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I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda by Sonja Linden
February 22 to March 18, 2007
Email from Across the Ocean: An Interview with Sonja Linden
by Mark Witteveen
Mark Witteveen: What are you reading these days? Anything you care to recommend to our readers?
Sonja Linden: I have just finished Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones which I really enjoyed and didn't want to finish (always a good sign). It has a startling premise: a first hand account of life after the brutal death of its narrator Susie Salmon at the age of 14. This sounds somewhat gruesome, but gruesome is not what the book is, rather gentle, amusing, quirky and touching. The book evolves as a study of what happens to a family broken apart by the death of a loved one, recounted through the observations of Susie from one of the many heavens that she reports exist 'up there'. In part it is a detective story as Susie tracks the movements of her killer from above and wills friends and family to pick up clues to his identity. The book evolves as a wonderful mixture of pathos, humour, imagination and brilliant observation. Lovely Bones struck a particular chord with me as I am still in mourning for my mother who died very suddenly this spring of lung cancer. She had a strong belief in the afterlife and she used to joke about watching me from 'up there' as I struggled to dispose of all the 'stuff' she had accumulated in her house over the decades. It was a job she could never face herself, and with her wicked cackly laugh, she freely admitted she would be dumping it on me. I had always said I'd look up and smile and wag my finger at her from time to time as I ploughed through her million and one 'outfits'. In fact I didn't. It was all too poignant and I wept as I went through drawer after drawer of endless sweaters, fancy knickers, lace edged handkerchiefs and a thousand jaunty life-affirming scarves.
Because I have been in a melancholic frame of mind since her death, the other book I've been reading has finally had to be abandoned till a time when I'm feeling more robust - it was amazing but for the time being, well, just too sad. My Wounded Heart by Martin Doerry is a remarkable and heart-wrenching book of non-fiction, consisting largely of the correspondence between a woman doctor, Lilli Jahn, and her five children, when she was taken away from them during the Nazi era in Germany. I have had to put down the book half way through. The very sad asylum stories I have been telling in my second play, which has just been produced in London, plus my own bereavement for a mother who was herself a refugee from Nazi Germany mean that for now I need a night-time book that takes me to a less sombre place.
MW: Your play - I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given To Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda - was inspired by your encounters with a Rwandan refugee, Lea Chantal. What appealed to you about turning memoir narratives into plays for the stage?
SL: Lea was referred to me by her doctor at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture when I was running a creative and testimonial writing project there from 1997-2004. Her doctor knew Lea was doing a lot of writing, intent as she was on memorializing her experience of the Rwanda genocide. Part of my brief experience as writer in residence at the Foundation was to create my own piece of writing. A director friend suggested I tell my own story of helping refugees to write. I baulked at this initially, not wanting to put myself into my work. But then I realized that to tell the story of someone like Lea (Juliette in the story is a composite figure) through her relationship with a British writer provided a simple and effective framework. Transforming this writer into a man, with a very different history and personality from me, gave me an opportunity to create a male/female dynamic which added another layer. I set out not only
to communicate the horrors of a genocide as experienced by one individual, but also the trauma of survival and displacement. In addition, through the perspective of Simon, the writer character, I set out to show how little we, the host community, really understand what refugees such as Juliette have been through. The theme of writing as a therapeutic release is taken from life. It is very much Lea's experience, and forms the spine of the play. The memoirs - which in this case were spoken rather than written, and emerged from many, many conversations, a few recorded, were, I believe, what lent the play its authenticity and, I hope, its integrity. My most recent play Crocodile Seeking Refuge is also inspired by original memoirs of five of my writing 'clients' at the Foundation and their encounters with British people across a broad spectrum.
MW: It's been said the truth should never get in the way of a good story. What's your take? To what extent do you fictionalize? Do you worry that what you are representing on the stage is not completely true or accurate?
SL: The short answer is - yes. At times I agonize. On the one hand I want to use my creative skills to serve the story of the individual I am writing about, in order to create a powerful drama that will communicate the horrors that he or she has experienced and wishes to be put in the public domain. On the other hand I would hate for that individual to feel misrepresented. In the case of Lea, I talked to her about the play as I was writing it and when it was finished I gave it to her to read. We then met and discussed it. To my delight she loved the play, in particular its humor. Knowing her as well as I did, I had a strong sense that she would endorse it, but I needed that confirmation. I had more concerns over my most recent play, where I was weaving elements of the 'true stories' of five refugees I had worked with into a drama. I explained to them that the characters in the play were not representations of them in a literal sense, but were rather inspired by them, and that whereas their back stories in their countries of origin and their asylum experiences were all true to life, the contexts and encounters in which I had set them were fictionalized. They all came to Press Night and have to my great relief expressed their satisfaction with the play and a sense of vindication that the injustice and deprivation of human rights that had been meted out to them had been put on record. Throughout my writing career, whenever I have wavered or agonized about fictionalizing elements of people's stories, I have found comfort in Picasso's maxim: "Art is a lie that tells the truth."
