Scholastique Mukasonga's autobiographical stories rend a glorious Rwanda from the obliterating force of recent history, conjuring the noble cows of her home or the dew-swollen grass they graze on. In the title story, five-year-old Colomba tells of a merciless overlord, hunger or igifu, gnawing away at her belly. She searches for sap at the bud of a flower, scraps of sweet potato at the foot of her parent's bed, or a few grains of sorghum in the floor sweepings. Igifu becomes a dizzying hole in her stomach, a plunging abyss into which she falls. In a desperate act of preservation, Colomba's mother gathers enough sorghum to whip up a nourishing porridge, bringing Colomba back to life. This elixir courses through each story, a balm to soothe the pains of those so ferociously fighting for survival.
Her writing eclipses the great gaps of time and memory; in one scene she is a child sitting squat with a jug of sweet, frothy milk and in another she is an exiled teacher, writing down lists of her dead. As in all her work, Scholastique sits up with them, her witty and beaming beloved.
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About the Author
— J.M. Coetzee
In sentences of great beauty and restraint, Mukasonga rescues a million souls from the collective noun 'genocide,' returning them to us as individual human beings, who lived, laughed, meddled in each other's affairs, worked, decorated their houses, raised children, told stories. An essential and powerful read.
— Zadie Smith
Scholastique Mukasonga's stories dart nimbly between fleeting fondness and blunt recrimination, mining recollections of a Rwanda fissured by an unconscionable and amoral scourge. In Igifu, we find the idyllic nestled alongside atrocity and tradition marred by dispossession. A dire warning and a captivating triumph.
— Justin Walls, 2020 Best Translated Book Award fiction jurist
What Scholastique Mukasonga accomplishes with this collection is nothing short of alchemy. There is scalpel-sharp precision melded with regenerative soulfulness at play here. Mukasonga is a genius and her work should be savoured again and again.
— Diriye Osman, author of Fairytales For Lost Children
A profound love of family and the Tutsi tradition infuses, suffuses, and animates Mukasonga's stories of the Rwandan genocide, the slaughter of her people. To mention "love" in the same sentence with "genocide" may appear odd, even indecent, but Mukasonga's brilliant writing encompasses the two. In Igifu, a meditation on hunger, Mukasonga's account of starvation startles and devastates; her language is both corporeal and metaphysical. "The Glorious Cow" tells of her father and his cows, his care for his beloved herd; it is revelatory. Mukasonga lived through unspeakable terror and loss, which is part of Igifu. But I believe she wants readers to know her mother, father, kin, and friends, as they were, to remember not just their massacre, but their wonderful humanity. Keeping their memory alive, keeping it vital, Mukasonga lives. This is an unforgettable book, told by an inimitable writer.
— Lynne Tillman, author of Men and Apparitions and American Genius, A Comedy
Born in Rwanda in 1956, Scholastique Mukasonga experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In 1960, her family was displaced to the polluted and under-developed Bugesera district of Rwanda. Mukasonga was later forced to flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, only two years before the brutal genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda. In the aftermath, Mukasonga learned that 37 of her family members had been massacred. Her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile, won the 2014 French Voices Award, was shortlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary award, and in 2019 was adapted into a film by Atiq Rahimi. In 2017, her memoir Cockroaches was a finalist for the LA Times Charles Isherwood Prize. In 2019, The Barefoot Woman was a finalist for the National Book Award for Translation. About the translator: Jordan Stump has received the 2001 French-American Foundation's Translation Prize, and in 2006, was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has translated the work of Marie NDaiye, Eric Chevillard, Marie Redonnet, Patrick Modiano, Honoré de Balzac, and Jules Verne, among others. He is a professor of French literature at the University of Nebraska.
Read an Excerpt
You were a displaced little girl like me, sent off to Nyamata for being a Tutsi, so you knew just as
I did the implacable enemy who lived deep inside us, the merciless overlord forever demanding a tribute we couldn’t hope to scrape up, the implacable tormentor relentlessly gnawing at our bellies and dimming our eyes, you know who I’m talking about: Igifu, Hunger, given to us at birth like a cruel guardian angel .
. . Igifu woke you long before the chattering birds announced the first light of dawn, he stretched out the blazing afternoon hours, he stayed at your side on the mat to bedevil your sleep. He was the heartless magician who conjured up lying mirages: the sight of a heap of steaming beans or a beautiful white ball of manioc paste, the glorious smell of the sauce on a huge dish of bananas, the sound of roast corn crackling over a charcoal fire, and then just when you were about to reach out for that mouthwatering food it would all dissolve like the mist on the swamp, and then you heard Igifu cackling deep in your stomach. Our parents—or rather our grandparents—knew how to keep Igifu quiet. Not that they were gluttons: for a Rwandan there’s no greater sin. No, our parents had no fear of hunger because they had milk to feed Igifu, and Igifu lapped it up in delight and kept still, sated by all the cows of Rwanda. But our cows had been killed, and we’d been abandoned on the sterile soil of the Bugesera, Igifu’s kingdom,
and in my case Igifu led me to the gates of death. I don’t hate him for that. In fact I’m sorry those gates didn’t open, sorry I was pulled away from death’s doorstep: the gates of death are so beautiful! All those lights!
I must have been five or six years old. This was in Mayange, in one of those sad little huts they forced the displaced people to live in. Papa had put up mud walls, carved out a field from the bush,
cleared the undergrowth, dug up the stumps. Mama was watching for the first rain to come so she could plant seeds. Waiting for a faraway harvest to finally come, my parents worked in the sparse fields of the few local inhabitants, the Bageseras. My mother set off before dawn with my youngest brother on her back. He was lucky: mama fed him from her breast. I always wondered how that emaciated body of hers could possibly make the milk that kept my brother full. As for Papa, when he wasn’t working in somebody’s field he went to the community center in Nyamata, on the chance that he might get some rice from the missionaries, which didn’t happen often, or earn a few coins for salt by writing a letter or filling out a form for an illiterate policeman or local bigwig. My sister and I eagerly waited for them to come home, hoping they’d bring a few sweet potatoes or a handful of rice or beans for our dinner, the one meal of the day.