Interview with Warren FitzGerald
by Karolina Małkiewicz
Warren was born in 1973. He lives in London. His first novel The Go-Away Bird won an Amazon Rising Stars Award, was longlisted for the Authors' Club Best First Novel Award and was Waterstones' Book of the Month in October 2011.
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Karolina Małkiewicz: Warren, this year we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. These events are the background of your novel "Go-Away Bird". Why did you decide to write about it? Did you want to pay tribute to the victims in this way or talk about your own emotions? What was your inspiration to create the book?
Warren FitzGerald: There have been plenty of books, fictional and non-fictional, about the genocide in Rwanda, so writing another novel ‘just’ about these events did not feel necessary, although, having said that, I know The Go-Away Bird has brought the horror of the genocide to the attention of many who were ignorant of it before, including myself, and if my novel helps us not to forget such events then that is valuable alone. However, my novel is different in that is does not only concern the events of 1994 in Rwanda, but the life and society of an Englishman in London in 1994. Having learnt a little about the genocide a few years back I looked around me at my own society and realised how it was full of self-abusive people (in the widest sense of the term) creating problems for themselves in the absence of any real life and death struggles such as those in developing nations face every day still. So as well as paying tribute to the victims of the Rwandan genocide I wanted to use their struggle to shed light upon the superficiality of our own ‘First World’ problems.
KM: There is a little information about you on the web. I learned that you were in Rwanda as a volunteer and participated in the construction of a health center in Kibungo. How did you get there? Were you in Rwanda before the outbreak of the conflict or after its completion?
WF: I went to Rwanda first in 2009 as a volunteer. I knew that volunteering, working and living among local people in rural parts of the country, would allow me to understand more fully and immerse myself in the kind of life I was writing about in The Go-Away Bird. I had already chosen to set the book in the village of Kibungo in the South-East of the country, so imagine my surprise when the first NGO I googled announced they were looking for volunteers to send to Kibungo! I signed up right away and have never looked back. I have been back to Rwanda as a volunteer two more times and volunteered in Sri Lanka, Peru and Nicaragua, every time finding great inspiration, personal and literary.
KM: Did you have any chance to talk to the Rwandan after the massacre? You spent a lot of time in this country as a volunteer, what do you think about the relations between Hutus and Tutsis – now and then? Has anything changed?
WF: I feel that the youth are moving the country forward. Indeed that is what The Go-Away Bird is about for me- how the young (in this case our heroine 10 year old Clementine) can teach the older generation (in the book, Ashley, the self-harming loner). In Rwanda there is a wonderful sense of progressiveness, of young people refusing to think of themselves as Hutu and Tutsi, but just as Rwandans, all in the same boat. Having said that, there is, inevitably, some bitterness among those who lost family and friends during the genocide, especially when they see the killers of their loved ones walking free in their towns and villages.
Rwanda had an enormous problem on its hands after the genocide with its prisons bursting with people accused of the killings. So it fell back on an ancestral form of justice called Gacaca, which operates at a very local level and promotes reconciliation and forgiveness among victims and perpetrators of crime. In fact it is this very system, and the complex emotions it evokes, which I explore in the sequel to The Go-Away Bird, hopefully published in the near future.
KM: How did those tragic events change your perception of Rwanda? Do you have any thoughts on the current political and social situation in the country? Are you in touch with your friends from Rwanda?
WF: I, like many people, had no perception of Rwanda at all before the genocide. Hence most people have a very negative view of the country.
Now I think it is important for me to tell the world at every opportunity what a beautiful country it is both in terms of its landscapes and people.
I am now blessed to have many friends in Rwanda and many friends in UK who are refugees from Rwanda, since researching my book.
The government of Rwanda has moved the country forward in ways which the UK could learn from. For example, in terms of its environmental consciousness- recycling and reusing to incredibly high levels (plastic bags are not even allowed in the country!); in terms of its promotion of education for girls (Rwanda was the first government in the world to have a majority of female parliamentarians); and investment in the infrastructure is making Rwanda one of the leading countries in Africa in terms of technology and economy. However, some claim that the government is authoritarian, even a dictatorship which refuses to let other political parties have a voice. I hope this is not true lest the tension results in a repeat of the events of 1994.
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The Go-Away Bird
WF: These are all valid interpretations of the title, but I think it has many. The first time we meet Clementine, her friend Jeanette is scaring the birds from the trees. Clem looks on innocently but she feels the birds are looking at her with disdain, seeing all little girls as the same perhaps. The events which ensue in her country teach her that such prejudice is rife in the human world too. It is this which is the biggest threat to purity and innocence in children.
KM: One of the narrators is a little Rwandan girl. Was it hard for you to write about the genocide from the perspective of a child?
WF: I love writing from a child’s perspective because it is the best way to illuminate the absurdity of adult life and adult conventions. It is not hard either, as long as you do not forget what it is like to be a child yourself. The trick is to not let the knocks of life beat the child out of you.
KM: Is Clementine a real person or is she the embodiment of the victims of the genocide?
WF: She is an embodiment of the victims and an embodiment of childhood purity. She is an incarnation of the notion that “the child is father of the man.” [Wordsworth]. Without her our English protagonist, Ashley, would not find nobility and love in his otherwise barren life.
KM: The story partly sets during the massacres in Rwanda, scrolling through its most terrible images: neighbors murdering neighbors, the radio announcer calling for the genocide, looking at everything as the soldiers in blue helmets. Was writing about this the hardest part of working on the book? What did the collecting materials for writing the novel look like?
WF: I do not think this was the hardest part. I find writing about things most foreign to my way of life the easiest to write about. Perhaps because my imagination can run freest there. The parts set in London about a life which I have seen first hand where much harder to bring to life. Perhaps because I was too close to them to have a balanced perspective.
Yet, although my imagination runs wild on the Rwandan parts it was important to root it in fact and not sensationalize the horror. Candid discussions I was privileged to have with survivors in Rwanda were key here.
KM: "Go-Away Bird" fits perfectly into the existing literature on the genocide in Rwanda - I mean the prose of Jean Hatzfeld - and the films such as "Hotel Rwanda", "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire" or "My neighbor, my killer". Has one of them inspired you?
WF: The prose of Jean Hatzfeld was the singularly most useful source for The Go-Away Bird, particularly A Time for Machetes which contains interviews with the killers as opposed to the victims, which he deals with in other texts.
I think the best novels present all sides of a situation without judgement. I hope I have given readers as much a glimpse into the perpetrators’ minds and motives as the victims’. It is important to realise that many killers in Rwanda during 1994 were in fear of their own lives too, from militia leaders or even from paranoia fuelled by those insidious radio announcements.
KM: Has writing a novel changed anything in your life?
WF: It has opened up the world to me in awesome ways. Stories are all about us. Right there on your doorstep, but also on the other side of the world. Not travelling during my lifetime would be, to me, like reading only the first page of the most wonderful book.
KM: Are you planning another novel?
WF: As I mentioned I hope the sequel to The Go-Away Bird will be published soon. In the meantime my latest novel Tying Down The Sun is available as an ebook and in paperback, which is set during a hostage situation in the jungles of Colombia. (see www.warrenfitzgerald.co.uk for details).
KM: What do you do in your life? Could you tell us what your ordinary day looks like? What are your future plans?
WF: No two days are really the same. And that is the way I like it! I seem to do my best writing in the morning and spend the rest of the day living life and keeping my ears and eyes open for inspiration.
At the moment I am in the process of editing a documentary I filmed in Nicaragua earlier this year when I went to live and work with a community that survives by scavenging from a rubbish dump. The documentary is called Gringos In The Garbage and you can find out more at my website: