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Off Script: Will Ferguson on sculpting stories, from Katimavik to a road trip through Rwanda

By Ally Foster      

The Giller Prize-winning author chats with P&I about his hopes for the resurrection of the emaciated youth organization, what he learned while crafting his newest novel, and his greatest fear as a writer.

After some serious persuading from his friend Jean-Claude Munyezamu, Canadian author Will Ferguson found himself in the misty jungles of Rwanda, 20 years after the devastating genocide, side-stepping a charging mountain gorilla. P&I photograph courtesy of Will Ferguson

Growing up in small-town Northern Alberta— specifically, inside the absence of a dot on the map that, at that time, represented about 400 people who were living closer to the Arctic Circle than they did to the Canada-U.S. border—Will Ferguson yearned to travel.

While he itched to explore the patchwork of cities, languages, coasts, and cuisines that quilted his own country, he never envisioned he would be in the misty jungles of Rwanda, 20 years after a devastating genocide, side-stepping a charging mountain gorilla.

One of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas (P&I photograph courtesy of Will Ferguson)

Yet, the Canadian Giller-Prize-winning author, who is known for his fiction and travel memoirs (trademarked with a healthy dose of humour) was convinced to take a three-week trek in 2013 through the landlocked east-African country by his friend, Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Tutsi who managed to escape the slaughter, eventually immigrating to Canada.

The result of this hesitant adventure is Ferguson’s newest novel, Road Trip Rwanda: A Journey Into the New Heart of Africa, published by Viking. It’s a blend of history, travel-memoir, and a telling of the genocide’s horrors through the firsthand narrative of Ferguson’s friend and travel partner, Munyezamu. The result is a non-fiction account of Rwanda’s complex, bloodied past, but perhaps just as importantly, a snapshot of just how far it’s come since.

Ferguson tells P&I that he caught the travel bug while growing up in Fort Vermilion, Alta. Living in an isolated speck within a massive country makes it difficult to travel, he explains, but adds that he was lucky to expand his horizons by enrolling in Katimavik.

Launched in 1977 by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and former senator Jacques Hébert, Katimavik is a youth organization turned cultural institution in Canada (think of it as the Canuck Peace Corps). Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau served as chair of the board between 2002-2006.

The organization, which encourages civic engagement in young adults by sending them on volunteer placements in varying regions of the country, was stripped down to almost nothing when the then-Conservative government slashed its funding in the 2012 budget. The group is still waiting to hear if it will be approved a piece of the $105-million, five-year pie earmarked for youth service programs in the 2016 federal budget.

“Hopefully they’ll be bringing it back,” says Ferguson. “Katimavik should be not just resurrected, but promoted and expanded.”

He adds: “Now that Justin [Trudeau] is in Ottawa, I hope that he hasn’t forgotten about Katimavik.”

Ferguson says he remembers the Katimavik program as a way to see Canada and “do good work,” adding that he was able to go into communities very different from the one he grew up in, learning to appreciate different ways of life, and being introduced to new languages.

Later in his youth, his dad gave him advice that set him on a path that would carry him around the world—Japan, Ireland, and Rwanda, to name a few—onwards to win the Leacock Medal for humour writing three times, and eventually to the stage of the Scotiabank Giller Prize ceremony, accepting a $50,000 cheque for his fiction novel, 419.

“‘The trick is to figure out what you love to do’—and that’s harder than people think—‘and then figure out a way to get somebody to pay you to do that,’” Ferguson reminisces, quoting his father. “I loved travelling and I enjoyed writing, so I thought, ‘there you go!’”

His first attempt, writing guidebooks, was a bit of a op. Ferguson says he realized that he didn’t have the organizational skills or the appreciation for logistical planning to deliver reliable tools to would-be travellers looking to follow in his footsteps. He recalls one incident, in which his guidebook, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan, instructed weary backpackers to turn right for the welcome respite of a hostel, when in fact, a right-hand turn would take them promptly into the ocean. This error was pointed out to him via an email from one  such weary—and then weary and lost— backpacker.

“I’m hoping he stopped when his feet got wet,” is Ferguson’s response. You can almost hear him shrug over the phone as he says this; good-naturedly admitting the book is now out-of-print.

