by Scholastique Mukasonga
from the June 22, 2020 issue of The New Yorker

It’s great to see another story from Scholastique Mukasonga in The New Yorker. I first got to know some of her work a few years ago when Archipelago published Our Lady of the Nile and Cockroaches. Her work is powerful and important as she looks, usually from a very personal perspective, at her family’s history in Rwanda. She was a young girl when her family was driven out of her home village and moved to a refugee camp. Truly, there is no way for me to put into words, let alone for a brief introductory post like this, what she and her family went through over the next several decades. It looks like this particular piece concerns what happened to her family in Rwanda in the 1990s, after she herself had managed to get to France. Here are the first few paragraphs:

On TV, on the radio, they never called it genocide. As if that word were reserved. Too serious. Too serious for Africa. Yes, there were massacres, but there were always massacres in Africa. And these massacres were happening in a country that no one had ever heard of. A country that no one could find on a map. Tribal hatred, primitive, atavistic hatred: nothing to understand there. “Weird stuff goes on where you come from,” people would tell her.

She herself didn’t know the word, but in Kinyarwanda there was a very old term for what was happening in her homeland: gutsembatsemba, a verb, used when talking about parasites or mad dogs, things that had to be eradicated, and about Tutsis, also known as inyenzi—cockroaches—something else to be wiped out. She remembered the story her Hutu schoolmates at high school in Kigali had told her, laughing: “Someday a child will ask his mother, ‘Mama, who were those Tutsis I keep hearing about? What did they look like?,’ and the mother will answer, ‘They were nothing at all, my son. Those are just stories.’ ”

Nevertheless, she hadn’t lost hope. She wanted to know. Her father, her mother, her brothers, her sisters, her whole family back in Rwanda—some of them might still be alive. Maybe the slaughter had spared them for now? Maybe they’d managed to escape into exile, as she had? Her parents, on the hill, had no telephone, of course, but she called one of her brothers, who taught in Ruhengeri. The phone rang and rang. No one answered. She called her sister, who’d married a shopkeeper in Butare. A voice she’d never heard before told her, “There’s nobody here.” She called her brother in Canada. He was the eldest. If their parents were dead, then he’d be the head of the family. Perhaps he had news, perhaps he had advice, perhaps he could help her begin to face her terror. They spoke, and then they fell silent. What was there to say? From now on, they were alone.

This is heart-breaking. I’m glad that she has been willing and able to write. This looks to be part of Igifu, a collection that is coming out from Archipelago in September. That’s definitely a book to have on your radar.

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