Rwanda: the meaning of fate

April 16, 2012

If British writers had to translate their work into another language in order to get a publisher to consider it, I doubt many would make it into print. But that was the situation 25-year-old Rwandan author Barassa faced when she submitted the French manuscript of the first of her three novels to Real Africa Books. They responded that they didn’t publish books in languages other than English. Nothing daunted, as she and Swedish-born publisher Bjorn Lunden explained in an interview on Burundian blog Ikirundi, Barassa took just a week to convert the narrative into English so that Lunden could launch her work through his new firm.

All the same, despite Barassa’s efforts, the book is still  not very easy for English-language readers to find. In fact if it weren’t for friend and fellow journalist Antonia Windsor picking it up in a Kigali bookshop while she was on assignment in Rwanda last year, I doubt I would ever have heard of Teta:a story of a young girl.

As the title suggests, the novel follows the fortunes of a young Rwandan woman, Teta. Prevented from marrying the man she loves by poverty, she becomes the envy of her friends when one of the region’s richest men, Boniface, asks her father for her hand. But the loveless marriage quickly becomes a hollow sham and, as genocide and AIDS sweep the country, Teta is forced to rely on her own resourcefulness to survive.

The book is at its best when it discusses fate or ‘the law of the stronger and the richer’ as it is more commonly described. At odds with the romantic Western perception of destiny, the driving forces in this novel are stripped back to their components: want, sickness and fear.

In a society where there are no welfare departments, insurance companies, emergency services or safety nets to soften the blows of chance, people are left with no option but enduring the hardships meted out to them. ‘Life itself had decided on my behalf, no one could change the decision,’ shrugs Teta when her father’s cattle die and it is left to her to save the family through her prospective suitor’s wealth.

As in several other African women’s novels I’ve read this year, the skewed power dynamics of relations between the sexes and traditional marriage form the subject of much of the book. Obliged to leave her family and forgo the rituals that give her a sense of identity, Teta finds herself helpless in the face of Boniface’s infidelity. And when the tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis flares up and neighbour turns against neighbour she finds the predatory attitudes of the men around her create an additional threat:

‘Faustin[...] was participating in preparations of the genocide. He was also one of the men that in vain had asked me to become his mistress. The last time I saw him he had told me that I would regret my decision. He might already then have known the power he would gain within some days.’

The language is rough round the edges, with several malapropisms creeping in. Now and then the narrative veers between registers like a van on a potholed road and there is a perfunctory feel to the scene-setting that sees minor characters created and killed off sometimes within the space of two full stops.

However, given the DIY job Barassa had to do on the translation, most of these bumps are hardly surprising. Every jolt is a reminder of the lengths the author was prepared to go to to tell her urgent, angry and touching stories in a country where few writers manage to publish their works even today. Surely reading them is the least we can do?

Teta: a story of a young girl by Barassa (Real Africa Books, 2010)

5 Responses to “Rwanda: the meaning of fate”

  1. very interesting article. Sembura is doing its best to promote Great Lakes region writers so they get known and published… there is a long way to go but we hope, one day, we will have a publishing house in the region. Interesting article

    • Merci beaucoup Thierry. If you have any recommendations for literature from other Great Lakes countries that I might be able to read in English, I’d love to hear about them. I have already written about Marie-Therese Toyi’s ‘Weep Not, Refugee’ for Burundi, but I would be glad to add any other recommendations to the list so that other visitors to this blog can hear about them.

      • I am sorry to come back late…
        If you google Rwanda in amazon, you will see novels like By the time she returned by John Rusimbi… and other novels. Many novels in English were written after the genocide and stories are related most time to genocide – stories of suffering, of hope, of courage…. Check amazon, also on http://realafricabooks.com/, you will see other books by Barassa. Tomorrow, I will do my best to send you a longer list. Congratulations on the work you are doing, it is amazing. I like…. Check this also : http://www.lefttotell.com/

      • Thanks Thierry – great leads here.

  2. Ann, I imagine a lot of people come here looking for suggestions of books, as I do every day, so I’d like to indicate a amazing book from Rwanda. It’s “The Past Ahead”, from Gilbert Gatore. The english version was published last year and there’s a kindle edition. If you have the chance, read it too! It’s really, really good!

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