Since then, Ferguson has written travel memoirs, like Beyond Belfast: A 560 Mile Journey Across Northern Ireland On Sore Feet, as well as a satirical self-help book, a fiction novel set in the jazz-hall clubs of the 1930s, and 419, a fictional thriller set largely in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ferguson spoke with P&I about consciously un-defining his genre, finding humour in the darkest of places, and his hopes for a better understanding of a country that has rebounded and rebuilt with great spirit after unspeakable tragedy.

This interview has been edited for length, style, and clarity.

You’ve written such a wide variety of books. How do you define your genre?

“I define myself as a travel-writer and a novelist.

“You see, I live in fear of being caught in a rut. The worst thing for me would be to keep writing the same genre again and again.

“I have a sister who is a brilliant sculptor…she often works in clay, because it’s cheaper, but when she can afford it, she’ll buy and work in marble … and to me, travel writing and fiction are like these two types of sculpting.

“Travel writing is like working in marble. You have a big block of material. You go on the trip, you have the history of the place, your own experience, descriptions, and dialogue. There’s so much you can work with when you go to a location. There’s no shortage…of material. The problem is selecting and cutting it down. With marble, you cut away. You take a block of marble and you cut away until you have the shape that you want. It’s the art of subtraction.

“But with fiction, you’re building-up from something. It’s just a character or an image… so you build up, like clay…and you’re always concerned if there’s enough story there to justify it.

“I like to switch between the two. My last book was travel, so my next book will be fiction.”

Your books often deal with very serious—even tragic, or dark—subject matter, yet you are known for always weaving humour throughout your work. Why?

“I don’t like books that are relentlessly wacky, and I don’t like books that are relentlessly dark. But in life, there’s always humour in everything.

Ferguson standing next to the source of the River Nile—or, as he calls it, a glorified puddle. (P&I photograph courtesy of Will Ferguson)

“If you go to Northern Ireland—my family is Northern Irish (a distinct Irish accent emerging as he says this) and after 30 years of The Troubles, thousands killed, they’ve got a really dark and funny sense of humour. So I think denying humour in any situation is not giving the full picture; any world-view has to include humour. If it doesn’t include humour, it’s incomplete.”

What was the most surprising thing you learned or saw in Rwanda?

“I really believe in ‘national traits’; cultural traits that develop. What’s interesting is that cultural traits are often neutral—they can go either way. Japan has a very strong sense of collective purpose…a very strong regional identity. You can use that to rebuild economy and create amazing industries, automobiles, and cameras. Or, you can use it to invade Southeast Asia. And I look at German traits of ef ciency and clarity, and how that can be used to create a modern economy, or to round-up people and eliminate them.

“In Rwanda, you had the most stable, homogeneous country in Africa … It’s a country that had a reputation and a history of following the law, of conforming, of being stable, of deferring to authority, and working together… it’s a solution-oriented culture.

“They say, ‘Here’s the problem, what’s the quickest way to get to the solution?’ They don’t drag things out and dwell on things a lot. They say, ‘Okay, we don’t have enough female representation, so we’re going to pass a law requiring 50 per cent women in Parliament.’ Or, ‘Okay, the remote areas can’t get medicine. How can we get them medicine? Drones. Okay.’ The problem is, that’s all based on the initial analysis being the correct one. If the problem is defined as, ‘the Tutsis are evil, and need to be eliminated,’ well, now you’re in trouble because there’s no real thought.

“The downside is that the people who say ‘wait, wait, wait’ are often drowned out. The positive side: the same culture that gave us the genocide, gave us the reconstruction. It’s the same culture.”

How would you define Canada’s cultural identity?

“At its core, it’s a fair society. It tries to be fair—and that’s not a bad trait to build on. We don’t veer too much towards extremism on any side of the political spectrum. Canada, to me, is a very regional, eccentric, and eclectic country. There’s a sense that it’s only going to work by being fair… in the muddled middle. The downside of that is it’s not very inspiring. It doesn’t stir the blood. Other than hockey, it’s hard to stir the blood. But it’s a very, very effective and humane way to run the country.”

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

“History didn’t end 30 years ago. Rwanda is not frozen in time … it’s trying its best to become a ‘normal country,’ and it’s a safe country. It’s beautiful country. It’s a country worth visiting. More than anything, I hope people will be intrigued enough to go to Rwanda… that would be the biggest payoff.”

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