'ethnic renegade'

Rwanda’s Beata Mairesse: ‘All Your Children, Scattered’

By Olivia Snaije

Posted on July 14, 2023 12:50

In 2019, 25 years after the Rwandan genocide, Franco-Rwandan author Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, a survivor, published her first novel, ‘Tous tes enfants dispersés’, about a family reconnecting during the years following the massacre.

Among other prizes, it won the 2020 Prix des Cinq continents de la Francophonie. This year it was published by Europa Editions in a fluid English translation by Alison Anderson, All Your Children, Scattered.

The story is narrated by Immaculata, who survived the genocide by hiding in the cellar of a bookshop and became mute from grief, Blanche, her Franco-Rwandan daughter evacuated in a convoy for Westerners just before the killings begin, and Stokely, Blanche’s French-born son, who senses the ghosts in his mother’s past and eventually connects with his Rwandan heritage via his grandmother.

Mairesse already delved into the subject of genocide in two short story collections and a book of prose poems, but the novel allowed her to expand and write about before and after the massacres.

For a long time she kept silent about the genocide, because, as she has said in interviews, people didn’t really want to hear. Fifteen years after she arrived in France, she began to write – literature provided her a way to be heard.

Finding the words

As a child growing up in the city of Butare, Rwanda, Mairesse was an avid reader. When she got to France, books by authors such as Nadine Gordimer, bell hooks, Annie Ernaux, Imre Kertesz and Bessie Head became her lifelines towards recovery.

Today, nearly 30 years later, when Mairesse reads reports about Rwanda that praise its economic development, its strategy to reduce poverty, or its push for gender equality, she is, of course, pleased. But how are people’s hearts and minds doing, she asks in a recent article published in the Manchester, UK magazine, Big Issue North.

For a country with a population of nearly 13 million, she writes, there are a mere 13 specialised psychiatrists to treat mental health problems linked to the genocide.

“That equates to 0.17 psychiatrists per 100,000 inhabitants,” she says.

Mairesse was 15 when the genocide broke out in April 1994. She and her mother were fortunate to join a convoy organised by a Swiss couple working in humanitarian aid in June with other children, which ultimately brought them to France.

Guilty of surviving

The foster family who took her in, immediately brought her to see a psychiatrist. Mairesse and her mother had narrowly escaped being killed when Mairesse pretended not to speak Kinyarwanda.

Although one may see similarities with Mairesse’s character Blanche, and many of Blanche’s reflections are those a “mixed-race” person might reflect on while living in France, the comparisons stop there.

Speaking to The Africa Report, Mairesse says, “What separates us fundamentally is that Blanche has not lived through the genocide. Being a survivor means I survived the experience… What I was interested in with Blanche’s character was her experience of guilt, because she had been safe.”

I don’t want to hurt the people I’m talking about

Mairesse says she’s surprised that people always seem to want to look for autobiographical threads in books, and likes to quote South African author Gordimer, who wrote about how it was unimportant to know whether a text was autobiographical.

“The subject matter concerns me personally, but for the rest, one has to let go, it’s the author’s creative process.”

Out of the comfort zone

The author is putting the finishing touches to a non-fiction text in which she writes about her personal experience of the genocide. To be published in France next year, Mairesse’s book will include the stories of other children who were in the convoy with her, who she tracked down “with great difficulty”, as well as survivors from another convoy.

Writing non-fiction is a very different exercise, she says, and the first time that she has “ventured out of the comfort of fiction. At the same time, I have standards, the facts have to be exact, and I don’t want to hurt the people I’m talking about, so I’ve been sending them extracts to go over.”

Mairesse realised that she couldn’t ask others to talk about their experience without writing about her own, which didn’t come easily, even though she has been talking about the genocide to teenagers in schools for several years.

“At first I talked about the experience as a writer, and then there was an acceptance on my part to tell them what had happened to me.”

Speaking to teenagers came naturally to her. “Contrary to what you might think, they are careful, generous listeners, and the process is simple and fluid. They are the same age that I was at the time,” she says.

Adults, on the other hand, are filled with certainties and are more rigid as an audience.

Where do you belong?

Another central theme in Mairesse’s book, which she continues in her latest novel, Consolée, is the experience of being “métisse”.

Consolée is named for one of the characters who, because she is Franco-Rwandan, is taken from her family and placed in a specialised institution in Save, Rwanda. Mairesse’s story is based on an institution that really existed.

During colonial times, Belgium took mixed-race children from their families in Rwanda, Burundi and what is today the DRC, with the idea that they represented racial disorder or might become future revolutionaries. They were taken to Catholic missions and then flown to Belgium where they were put up for adoption or placed in foster care.

I have the feeling of being a smuggler between worlds

Although Mairesse was born post-independence, she has always felt somewhat of an outsider – as a child in Rwanda she was considered white, whereas in France she is seen as black or mixed-race.

“There’s this impression that wherever you go, you’re different… I have the feeling of being a smuggler between worlds – it’s looking from the inside and the outside and looking beyond.”

Not only does she feel like she’s an “ethnic renegade” but also a “social class renegade” – coming from a humble background but going to school in a bourgeois environment, both when she went to a Belgian school in Butare and later in France with her foster family.

When her books are out in the French paperback edition, they become more affordable for readers in Rwanda. Mairesse hopes to find a Rwandan publisher for All Your Children Scattered and would love to see the book in Kinyarwanda as a radio play.

Franco-Rwandan musician and writer Gaël Faye, who endorsed Mairesse’s book, saw his bestselling Petit Pays (Small Country, translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone), adapted as a film and a play translated into Kinyarwanda. An audio version with music was played on the radio in Rwanda making it accessible to the broader population.

Mairesse says she has also enjoyed speaking about All Your Children Scattered to Anglophone readers on the African continent, where she feels there is too little crossover between Francophones and Anglophones.

Of course, the continent is vast, she says, still, “we share so many similar experiences”.

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