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A Brief Foray Into African Literature: Rwandan Voices

posted: , by Elizabeth Hartsig
tags: Library Collections | Recommended Reads | Adults | Art & Culture

Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Rwanda and a review of author Scholastique Mukasonga’s recent novel “Our Lady of the Nile.”

Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest countries, is also the continent’s most densely populated nation.  Tucked into the highlands of the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda is mountainous, verdant, and home to some of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas, who live within the forests of the Virunga Mountains.  Rwanda (much like its neighbor to the south, Burundi) is unique in that it has mostly maintained its precolonial political borders.

Wars and armed conflict that have occurred in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda over the last three decades can all be at least partially linked to continued ethnic tensions in the great lakes region of Africa, which were exacerbated and cemented through colonial policies in the first half of the 20th century.  Though ethnic identities existed prior to the colonial period, the impact of colonial stratification and political identification along ethnic lines served to cement such distinctions in a way that led directly to violence in the late 20th century.

The Rwandan genocide, covered so intensely by the international media, has resulted in a large number of works of nonfiction; unfortunately, little space has been provided for Rwandans to tell their own stories, both during and after the conflict.  Western authors such as Philip Gourevitch and Jean Hatzfeld have written accounts which have collected international acclaim.  These works often include Rwandan voices in the form of interviewees, but the narrative is not shaped by Rwandans.  As identities on the African continent, such as Hutu and Tutsi, were both modified and in many cases exacerbated during colonial rule, individual histories and accounts are important in shedding light on the complicated nature of current ethnic and racial understandings.  To be a Hutu or a Tutsi is not simply an ethnic identity, but is often intricately tied to social, economic, and political status.  Because of this, literature (specifically literature written by those with direct experience interacting with such identities) plays an important role in examining the ways in which they continue to impact life in the region.

The literary scene in Rwanda is growing rapidly.  New presses and festivals such as Huza Press, located in Rwanda, and the Jalada Festival, a traveling literary festival with stops throughout East Africa, including Kigali, are providing much needed platforms and press for authors from the continent. Though journalists may find the environment in Rwanda challenging, novelists are experiencing a rapid growth in popularity and renown.  A number of Scholastique Mukasonga’s works, initially published in French, have recently been translated into English.  Her memoir Inyenzi ou les Cafards, or “Cockroaches,” received a nomination for the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose this February from the Los Angeles Times.

Another work by Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile, tells the story of a group of young women attending a prestigious boarding school in Rwanda in the months leading up to the genocide of 1994.  Mukasonga effectively uses high school politics to illuminate the ethnic tensions brewing in Rwandan society in the early to mid 1990’s.  Though the building of these tensions within the confines of the school plays a prominent role, readers of mostly western authors will also find familiarity in the writer’s examination of the boarding school and its social politics.  The interactions and relationships of the students touch on puberty, love, social class and racial identity.  The novel also includes investigations of the lingering effects of European colonialism in Rwanda through the use of characters. This is exemplified by Mukasonga’s choice of staff for the school,

 “There were only two Rwandans on the entire teaching staff of the Lycée of Our Lady of the Nile: Sister Lydwine, and the Kinyarwanda teacher, naturally.  Sister Lydwine taught History and Geography, but she made a clear distinction between the two subjects: History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa.”

Certain of these characters help to illuminate the impact of colonial systems of categorizations that then led to ethnic tensions across the Great Lakes Region, thus playing major roles in sparking the genocide in Rwanda.  One character in particular, Monsieur de Fontenaille, is utterly preoccupied with the notion of Tutsi ethnicity and showers attention upon two of the Tutsi students, Veronica and Virginia,

” ‘That’s Philae, the temple of the Great Goddess,’ explained Monsieur de Fontenaille.  ‘And there, that’s Meroe, capital of the Kush, the empire of the black pharaohs, of the Candace; capital of a thousand pyramids.  I’ve been there for you, the Tutsi, and I found you there.  Here, I’ll show you.’ “

Beyond his grandiose opening, Monsieur de Fontenaille reiterates the idea that the Tutsi migrated to Rwanda from the northeast and are therefore outsiders and racially different from the Hutu.  This reasoning has been used by both colonial and Rwandan governments to establish a distinction between the two groups.

