Yolande Mukagasana is the author of four books about the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. Her first book, La Mort Ne Veut Pas de Moi, has been translated into Italian, Turkish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Hebrew, and now English. In this interview, she talks about the English translation, Not My Time to Die, which is the One Read Book of the Month for August.
One Read: How do you feel about Not My Time To Die being available in an English translation, what does it mean to have the book featured as One Read Book of the Month?
Yolande Mukagasana: I am very happy with the publication of this book in English and I will explain why: this book was published in French on April 7, 1997 by Robert Laffont, 3 years to the day after the Rwandan genocide. I had the impression, but I may be mistaken of course, that this book has embarrassed France too much regarding its responsibility in the genocide. What happened in Rwanda can happen in every African country and that worries me. So to know that the English-speaking world knows my testimony, it really pleased me.
As for translation, since I don’t speak English, I trust the translator. For me, it’s not the translation that’s essential, it’s the content of the book, the message you want to convey.
It must have been very difficult writing this book. How did you deal with the emotions that no doubt surfaced as you were writing it?
Did I have a choice? When we survive, we only have two choices: Either we accept death—after survival, death is still waiting for us—or we reach out to life. When we reach out to life, it is to do something with it; it is not to live like a flower that we crush when we want. It is to live to serve something, to prevent what happened to us from happening to others, you understand?
What lessons do you want readers to draw from Not My Time To Die?
I would like to speak all the languages of the world to warn everyone: we don’t choose what we are. Nothing says that I wouldn’t have preferred to be born American, French or Chinese. I don’t know, but we have to accept what we are and everyone has to know that differences between human beings don’t make us enemies; on the contrary differences draw us to each other, I don’t understand why humans can’t understand that. I will undoubtedly enrich myself with you as I will enrich myself with another human somewhere else. I don’t understand how you can love your dog and your cat, but not love another human being or at least accept what he is.
At what point during the genocide did you come to accept Nepo’s words as true?
In the beginning, I did not believe my brother’s prophecy. After the genocide, I believed it because I saw that I was left alone and that all the feelings I had felt were true, so there I believed it and I still believe it today. I went through so much hardship that I should have died but I am still here, so for me, it’s not my time to die. I will believe it the day it comes.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing and publishing this book?
First of all, the first difficulty I encountered was that I was not and still am not literary. People wanted to appropriate my story, to write it for me and I didn’t want to do that. The other problem I encountered was that the book was censored. I had to sacrifice the publishing rights to be able to speak. For me, the testimony is more important than my economic life.
When the book was published in France, the publisher organised a press conference and sent the book to many journalists. On the day of the press conference, no French journalist came; no one wanted to come. I arrived in Paris and no journalist was present. I made no comments. A few days later, the person in charge of a French television show invited me to come and speak on his set, I accepted; and the day of the show, he called me to tell me “Unfortunately, we’re going to cancel, it’s the beginning of the holidays, people prefer to see whales”.
The third thing, I was invited to a foreign country to talk about the genocide, it was Cambodia. I had already started giving radio interviews about my trip when I got a call from Belgium saying: “the French Embassy contacted us that you should not set foot here”. So I couldn’t go, but I already had the plane ticket, to tell you how much they always wanted to silence me, but death is not going to silence me, I am committed to life and I have heirs for the truth. I can die today, I won’t regret it because in death there are no regrets.
How has the loss of so many loved ones shaped the life you live today?
For me, my loved ones are with me all the time anyway. If you were to come here [to Kigali], you would see that the photos of my loved ones that I was able to retrieve are all around me. I live here with my husband who has accepted such a life, which is not easy for him. I can’t tell you what I’m living, because I won’t wish you to live like me. But it’s a constant effort, every moment. It is everything. That’s all I can tell you. For example, I’m always talking to my husband about my first husband and we do everything together. Already my first husband is part of my current husband’s life. I don’t know how to explain this to you. He embraces my life, he accepts me as I am with my wounds. At the same time—don’t worry—we go to restaurants, we walk in the parks, we invite friends, we laugh, we live normally; but with this past, which is our past. Even you, when you come to Rwanda, we invite all those who want to come and we are happy to welcome them. You are really welcome; no worries; there is even cheese, Rwandan and French, South African wine because here we don’t make wine and French wine is expensive.
Do you think the genocide is taken seriously enough today, and have the perpetrators been brought to book in your view?
No. Not enough. The genocide has been recognised on paper by the United Nations, it’s already something we could hardly hope for; but knowing that the genocidaires, throughout the world are doing business, are free… Our voice is not being heard. Let’s hope that France with President Macron wakes up. I also hope that he will be re-elected.
What are your reflections during this Coronavirus pandemic?
At least the pandemic concerns everyone and not just a part of the people. It’s ridiculous, but that’s my deepest feeling. We are really trying to protect ourselves. In Rwanda, we have only 16 deaths and dozens of new cases every day for a population of 12 million people. We are fortunate to have an accountable government that is holding its course in the face of COVID-19. When I see the hundreds of deaths in other countries, it makes me feel good about our country.
Are you writing presently? What is your writing routine?
You know, writing is my life even if I am not literary. When I am happy, I write. When I am sad, I write. When I experience something new, I write. I’m always writing and that doesn’t stop me from living another life: today, for example, I’m painting my house.
I don’t have a writing routine. Sometimes I wake up at night and go to my computer to write. Sometimes I’m in the middle of the trail, and I’m really focused, but my mind is full of ideas in my head so I stop, I’ll write it down and go back to my work. I don’t have a specific time slot for writing.
Can books and reading help us to heal?
Of course they can. After the genocide, my friends in Belgium said to me: “But Yolande, you can’t live like this, you have to find help!” They took me to a psychiatrist who started to lose his head, they took me to a psychologist who started to cry. I finally asked myself, “Who can treat me? No one but me.” I’ll always be sick if they find out I’m sick. So I was cured by my writing, by my testimony. I don’t pretend that I’m cured, I live, that’s the main thing. And I think that I am not sick. In medicine, we say that a sick person is a healthy person who does not know.
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Not My Time to Die is available at Ouida Bookstore.
*This interview was originally conducted in French. Thanks to François Giot for translating it.