All too often, despite people’s best intentions, foreign writers, particularly those who draw heavily from experiences of brutality and oppression in their work, find their books pigeonholed as one type of work, one that shocks readers with its revelations of the bloody horrors its writer underwent.
Scholastique Mukasonga’s books present a refreshing refutal of this narrow view of the genre memoir and autobiographical fiction. Perhaps the first thing anyone might say of her is that she survived the horrific Rwandan genocide, while 27 members of her family did not. Her memoirs and novels deal with the profound personal and political implications of Rwandan history, but of the three translated into English, each succeeds in examining Rwandan life from a wholly different angle.
Our Lady of the Nile, for instance, succeeds in evoking the horror of the Hutu Tutsi conflict without relying on gratuitous descriptions of violence. Set some years before the 1993 genocide, it chronicles the experiences of a Tutsi girl attending an elite Catholic boarding school whose mission is to sculpt the next generation of “female elites’. Deploying this microcosm to devastating effect, Mukasonga matter-of-factly portrays the vicious rhetoric used to degrade and stigmatize the two Tutsi girls at the style, even in the supposedly refined and seemingly tranquil world of the school. The horrifying act of violence which punctures this illusion serves as a disquieting reminder of the genocide to come. Here Mukasonga relies not on bloodshed, but on searing psychological portrayals of the characters involved. Her depictions of Hutu-Tutsi and white and black relations are as nuanced as they are compelling.
Unsurprisingly, Mukasonga’s two memoirs, Cockroaches and Barefoot Woman, rely more on the relation of her own personal tragedies, with Cockroaches being the more gruesome of the two. Although I read it a couple of years ago, when it was first released in the US, I still recall the fresh horror of a land and a people cruelly ravaged. But Barefoot Woman, forthcoming in December 2018 from Archipelago Books, is no less stirring. It’s a chronicle of the everyday lives of the women in Mukasonga’s village, with particular emphasis on her own mother’s rituals and routines. The knowledge that all these traditions, however archaic some might be, will be wiped out, lends the narrative an additional layer of poignancy, and Mukasonga’s writing skillfully evades both the overly sentimental and the overly blunt.
A large facet of America’s current problem (to put it vaguely) lies, I think, in our inability or unwillingness to engage with texts from around the world and from a myriad of perspectives. Scholastique Mukasonga’s writing in itself inhabits not one perspective, but many, as she explores a multiplicity of characters facing different challenges, and through them, many perspectives regarding her nation’s crisis. To that end, I would highly recommend her work; it is as readable as it is important.