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Heart-rending Homage To A Devoted Mother [review]

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

Scholastique Mukasonga’s parents and siblings were victims of the hatred directed towards members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. They were were forcibly relocated from their village amid growing violence perpetrated by the country’s Hutu majority.

The Barefoot Woman is Mukasonga’s touching testament to her mother Stefania; a fierce but loving woman determined to protect both her family and the ancient traditions of her people.

Like all the families who took refuge in makeshift huts at Nyamata, the Mukasonga family was on constant alert for Hutu soldiers. They regularly pillaged the houses, looking for weapons and people plotting to escape to nearby Burundi. Scholastique’s mother Stefania had only one thought:

… one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children.

She devised ever more ingenious places for her daughters to hide and ways for them to escape. Stefania left piles of wild grass in the fields just big enough to shelter three little girls, cut secret doors into the walls of their home and hid food supplies underground.

Over time Stefania “developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators”. She left nothing to chance, often calling a dress rehearsal at night so that when the raiders came, the children knew precisely what to do. The hiding places fooled no-one, least of all the soldiers searching for the Tutsi “cockroaches”, but Stefania never relaxed her guard for a second.

Resolve and Determination

The Barefoot Woman is a dark tale of life in exile. Despite the constant fear of death and rape, the displaced families put their energies into re-creating some semblance of their past life. It took imagination and tenacity because the land selected by the Hutus for the displaced Tutsis was not very fertile. By tradition herders of cattle, the Tutsis had also seen all their cows burned by the Hutus.

But they still managed to sow, grow and harvest their crops of beans, corn, and sorghum, send children to school and arrange marriages for their children.

Mukasonga also relates how Stefania and the other village women try to protect their old traditions. They weave grass cradles for babies; tell stories around the fire in the inzu ( a family straw hut) and teach their feet to see in the dark so they can walk home at night without injury. But when the inevitable happens and someone falls ill, the women turn to their stores of plants, tubers and leaves to mix a remedy.

A Way of Life Destroyed

Mukasonga’s memories of these rituals and her mother’s insistence on keeping up the old practices, are suffused with affection. She brings the woman to life from the dry, cracked layers of mud on her feet to the pipe she smokes at the end of the day.

But it’s a way of life that has disappeared. There are precious few houses like Stefania’s left in Rwanda today, Mukasonga recalls, except for those in museums …

… like the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar.

The Barefoot Woman is a tribute born from horror. Thirty-seven members of Mukasonga’s family were killed by Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her childhood home of Nyamata saw some of of the greatest atrocities during that period with an estimated 10,000 people murdered inside the local church and thousands more outside. 

Mukasonga escaped this fate because she had won education scholarships that took her out of the village. In 1973 she had fled to Burundi following a wave of attacks on Tutsi students at her college.

A Daughter’s Tribute

The Barefoot Woman is an attempt to fulfil via language the daughter’s duty she could not fulfil in person. In the beginning of the book we learn that Stefania would often gather her three daughters and tell them “A mother’s dead body is not to be seen. You’ll have to cover me, my daughters, that’s your job and no one else’s.”

But Stefania’s body was never found; her “poor remains dissolved into the stench of the genocide’s monstrous mass grave” so all her daughter has to offer are words/

I never did cover my mother’s body with her pagne. No one was there to cover her. Maybe the murderers lingered over the corpse their machetes had dismembered. Maybe blood-drunk hyenas and dogs fed on her flesh. …. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.

This is a book written first and foremost out of love. But it exists also because Scholastique Mukasonga refuses to let her story and that of her family While its focus is on one family’s experience it is also the story of suffering by all minority groups forced to abandon their homes. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget.


The Barefoot Woman: Fast Facts

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga was translated from the French by Jordan Stump. It was published in 2018 by Archipelego Books. You can read extracts Literary Hub or the Tin House site

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. When she was four years old her family was displaced to an under-developed district of the country. She left Burundi to settle in France in 1992, two years before the Rwanda Genocide.

Her 2017 memoir Cockroaches was a finalist for the LA Times Charles Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose. 

Reader preference – Single or multiple narrators?

This week’s Bookends features a new novel from an author in Wales, an article and podcast about narrative voices and an article about the value of creative writing courses.

Book: Crushed by Kate Hamer

I enjoyed Kate Hamer’s debut novel, the disturbing, psychological The Girl in the Red Coat last year. She’s just published her third novel which sounds just as dark and intriguing. Crushed is about an obsessive friendship between three girls. Over the course of one long hot summer, they find their friendship pushed to a breaking point as one of them convinces herself that her thoughts can influence events in the world around them.

