Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump). Archipelago Books. $16.00, 165pp.
Sometimes Scholastique Mukasonga sits alone at her kitchen table late at night, writing. She is mourning her dead while seeking their ghosts.
Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. I have to fix a face on each name, hang some shred of memory. I don’t want to cry, I feel tears running down my cheeks. I close my eyes. This will be another sleepless night. I have so many dead to sit up with.
The opening pages of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s memoir about the Rwandan genocide and the decades surrounding it, introduces a distinctive narrative style and framework onto the story that follows. Mukasonga creates an intimate space where she can speak. She seats us across the table and, in hushed tones (her children sleeping in the next room), shares her memories.
It begins in the late 1950s, after the Rwandan Revolution. Hutus are in power. Mukasonga and her Tutsi relatives are forcefully relocated to Nyamata, in eastern Rwanda. Then they are moved to Gitwe, a village built by the government specifically to put displaced Tutsis. They will remain there for a time, but eventually will find a more permanent home in Gitagata. Gitagata is where her family will be killed.
Mukasonga scrutinizes the events leading up to and including the 1994 Rwandan genocide subjectively, focusing on memories of her family and childhood. She uses individual experience as a way to personalize what most of us know only from the newspaper. Some of her memories are good—time spent with her mother, ditching school to gather fruit with friends, and the making of banana wine. Others are painful—being called Inyenzi, cockroach; the threat of rape; hiding in the bush from men with machetes and spiked clubs. She speaks of the persistent state of fear, of looming danger, that she and her loved ones endured. She describes “noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of bees, a growl filling the air.” This is the sound of the “pogroms.” Horrors appear on these pages in the guise of normality.
Many of the boys were posted along the shoreline, as if standing guard. When we walked into the water to fill our calabashes, we saw what they were guarding: the tied up bodies of victims slowly dying in the shallows of the lake, little waves washing over them now and then. The newcomers were there to keep away the families who wanted to rescue their children or at least take home their bodies. For a long time we found little pieces of skin and rotting body parts in our calabashes when we fetched water.
When she is seventeen her parents arrange for Mukasonga and her brother, André, to be smuggled over the border into the neighboring country of Burundi. “With no one to count on, we had to look after ourselves, so we came up with a plan. . . . As long as I was in school, André would work to support us and pay for my studies; once I finished and found a job, once I was self-sufficient, he’d go back to school. Then it would be my turn to support him. We followed our plan to the letter.” They will work to fulfill the hopes of their parents, building lives for themselves outside of Rwanda. Mukasonga becomes a social worker; André a doctor. They will leave Burundi to settle in France and Senegal. Both will find partners, marry, and have children of their own. They will sneak back into Rwanda for infrequent and perilous visits.
They, Mukasonga tells us, were chosen by their parents to survive, and the knowledge of that is at the crux of her memoir. Grief is something we accept as an unavoidable part of the human experience, but what happens when you have too many people to grieve for? Where do you find consolation for the simultaneous loss of not one but several family members—parents, brothers and sisters, small children, even unborn babies who have been murdered? How do you look their killers, who remain free and unpunished, in the eye?
These questions are never asked out loud, but it is impossible not to infer them. Cockroaches is not about the complicated political situation in Rwanda. It does not go out of its way to examine the history of the ethnic tensions which led to the 1994 genocide. Though it touches on the courts of reconciliation, Mukasonga shows no interest in exploring them as a concept or an institution. Rather, she has written a memorial to the dead, in particular her dead. Toward the end it will unravel in places and become a list of names with a few, brief memories attached: Joséphine Kabanene, the prettiest and proudest girl in the village; Rukorera, the man who had cows; Sekimonyo, the tall beekeeper and the school teacher Birota.
And when I close my eyes, what I see is always the same night, a night in the dry season, a night lit by the full moon. The women are busy around the three stones of the hearth. Sitting cross-legged on either side of the road, the men a gravely talking and passing around calabashes of sorghum or banana beer. Little boys are playing with a banana-leaf ball in the road; others are racing after the old bicycle wheels they use as hoops, giggling wildly. The girls have swept the yard and the road and now they’re singing and dancing. And now the women are studying the moon, whose illuminated face, they believe, reveals the future. In my memories, that enormous moon is always there, hanging over the village to pour out its pale blue light.
In the bright night of my memory, they’re all there.
On its surface Cockroaches follows a linear timeline. The chapter headings often include the year or years in which their events occur. There is a concerted effort to formalize memory and to separate the facts from the emotions they inspire. But Mukasonga writes in the voice of an oral storyteller, betraying her attempts to structure her grief. Clean and conversational, the sentences are devoid of dramatic hyperbole, and yet still manage to convey a deep sense of loss, subdued rage and the survivor’s guilt underlying it all. It is Mukasonga’s no-nonsense tone which we hold on to when she relates, with brutal clarity, the fates of the people she loves. She chooses her words carefully, lest they overcome her and frighten away her ghosts.
