Alumna Cultural Anthropology Ruth Erica writes youth novel about Rwanda
Writing a story from the perspective of a Rwandan girl set in Africa is not an easy task. Alumna Cultural Anthropology Ruth Erica did it. Her debut novel The tree with the bitter leaves, in which an important supporting role is played by a student of cultural anthropology, appeared in August 2020.
De Boom met de bitter bladeren (The Tree with the bitter leaves) is about the seventeen-year-old Maridadi who works on the market in Rwanda. Maridadi knows her own culture well but knows little about her family history. In Rwanda, there is hardly any talk about the genocide that took place in the 90s. At the market, she meets Puck, a Dutch cultural anthropology student. This meeting changes Maridadi's life. She starts asking questions about the genocide and the death of her mother. Little by little she discovers a family secret that shocks her deeply.
Fascination for Africa
From an early age, Ruth Erica has had a fascination for faraway regions and Africa in particular. That was the reason why she started her study Cultural Anthropology in Leiden in 1994. For her foreign internship, she went to Senegal and she followed a doctoral minor at the Dutch Center for Indigenous Peoples at the communication department. "I was curious about the world and other cultures. I was very sure that I wanted to study anthropology, but it doesn't teach a concrete profession. I knew I didn't want to do scientific research, but it has always been my wish to write about Africa".
The whole writing process took about five years. Not only did Erica have to learn to write a technically good story, but it was also quite a challenge in terms of content. "I aimed to do justice to the Rwandan culture and history as much as possible. I checked information endlessly and every time I thought I understood it I got new information and thought 'oh I don't quite understand it yet'. I revised the story until I had a credible story that did justice to the culture and history".
The narrative and all the characters come from Erica's imagination, but she always checked using different channels to see if it could have happened. "I realized that the way I wrote the story was inspired by my studies. When I was in Rwanda, I stayed in people's homes. That is participant observation. I participated as much as I could, but I also looked closely. You are an insider and an outsider at the same time". One thing that Erica also learned from her studies is that you can never build a story on just one informant. "People are telling information from the perspective of reality. You have to use as many sources as possible in complex situations to get the most complete picture possible".
Need for diversity in stories
Meanwhile, De Boom met de bitter bladeren has been out for two months and the writer receives enthusiastic reviews and reactions from both adults and adolescents. "Although the book is intended for young people, adults appear to be interested as well. It is a multi-layered story. Depending on the level at which you read it, everyone gets something different out of it. You also notice that there is a need for diversity in stories. People like to read about cultures that do not belong to the dominant group. It's nice to see that there is an interest in that".
More good news for Erica. If all goes well, the book will also be published in English. Publisher Lemniscaat has had the first chapter of 'De Boom met de bitter bladeren' translated to attract foreign publishers. The book was also included in the Lesson Suggestion Book for the Kinderboekenweek (Children's Book Week). "I felt honored to stand between Jan Terlouw, Thea Beckman and Evert Hartman, writers I grew up with myself". Meanwhile, Erica is not idling. She is working on a cross-curricular project for secondary schools of geography, history and Dutch in which the book is central. And the draft version for the next book is already ready. "It is my mission to show that Africa is not a country, but a continent consisting of diverse and rich cultures and countries. The next story will take place in an entirely different part of the continent".
De boom met de witte bladeren, publishing house Lemniscaat, bound, 256 p.
€15.95. ISBN: 978 90 477 1199 5. Age: 15 +