What I’m Reading: Scholastique Mukasonga

I first encountered Scholastique Mukasonga’s work in 2013 when I was working on co-editing, with Christopher Merrill, Landmarks, the 20th anniversary issue of the Two Lines Anthology published by the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. Translator Lara Vergnaud had submitted a short story by Mukasonga entitled “Fear,” from her 2010 collection L’Iguifou, novellas rwandaises, that was so striking (and beautifully translated) that we used it to lead off the anthology. As far as I know, this story that tells of the constant vigilance that a group of Tutsi schoolchildren learn to incorporate into their lives because of the constant threat of violence from Hutu soldiers was the first work by Mukasonga to appear in English. Then in 2014 Archipelago Books published Mukasonga’s novel Our Lady of the Nile, translated by Melanie Mauthner, about Rwandan schoolgirls in a strongly Francophile Catholic boarding school catering to the daughters of country’s elite. The whimsical storytelling about the friendships and rivalries of these young girls reminded me a little of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. But the threat of ethnic violence hovers around the edges of Mukasonga’s novel, eventually erupting in the midst of the girlish idyll. In the world of her clear, matter-of-fact storytelling, these spheres that seem so far apart (girlish cliquishness, military violence) are shown to be intimately interlinked. The book received a fair bit of attention: it won the 2014 French Voices Award and was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and shortlisted for the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award.

Last year Archipelago published Mukasonga’s autobiographical work Cockroaches (translated by Jordan Stump), a memoir of life in Rwanda in the decades leading up the mass genocide of the Tutsi in 1994. This one is anything but an idyll: when Mukasonga is still a small child, her family is forced from their home and sent into exile in the inhospitable Bugasera district in the southeast, a wasteland of brush that the refugees clear so they can farm and survive. Eventually a makeshift life is cobbled together, even a school for the children, but always with the threat of violence from Hutu soldiers on patrol for whom these Tutsi refugees will only ever be the Inyenzi of the book’s title. Eventually Scholastique (as good in school as her name suggests) is chosen to go off on scholarship to study social work, setting her on the path that will eventually take her as far as France. It’s because she’s in France that she survives the 1994 genocide in Nyamata that takes the lives of 27 of her closest family members: her parents, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews. The final part of the book chronicles her return to Rwanda a decade after the slaughter to find what traces remain. Most of the book, though, is devoted to the life her family leads in exile – the constant fear, the childish pleasures. Children walking to school learn what to do when soldiers arrive (dive headlong into the brush to hide) or when elephants appear on the path (walk always behind them, never in front, no matter how slowly they amble). Schoolgirls strategize how to get past military checkpoints. A long loving passage is devoted to the brewing of banana beer. Mukasonga’s storytelling is always clear and sharp. I’ve read her in three different translations now, and in all of them I hear her voice clearly. Here’s the story (from Cockroaches) of a child who, having just made the acquaintance of powdered milk, is presented with a new food as well:

Then there were the tomatoes. We were familiar with tomatoes, of course, but little ones, cherry-sized, used for making sauce and cooking bananas. The tomatoes they gave us were huge. We didn’t know what to do with them. My parents refused to eat them raw. But since there was nothing else, they forced them on the children. I wept as I ate my first tomatoes.

These tomatoes in all their alienating hugeness are emblematic of the exile’s fractured and fracturing experience. This passage is also a good example of Mukasonga’s use of short sentences to nail down an experience from several angles – well-captured here in Jordan Stump’s English that ends the paragraph on a powerful note. What I love so much about Mukasonga’s writing is how she manages to interweave the political and the personal so skillfully and to such powerful effect. Everything I’ve read by her so far has been gorgeously written and incredibly moving. I hope we’ll have more books by her in English soon.

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