For Zoe Norridge, African literature is a life-long obsession. She is a senior lecturer in African and comparative literature at Kings College London, and has researched extensively on the themes of pain and violence.
Norridge is the author of Not My Time To Die, an English translation of Yolande Mukagasana’s La Mort Ne Veut Pas des Moi, a survivor testimony from the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Norridge was in Rwanda recently to launch the book, whose release coincided with Kwibuka 25 — the annual commemoration of the genocide.
The journey of how the two writers met starts in 2006. Norridge was in London at the time when she read Mukagasana’s story and thought it was “extraordinary.”
“Yolande is candid and almost wants you to live with her. She takes you into her world and tells you about her life. Although the story starts on the evening of April 6, 1994 [when then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s aeroplane was shot down while flying back to Kigali from Arusha, sparking the macabre killings], she also moves back in time and talks about her husband’s experience with violence; and about love and sex with her husband — which is unRwandan and quite shocking in a way! I thought the narrative was real and full of life,” says Norridge.
WRITING ABOUT PAIN
She would feature Mukagasana among four writers in Perceiving Pain in African Literature, a literary account of pain and suffering from sub-Saharan Africa.
“I met Yolande six years after reading La Mort Ne Veut Pas des Moi. I was on a two-month stay in Rwanda when someone told me Yolande had returned to Kigali from Brussels and gave me her phone number. We met in a private bar room in Nyamirambo one Sunday and struck up a friendship,” said Norridge. “I would later ask if she would let me translate the text. In June 2015, when my first son was five months old, I completed the first chapter. It took me three years and another baby before I finished the first draft.”
Norridge tells of how she would sit at the computer and translate one chapter at a time. At the end of each half, she went to stay at Mukagasana’s house.
“We spent several days going through the little questions and sometimes I would spot a gap where I did not understand the French,” she says. “When reading a book for pleasure you don’t necessarily stop to ponder what you do not understand. But when translating, it becomes a problem. So, I would sit down and ponder these problems with Yolande. For example, there were times I could not make metaphors in French work in English. And sometimes we just changed it completely.”
When it came to publishing, the Rwanda-based Huza Press was a natural choice as it resonated with the people.
Norridge stumbled upon African literature as a student of French at Cambridge University in the UK. In her third year, she travelled to Reunion Island — a French overseas territory that lies between Madagascar and Mauritius — on a study tour where she encountered a trove of African literature.
“I enjoyed reading books by the likes of Birago Diop, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. When I returned to Cambridge, I continued to read African literature. At the time, there was just a handful of students taking African literature. After completing my masters degree I worked in health promotion for a while in the UK and later in Papua New Guinea. For my doctorate, I studied African literature but I wanted to encounter it first hand, so, I went to at SOAS London to work with the Ghanaian academic Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame,” says Norridge. “His office was filled with books from all over Africa. When I met him I wished I could spend a week in there just reading these books.”
For her doctorate, between 2004 and 2007, Norridge, focussed on time as representation of pain. She had encountered a lot of African literature on violence.
“In Perceiving Pain in African Literature I tackled how and why African authors write about pain. I was not interested in the infliction of pain but the experience of having pain inflicted upon you. That is survivors, witnesses...” she said.
After completing her PhD, Norridge moved to Oxford University where she studied cross-cultural empathy. That is, how do people connect around difficult issues in the past? In 2009, she made her maiden trip to Rwanda and visited the genocide memorial sites.
Initially I thought I was going to write a book about cross-cultural empathy in different countries and that the Rwandan story would be captured in a chapter. But I soon realised that I could not compress it into just a chapter,” she said. “I had encountered change, resilience, the will to forgive ... It was incredibly inspiring. I realised I knew little about Rwanda and I wanted to find out more. I have spent the past 10 years doing that.”