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In an early scene from Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s novel, two characters sit together, blowing cigarette smoke at each other. The daughter, Blanche, has returned home to Rwanda after three years living in France. Imaculata, her mother, has survived the Rwandan genocide. As the smoke intermingles, Blanche imagines an encounter between their cigarette brands: Impala (antelope) and Intore (warrior dancer). The intore dances around the impala, shaking the earth, keeping the impala safe from her enemies.
It’s a melancholy image, the distance between two characters crossed only by their exhaled breath, and one which sets up a major theme of the novel: the attempt to communicate. As a story that crosses four generations of a family, it looks at how communication breaks down, and how these ties might be repaired.
Very quickly, it becomes clear that the silences aren’t restricted to the events of the Rwandan genocide. All Your Children, Scattered inhabits the viewpoints of characters both before and after 1994. This places their struggle to communicate, wrapped up with conflict about their identity, against a broader history of colonialism. Western influence in Rwanda stretches back to the late 19th century. Its legacy– not least in the form of its gaze – continues to be felt today.
Although the novel moves between different viewpoints, Blanche seems like the main character. Since her mother, Imaculata, is black and her father (a Frenchman she has never known) is white, Blanche’s light skin makes her feel caught between identities. When she returns to Rwanda at the start of the book, people think she’s white. Back in France, people see her as black. She’s looking for her home in both places, but people keep treating her as Other. Even growing up, Blanche’s mother warns her off certain Rwandan foods, warning: “your stomach isn’t solid enough for urgwagwa, drink a Fanta instead… .”
Whilst in France, Blanche married Samora, also a child of multiracial parents. He has “resolved” his feeling of being split, by leaning hard into his Black identity, renaming himself after independent Mozambique’s first president. Blanche and Samora have named their son Stokely, after a leader of the Black Panthers. Although it’s never explicitly stated, there’s the sense that Blanche finds this racial pride artificial – or even misplaced – especially Samora’s affinity for Africa, a continent he’s never visited until, fairly late on in the book, he accompanies her to Rwanda.
Blanche had hoped that the birth of Stokely, in and of itself, might somehow heal the rifts in her family. That “…the birth of this grandson would bring you (Imaculata) solace for the difficulties of raising two children on your own, amid public opprobrium, and would restore the smile the genocide stole from you.”
However, the day of Stokely’s birth coincides with a new family tragedy. It’s too much for Imaculata. She retreats into herself, becoming mute. Blanche, for her part, realises that some problems are too deep-seated to be solved simply by the advent of a new generation. That the same divisions imposed by the Germans and Belgians upon the Tutsis and Hutus in the colonial era are still in effect today:
“As if mixed-race people could only ever choose between white and black, as if a child could only ever be either its mother or its father…A father’s colour clings to our skin. His absence marks our brow, flays us within, creating a tortured flow of mixed blood in our body. It is everyone else, those who believe they have the luxury of being a single colour…They are the ones who tell us we must choose, who categorize us, crucify us.”
The issue of how to communicate across the divides and boundaries that these identities create – and the possibility of challenging and breaking them down – resurfaces throughout the novel. Its most explicit form is a recurrent image: the lid of sorrow. Its source is a Rwandan proverb, which also forms one of the book’s epigraphs: “The neck is the lid of sorrow.”
The problem thus becomes how to lift the lid of sorrow. Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse navigates this question with a great deal of self-awareness: her role as a novelist doesn’t preclude a healthy distrust of words. As Anastasia (Blanche’s grandmother) cautions: “nothing we say is innocuous.” Whatever we say, and whoever we say it to (possibly, even if we are only speaking to ourselves) someone is going to get hurt.
Other forms of communication are offered as potential ways to lift the lid. Music, with its time-travelling qualities, gives some form of solace to Imaculata: “Decades later, all it took was for one of those songs from my years in Nyanza to resound, and time, and the years that had crushed my early enthusiasm, would be erased…”
Blanche and Samora share a love of African and West Indian music, jazz and salsa, which they initially succeed in passing on to Stokely. Even music, though, is ambivalent at best. His parents – especially Samora – are dismayed when Stokely falls in love with classical composers. And the unknown tune that Anastasia hums to herself seems more about keeping the lid on sorrow than lifting it. She repeats it “as if to fill the space and ward off any temptation to come out with words she might regret.”
Blanche observes that food transports other immigrants back to Algiers, Kraków, or Dakar, allowing them to hold onto an identity they might otherwise lose:
“Even when the nostalgia has dried up…there are still dishes that render in today’s language the fragrance of childhood… .” These can be passed on to the next generation. But France offers no “taste of home” for Blanche. There’s no Rwandan food, so she learns to cook French, the result being that her belly “has forgotten you (her Rwandan family) all a little.”
There are no easy answers but, in both form and content, Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse throws in her lot on the side of words. The need to strive for the impossible with words is shown through Blanche’s recollection of a Samuel Beckett quote: “You must go on. I can’t go on. You must go on. I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any –.”
The alternative is shown in a poignant scene where Imaculata holds an imaginary conversation with a dead person, “revealing” to them the things they’d so desperately wanted to know in life. As she laments, “it’s easier to speak to the dead than the living.”
Who should get to use the words is a question asked by the novel which is answered by the fact of it being written. Blanche muses, “If one day a novel about you were to see the light of day, only you or I would know how to write it…People who write about us, those who seek to transcribe our silences, without knowing the score: they sometimes lack good manners.”
Even if Rwandans begin writing about their experience, there are dangers in this too. One of the book’s later chapters is a story called The Severed Country, written by Stokely. It tells a lightly fictionalised version of Stokely’s experience as a mixed-race child. The story wins a literary prize. At the award ceremony, one of the judges asks Stokely where he’s from, a question he of course doesn’t ask the white winners. He also confuses Rwanda with Zaire (which in any case had been renamed Democratic Republic of Congo by that point). Similarly, when a Holocaust survivor comes to speak at Stokely’s school, Stokely points out that the day of his visit is also the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The Jewish man replies, “Oh yes, Roo-anda, the Hutus and Tutsis, that was awful, yes. Africa is tough, isn’t it, even today, just look at all those people fleeing to Europe.”
Fairly explicit in this, I think, is the frustration that when Rwandans speak to a Western audience, what’s heard and what’s said aren’t the same thing. What is heard is often just a reinforcement of what we think we already know. As a member of that Western audience, I don’t exempt myself from this. Add to that a publishing industry which takes a “one-and-done” approach to “minority fiction” (if there’s been one book out “about” Rwanda this year, we probably can’t sell another) and this wariness seems justified.
In more optimistic moments, though, that Beckett quote has a ring of quiet triumph to it. It continues, beyond what Blanche remembers of it:
“You must say words, as long as there are any – until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it’s done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)…”
As beautiful as that is, it’d be wrongheaded to end a review of All Your Children, Scattered with anything other than the author’s own words. In an interview at the 2021 Bibliotopia festival, Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse gave another justification for the struggle to use words as bridges: “The more points of view there are, the less stereotypes there will be.”
by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse
Translated by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, 192 pages
Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh. He's currently trying to find an agent for his first novel, whilst working on his second. Adam is also an editor for Structo Magazine, which publishes short fiction, essays and poetry.