Notes on Craft | Scholastique Mukasonga | Granta

Notes on Craft

Scholastique Mukasonga

Translated by Jordan Stump

It was the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis that made me a writer.

Writing, being a writer, nothing like that was among my ambitions as a girl. I never dreamt of venturing onto the pathways of literature. Like my mother, I was a good storyteller. Rwandan culture is oral more than anything else. But the memory of a genocide can’t simply be carried by word of mouth. It requires another sort of telling: it needs to be written.

Writing offered itself as the surest way to preserve that memory but also the best therapy for someone who came through the genocide or lost loved ones to it. The danger, for a survivor, or for the bereaved such as I was, is hiding yourself away, walling yourself up in solitude. You go through life unable to speak, for fear the slightest word might bring back your pain, just as a sharp blade could reopen your wounds. Besides, who will listen to you? And even if someone does, who will understand you? You’re like those old veterans going on and on about a war that no one cares about anymore, or that everyone’s trying to forget. You’re better off holding your tongue. That way no one will think you a bore, a tiresome monomaniac. And so you stay locked away forever in your despair.

But in my case, I recognise my good fortune. Writing let me overcome the guilt of living on after the dead – why them and not me? In my most painful moments, I found a friend, a confidante: a blank sheet of paper.

It took me ten years to get down to writing. I was one of the few surviving adults from Nyamata, and my place was to help out the others as best I could. But what about the dead? What could I do for the dead? They called out to me. Their bones were scattered all over the countryside, piled in mass graves, sometimes gathered up at random: how to exhume them from the anonymity of a genocide?

I first began to write in a schoolchild’s notebook, with a blue cover. In the beginning it was nothing but names, the names of all the people in my village of Gitagata. I had to make a list of those people as quickly as I could, before their names slipped from my memory.  I was probably one of the few who knew they’d existed, who knew they were human beings, not cockroaches, not noxious pests fit only for extermination. I had to name them all one by one, forgetting no one. That was my duty, as their survivor. It wasn’t my place to accuse or denounce: the horror of the genocide was well known. I wasn’t in Rwanda at the time, I had no testimony to give. But the dead called out to me, awakening my memory of their being alive. Writing would be not personal therapy, not an act of resilience, it would be the survival of people whom others had tried to condemn to eternal oblivion.

And then a crowd of faces took shape around those names, and with them came memories, some of them moving, some funny, a whole little world always threatened with disappearance, always struggling to survive. And gradually those words, those sentences, first tossed out in no particular order, came to seem like so many acts of defiance in the face of erasure, like so many little victories over my loved ones’ killers but also victories in a battle I was waging inside myself, a battle with the invasive, paralyzing remorse of having unjustly been spared, of committing an unpardonable sin against all those who died: the sin of living on.

That was when a sense of urgency came over me: it was my job to build a tomb for those who would never have a grave, whose memory would otherwise vanish into the anonymity of genocide. Yes, their tomb would be a book, my book, which would also be theirs, a paper tomb to stop them from fading away, forgotten forever. That would be their second death, and I would be guilty of it.

Scholastique Mukasonga

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. She settled in France in 1992, only two years before the brutal genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda. In the aftermath, Mukasonga learned that 37 of her family members had been massacred. Her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile, won the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, the Océans France Ô prize in 2013 and the French Voices Award in 2014. Her books include Cockroaches and Igifu, as well as The Barefoot Woman, which will be  published by Daunt Books in 2022.

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Translated by Jordan Stump

Jordan Stump is a Professor of French at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the translator of around thirty works of (mostly) contemporary French-language fiction, by authors such as Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Marie NDiaye and Scholastique Mukasonga.

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