A Thursday at York with Gil Courtemanche

 On Jan. 12, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented writer Gil Courtemanche. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

“When the sun goes down over Kigali, if you’re sitting on one of the hills surrounding the city and still have the remains of a soul, you cannot do otherwise than stop talking and watch….They felt borne along by forces they could not name but could not understand because never, in their worst excesses of hatred, had they ever imagined that anyone could kill the way one hoes a garden to get rid of weeds.”

from A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
By Gil Courtemanche

Gil Courtemanche (right) issued the following warning to those who came to his public reading at York on Jan.12, “If you know a novelist, beware. Novelists are gangsters: they steal lives. Rather than using guns, they offer you a glass of wine and listen to your story. Three years later, you read their novel and realize you’re in it!”

Humour might not be expected from this journalist who specializes in international and third-world politics. Yet it is as much a part of Courtemanche’s makeup as his anger at injustice. “I have two instincts: to laugh and to rage,” he said.

As he read passages from A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2004), Courtemanche described la naissance du livre, the birth of his book. As a journalist, he had made several visits to Rwanda between 1988 and 1994 to do a film on the AIDS pandemic. During his time there, he came to realize there were “two sicknesses in Rwanda: AIDS and hatred”. His notes describing his first Sunday in Kigali became the opening scenes of the novel.

The novel draws on his real life experience yet Courtemanche admits that he wasn’t present during the genocide. Creating the character of Valcourt was a way of inventing a part of himself that might have been there, a way of asking, “What would I have done during the genocide?” While the author admits that some of his fictional accounts would not have actually happened, he believes that “fiction is always reality pushed to its extreme limits”.

Drawn to a beautiful young Rwandan woman, Gentille, whom he had spoken to only once, Courtemanche found her to be the best example of the irrationality of the genocide, since Gentille was Hutu but looked Tutsi. Courtemanche said she was surely doomed to die in the oncoming violence. Within the body of the woman was all the beauty and conflict of a nation that was trying to “collectively commit suicide”. He imagined his main character falling in love with both the woman and the country.

Though he was criticized for writing a love story into the middle of the atrocities of genocide, Courtemanche considered that life continues despite war. He recalled filming a piece in Lebanon during the civil war in 1974. Captured on film was a heap of bodies set against a beautiful sky, a scene to “make mothers cry”. Yet, nearby he noticed a pair of young lovers whispering and kissing, a moment that was not captured by the camera. It struck him that journalism as he knew it was incapable of describing life. Fiction became a better tool to write about humans, with the worst and best together. “It is important to remember that we still make love during wars,” said Courtemanche.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Jan. 26, author Dionne Brand will read from What We All Long For. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.