Small Country: A Novel by Gaël Faye

Small Country: A Novel by Gaël Faye

I have been keen to read this book for some time. Small Country was published in 2016 in France and in French, and translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone in 2018. I saw it on the Book of the Month website and it immediately caught my eye. It’s not often that African literature — especially a novel focused on something as horrific as the Rwandan Genocide and the Burundian Civil War, both connected in their origins of ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi — finds a way into mainstream, popular book culture.

It was worth the wait. Small Country delivers a powerful, immersive, historical experience. I felt as if I were there, transported back to the early 1990s, growing up with Gaby, a silent witness to the terror and happiness of his childhood. We are not so far apart in age that his childhood feels foreign to me, and there is a common experience in living in former colonies, French or British, that pervades the postcolonial world. Faye’s prose helped a lot; I could smell the fruity air of tropical Burundi, sense the light dusting of brownish-red earth on my skin as Gaby and his crew ran down the roads of their neighbourhood, the scorching heat of the sun, a trickle of sweat run down my neck.

But of course, Gaby’s path and my own diverge wildly on the occasion of war. Faye’s portrayal of that period of time and conflict was palpable. By that point in the novel, the characters felt like friends: ordinary and familiar like those who populate our own worlds. They were likeable and hateful, annoying and lovable, flawed and perfectly so — and then they were thrown, involuntarily, into an unimaginable violence. Much like Gaby and his family and friends, the war approached slowly, then arrived suddenly. The effect is jarring — purposefully — on the reader. The events of the novel force the reader to wonder, “What if this were me? What would I do?”

The story follows the chronological path of Gaby’s life, a mixed-race boy of French and Rwandan parentage, growing up in Burundi. It spans his early life from about age four or five to the time of the Genocide, when he is a teenager and evacuated to France. The novel is one that revolves around the nuances of race and interracial relationships, the push and pull that is inherent in transcultural lives, and the desire for a sense of place when one is trapped in a Venn diagram of multiple belongings. Gaby’s mother is one of these out-of-place women, French by marriage and in part by design, but also Rwandan and not-Rwandan, Burundian by default and yet rejected by Burundians on account of her Rwandan origins. Gaby’s father also straddles multiple worlds, first as a colonial settler in a time when such settlements can no longer exist as they were; he is out-of-time, rather than out-of-place. Second, in the matter of class, Gaby’s father possesses status, but only on the African continent, not in France. Gaby, the protagonist of the novel, is also caught between worlds on account of his mixed-race, his socio-economic class as the son of a middle-lower-upper-class businessman, and because of his nationality being a French passport-holding Burundian. The characters exist in a kind of suspension. This uncertainty is, on the one hand, brought on by the war, but it existed before as well, as people in this community reconcile their ethnic history or their settler status with the new postcolonial order of things.

Small Country is about the loss of one place of belonging when another one exists. It is about loss of the things (including people and practices and languages) that bind us to one another and to ourselves. It is about how we individually must grapple with that loss, how we deal with it or how it deals with us. Every character in this novel loses something or someone (a spouse, a child, a family member, or themselves), gains something (freedom, independence, clarity of self, madness, grief), and plods onwards in life because there is no option to do otherwise. The reader cannot help but recognize their suffering and their experience.

Small Country is about refugees, both the kind we see in the news and the kind we do not see, those who occupy our own worlds and are, in a sense, “hidden in plain sight.” Faye presents to the reader a reflection of themselves, turning the refugee of the news into an all-too-familiar face, our own. Perhaps as we encounter refugees in our lives, those of the news-kind as well as others, we might find common ground with them on the basis of this shared humanity.

The Newlywed’s Window: The Mukana Press Anthology of African Writing 2022, compiled by Mukana Press

The Newlywed’s Window: The 2022 Mukana Press Anthology of African Writing

A very lively, beautifully written collection of twelve short stories by new African writers. These were fresh ideas written with confidence. My favorites were “Gasping for Air”. by Ogechukwu Emmanuel Samuel, “The Newly Wed’s Window” by Husnah Mad-by, “Mareba’s Tavern” by Gladwell Palmba, “A Letter from Ireland” by Victor Ehikhamenor, and “Our Girl Bimpe” by Olakunle Ologunro.

What I loved about these stories was their bold announcement of Africanness and modernity, too often still separated in the non-African view. These were stories celebrating the conflation of both in one, the coexistence of Africanness and global identity in one. Some of these stories revolved unabashedly around modern African womanhood and sexuality, celebrating sexuality with pride.

I appreciated that these were not stories of postcolonial angst or stories posing tradition against modernity. Perhaps I read too much postcolonial literature; these were refreshing to me because of the absence of those existential themes. They addressed existential themes we are all familiar with (how to live in a technology-driven world, how to be a modern woman, how to be a modern parent, transition from childhood into adulthood, among others), but from an African perspective, an African experience.

All My Children, Scattered by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse

All My Children, Scattered by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse

A new release coming soon! (August 2022) I got to read an advanced reader copy from the publisher and I cannot wait for this book to come out!

All My Children, Scattered traces the movements of three generations of a Franco-Rwandan family, as they each, in their own painful ways, unravel the complex emotions and tensions inflicted on them by Rwanda’s colonial history and, more recently, the Rwandan Genocide. Immaculata, the mother, struggles to find a place for herself and her children in a world still ruled by colonial culture. She finds herself equally trapped and freed by her own internalized ideas about race and color. She passes on these questions of identity to her daughter, Blanche, a mixed race, half white, half black woman, who finds herself also struggling with what it means to be Rwandan within and outside of Rwanda, in Europe. Blanche is a survivor of the genocide and turmoil of the 1990s; she wrangles with her luck, her fate, her role in it as a Rwandan expatriate. Stokely is Blanche’s son, another generation removed from the colonial encounter and one generation removed from the Genocide, but he is no less subject to this history.

There are other characters woven into their story: Bosco, Immaculata’s other child, her son, who also survives the genocide by fighting through it. He was a soldier, a human being caught up in the gritty reality of the genocide. Then there is Blanche’s husband, a West Indian man, facing similar questions of postcolonial identity. He understands and yet, also, cannot understand Blanche’s Rwandan identity.

What I love most about All My Children, Scattered is its historicity and the native point of view it privileges, centers, revolves around. Mairesse immerses the reader in the Rwandan experience of history. While colonial history is a foundational premise of the novel, it does not fall into that trap of making this about white men and white experience; this is not a novel of the colonizer, this is about Rwandans, the people and their experience.

I deeply appreciated that Mairesse did not delve into the details of colonial events, what happened in what year; the machinations of state politics was a buzz (a loud one at times) in the background. What was most visible was the effect of politics on the ordinary citizen, the family, individuals. This is not a historical fiction that reads like a history lesson – thankfully! — no, this is a novel that focuses on the emotional trauma, the unseen generation damage.

Mairesse’s prose delivers. The language is beautiful and evocative. The voice of each character is clear, unmistakable. Each chapter is narrated by a different character so Mairesse treats the reader to a view of Rwandan history from multiple points. The reader feels the connections across time, the intangible tensions from one generation to the next.

This is a book to read and re-read.