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Interview with Washington Post's Loudoun Extra

February 04, 2009
By Catherine Larson

Here's an interview that ran yesterday in the Washington Post's Loudoun Extra about my journey to write As We Forgive.

Up Close: Catherine Larson

By Charity Corkey (Contact)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

In 2007, Ashburn resident Catherine Larson flew to Rwanda to interview survivors and perpetrators of the country's 1994 genocide. Inspired and intrigued by her friend Laura Watson's film documentary on the Rwandan's acts of forgiveness, Larson chose to explore several accounts more deeply.

The stories she heard are compiled in her book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, which was released early February.

In this e-mail interview, Larson, a writer for Prison Fellowship, talks about Devota - a woman who lost both children in the genocide - and the story of brave students in Nyange.

Q: Please tell us how you became interested in writing your book on Rwanda.

A: My first story I was assigned to write at Prison Fellowship almost five years ago was to cover the work of a man named Bishop John Rucyahana who had returned to his native Rwanda after the genocide to help in the monumental work of rebuilding that country. He started a victim-offender mediation program there.

Today, some of the ex-prisoners who have been through the program are personally asking forgiveness from survivors and showing remorse by building homes for them. Hands that once swung machetes in violence are now smoothing clay bricks in peace.

A while later, I became friends with Laura Waters Hinson, a graduate student at American University who was studying documentary film-making. Laura had also met Bishop John and been so inspired by the stories he shared of radical forgiveness that she decided to travel to Rwanda in 2006 and film this phenomenon as her thesis project. (The film has since taken on a life of its own, earning her a gold medal from the Academy Awards for best student documentary and being featured in the National Geographic All-Roads Film Festival.)

Inspired by Bishop John's stories and Laura's film, As We Forgive, I traveled in 2007 to Rwanda to follow up with the three main stories from her film and to document four more stories of forgiveness.

Q: How did you find the time and the funding to complete this project?

A: Well, finding the time was one of the most challenging parts. A week after my book proposal was accepted, I received another proposal ... of marriage. Let me just say, I don't recommend writing a book, planning a wedding, and buying your first home, all in the same year. Each night after I got off of work, I'd exercise, eat dinner, and then sit down to write until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. I worked on it weekends and holidays, and a few early mornings, which is hard for a night owl. A lot of the funding came from the community, friends, family and my church.

Q: With less than a month to spend in Rwanda during your August 2007 trip, what did a typical day look like? As you community-hopped, where did you sleep from night to night?:

A: Knowing that I would have a very limited time on the ground, I asked three friends with writing experience to travel with me. Zoe Sandvig, Greg Justice and Livingston Sheats took on the challenge. The four of us interviewed survivors, perpetrators and those involved in the reconciliation movement from morning to night. The limited time forced me to narrow my focus to seven stories and tell them in detail.

While in Rwanda, we stayed at the guest house of World Relief in Kigali. (Fortunately, Rwanda isn't very large - it's about the size of Maryland, so it was possible to stay in Kigali and travel out from there each day). In the mornings, our translator and driver, Chris, would pick us up and we'd drive dirt roads rutted by the rain to the areas where our interviewees were waiting. Some days, we hired multiple translators and split up so we could cover more territory. I can say that there were far more stories than I had space to tell or time to explore. One day, for example, we showed up to a spot where a local pastor had gathered survivors who had forgiven. They were there waiting to share their stories with us. We arrived late after interviewing others from the documentary film, only to find some 30 to 40 survivors waiting patiently for us. Even though I wasn't able to interview them all, just seeing that assembled crowd was moving.

Q: Of the Rwandans you interviewed for your book, who displayed the greatest act of forgiveness? What happened to this person during the 1994 genocide?

A: I think it's hard to compare acts of forgiveness but definitely one of the most moving stories for me personally was that of Devota. After I interviewed Devota, she unwrapped her head scarf to show me the scars of the machete across the back of her neck. When she took my hand in hers, her skin was so soft it sent chills through me, just to think of a blade, and not a loving hand, coming in contact with that skin.

Devota lost both of her children in the genocide. She was attacked and left for dead twice. The second time, they set the building on fire with her in it. Truly, it was a miracle that she survived. Hearing someone like Devota who had wrestled with that much sorrow and found the strength to forgive gives me great hope. Today, Devota is someone who has such a spirit of joy about her. She has adopted several genocide orphans. She regularly goes into prisons to share her story to create empathy in the offenders, and to share the hope that redemption and forgiveness really are possible. Just knowing Devota has changed my life.