Podcast/Article: Narrators Singular, Plural and Vanishing

Narrators have been much in evidence this week. Early in the week, a Tea or Books? podcast episode on the topic helped make a treadmill almost a pleasure.  Simon (Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (Book Snob) discussed their preferences for multi-narrator novels or single narrator novels. Some interesting points about the desire for nineteenth century writers to use devices like diaries and letters designed to give added credibility and authenticity to their fiction. You can listen to episode 71 here In the same week I read an article in The Publisher newsletter about “vanishing narrators” – novels where the narrator is not the main character, such as The Great Gatsby or The Name of the Rose. Just be warned that reading/listening to these will have you scurrying to write down the titles of yet more books to read/buy.

Article: Value of Creative Writing Courses Questioned

You can rely on Will Self to create a stir. This time he’s done it by questioning the value of creative writing graduate programmes. In an interview for the BBC’s Radio 4 prime time news programme Today, Self said today’s students are unlikely to make a living from literary fiction, suggesting their courses might instead give them a career writing video games. “The people coming out of these courses are never going to make a living as novelists, certainly not in literary fiction though that’s a somewhat suspect term. Basically writers are chasing too few readers at the moment,” he said. You’d expect the universities who provide such courses would reject Self’s views but the publishing industry has also weighed in. More details are available via The Bookseller.

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Bookends #13: April 2019

This week’s Bookends features an article about Faber and Faber as they mark their 90th anniversary, a blog post about reading those books that regularly appear in those “100 books you must read” kind of lists and a book set in the Australian outback

Book: The Lost Man by Jane Harper 

A friend has been raving about this new novel from Jane Harper. I waited impatiently while she finished it and was looking forward to getting my paws on it yesterday. But it was not to be ….her husband has got in first and snaffled her copy. If he turns out to be a slow reader I know I’ll be too impatient to wait and will end up buying my own copy.

This is the third novel by Harper. Her first two – The Dry and Forces of Nature – were best sellers and this new one looks to be heading in the same direction. It begins deep in the Australian outback at the location of a lone grave, a memorial to a stockman who died 100 years previously.  Curled up beside it is a more recent body. How he died is not a mystery. The more difficult questions are why and how.

Although this sounds like a fairly typical crime thriller, everything I’ve read about Harper’s work indicates this is too simplistic a description. it’s a tale about family relationships saga that has crime and thriller elements woven in and tackles head on issues of sexual and domestic abuse. It also apparently brilliantly evokes the harsh beauty of the Queensland landscape.

The Sydney Morning Herald calls her “one of the most interesting Australian crime writers to emerge in the past decade.”  Not surprisingly she’s been longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. If you’re tempted, this review by Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes could tip the balance for you.

Blog Post: The Stupid Classics Book Club

A few weekends ago The Sunday Times in the UK published a list of their top 100 contemporary classics. Cue groans from around kitchen tables throughout the country when readers tally up how many of these “should read/must read” books they abandoned in frustration or had no inclination to even open.

The solution devised by Elisa Gabbert, her husband and two friends was to create the Stupid Classics Book Club. The idea was “to read all the corny stuff from the canon that we really should have read in school but never did “. In a piece she wrote for Paris Review she freely admits it started as a joke but in the process she, and her fellow club members, found some of their pre-conceived notions were turned upside down. Other books they anticipated they wouldn’t enjoy did indeed prove tiresome. But it was still a useful exercise to read them says Gabbert:

I find these lists incredibly tiresome. Of course, you don’t have to read anything. Some books will be triggering or make you deeply unhappy; there just isn’t enough time. But if you want to speak or write knowledgeably about them, you really do have to read them. You can’t just assume you know what they’re like. I’m glad I read Fahrenheit 451 even though I despised it. Now I know exactly how it’s bad, and I can hate it for the right reasons.

I can go along with that to a certain extent: reading only what you know you enjoy means you never challenge yourself. Staying within your comfort zone can be limiting. But I don’t completely buy the idea:  if I start reading a book I suspect I won’t like and do indeed find I absolutely loathe it, I see little point in persevering to the bitter end just to be able to say I read it and now I know why I hate it.

What do you think -do you agree with Gabbert? Read the full story here 

Article: Faber and Faber

Faber and Faber is marking its 90th anniversary this year, a landmark which triggered an interesting article in the Daily Telegraph this week. I never realised that there is only one Faber – the company was formed by Geoffrey Faber but the “and Faber” was supposedly added following a suggestion by the poet Walter de la Mare (whose work the company went on to publish) to add a second Faber into the company name ‘because you can’t have too much of a good thing’.

