INTERVIEW by Suzy Ceulan Hughes

NWR Issue 102

Interview with Scholastique Mukasonga

NWR: Hello, Scholastique. Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I am to be bringing your short story, ‘Le Deuil’ (Mourning), to English readers for the first time (in NWR’s winter edition, 102, published 1 December), especially just now, as the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide approaches. It feels like an important remembrance. You’ve said it was the genocide that made you a writer and that you see yourself as a memory-bearer. I wonder if you’d like to talk a little more about that – about your vocation as a writer, and your books as works of tribute and remembrance.

Scholastique Mukasonga: I’ve often said it was the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994 that made me a writer. Writing has been a way of mourning for me and, with my books, I’ve woven a shroud for those whose bodies, buried in mass graves or scattered in ossuaries, are lost forever. It was in 2004, when I finally found the courage to go home to Nyamata, that I became aware of my duty of remembrance, because I could write. I was somehow the memory-bearer for those whose very existence, whose every trace, the génocidaires had wanted to wipe out and deny. That’s why my first two books were autobiographical. I started writing fiction because I felt it gave me the distance I needed to say things that couldn’t be expressed in straightforward autobiography.

NWR: Something that really strikes me about your books is the way in which they contextualise the genocide, and I think this is especially important for Western readers. In ‘Le Deuil’ (Mourning), you portray a common Western response to the first news of the genocide: ‘Yes, there’d been massacres, but there were always massacres in Africa [...] These were tribal, atavistic, primitive hatreds that were beyond comprehension.’ Your memoirs and short stories take us back to the first wave of forced exiles and massacres in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and your novel provides a much longer view of the historical events that culminated in the genocide. Do you see yourself as a political writer, with a duty not just to remember but also to inform?

SM: I’m not a political writer or a historian. Many Africa specialists, like Jean-Pierre Chrétien, have studied the way in which the myths of nineteenth-century European racist anthropology interpreted Rwandan society in terms of races and invasions – an interpretation that had tragic consequences for Rwandan society. The character of Fontenailles in Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile), uses irony to lay bare the myths the colonial administrators and missionaries had created about the Tutsis. The genocide didn’t suddenly erupt on 7 April 1994; it began on 1 November 1959*, and its ideological roots go back to the 1930s and beyond.

NWR: Although your books embrace major historical events and political themes, the focus is always on the day-to-day experiences of ordinary people. Your narratives are full of gentle humour, and you achieve a real tenderness of tone without ever slipping into sentimentality. It seems to me that you strike a delicate balance.

SM: Humour has always been an integral part of my books. It gives me the distance I need to carry on writing without succumbing to the pain and madness that stalk survivors. Even in tragic circumstances, a sense of humour is something that all Rwandans share. It feels important to stress that.

NWR: So far, all of your books have been written in French (Rwanda’s adopted colonial language before the new Anglophone policy introduced by Paul Kagame), but you give your writing a distinctive texture by using a lot of Kinyarwandan words. I know African writers are increasingly reclaiming their pre-colonial heritage by writing in their indigenous languages. Do you think you might write in Kinyarwanda in the future, or do you think it would affect the likelihood of your work appearing in English, and perhaps in other languages too?

SM: Of course, I’d love to write in Kinyarwanda. But who would publish me? In Rwanda, even though English is now the official language, my readers are still mainly French speakers. Notre-Dame du Nil, for example, is on the curriculum for the French-medium baccalaureate at one of Kigali’s most prestigious secondary schools, Green Hills. I like to think that my work is also part of the canon of Francophone African literature, which is vibrant and thriving.

NWR: It’s been fascinating for me, both as a reader and as a translator, to see your journey as a writer, from the pure autobiography of your two memoirs to the strongly autobiographical short stories, and then your debut novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, which won the the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 2012. I know Melanie Mauthner is currently translating Notre-Dame du Nil, and let’s hope that English translations of your other books will follow. In the meantime, do you have another book in the pipeline for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to read your books in French?

SM: I have a new collection of short stories that’s nearly ready. But the short story form isn’t very popular among French publishers. Perhaps the recent Nobel Prize [awarded to Canadian short story writer Alice Munro] will arouse renewed interest in the form.

NWR: Thank you, Scholastique. It’s been a real pleasure working with you, and I’m looking forward to seeing all your books in English before too long.

Books by Scholastique Mukasonga:
Inyenzi ou les Cafards (Gallimard, 2006)
La femme aux pieds nus (Gallimard, 2008)
L’Iguifou – nouvelles rwandaises (Gallimard, 2010)
Notre-Dame du Nil (Gallimard, 2012)
Our Lady of the Nile (Melanie Mauthner’s translation of Notre-Dame du Nil (forthcoming from Archipelago Books)

Further reading:
Scholastique Mukasonga website
Scholastique Mukasonga blog
Season of Blood – A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (Penguin, 1996)
We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch (Picador, 1999)
The Strategy of Antelopes by Jean Hatzfeld (Serpent’s Tail, 2009)

*Violence between Hutus and Tutsis erupted following an attack on a Hutu activist. This marked the beginning of the Rwandan Revolution or ‘wind of destruction’ – a period of sustained ethnic violence (1959-1961) during which up to 100,000 Tutsis were killed.


previous interview: Hayley Long
next interview: Interview with Charlotte Williams


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