing that the next glitch will be met with the same mutual respect, the same trust.
Need for clarity about scope. There should be as few surprises as possible. We made our expectations clear from the beginning, including the audience, the writing process, the deadlines. Before I began to record his story, we talked about the nature of creative nonfiction, how my intent was to produce a narrative that reads like fiction. We agreed the book would target a young adult readership, while also appealing to adults. Based on this understanding, and our lengthy interviews, I drafted three sample chapters. Gustave liked how I was conveying his story, how I was portraying his voice. Only after this did we feel confident moving forward. We agreed on the publisher’s terms and both signed the contract. We could begin in earnest.
Accept that this is not the writer’s story. Even with the best of intentions, it’s too easy to get carried away, and begin to think that the book is the writer’s alone, given the thought and hard work that goes into drafting it. I had to be careful not to imprint myself onto the story, and to stay true to Gustave’s voice. Ultimately every word is to be approved by him, it is his story, his family’s story, not mine.
Accept criticism without defensiveness. There were times when, as a westerner, even though I grew up in South Africa, even though I have written widely and for decades on Africa, I discovered that I was not as sensitive to Rwandan culture as I would have presumed. I made assumptions, or used language that caused him discomfort. I tended to pride myself that I wouldn’t fall into such traps. I did. He pointed them out politely when he deserved to be annoyed.
For example, cows are central to Rwandan culture. They are revered. I described Gustave’s father’s herd as containing Jerseys, Friesians, and “skinny African” cows. I recalled seeing cows that were, well, skinny. But this is no benign, neutral term. It was an insult. It reflects western bias. I apologized when he pointed it out. I was able to laugh at myself; he was able to laugh at me. Another similar lesson: I created dialogue between his brother and mother that was inappropriate to Rwandan culture where children were expected to be polite and respectful of adults and not assume to join in adult conversation unless invited. When he points out the error of my ways, all I feel is relief. It allows me to feel safer in my role as writer of his story, knowing that I will be challenged when I don’t get it right. This too reflects trust.
Figuring out structure. Structure can be a real challenge for memoir writers. There is a life-time of material to draw on, so much that seems vital, but in the end really isn’t, that getting the flow and arc can be daunting. There is a deep emotional connection. But writing someone else’s story means the writer comes to the project from a distance and can discern the narrative’s scaffolding earlier on. In my case, this process began soon after Gustave’s stories poured out during our many hours of skype interviews and I became energized by the twists and turns of this action-packed narrative. The story pulls me along without me being stuck trying to see the wood for the trees. And so I am less encumbered to push the story forward, even as sometimes it brings me to tears.
I have come to see, that when a memoir is written in collaboration, the story teller is the one to give birth. The writer is the midwife.
Note: If you too are local to Writerville, you can catch Stephanie at Watchung Booksellers (Montclair) onThursday evening, Nov. 30, at 7 pm, and further afield, and at Powerhouse (Brooklyn), on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 7 pm.
Stephanie would be delighted to answer any reader questions left in the comments over the next week or so. She’d also love to give one of my blog readers a signed copy of her book. Enter by leaving a comment by Sunday, Dec. 3. [Must have a U.S. postal shipping address.]