Uwem: Yeah. Yeah. So I tried to explore. For me, this was a very difficult story to write because I never went to Rwanda, you know. I've never visited Rwanda, even up to now. So I have to depend on my imagination to say, okay, what would a child have gone through in this and trying to understand as a child, you know. So I started exploring, you know, that. And I got a lot of, you know, energy.
Oprah: The 20-year-olds who survived this genocide would have been five-years-old at the time. The 20-year-old's. Because this was 15 years ago. Our next Skyper is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Corneille, tell us how to pronounce...
Corneille Nyungura: Hi, Oprah.
Oprah: Hi. Hi, Corneille is a musician and was a teenager when the genocide took place. He lost his entire family in just one deadly night, a night that, very much like the one you describe in "My Parents' Bedroom." He also wrote an essay for Oprah.com about his experiences in Rwanda. As someone who witnessed the horror first hand, what did you think of this story, "My Parents' Bedroom," Corneille?
Corneille: I was... I couldn't even find the words when I was trying to explain to one of your producers what I, what I felt. And I did not... I was sure that Father Uwem had gone to Rwanda. I was sure of it. Because as someone who spent hours in Rwanda for the entire duration of the genocide from April 6 until July 5, 1994, and the first thing that I thought was striking was the...
Oprah: How old were you? Corneille, how old were you?
Corneille: I was 17-years-old. And the first thing that I thought was striking is how he managed to make the physical, the order, the scenery, the landscapes, and everything that's physical about Rwanda and the genocide during those three months so real and so vivid, I was... I was... I was completely... I was very disturbed by it, actually, because it really took me, it physically transported me back to that moment.
Oprah: Can you, can you tell us briefly where you were when the genocide started? Where you were physically?
Corneille: I was in Kigali, Rwanda, and in the night of April 15, 1994, some armed men came to our house. It was about 2:00 in the morning and my mother woke us up and told us all to go to the living room and sit down and these people walked in and after maybe five minutes of talking and arguing, they were speaking in Swahili which is a language that I don't really understand, at one point our cook who was sitting there started telling me that they were saying that they were going to shoot all of us. And being the very naive, optimistic person that I am, that I still am that, I was, I said, no, it's not possible.They're not gonna shoot. And they did.
And so they shot everyone. And by some weird reflex, I jumped behind a couch. And I guess they thought me for dead and just left. But what I wanted to say about this story is how Father Akpan somehow managed to—and it's probably because you used the language of a child and the view of a child—he managed to talk about my experience being a child with a Tutsi, a father who was a Tutsi and a mother who was Hutu. So it was kind of the reverse ethnic situation than what's told in the book. But still he managed to really portray the absurdity of this genocide, which is not something that was talked about.
People have politicized it and said, "Well, Hutus killed Tutsis," and oversimplified the whole thing. And there's the last page, the ending of this book, that really talked to me because I was fortunate enough to be a very successful musician, especially in Europe, and there's been a great deal of pressure on me to want to pick sides and say, well, I'm, you know, I want to talk in the name of all the Tutsis and really basically say that Hutus were the wrongdoers, and not put any context around it, or just say, "Well, Hutus were kicked out of the country after '94 so they're the victims now" and that pressure wore down on me because I could never, because my mother was a Tutsi and my father was a Hutu.
And the last page of this book—and I don't even know how you can write something so true when you haven't gone through the genocide in Rwanda or been there to understand the absurdity, and only an eye of a child can process that that way—the part where the little girl, Monique, is running away and she's thinking (this was really special for me to read this) and she says, well, if Papa was able to kill, to take Mama's life, how am I sure that Mama's people are gonna spare my life? And this was my story. Because there is a thing about the genocide in Rwanda where people started, there was probably some sort of planning ahead but at one point people just went crazy and nuts. And one of the criteria to kill people was how you, what your physiology was. How you fit into a clan or another, an ethnic group or another, based on how you looked physically.
And I... I'm physically a mix of both my parents and that was a problem because I physically look like/could have come off like a Tutsi. That was debatable, but I could have. I didn't have that, the I.D. card. Father Akpan, when you're talking about the I.D. card, anyone who's gone through the genocide, knows what that means. You had to have that paper because Rwanda was one of the rare countries where you had an I.D. card that used to say whether you were a Hutu or a Tutsi or a Twa, which was the third ethnic group. And during the genocide that, was your, basically that was your, you know...
Oprah: That was your live or die card. Your live or die card.
Corneille: It was your live or die card.
Oprah: So I'm sure this took you to a place... Well, I don't know how if you survive a genocide and all of your family members... How many of your family members were killed, Corneille?
Corneille: All of them. So my father and mother and my two brothers and my little sister.
Oprah: That night when they came to the house?
Corneille: Yes, that very night.
Oprah: And you were the only one that survived in the house?
Corneille: I've the only one that survived in the house. And I can't rationalize it. I've tried to. I've stayed in a great deal of denial until three years ago. I could not... I had pictures of my family stacked up somewhere in a box and my wife got mad and she took 'em out and she put them in frames and forced me to look at them. And that was the first time that I actually reconnected with my family. I had completely shut them out of my reality today because it was too painful, I guess.
Oprah: So how were you able to read this story? How were you able to read "My Parents' Bedroom?"