CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence: The stories we tell ourselves

In her final instalment as the CBC/Quebec Writers' Federation's inaugural writer-in-residence, Monique Polak writes about how the most important stories may be the personal narratives that shape our lives: the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves.

In Monique Polak's final offering, she writes about importance of 'personal narratives that shape our lives'

Stephen Wark (right) shares his story with Monique Polak. The 43-year-old digital-game designer and scriptwriter has watched his son, who has autism, turn into a funny, charming young man. (Monique Polak)

We're all storytellers.

We tell stories to each other. Some of us write them down.

But the most important stories may be the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves. These personal narratives shape our lives. In this way, living is an act of creation.

Read other stories from QWF/CBC Writer-in-residence Monique Polak:

Handling the ups and downs

Stephen Wark thinks a lot about stories. The 43-year-old NDG resident is a digital-game designer and scriptwriter. 

"No matter what the game is, people want to feel like they can be the hero," Wark told me when we met up at a bookstore in Old Montreal.

Wark's observation applies to life, too. Don't we all want to be the hero of our own story?

Wark laughed when I asked whether he sees himself as the hero of his own life.

"I certainly hope not to be the villain," he said.

Nine years ago, Wark's son, now 12, was diagnosed with autism.

"I was in shock," Wark recalled. But gradually, he and his family adjusted to their new reality.

This winter, Wark's son took part in a piano competition.

"He stood up and improvised jokes before his performance to charm the judges. I thought, 'All this worry and work has led to a charming young man,'" said Wark. 

The story Wark tells himself is a hopeful one: "I can't control anything, but I handle the ups and downs pretty well."

Behind those sparkling eyes

"I feel sad for the little girl, but I'm proud of how she's grown up," says Leontine Uwababyeyi, 30, about her 8-year-old self. Uwababyeyi survived the Rwandan genocide and is now training to become a social worker. (Monique Polak)

"I am the hero of my life," Leontine Uwababyeyi says, firmly.

If you crossed paths with Uwababyeyi at McGill University, where she studies social work, what you would see is a 30-year-old woman with sparkling eyes and an infectious laugh.

Uwababyeyi, who was born in rural Rwanda to Tutsi parents, is the sole survivor of a family of eight. Her parents and five siblings were murdered during the 1994 Rwandan civil war. 

We are sitting outside at a café when Uwababyeyi tells me her story.

If I don't tell this story, who will tell it?- Rwandan genocide survivor Leontine Uwababyeyi

"It was a day like this. Breezy, with a blue sky. My brother Désiré and I were outside. The rest of the family was in the house. A woman came running, shouting, 'Run away! People are being killed!'"

Désiré, who was 13, ran, and Uwababyeyi, who was eight, followed him to a forest, where they hid overnight.  The pair found refuge at a banana plantation, until the plantation owner, a Hutu, told the children he could no longer shelter them.

"The Hutu were hunting with dogs," Uwababyeyi recalled.

When the children returned to their town, they were chased by Hutu neighbours. During the scuffle, Uwababyeyi fell to the ground, evading her captors. Désiré was caught and later murdered.

Sad — and proud

Other Hutu neighbours cared for Uwababyeyi until it was safe for her to join an aunt in Kigali. At 22, Uwababyeyi came to Montreal as a refugee.

Part of her will always be eight, Uwababyeyi says.

"My life is an everyday struggle. Everything I see and do reminds me of something else. Today is the 11th, and my dad was killed on April 11."

Uwababyeyi hopes to work with refugees: "I want to show them there is a better future."

Few of her classmates know her story.

"I don't want them to see me as a victim," she explained.

So how does Uwababyeyi see herself?

"I feel sad for the little girl, but I'm proud of how she's grown up," she tells me.

When we part, Uwababyeyi thanks me – for listening.

"If I don't tell this story, who will tell it?" she asks.

Sharing stories is a privilege.

For me, it's one of the best parts of being human.

This marks my last blog as CBC/QWF writer-in-residence. Here's to being the heroes in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and to being open to the stories that surround us.

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Monique Polak

CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence

Monique Polak is the author of 19 novels for young adults and a non-fiction book for kids. She is a two-time winner of the Quebec Writers’ Federation Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature. She has been teaching at Marianopolis College for 31 years and is a frequent contributor to the Montreal Gazette.