DECEMBER 29, 2020
HOW DOES A WRITER of fiction approach a national horror that is also profoundly — one is tempted to say unspeakably — personal? How and why tell stories about it? What sort of stories?
At the center of Scholastique Mukasonga’s latest work of fiction and debut short story collection, Igifu, lies the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. During that appalling atrocity, perpetrated upon Tutsi Rwandans by their Hutu compatriots, 37 members of Mukasonga’s family were massacred. She had managed to leave Rwanda earlier, fleeing first to neighboring Burundi before settling in France. She recounts in her memoir, Cockroaches:
The killers attacked the house until every last trace was wiped away. The bush has covered everything over. It’s as if we never existed. And yet my family once lived there. Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide. And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.
With searing honesty, razor-edged humor, and uncanny restraint, Mukasonga has movingly confronted this atrocity in all her books, fiction and nonfiction alike. While the subject of her work is always Rwanda’s dark history and its consequences, her approaches have varied over time. A formally flexible and deft writer, Mukasonga is incapable of betraying either the facts or the imagination with which she animates them. In Cockroaches, she describes Tutsi communities’ forced displacement and internal exile to Nyamata and then Gitagata, where her family was murdered. In prose propelled by vivid sensory details, Mukasonga chronicles the emotional chiaroscuro of her childhood; the rise in Rwanda of “a single-party racial dictatorship” as the UN rightly termed it; her flight from Rwanda to Burundi; and finally “the long-awaited horror” of the 1994 genocide. Cockroaches, written in French and beautifully rendered into English by Jordan Stump, came out in 2006. Two years later, Mukasonga published The Barefoot Woman, a loving, intimate praise-song to her mother Stefania and to the Tutsi people. Four years after The Barefoot Woman came Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile, a novel portraying a high school in which the tensions between Tutsi and Hutu students build relentlessly toward slaughter. And now she offers us a collection of five short stories — each dealing, as did the three books preceding it, with her nation’s and her own burdens of horror.
The collection, also translated by Stump, is organized to lead the reader on a journey toward the inescapable. Along the way, the reader encounters marvelously drawn characters, each delivered with the author’s signature lightness of touch and clarity of perception. The narrator of “Igifu,” the opening story, addresses the reader directly — as though the reader, too, were a Tutsi woman thinking back upon the chronic hunger she endured as a child. This is a wonderfully intimate way of bringing the reader into the imaginative force field of the collection as a whole. Igifu is the god of hunger, a “cruel guardian angel” who leads the young, famished protagonist to the gates of death. The girl lives, yet she feels sorry to have been “pulled away from death’s doorstep: the gates of death are so beautiful! All those lights!” Her tale ends with a return to “that glittering spiral” and death’s lure. “But why,” the now-grown narrator asks in a tone of irony-laced wonderment, “should death be so beautiful?” And with one quick reference to “machetes” right at the end, the narrator yanks the reader into the nightmarish context of all the stories in Igifu: the massacre of hunger-depleted, terrified Tutsis.
The next story, “The Glorious Cow,” is also narrated from the perspective of a man looking back on his family’s experience of displacement and internal exile. In this tale, cows are compellingly rendered characters in their own right. We learn of their importance to Tutsis, as the narrator describes how daily milking and cow-herding serve as communal practices of self-sustenance — physical and spiritual — in the face of a relentless threat. “The cows came back to the enclosure at nightfall,” recalls the narrator, “and then every evening was a celebration. The cowherds danced and improvised poems in their animals’ honor.” As the narrator makes clear, the Hutus’ destruction of Tutsi cows was a provocative act of violence against the people who respected and cared for them. By the story’s end, not only the narrator’s family’s cow but his entire family has been killed in the genocide, and the narrator — the sole survivor — has been unable to fulfill his father’s main wish: to protect the cow. Only in the story’s last paragraph do we learn that the narrator is now a university professor married to “a genocide widow.” Next door to him in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali lives a Hutu with whom he sometimes shares a beer. “He’s my neighbor,” says the narrator, “that’s all I want to know about him.” The understatement of that sentence makes the reader’s breath catch.
Like the speaker in “The Glorious Cow,” the narrator of the third story, “Fear,” has left Rwanda but cannot strip herself of fear, that shadow which never departs. She is eloquent about the ways in which fear ruled and still reigns over the lives of Tutsis. Recalling her life in Nyamata as a constant enactment of vigilance, she speaks of “the everyday fear” and intermittent outbreaks of “the great fear,” marked by moments when “the mothers forbade us [children] to speak aloud, and at the slightest sound everything came to a stop, frozen in awful anticipation.” During nights of the great fear, all the children and mothers huddled sleeplessly while the adult males took turns as watchmen. Once the alarm was lifted, the community returned to its everyday fear, and “to a life lived on borrowed time.” That same fear makes the now-adult narrator startle at the sound of “strange footsteps behind [her]” on a boulevard in a city far from Rwanda, where she’s not in fact being pursued. Cursing “the long shadow” of an instinctive reaction, she accepts that she’s powerless to banish it.
Mukasonga changes tack in Igifu’s fourth story, training a wide-angle lens on the experience of Tutsi women in the late 1960s and ’70s. In “The Curse of Beauty,” a Tutsi woman recounts the tale of Helena, a childhood friend who becomes a prostitute. Helena’s story is one of near inexorability: “For a Tutsi woman in Rwanda, there was no greater sorrow than beauty.” Perhaps the most directly political story in this collection, “The Curse of Beauty” offers piercing insights into the quota system then in place for educational opportunities for Tutsis; the myriad pernicious effects of the Hutu “social revolution”; and the rampant abuse of and violence against Tutsi women at all levels of society. The story’s narrator gradually alerts us to her own involvement in Helena’s life, an entanglement that continues after her friend’s dreadful death.
The fifth and final story in the collection takes readers where, by now, they realize they’ve been headed all along. “Grief” is an extraordinarily moving immersion in the aftermath of an unspeakable loss. Here, the Tutsi protagonist lives in France. Numbed by loss, “maniacally straighten[ing] her studio apartment,” she keeps with her at all times a list of family members killed during the genocide. She is drawn to the funerals of strangers, becoming what she calls “a parasite of their grief” as she tries to compensate for what she cannot offer her own dead: her physical presence. Finally, she decides she must return to the place of her family’s murder. In a set of harrowing and unforgettable scenes, the story takes its protagonist into an inferno and, beyond it, toward the possibility of continuance — not of violence but of “an energy that nothing can ever defeat.” At the story’s end, an old man articulates what the protagonist herself has come to understand: no traces of her dead family members will ever be found in any physical venue. “You won’t find your dead in the graves or the bones or the latrine. That’s not where they’re waiting for you,” he says. “They’re inside you. They only survive in you, and you only survive through them.”
There is a rare numinous quality in Mukasonga’s work. The writer tasks herself with recuperating both anguish and ardor: anguish for what has been expunged, ardor for what can never be eradicated. The task must at times seem impossible, for even the most capacious memory reels before the vastness of all that’s been lost, and the body, too, is barraged by grief. “She felt very fragile,” the narrator says of the protagonist in “Grief.” “Climbing a staircase took a tremendous effort: a great weight lay on her shoulders.” Yet the writer’s imagination becomes the heart’s means of revival, and in these bracingly beautiful stories, the prose gleams not with nostalgia, false pieties, or forced hope, but with the deepest respect and love.