A Conversation with Jennifer Haupt,
Author of In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills
Q: Why did you go to Rwanda in 2007?
A: The short answer is that I was a reporter exploring the connection between grief and forgiveness. I went there to interview genocide survivors. I also went to interview humanitarian aid workers about why they were drawn to this tiny country still grieving a decade after the 1994 genocide.
I had a handful of assignments for magazines, writing about humanitarian efforts and they all fell through for one reason or another. That’s when I decided to hire a driver and go into the 10,000 hills to visit the small churches and schools with bloodstains on the walls and skulls of anonymous victims stacked on shelves. I wanted to trace the steps of the genocide and talk with the genocide survivors, mostly women, who were guides at these rarely visited memorials.
Q: What did you find in Rwanda that was surprising?
A: I didn’t even realize until I was in Rwanda that I needed to address my own grief for my sister who died when I was age two. It was forbidden to speak of Susie in our household; that’s how my parents dealt with their grief and I respect that. In Rwanda, it felt safe to grieve for the first time. My grief was minuscule compared with the genocide survivors. And yet, we shared a powerful mixture of emotions — compassion, sorrow, longing — that crossed the boundaries of race and culture.
What struck me was that many of the aid workers I interviewed were also grieving over the loss of loved ones. They came to Rwanda as a way of reaching out to help others, and also to heal their own souls. Most of the people I spoke with, no matter if they were Rwandan, American, European, were, in some way, grieving. I had always thought the universal commonality that connected all of us was love, but I learned in Rwanda that grief is an equally strong bond. Grief and love form the bridge that connects us all.
Q: How did your Jewish background effect you?
A: Fifteen years before I went to Rwanda, I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial site in Germany. The former prison barracks and crematorium where some of my relatives may have been imprisoned and murdered, as well as the photos and artifacts in the museum where harrowing to see.
During the two weeks, I spent traveling in the 10,000 hills of Rwanda, I couldn’t help but think of my visit to Dachau. Thousands of people visit Dachau each year; we Jews vow to remember the atrocities that happened there. Never again. It struck me that I was nearly always the only visitor at the dozens of tiny bloodstained memorials I visited. There was always a guide, usually a woman, a lone Tutsi survivor whose family members were murdered at the church or school.
I remember at one church, I was met by a woman named Julia, in her mid-forties, around my age at the time. She had survived by laying on the floor among the dead bodies. Now, she gave tours so that no one would forget. I talked with Julia about her family members and friends who had been murdered here. We cried together; my tears were, in part, for my relatives and members of my tribe who had been murdered during the Holocaust. I experienced a powerful connection with this stranger who lived halfway around the world from me, in a culture so different than mine, through both love and grief. Compassion. I wanted to share that experience with others through the characters in my novel.
Q: Why did you write this novel, instead of a memoir about your time in Rwanda?
A: Amahoro is a Kinyarwanda greeting that translates literally to peace, but means so much more when exchanged between Hutus and Tutsis since the genocide. It’s a shared desire for grace when there can be no forgiveness. It’s an acknowledgment of shared pain, an apology, a quest for reconciliation. I wanted to be the conduit for telling the stories of amahoro that I had heard in Rwanda, from Tutsis and Hutus. I wanted to explore more deeply the meaning of amahoro, from many different world views. I wanted to excavate my own grief more fully and, perhaps, find my own vision of amahoro. I could only do all of that, I felt, as a novelist.
Q: Why did you choose to tell this story through the eyes of three women of different ages and cultural backgrounds?
A: I wanted to offer Westerners a window into a very different world, and to do that I started with an American protagonist leaving everything she knows to try and find amahoro. Rachel Shepherd is searching for her father, Henry, in Rwanda. She is also searching for the piece of her heart that he took when he left her twenty years earlier. The piece that knows how to love: like a child, like a wife, like a mother.
I also wanted to connect the African-American civil rights struggle with the struggle for civil rights of the Tutsis in Rwanda. That’s where Lillian comes from. Once I decided that she and Henry Shepherd had an ill-fated interracial love affair during the late 1960s in Atlanta, their story took on a life of its own. Lillian is on equal footing with Rachel as a central character in this novel.
Originally, this was just Rachel and Lillian’s journey: The intertwining stories of two women searching for the man they both love. Two women trying to piece together a family. I didn’t add Nadine’s story until eight years after I started writing this novel. She’s based on a 19-year-old woman I met in Rwanda who had left after the genocide and was returning for the trial of a Hutu man, a former neighbor, who she had seen shoot her mother and sister.
Nadine is a fusion of this woman’s story as well as other stories I heard in Rwanda — and then, of course, my imagination. She’s the lynch-pin that hold together the stories of Lillian, Henry, Rachel, and Rachel’s love interest in Rwanda, an American doctor running from his past who has become like an older brother to Nadine.
Q: Is this a political story about the genocide?
A: No, this is a story that is set against the backdrop of pre-genocide, the genocide, and then after the genocide. I conducted a lot of research about Rwandan history but I don’t claim to be an expert on the country’s politics or tumultuous past. I do present some background about the genocide, which is factual, but this is historical fiction. The story is about the experiences of the characters during this time in history.