Q: What difficulties did you experience during your trip to Africa?

A: We really had such a smooth trip. When you are hearing the kind of stories I was hearing, the fact that you lost your luggage really seems insignificant. Honestly, I think the hardest part for me was just the emotional toll. Sometimes our strengths are double-edged swords. I think my empathy allowed me to gain trust and tell these stories from the heart, but I think it also meant that these stories pierced me deeply. The deep burden of these survivors to share their stories of forgiveness became my deep burden.

Q: How did the stories and people of Rwanda affect you?

A: Their stories really have given me great hope for the struggles each of us face. If a widow can forgive the man who killed her husband and children, if an orphan can forgive the man who took his family and his fortune, if a high school student can forgive those who robbed her of her classmates, then it gives me hope that we too can forgive. Most of the time when we see someone with scars, we think only of the pain of what that person had to face. But scars are also a reminder of the amazing capacity we have for healing, both in physical and emotional terms.

Q: Can you tell us about the process of publishing your book? How difficult was it to find a publisher? Are you doing a lot of your own marketing?

A: I'd heard a lot about how difficult finding a publisher can be. For that reason, I hired an agent from the beginning. She shopped my proposal around. I actually went to Rwanda without a book contract, so that was a step of faith. But eventually, I found a publisher who shared my vision for the book. From what I understand, unless you're John Grisham, you always do a lot of the marketing yourself. So yes, I'm hitting the pavement, trying to get the word out about As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda.

Q: If people are interested in buying your book, where can they find it?

A:: The book is available at Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, Borders, Amazon, and through my blog: www.AsWeForgiveBook.com. I'm going to be speaking at several local spots, including the Great Falls Library on May 7 at 7 p.m. If people are interested in hearing me, they can check out my Web site for more events and details.

Q: As a former teacher, do you have any plans to go into the local schools to talk about your book and about the history of the genocide? Are there other ways you are trying to reach out to young people on this issue?

A: One of the stories I covered was of Rwandan students in Nyange who were attacked in raid by militant Hutus three years after the genocide. The militias ordered the students to separate by their ethnicities, Hutu and Tutsi, but the students refused. They simply repeated, "We are all Rwandans." Many of those students faced death for the sake of unity. Their story is one I really would like to share with high school students.

Prison Fellowship International and filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson are also partnering in the Living Bricks Campaign (www.LivingBricksCampaign.org). Basically, it is an opportunity to donate to help supply materials so that ex-prisoners can demonstrate their repentance and remorse by building homes for those they wronged. This is a practical way that school groups, church groups and community groups can get involved in reconciliation efforts. It cost $5,000 for the materials to build a home, and much less to sponsor a brick. We provide the raw materials; they provide the heart, the hands and the hope for rebuilding their nation. This would be a great fundraiser for a local school.

Q: Having grown up in Florida, what do you now enjoy about living in Loudoun County?

A: I have to confess I still feel giddy every time I see a snowfall. Autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, those are all pretty new too. But I also love meeting so many people here who are passionate about making a difference in the world. Even if we don't always see eye-to-eye on the how, I appreciate the passion that motivates people in Loudoun County.

Q: Tell us something about yourself that might surprise your colleagues and friends.

A: I did a lot of acting in high school. In fact, I won a theater scholarship that helped me with college expenses. Though I ultimately decided that wasn't the career path I wanted to choose, I think that experience has helped me a lot. In theater you learn a lot about getting inside your character. You try to imagine feeling what they are feeling, and expressing those emotions through physical expressions and movements. That has helped me as I interview people and share their stories.

Larson will be book-signing at Borders on 21031 Tripleseven Road, Sterling on March 21 from 12 p.m. - 4 p.m.


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Eileen Borris

Catherine, you truly are an inspiration. The work of forgiveness is so important and sharing stories of what people have gone through and then were able to forgive is truly inspirational. I admire your commitment to this work. I too hope to go to Rwanda and to help people learn how to forgive and in some small way help with this healing process. This was a beautiful interview. Thank-you for all the work you are doing. I can't wait to read your book.

Eileen Borris - author of "Finding Forgiveness: A 7 Step Program for Letting go og Anger and Bitterness." www.dreileenborris.com

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