Stories as refuge

Rwandan writer Scholastique Mukasonga chronicles life, death, return and grief in her story collection, 'Igifu.'

Photo by Jannik Skorna on Unsplash

Different from Scholastique Mukasonga’s other writing, Igifu is a collection of short stories. Igifu is the Kinyarwanda word for hunger, the kind that arises from famine, from the space and time where “lack” is the dominant way of being. The narrator of the story “Igifu” is a young girl speaking from the domestic space, a familial homestead. But in this tender telling, there’s ample evidence that this is someone who knows the landscape intimately.

Mukasonga was born in Rwanda and now lives in France but the spaces she writes about—who lives there, how they live, what it feels like, how stories work, why the world is the way it is—are all from the “land of stories” according to the narrator from another of Mukasonga’s books, Barefoot Woman. “I’m no stranger to the land of stories,” she says. “I know what the chattering gourds have to say to the eleusine plant…I don’t want to venture into the furthest reaches of the land of stories, because I know what’s waiting for me. Beside the vast swamps, there’s a hunched little old woman … she is staring at me with eyes that have no light in them.”

I take these lines from another book to guide me in thinking about what Mukasonga is doing in Igifu. For what seems like a generously narrated set of stories (five of them), there’s an incredible amount of restraint. Stories about hunger, yes, and love, and names, youth and memory, and responsibility, and Helena, the most beautiful woman, and grief, and exile, which shares a border with the “gates of hell.” Difficult as the themes are for a book of stories punctuated by two genocides, Mukasonga finds space for life and ways to provoke laughter and the ridiculous, desire, callousness, greed—peopleness. Another writer might have written stories engulfed in sorrow and rage, and sometimes there is deep sorrow and rage, but Mukasonga doesn’t stay there. She, like the adopted mother of one of the characters, knows how important it is to tell what needs to be told, not everything, even as fiction, even in fiction.

Mukasonga writes in French, so I read this work in translation; it makes me think about how these words perform a calisthenics of return. Kinyarwanda is peppered throughout the book as a constant reminder that these stories originate from a different landscape from which they were written in and then translated into English. The translation is a generous offering of space, but also demands that we listen and read attentively so that we “hear” the voice of the narrators who aren’t speaking in the language that we read in. We listen and read differently from those who might not have to translate the work as it arrives in this mode. Yet we come to feel the story, not as one in English but as one in place thanks to translator Jordan Stump who writes with a sensitive ear.

More than anything, Igifu is a book about return. Return to memory from which these stories sit as foundation for a real place, Rwanda before, between, and after both genocides. There’s a country defined by stories of the people who lived there, who told them in the homestead, and not the ones that have come to define a people and place, stories told by others. There are other returns, too. Helena, the most beautiful woman in all of Rwanda, seeks to return to a more innocent and private life. The seven-year old narrator from “The Glorious Cow” thinks about the time before the genocide when all Rwandans had cows. From “Fear,” we are given a reflection of a time before fear was pervasive, before fear was defined by the language of othering. And in “Grief,” there is a woman who takes on the grief of others by attending the funerals of strangers because she hasn’t been able to return home to mourn her family.

On numerous occasions in the book, Nyamata appears both as place and haunting, and eventually as a place of return. I remember when I first read about the church in Nyamata to which people fled to safety during the 1994 genocide but were murdered there, in that place of refuge, of solace. I tried to articulate what it meant that a church could be the antithesis of refuge, of peace, or possibility. Writing about the role of the church in a time of genocide became an exercise in futility because I live in Canada, where the church is deeply implicated in the attempted genocide of Indigenous people. It also made me think about the Lamogi Rebellion of 1911, where Acholi people sought refuge, away and in resistance from the British, in the caves of Lamogi where they were gassed by the colonialists. (Where can we seek refuge? Where can we go and know that we can be safe? Rhetorical questions in a time where investments keep growing in the business of rejecting people who seek refuge on the Mediterranean, the Mexican border and many other geographies).

In “Grief,” a grieving woman returns to Nyamata. A guide takes her into the building. Bones and bones and bones; skulls, too. The smallest ones that fit in your hand was a child, the guide tells her. The church itself is a skeletal form—its walls are lined with bones of people who sought refuge—the church is bereft of any teachings, any claims it might have had before times. Fittingly, it is now a memorial site, rather than a place of prayer. In one of the earlier stories, children do find refuge in the church, and they are safe.

In a story, refuge is still possible; also in a story, as in life, it is not possible.

In these stories, Mukasonga seems to say, we can take care, we can remember, we can name the names of those who have been rendered bodies and corpses, and separated from the reality of their lives as people. The woman in “Grief” wants to “protect her dead, to keep them untouched in her memory, their bodies whole and unsullied.” We read this intent in this story and we nod with her. These stories that begin with hunger and end with grief, these aren’t easy stories. Why should they be? These are stories to be told when other narratives fail again and again, to render people whole during and after difficult times.

The  stories in Igifu are written in the tradition of the great Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones. These are books set in terrible times—the times of enslavement of Black people in the US and Haiti. Though Morrison and Danticat don’t shy away from difficult subject matter, they write lives fully lived, beloved, struggled, and they humanize those that history and contemporary culture rush to relegate to abjection. This isn’t to deny the abject conditions we find ourselves in, but to ensure that we’re not locked in victimhood in the story. We’re also people.

Mukasonga presents the story as space to love, reflect, remember, laugh, die and be grieved. To begin with a story about hunger and end with one titled “Grief” is daring and unflinching but in these stories, folks live. They tell us what happened. They return. They hope to return. They try to return. Some make it, others don’t; but in the story, the possible is potent.

Beyond the page, reality can be so much more restrictive. Mukasonga shows us how we live and that we live in the aftertime. And that we are always possible.

Further Reading

Denouncing the reader

Zoë Wicomb thinks she knows why black South African readers appreciate Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The Promise’ (2021) whilst many white readers were turned off by it.