Jemma Wayne chats to Francine Wolfisz about her debut novel, After Before, which explores ideas of betrayal amid the Rwandan genocide
Listening to a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, author Jemma Wayne was struck by just how raw her experience was two decades on.
“She had this sense of betrayal that, even so many years later, had stayed with her. This disbelief that even within such a tight-knit community neighbour could turn on neighbour, friend turn on friend. I kept thinking about betrayal and wondered how does one ever get past that?”
Those thoughts stayed with Jemma following a fundraising event her husband had organised in aid of Surf, a charity set up for survivors of the Rwandan genocide – and planted the seeds for her debut novel, After Before, which is published this week.
Revolving around three women from very different backgrounds, the book explores betrayal by others, by themselves and by life itself. But as their paths interweave, they are forced to confront their demons and find a way to somehow move forward.
Her first protagonist, Emily, immigrated to Britain from Rwanda hoping to start life away from her traumatic past. While researching her book, Jemma contacted Surf and they put her in touch with a survivor now living in Oxford.
The mother-of-two, who is an established journalist and Jewish News columnist, tells me: “She was very open and gave me a huge insight into what had happened to her. I was particularly interested in the after-effects of genocide, being able to survive and move on afterwards.
“Her account also made Rwanda – a place I have never visited – far more familiar to me. I wanted to breathe in the country as much as I could, the geography, the culture and the mind-set of the society that was there.”
There is a poignancy in the release of Jemma’s book in the same year marking 20 years since the genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority. Between April and July 1994, up to one million Rwandans (including 70 percent of the Tutsi population) were killed, while more than 250,000 women were raped and purposely infected with HIV.
I ask Jemma, who studied social and political sciences at Cambridge University, why she was particularly drawn to this tragedy of recent times.
“Maybe it was to do with our communal history, our own experience of the Holocaust, that I do find myself interested in these issues,” considers Jemma. “ After the Second World War we heard the cry: ‘Never again’, but genocide has occurred again, not just in Rwanda but now also in Syria.”
Aside from Emily, After Before also explores the lives of Lynn, who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is consumed by resentment about what she hasn’t achieved in life and Vera, a born-again Christian struggling to live a moral life against the backdrop of her not-so-moral past.
All three characters and their storylines are quite far removed from Jemma’s own life – but that’s something she was unafraid to tackle for her debut novel. “There’s that old adage, ‘write about what you know’, but for me I actually found it far easier to write something totally different,” explains Jemma.
“Critics might say I’m writing about a character so far from my own experience, but there are so many things that I’m not. I’m not elderly, I’m not dying of cancer and I’m not taking drugs. I think it’s all about the research you put into it and making your story as authentic and true as it can be.”
Jemma tells me she is “proud” of her novel and has received “huge support” from her family, including her father, composer Jeff Wayne.
“Having a creative person as a father, it made me feel it was possible to pursue a career in the creative industry. I’ve seen him doing it, how hard he’s worked and he was definitely an inspiration for me to pursue my passion.”
• After Before by Jemma Wayne is published by Legend Press, priced £7.99. It is available now.