Jemma Wayne on Genocide in Fiction

Jemma Wayne on Genocide in Fiction

It’s a funny thing about fiction that the stories you create are simultaneously yours and not yours. Sprung from the depths of one’s own mind, it is nevertheless impossible to escape the filter of our own real-world experiences or the references of the environment we inhabit. Cite a real place, a real time, a real event, and scrutiny of our accuracy begins. Explore any of these areas in detail and the story no longer belongs to you at all.

So it is in writing about genocide. As a teenager I devoured Holocaust literature. Perhaps because of my Jewish background I felt some kind of kinship with the characters, an added empathy, or simply wanted to learn more about what is a collective history. For me such books certainly were instructive tools. With a lack of formal education about the Second World War in the school syllabus, these were my reference points. Fiction framing my understanding, hardening into perceived facts. It is a responsibility sometimes not fully absorbed by writers of fiction. Yet what remain with me now in my blurred recollections of these harrowing texts are not the facts of what occurred, not the plot-points or political details. Far more enduring are the emotions, the relationships, the moments of struggle, fear, faith, fortitude; the humanity.

In building the Rwandan strand of my first novel, After Before, I was aware that biographically, this particular account was not mine to tell. I am neither Rwandan nor have I ever had to face the kinds of atrocities that went on there. And I would hate, through lack of understanding or carelessness, to injure the memories or sensitivities of survivors. My research was therefore extensive, and I have attempted to be as historically accurate as possible. But in writing I also had to remember that After Before, like all other novels, remained a work of fiction. Not being Rwandan is only one of a plethora of things I am not, and while it is politically rooted, if writers were limited to drawing only from their own lives, or restricted to historical or geographical accuracy, our tales would be limited indeed.

In fictionalising such a colossal atrocity however, is there an added obligation to be accurate? Distilling genocide down to its worst specifics – horrific, unthinkable murder – it occurs to me that I would never consider using any specific real-life murder as inspiration for a book. To me it would feel intrusive and insensitive. It is therefore I think the sweeping nature of genocide, the vastness, that for me at least takes it beyond personal tragedy and frames it as a collective political reference point, evoking questions and themes that are important for society to explore. In examining the continuing impact of Rwanda’s 1994 disaster, I hope I have been able to give voice to some of these issues.

In a way, fiction can be a kind of societal therapy, a way we process what our civilisation has faced and has allowed. Because after the Holocaust the world promised "Never Again", there should never have been a need for a new generation of genocide literature. But like its predecessors, my fictional account in After Before, is only the baseline against which my characters (attempt to) live. It is the universal themes that connect my Rwandan character to the other two protagonists in what is very much a tripartite story, that are the real heart of the tale: grief, regret, betrayal, fortitude, faith, justice, forgiveness – humanity.

After Before by Jemma Wayne is published by Legend Press and is out now.