The inclusion of other characters serve as examples of continued western involvement in Africa.  These include morally corrupt clergy members, foreign monarchs, foreign service officers, and international business people.  Mukasonga uses characters in her story to critique characteristics and members of the Rwandan government, including instances of nepotism, bribery, the employment of violent rhetoric, and overindulgences funded by the state coffers. Mukasonga’s descriptions and interactions involving such characters and acts at times border on the absurd.  Take this passage regarding the Zairian ambassador to Rwanda, who at this point in the story is engaged to a student of the high school, and has taken it upon himself to establish a weekend residence at the Lycée,

“While Sister Bursar showed the ambassador around the Bungalow, his liveried servants unloaded huge trunks and swarmed noisily throughout the villa, shifting furniture, piling up groceries and alcohol in the kitchen, unfolding canvas chairs in the living room, placing President Mobutu’s portrait on an easel, carting a large bed on a seashell frame edged with gold trim into Monsignor’s bedroom, and piling it high with cushions of every shape and color.”

Collectively these elements of Mukasonga’s writing make for a captivating story—a story that is also able to carry a significant amount of weight and authority on issues surrounding both the Rwandan genocide and the continued impact of the country’s colonial history.

-Nate M, Reference


Montgomery’s View: Nobody Likes a Goblin (a picture book)

posted: , by Mary Peverada
tags: Montgomery's View | Recommended Reads | Kids & Families

Nobody Likes a Goblin

written & illustrated by Ben Hatke

published by First Second Books

Goblin lives in a subterranean dungeon with the rats and bats. He lights the torches, feeds the rats and has a mundane existence. Other than the rats and bats his only companion is Skeleton – and they are the best of friends. But one day the adventurers descend upon the dungeon and Goblin hides under his bed. When the marauders are gone he comes out of his hiding place to find that they took everything – including Skeleton. Without hesitation Goblin ventures out into the world to find his friend. He tells his neighbor, Troll, that he is off to find Skeleton. And the Troll says “be careful, nobody likes a goblin.” It is soon clear how right Troll was – his first encounter with a farmer leads to a chase by all and sundry. During the chase Goblin finds Skeleton – and runs for his life with his friend. Hiding in a cave he is fortunate to meet a slew of goblins who believe they have found the Goblin King (Goblin is wearing the crown borrowed from Skeleton.) There is a happy ending – and Goblin even returns Troll’s goose. Goblin is a terrific friend. He is kind and thoughtful. He is loyal and lovable. The subtle point that Goblin isn’t liked because he looks different should lead to good discussion. The illustrations are charming and convey the story-line perfectly.  Bound to be popular with the preschool set.

Find a copy at the library!


Montgomery’s View: A Poem for Peter ( a “bio-poem”)

posted: , by Mary Peverada
tags: Montgomery's View | Recommended Reads | Kids & Families

A POEM FOR PETER

written by Andrea Davis Pinkney

illustrated by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

Published by Viking

This is a love poem to Ezra Jack Keats – the man who gave us Peter and his snowy day. The book opens with Peter (Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white./Bright as the day you came onto the page./From the hand of a man who saw you for you.) – and moves right into the story of Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz.

 In free verse his life sweeps onto the page.  His Polish immigrant parents work hard to support their family – but the hardship of establishing a life in a new land leaves the family poor and struggling.  Ezra’s artistic talent is clear from an early age – his father sees a career as a sign painter, his mother sees the fine artist she dreamed of being herself. He is encouraged by parents, teachers, friends, and librarians to improve his “knack.”  Ezra has to pass on college scholarships and work for the WPA when his father dies the day before his high school graduation.  His talent is used in the Air Force during World War II. After the war he sees discrimination up close and “rearranged his name” to counter the ads saying “No Jews Need Apply”.  He became Ezra Jack Keats.  Keats cut some photos of a little black boy from a life magazine and hung them near his desk for years.  When asked to write and illustrate his own book he was inspired by this little boy staring out at him.

This is an homage to Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day  (and Peter) that is lyrical, thoughtful and loving.  The illustrations complement the poem – and the art work of Ezra Jack Keats. Through mixed media collage Fancher and Johnson have captured the essence of Keats’ style perfectly.

This is the perfect book to highlight during Poetry Month!  Pick up a copy today

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