Another piece of useful/useless information I gleaned from this article was that the company turned down a number of books that went on to become mega hits: Paddington Bear; Down and Out in Paris and London; 1984. Oops….

To their credit though they have spotted some outstanding talent over the years: thirteen Nobel Laureates and six Booker Prize-winners  (including the most recent Milkman by Anna Burns) isn’t to be sniffed at….

I wish I could add a link to the article but the Daily Telegraph operates a pay for view/subscription model…..

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Bookends #12 December 2018

This week’s Bookends features an article about reading African women writers, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.

Book: Blue Sky  by Kate Atkinson

Big SkyKate Atkinson used to be one of my favourite authors. But we parted company when she brought out A Life after Life in 2013. I abandoned it half way through. I know I was in a minority in saying that I didn’t enjoy this novel (it won the Costa Book of the Year) but sometimes that happens.  Her next book, A God In Ruins picked up some of the same characters and themes so it didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve yet to catch up with her most recent novel Transcription which features a young woman who is recruited by an obscure wartime department of the Secret Service.

But now, thanks to Susan at A Life in Books I discover that she already has another book in the pipeline. Big Sky will be published in 2019 and will mark a return after a nine year absence to her detective series, featuring the ex-Cambridge Constabulary private investigator, Jackson Bodie.

The publishers Transworld will not release details of the plot until next year so until then we’ll have to make do with the cover image….. I’m hoping however that these two books will see the return of my love affair with Atkinson.

Blog Post: Books of the Year

This is the time of year when many publications and bloggers reflect on the last 12 months and decide what titles make their ‘Books of the Year’ list. The Millions newsletter has been running a series of articles on this theme for the past few weeks – you can read them here 

If you don’t have the time to read through all these lists, help is at hand via Kate at Books are My Favourite blog who has amalgamated multiple published lists into her Top 50 Books of 2018. This is a great resource because it shows which books which most regularly appeared in “Best of ….” lists. Judging by this, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is the outstanding hit of this year since it appears in 17 separate lists.

What I found interesting about Kate’s list was how few of the 2018 Booker Prize contenders are included. Only 11 lists included The Booker winner Milkman by Anna Burns. It actually rated lower overall than three other candidates: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, The Overstory by Richard Powers and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan.

Here is Kate’s post 

Article: African women writers

reading-africaGuardian journalist Gary Younge was embarrassed by how few women writers from Africa he had read. Though he was familiar with many of the big names like Chimamanda Adichi and Nadine Gordimer, there were many more countries about whose literature he knew nothing. So he decided to do something about it by making 2018 his year of reading African women writers.

He’s now read 19 books by authors from Morocco, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Guadeloupe.

As a result his perceptions have been turned on their head. When he began his project he expected that reading African women would be “self-improving but not necessarily enjoyable.” But to his surprise it’s been “mostly the latter and often both.” He’s read books that portrayed ordinary domestic scenes and love between Africans, books that dealt with migration and books set against a background of political upheaval.

I recognised a few of the author names he mentions but there are many more who are new to me. These will be great additions to the list of books to read for my World of Literature project. 

If you’re thinking of making a 2019 resolution to read more broadly, this article could gie you some good pointers about authors to explore. Read Gary Younge’s article here 

 

 

And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?

Between Tides by V.Y Mudimbe

Between the tidesSome authors get so totally focused on conveying a message that they seem to forget their novel should also be entertaining. Reading Between Tides by the Congolese author V.Y Mudimbe was impossible to finish as a result.

It’s a novel written from the perspective of Pierre Landu, a black African Catholic priest who is experiencing doubts about his faith. He is struggling to accept that his religion is truly meeting the needs of his countrymen at a time when the country is experiencing a crisis.  Fearing that God is on the side of the colonial oppressors and not on the side of those who seek liberation, he rejects the priesthood to join a Marxist revolutionary force. When the book opens he is undergoing a tough training regime designed to turn him into a Marxist guerrilla and to ‘re-educate’ himself. But his fellow fighters are not convinced by the level of his conviction in their cause. And it becomes clear Landu has his doubts too about this new life he has chosen.

The plot sounded reasonable when I chose it as part of my World Literature project but it became evident within just a few pages that this would be hard going. Between Tides is full of tedious passages of self examination by Landu written in a declamatory style more suited to polemic than fiction.

Weariness. Despondency. Slogans sanctify acts that in other circumstances we might not consider hopeful. How can we accept this pretty patchwork of murderous phrases, hiding their freight of corpses! I would like to hear words that sprang from naked reality!. Once again I measure the gap between them and me. Echoes — which long since ceased to rouse me — fad in my ears; the positive nature of violence, the dialectic of history, the ineluctable application of the historical law of thesis and antithesis. the bloodshed for idealogical purity! The dialectic of the master and the slave. The class struggle.

