Your story in this week’s issue, “Grief,” depicts a young Tutsi woman who discovers from exile that all the family members she left behind in Rwanda when she fled have been killed in the genocide there. *By Deborah Treisman

 




Scholastique Mukasonga Photograph by Patrick Kovarik / AFP / Getty

 

 

 

I believe her story closely resembles yours. Should we read this as autobiography or fiction or a combination of the two?

The autobiographical elements of my story “Grief” are enriched by fictional ones. I lend the young woman in the story the feelings I had when I heard about the murder of my loved ones, in 1994, and during my first journey back to Rwanda, in 2004. Readers will find that in my book “Cockroaches” I tell the story of that first trip back to Rwanda, in 2004, and my return to Gitagata, the village to which my family was deported, in 1960. I believe that the young female character in the story represents what so many Rwandan refugees felt at the time of the genocide—the pain and the powerlessness—and on returning to the country to search for traces of those who risked disappearing forever into the anonymity of genocide. How can you mourn your loved ones when they have no graves? How can you mourn without allowing them to sink into oblivion—a second death, for which you are then responsible?

Although you tell the story in the third person, you don’t give the woman a name. Why is that?

My heroine represents all of those who had to exile themselves, from 1960 on, because they were Tutsi, viewed as undesirable foreigners in their own country—and, in particular, the 1973 wave of refugees, which I was part of, forced out because they were Tutsi “intellectuals,” students, and civil servants.

What made this woman leave Rwanda, when almost all of her family stayed? Or did you purposely not include that information in the story?

I’ve already described the reasons for my exile, which are implicitly those of the girl in the story, in my first two books, “Cockroaches” and “The Barefoot Woman.” A short story is not an exhaustive biography or an autofiction with multiple episodes. It gets its strength from its brevity.

The woman in the story is unable to cry over the deaths in her family, but, when she attends a stranger’s funeral, she suddenly bursts into sobs. Why can’t she weep at first? What happens to her at that funeral?

This young woman is almost the only survivor in her family. She lives in Europe, far from other survivors. She is alone, imprisoned in her pain. And, with suffering of that magnitude, one is lucky if one can cry—pain, they say, is eased by tears. In Rwanda, widows and orphans were able to cry together. They could draw some strength from that common lament. My heroine is so overwhelmed by this extraordinary pain that, alone, she cannot summon up the relief of tears. She seeks out occasions where she can be with other mourners, in the hope of being able to cry with them. In this way, she becomes a kind of parasite, stealing the grief of others.

When she returns to Rwanda to face her loss, she has an almost mystical experience with the man who oversees a church that was the site of one of the Tutsi massacres. Why does her interaction with that man affect her so profoundly?

The caretaker of the church-memorial is seen as the keeper of the memory of the dead; he is like a wise and benevolent Cerberus, guarding the gates to the afterlife. He is the guide who leads people through their mourning—not to help them forget their loved ones but to help them draw, from that ever-present memory of the dead, the strength to survive. In response to his wisdom and his courage, survivors can give meaning to their lives again. This is true for individuals, and for Rwanda as a whole—you can see it in the country’s extraordinary will to rebuild itself.

The village the woman returns to—which has been destroyed—is called Gihanga, after the mythical Tutsi king, who is said to have founded the kingdom of Rwanda. Is Gihanga a real place, and if not what made you choose that name for it?

Yes, Gihanga was, in Rwandan lore, the mythical first king, a civilizing hero who carried knowledge and, in his travels, founded the neighboring kingdoms and thus established the borders of Rwanda. A sanctuary was dedicated to him in Buhanga, at the foot of the volcanoes. They wanted to raze Rwanda, down to its roots; now they are rebuilding it from the roots up.

Your story collection, “Igifu,” which will be published, in Jordan Stump’s English translation, by Archipelago Books in September, will include this story and “Cattle Praise Song,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2018. Are the stories connected?

It seems to me that the stories that make up “Igifu” describe various aspects of the lives of Tutsis, who were treated as pariahs from 1960 until the genocide in 1994: “Igifu”—which means hunger—is about the famine that threatened to exterminate the Tutsi deportees in Nyamata; “Cattle Praise Song,” which is titled “The Glorious Cow” in the book, embodies nostalgia for a bygone time when Tutsis had cows; “Fear” examines the ever-present terror of abuses and massacres; “The Curse of Beauty” shows the miserable fate of Tutsi girls in exile, where they can no longer have pride; and “Grief” describes the search for an impossible mourning after the genocide.


*Scholastique Mukasonga’s responses were translated, from the French, by Deborah Treisman.