From all of us at the World Kid Lit Blog, we’re sending love and strength to you during these uncertain times. For those of you with children already off school, this could be a great opportunity to explore some new world books with them.
Today on the blog, translator and interpreter Johanna McCalmont tells us about a chat she had a few weeks back with author Joseph Ndwaniye.
Joseph Ndwaniye (1962) was born in Rwanda and has lived in Belgium for over 20 years. His first novel, La promesse faite à ma soeur (2007) was a finalist in the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie. He published his second novel Le muzungu mangeur d’hommes in 2012 and has been included in Nouvelles de Rwanda (2019). Plus fort que la hyène (2018), which was featured on the blog during World Kid Lit month in September, is his first young adult novel.
JM: How and why did you start to write?
JN: It wasn’t something I’d planned. I was going back to Rwanda to visit my mother in 2003 when my five-year-old daughter gave me a little notebook. She wanted me to write down everything her grandmother (my mother) was going to tell me. Something just clicked and I wrote a lot during my time in Rwanda. I came back to Belgium with six notebooks filled with my thoughts. So I typed up it all up on my computer. One day, I was chatting to a friend who’s a writer and he advised me to work on the text and try sending it publishers.
JM: Why did you write a book for children?
JN: For over fifteen years, I’ve been writing short stories inspired by life around the hospital. I work in a bone marrow transplant unit that cares for both children and adults, so I decided to start by publishing a story for children. I really enjoy telling children stories during their treatment.
JM: How did Plus fort de l’hyène (Stronger than the Hyena) come about?
JN: I wanted to tell people about Gato’s experience, a young boy suffering from sickle cell disease, a genetic condition that is widespread but not one that many people know about. I thought it would be more interesting if the story were to be told by a child narrator and I didn’t want it to sound like an academic article. That’s why I also included the storyline about the grandfather passing on his traditions to his grandson.
JM: Can you tell us a bit about the characters in your books? There is child narrator, for example, at the start of Promesse faite à ma soeur (The promise I made my sister)?.
JN: Childhood is extremely important in my books. The foundations for the adults we become are already laid during childhood. It’s the crucial moment when parents pass things on to their children, when grandparents pass things on their grandchildren. I myself have very clear memories from the time I lived with my grandmother on my father’s side.
JM: What books did you read as a child or teenager? Are there any writers who have inspired your work?
JN: I had very little access to books when I was a child. I lived in a rural part of Rwanda that didn’t have a library. As a reader now, I’m a great fan of Gabriel García Márquez (One hundred years of solitude).
JM: Are there any differences between books for children and young adults in Belgium and the books available in Rwanda?
JN: I don’t know much about books for young people in Rwanda because I left the country in 1986. Back then, all the books for children came from Europe. There weren’t any publishers in Rwanda. I think a few new publishers have emerged which is great news!
JM: Are your books read in schools in Belgium?
JN: Teachers have a list of books recommended by the Ministry of Education and pick the books they use with students from this list. La promesse faite à ma sœur has been on this list since 2018. I had the honour of being re-published in the Espace Nord collection that also provides additional educational material to allow pupils to better understand the texts.
JM: How strong are African voices in literature today?
JN: In both Belgium and France, African writers and writers with an African background don’t have a very prominent profile. Despite the fact we’re all writing in French, a distinction is still made between writers from outside Europe and those who are published by French publishing houses in Paris. I have the feeling that less of a distinction is made between authors writing in English.
JM: What sort of feedback do you get from young readers?
JN: Meeting readers is always somehow magical. 2018 was a particularly exciting year because I published my first book for children and it was the first time I started meeting young readers to talk about my own book. It was extremely moving each time I met children in Belgium and also when I had the chance to travel to Panama and Columbia to meet readers there too.
JM: Do you plan to write more books for children? Are any of your books currently being translated?
I plan to continue writing for children alongside my novels for adults. As for translations, I’m currently in discussions with a publisher to translate my first novel La promesse faite à ma soeur into Spanish.
Johanna McCalmont is freelance translator and conference interpreter from Northern Ireland who is currently based in Brussels, Belgium. She works from French, German, Dutch and Italian into English. She was selected for the 2018 New Books in German Emerging Translators programme. Her work has also been featured in No Man’s Land. You can follow her on Twitter @jo_mccalmont