A Brief Interview With Jordan Stump
Jordan Stump received the 2001 French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize for his translation of Le Jardin des Plantes by Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon. In 2006, Stump was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He has translated the work of 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. He graciously agreed to answer some questions about translating Cockroaches.
Tara Cheesman: Does translating a memoir required a level of engagement and interaction with the author beyond what might be required by a work of fiction?
Jordan Stump: I can certainly see why it might, but I translated this book in much the way I always do, which is to say that I don’t contact the author until I’m very close to a final draft, with a list of purely practical questions about the translation. We wrote back and forth a bit at that point, but really not all that much. I don’t have any kind of ethical or ideological objection to that close interaction; I simply don’t want to be a nuisance to writers who I know have many other things to do.
TC: So you and Scholastique Mukasonga have never met?
JS: We met for the first time last month at a reading in New York; now that I’ve met her, and feel more closely connected to her, it will be interesting to see if the friendship we struck up will affect my next translation of her work, which is a lovely book called La femme aux pieds nus, a portrait of her mother. Hearing her voice, getting a feel for her sense of humor, her warmth—surely those things will affect that translation somehow, but I’m a great believer in the power of the words alone: everything comes out through the words of a text, I suppose, and nothing more is really essential.
TC: I was also wondering whether you did any supplementary reading on the Rwandan genocide, specifically, or on genocides in general?
JS: I didn’t do any supplementary reading—as I said earlier, I believe in the power of the words themselves. However, I had a colleague, Chantal Kalisa, who died tragically a year ago, and Chantal and I talked a lot about Mukasonga’s book. Chantal, like Mukasonga, was not in Rwanda at the time, so in a sense her experience was a perfect echo of what’s described in the book. I learned a great deal from Chantal, and our talks made the book seem much more immediate to me, much more real.
TC: One thing that struck me about Cockroaches is that Scholastique Mukasonga is a survivor and victim of genocide—but am I wrong in thinking that she does not identify herself as such because she was not present on the day her family was killed? Her writing seems to be a way in which she is dealing with both her grief and guilt (survivor’s guilt).
JS: Yes, that’s exactly right: she was chosen to survive by her family, but not specifically to survive this particular genocide, if you see what I mean. There’s the guilt, but also the knowledge, as hard as it is to entirely accept, that by surviving she was not just fulfilling their wishes but keeping them alive.
TC: Can you explain what you mean when you say that “she was chosen to survive . . . but not specifically to survive this particular genocide”?
JS: What I meant was that a very strong sense of imminent destruction hung over Mukasonga family (and many others, of course) from her earliest childhood. For decades, her parents’ greatest concern was the survival, in whole or in part, of their children—the notion that the children would have one day to flee to Burundi, for instance, long predated the rumblings of genocide that caused them to finally flee, and predated by decades the full-scale genocide of 1994. In other words, the thing that she would have to survive isn’t any one particular event; the threat was constant and ambient.
TC: I wish I had more questions for you, but Cockroaches truly is a straightforward book. The writer’s voice is so clear and certain (your translation captured it beautifully) that I have to agree with you that the words stand perfectly on their own.
JS: I certainly know what you mean about the straightforwardness of the book—for me as well, it’s hard to talk about “how I translated it,” because mostly I felt like what I needed to do was get out of the way and let the voice of the original come through. There’s a certain kind of “heroic” model of translation, where the translator grapples and transmutes and recreates etc, and with this book that kind of approach would be a travesty. She has a beautiful voice, so a translator should simply let her talk. I guess that’s one way of answering your second question: you have to avoid poeticizing the book, but also you have to be careful not to make its straightforwardness mannered. There’s nothing mannered about this book, and for a translator like me who has a certain fondness for mannered books, that’s a bit of a challenge.
TC: Were there any other challenges you faced?
JS: The cultural distance between Mukasonga and me: the experience she’s describing is so far from my own that it feels a little odd, a little wrong, for me to be purporting to reproduce her voice—in English, furthermore, a language as un-marginalized as it’s possible to be (and what is this book if not the story of a lifelong marginalization/). All that feels a little strange, as I say, but it simply has to be got over, or rather one simply to strive, at all times, to make the distance not matter all that much, to let her voice come through all the same, in spite of all the reasons why it shouldn’t.
TC: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions.
JS: My pleasure!
Tara Cheesman-Olmsted is a blogger, freelance critic and active member in an online community dedicated to promoting international authors & books in translation. Her reviews can be found across the internet – including the sites The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Book Riot, The Quarterly Conversation & Harriet (the blog of the Poetry Foundation). She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City and is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2009 she’s written the blog Reader At Large (formerly BookSexy Review) under the pen name tolmsted.
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