MW: There are many real-life stories out there. How do you select which one to dramatize? Are some more theater worthy than others? Perhaps you could talk about your process a bit.
SL: In the case of my recent plays, concerned with the refugee experience, the process of selecting what is 'dramatic' was already under way in the writing sessions with individuals. Part of my task in these one-to-one sessions was to elicit what it was they wished to write about. I would encourage them to write down the chapter headings or stepping stones in their life, which we would then talk about. Often these would lead to the points of high drama in their lives. Very often by the end of a session I would be excited by the potential of a particular episode that had emerged from that day's discussion and I would encourage the writer to focus on that for their homework assignment and indicate why it would make compulsive reading. Thus when I came to write ...Young Lady from Rwanda and later Crocodile Seeking Refuge I had digested a lot of story material and dramatic moments. An Iranian writing client, whom I have worked with for 7 years, had so many stories to recount about her time as a political prisoner under Khomeini's regime that she ended up writing a 400 page book. A typical episode that leapt off the page to me as a dramatist was her experience of bumping into her jailer in her local supermarket here in London. The woman, still in full Islamic gear, was cowering behind a magazine trying to avoid her gaze and there was a moment of triumphalism in this role reversal with her jailer now effectively at her mercy. This is a typical dramatic moment from a memoir. I included it in my play, although I fictionalized the outcome for dramatic purposes...
MW: How long did it take you to write the play? (...Young Lady from Rwanda)
SL: Once I had the basic structure in mind - initially a very simple one of alternating dialogue and monologue scenes, it took me a matter of weeks to complete a first draft. Most of this draft is still contained within the play. A staged reading helped me to take it to the next stage and develop it further and that's when I, for example, added the candle-lighting scene, which became the spur for Juliette to be able to embark on writing about her family. It's difficult to quantify how much time editing and re-writing took as this was spread over a period of time in the run up to the very first production in Oxford.
MW: You write elsewhere of the therapeutic aspects of creating art: that writing about their experiences can and does bring profound healing to victims of torture and genocide. What is the role of the audience in this therapy?
SL: I have been asked this question before and been stumped by it! If I understand your question rightly, my answer would have to be that I don't think there can be a comparison between the laborious and necessarily painful act of writing at length about a traumatic experience in one's own life, and the fleeting experience of watching a representation of this in relation to someone else's life. The healing you mentioned is by and for the person who enacts the purging, be it through the talking cure or the writing cure as was the case with Juliette. Witnessing the representation of this by actors on stage doesn't even come close to this.
MW: What are you working on at the moment?
SL: I am working on two plays at the moment - one for iceandfire theatre, called The Asylum Monologues and one with the working title inspired by a feminist handbook from the 70's-Our Bodies Our Selves. The former will be a verbatim piece covering the entire spectrum of the asylum experience both from the point of view of those seeking asylum and those who have a professional involvement in the asylum business, from Home Office officials and employees to cleaners working in an asylum hostel. I am very much at the beginning of this project; my first interview takes place this week and will be with a Zimbabwean political activist. I met him by chance two weeks ago at the final performance of my play. He identified strongly with the play as he had only just been released from twenty months detention by the Immigration Service.
The second play I have also only just started working on is entirely different, and of necessity has nothing to do with refugees, as I now feel the need to refresh myself as an artist by working on new subject matter. I have for some time very much wanted to write a play for and about women of my generation. In this play five women in their fifties and sixties confront each other and their past selves in a first reunion of their consciousness raising group 30 years after its closure. I'm hoping to write something insightful about the shift that has taken place in women's lives since the 70's, and my intention is to make it both comedic and searching about subject matter that I feel is very rich.
MW: Are you still in contact with Lea Chantal? (the inspiration for ...Young Lady From Rwanda)
SL: Yes. We worked for a year on a film that was a fictionalization of her story and remarkably, considering the subject matter, we both really enjoyed working on this together. What we enjoyed of course was the creativity, the invention of characters and situations and coming to grips with the craft of screenwriting. This was interrupted by the birth of her second child, since which time the screenplay has been sitting in a drawer. Here it may well remain - what with the subsequent release of some excellent films such as Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April. Since that time she and her delightful Rwandan husband have gone on to have a third child. Lea's time therefore is very much taken up. Her will to be a writer, however is undiminished and I'm delighted to report that she is now working on a novel which incorporates her story. This is her first experience at writing in English, a challenge in itself. It has a fantastic storyline and great characters and she is being supported through this project by a professional novelist who was one of the writing mentors on my team at the Medical Foundation.
MW: The play has been widely performed and universally lauded. I imagine you've had the opportunity to see a number of the productions and met many new people. Any good gossip? Care to share any highlights from your travels?
SL: I'm hopeless at gossip - which makes me sound very worthy and poe-faced which I ain't! In fact I have only seen one of the US productions, when it premiered at Kansas City and found it excellent but have no titillating stories to report back to you, sadly.