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.
Animation provides film makers with a variety of styles and techniques for realizing their artistic vision. On April 1st, the Portland Public Library will make available the entire adult animation collection from Videoport, along with the animation we have been collecting over the years. Try searching the keywords “animation,” or “animation for adults,” and request the films you want to see.
Our staff picks, inspired by this year’s Women’s History Month, look to the present and future as well! Here are phenomenal voices and stories: just a few writers, illustrators, musicians, scientists, directors, poets, characters, comics, and critics found throughout the library who we’d like to celebrate.
The Water Princess, by Susan Verde and Georgie Badiel, and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Based upon the childhood of model Georgie Badiel in Burkina Faso, Africa, you will carry the story of The Water Princess with you long after you put this book down. The real scarcity and inaccessibility of clean water is a difficult topic for American preschoolers, and many adults, to fully grasp, and yet Verde and Reynolds capture young Gie Gie’s daily struggle with grace and beauty. Gie Gie is strong and joyful, brave and headstrong, a realist who is out to change her world. And Georgie Badiel IS changing the world by raising awareness and money, with this book, to help bring clean water to the people of Burkina Faso and across Africa.
With an upbeat and questioning spirit and rich joyful illustrations Gie Gie’s daily hardship of carrying the family’s water is made memorable, and accessible, for all ages.
A few weeks ago Children’s alerted me to Ada’s Ideas, by Fiona Robinson, a beauty of a book which we highlighted for National Women’s History Month.
Ada Lovelace (1815–1852) was the daughter of Lord Byron, a poet, and Anna Isabella Milbanke, a mathematician. Her parents separated when she was young, and her mother insisted on a logic-focused education, rejecting Byron’s “mad” love of poetry. But Ada remained fascinated with her father and considered mathematics “poetical science.” Via her friendship with inventor Charles Babbage, she became involved in “programming” his Analytical Engine, a precursor to the computer, thus becoming the world’s first computer programmer.
This stunning picture book biography of Ada Lovelace is a compelling portrait of a woman who saw the potential for numbers to make art. Come get it at PPL today!
Beyoncé is such a superstar that reminding everyone yet again of her talent almost feels superfluous—almost. But she just keeps earning it, getting better, beating herself at the top of her own game. Listening to (and watching) Lemonade is such a visceral experience that finding meaningful language to describe it is a daunting task. Suffice it to say, the album breathes; Beyoncé’s formidable, force-of-nature exhales are tempered by the restorative inhale of Warsan Shire’s poetry. It’s a daring and timely creation well worth a listen if you missed the hype last April.
Though perhaps better known for her newer, more award-friendly work such as ‘The Hurt Locker,’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ I believe director Kathryn Bigelow‘s noire-ish Sci Fi thriller ‘Strange Days,’ is as pertinent now as it was upon its release in 1995. The issues Bigelow was inspired to confront through the film–racism, voyeurism and increased dependence on technology as a way to escape or avoid reality, as well as gender inequality–are still as pressing as ever. Bigelow’s awareness of both the usefulness and potential dangers of immersive technologies in her exploration of experiential memory devices known as SQUIDS in the movie appears to foretell of the abundance of screens many of us find in our lives today. Telling the intertwined story of Lenny, Lornette, and Faith in the final two days of the 20th century, ‘Strange Days,’ takes the viewer on hunt across near future Los Angeles. Lenny, with the hesitant help of Lornette, follows a trail of clues in the form of SQUID memory discs which lead him to unscrupulous members of the LAPD, murdered musicians, and ultimately point him in the direction of his ex-lover Faith.
Fiction and Poetry
Emily R’s Pick
Angela Carter is an amazing writer who single-handedly changed the entire landscape of fairy tales. Her unexpected, visceral and sensuous re-tellings of such well known stories as “Bluebeard,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” remain unparalleled in their brilliance. Her appreciation for transgression resulted in a prolific body of work includes a sardonic variety of articles, short stories and novels. She completely revolutionized my understanding of what a fairy tale could do! Start with the short story collection, The Bloody Chamber.
Solmaz Sharif’s recent volume of poetry, Look, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016, and it’s a powerful response, both stark and tender, to the human tolls of warfare. Riddled with vocabulary gleaned from a Defense Department dictionary, Sharif’s poetry asks questions about how the language and vocabulary of war and of power are brought to bear upon human life. This haunting meditation on historical events and personal losses, and the message at its heart as to whether or not we truly see each other and are seen, also reminded me of the impact of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric last year. “Whereas I thought if he would LOOK at my exquisite face/or my father’s, he would reconsider,” Sharif writes in the title poem, concluding: “Let it matter what we call a thing./…Let me LOOK at you.”
Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi brought a fresh perspective to feminism with her 2012 TEDx Talk We Should All Be Feminists. This has been published as an essay that has quickly gained notoriety as one of the most important books of our time.
“Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
I am not usually a memoir reader, but Maggie Nelson’s beautifully poetic prose style drew me in almost immediately. Drawing on feminist and cultural theory, psychology, and philosophy, Nelson brings to her story an understanding of gender and love that transcends traditional binaried thinking. The Argonauts expands our awareness of how the definitions and life experiences of womanhood, motherhood, and family can be broadened beyond the confines of language.
“A friend says he thinks of gender as a color. Gender does share with color a certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a color, nor that the object has a color. Context also changes it: all cats are gray, etc. Nor is color voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colorless.” -Maggie Nelson
I’ve admired Michelle Obama since “getting to know her” during the first Obama campaign for the presidency. She’s not only beautiful and classy, she’s also wicked smart, deeply wise and plain spoken; you always know where she stands on the issues and why! Contributors who explore “The Meaning of Michelle” in this book include authors Roxane Gay and Veronica Chambers, professors Tanisha Ford and Brittney Cooper, and another First Lady (of New York City), Chirlane McCray. It’s reassuring to hear those who know her or have been active in the issues she espouses write so thoughtfully and admiringly of her as a person and in the role of First Lady, using an intimate language of deeply felt experiences and history. My own perspective is expanded as individual prose styles make me I feel like I’m being allowed to enter into the private world of each writer. Such an amazing experience!
I highly recommend this book about a strong, wise and beautiful woman I’ve felt gifted with these past 8 years.
In the Country We Love: My Family Divided is the story of actress and activist’s Diane Guerrero’s immigrant family and the struggles they faced while living illegally in the United States. Her Colombian parents moved to the US to create a better life and lived in constant fear of being deported. That fear became a reality one day when Guerrero came home from school and found her parents had been taken away. Guerrero, who was born in the US herself, had only just begun high school and was left completely alone. She moved in with friends of the family to survive, and decided to stay in the US, but faced many struggles growing up without her family. Her heartbreaking story sheds light on the difficult challenges facing undocumented immigrants today.
In her 2001 album Strange Little Girls Tori Amos covers songs that were written and originally performed by men, many of which were written for or about women. Amos interprets the songs through a female perspective. My favorite songs from the album are Rattlesnakes, which talks about a woman in love, and Real Men, which is about gender roles. The most intense song from the album is the cover of ’97 Bonnie & Clyde, a haunting song about domestic violence. Strange Little Girls is available on Hoopla.
Yes Please, by Amy Poehler, is funny and honest as Amy shares stories from her personal life and career. She worked hard to get where she is! (As a side note, I totally want to be Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler’s community-loving local heroine on Parks and Recreation, when I grow up).
Not only is Amy Poehler a hysterical and extremely talented writer and comedian, her work at Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls is worth following. Founded by Amy and producer Meredith Walker, the organization is dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves, emphasizing intelligence and imagination over “fitting in” and celebrating curiosity over gossip. “We are a place where people can truly be their weird and wonderful selves. We are funny first, and informative second, hosting the party you want to attend.”
Curiosity over gossip: in the age of “fake news” that is a tagline a librarian can stand behind! Follow them on social media for daily inspiration.
It’s hard to know what angle to take first in recommending Hope Jahren’s 2016 memoir Lab Girl, which portrays a life in science that is at once incredibly messy and painstakingly accurate. Is my life richer because I now possess fascinating details about the strange and astounding lives of plants? Yes. Have I been emboldened by the ferocity with which Jahren both cultivated an unusual life-long friendship and fought against her environment to build one lab of her own after another? Yes. Have I been awakened to the serious lack of research funding available to scientists in the United States NOT working on arms development? Yes. But mostly, as I step back, I am awed by Jahren’s life-long ability to overcome the prevailing attitude that she, as a woman — and a woman who becomes pregnant at that! –, is not as capable as her male counter-parts who have governed the field for centuries. She never questions that the lab is where she belongs; she knows only that other people have not been made aware of it yet. Which is not to say she doesn’t get angry sometimes.
Meanwhile, my daughter, who will be two this summer, has taken a special interest in Over The Ocean, by Taro Gomi, which features a girl who imagines for herself what lies across the ocean.