I don’t want books that are so easy to read they barely tickle my brain cells. But neither do I want to waste my brain trying to get even a glimmer of understanding of what the author means. In the end reading Between Tides became a chore and I just couldn’t continue.

End Notes

Mudimbe was born in the Belgian Congo, formerly called Zaire but now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He entered a monastery in his youth but left it to pursue an academic career looking at the forces that shaped African history. He left the Congo for the USA in 1979, subsequently building a career at  Stanford University and Duke University. Between Tides is the second of his novels to be translated into English. It was awarded the Grand Prize for International Catholic Literature when first published in 1975.

 

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

imageIn All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu examines two familiar pillars of love and conflict but surrounds them with an exploration of a third, equally powerful, theme of identity.

Set some time in the 1970s, All Our Names is told via two narrators. One is Helen, a young, white social worker with the Lutheran Relief Services in Laurel, a fictitious American mid-western town and the other is Isaac, an Ethiopian boy who arrives in the town on a student visa.

Volunteering to help Isaac acclimatise to his new life, Helen falls in love with the enigmatic young man though she knows little about him. His file notes are scant, his folder contains only “a single loose leaf of paper. . . . There was no month or date of birth, only a year. His place of birth was listed only as Africa, with no country or city. The only solid fact was his name, Isaac Mabira, but even that was no longer substantial: Any name could have filled that slot, and nothing would have changed.” Isaac is thus an enigma to Helen — a man “made of almost nothing, not a ghost but a sketch of a man I was trying hard to fill in.” The truth about his identity and his past are slow to emerge. Isaac is not even his real name it transpires, but an identity borrowed from a friend at university in Kampala so he could escape from a country where the “ecstatic promises of a socialist, Pan-African dream” have faded into civil war and unrest. He’d made his way from Ethopia to Uganda via Kenya, along the way shedding the 13 ancestral names his father had given him. Through the course of the novel we learn that he replaced these with new names, sometimes being referred to as Langston and other times as the Professor and finally Isaac.

The real Isaac is a boy from the slums of Kampala. The pair met at the university campus, a place both were too poor and ill-connected to join officially so they are forced to hang around on its fringes. Isaac ( the real one) is a charismatic figure, an idealist who is determined to make his mark on the world and to play a part in his country’s future. The colonial era is over but the time of the dictators is looming and like many young Africans Isaac is swept up in the excitement of its possibilities. Impetuous by nature he taunts the rich students, plasters the corridors with posters and eventually stokes a small revolt, which spirals out of control. His more cautious friend Langston trails in his wake, dreaming only of a future as a writer. When Isaac’s idealistic fervour takes him further down the revolutionary path, an attempted coup and resulting brutal actions, mean the parting of the ways for the two friends. Isaac remains in Uganda building his reputation as a paramilitary leader while Langston, a born survivor, flees, his assumed identity ensuring their names remain interchangeable while their lives cease to coexist.

His identity is further stripped from him when he encounters the reality of life in a small town not yet ready to open its minds to the idea of racial equality. One day Helen plans to take him to a diner in town that “was never officially segregated, but I couldn’t remember anyone who wasn’t white eating there, either.” Anticipating trouble, before she leaves to pick him up, she “wrote down on a piece of paper, in case I forgot it later: ‘We have every right to be here.'” But the people at the diner don’t agree. At first the waitress is sent over to ask if maybe they would like to get their food to go. And then when Isaac says, “No. We would rather eat it here,” she returns with their orders: Helen’s on the standard cream-colored plates, and Isaac’s on a “stack of thin paper plates barely large enough to hold the food.”

It’s a salutary reminder that their affair, so far kept hidden from Helen’s work colleagues and her mother, will need to remain a secret. Since neither of them can be who they truly want to be, the book depicts a world in which people’s names and identities can be another casualty of violence and oppression.

Mengustu portrays these issues in a tone that is reflective and restrained. Long on mood but short on details, many elements of this novel remain an enigma, so we are left to decide for ourselves what happens to the lovers.

End Notes
Dinaw Mengestu was born in Ethiopia though emigrated to America when he was a child. Now an English professor at Georgetown University, “All Our Names,” is his third novel. I had never heard of him when I happened on a copy at the Hay Literary Festival. After skimming the first page I had a feeling this would be one book I would enjoy. And so it proved. I’ve seen a few reviews where critics have commented that they didn’t think All Our Names was actually his best work. That’s just made me even more determined to find the earlier work.

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