AiW Guest: Akua Banful.
I walked into the large room on the second floor of Albertine, the French consulate affiliated bookstore in New York, and immediately felt the energy and anticipation of the crowd. The old, the young, the francophone and anglophone were all buzzing in their seats waiting for Gaël Faye to arrive. The event, a reading and discussion by Faye with Lisa Lucas of the National Book Foundation, had drawn an incredibly varied and excited crowd. French and English hummed and swam together, a neat audio primer for the linguistic dance that took place that afternoon.
Faye, Lucas, and a translator, Nicholas, walked in and took their seats on the stage. Introductions were made, and a qualification was offered; although Faye’s English is perfect, he would be conducting this conversation with a translator, to enable him express himself more naturally. Faye’s Small Country, or Petit Pays in the original French, is a widely celebrated book that tells the story of a childhood in Rwanda that starts before and then bleeds into the genocide of 1994. It has won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, an award that recognizes the best and most imaginative youth-facing writing of the year, and is decided by a jury of 2,000 students. It has recently been translated into English under Penguin Random House and has been making waves in the English speaking literary world as well.
Getting straight into things, Faye thanked the director of Albertine for his generous introduction and began reading from the novel’s prologue. The room was filled with his skippy, rich timbre of voice, and as he read, it was immediately clear how the novel had captivated so many people, young and old. As Faye’s voice modulated, rose, and dipped, we were treated to an exciting, theatrical reading that transported the audience to Bujumbura, as the protagonist and his sister and friends try to figure out why there is a conflict brewing between Hutus and Tutsis. Like most children, prone to conjecture and fantastical explanations, they try to find an answer to a truly puzzling question – why is there strife amongst people who seem to be the same, and how does one differentiate them? As Faye read out the explanation his novel’s characters had arrived at, the entire room burst into laughter – the root cause of their disagreements was that Hutus and Tutsis had different noses. That writerly move, which brought a lightness and humour to a question that remains deeply troubling and puzzling today, is characteristic of Faye’s touch as a speaker and a writer; he displays a captivating ability to approach heavy subject matter with a lightness that doesn’t detract from its seriousness.
Nicholas, the translator, read from the English translation of the book in a way that mirrored Faye’s expression to a striking extent. It is worth mentioning what an incredible translator he is, the flow between what Faye communicated in French and Nicholas’ translations was effectively seamless, and once, in the middle of translating a long response, he paused, trying to remember the string of thoughts Faye had expressed. Faye translated himself during that pause, and commended Nicholas for such an incredible job, and the audience clapped enthusiastically in agreement.
Once Nicholas had completed the English reading, the event transitioned into a conversation between Lucas and Faye, allowing the audience to meet the author behind the text. Faye’s life story is an incredibly interesting one. Born to a French father and a Rwandan mother, he spent his childhood in Burundi, before the onset of the genocide, following which his family moved to Versailles. Lucas’s first question enquired about how Faye came to be a writer, especially since he had spent seven years of his life studying finance and accounting. For what was far from the last time that evening, Faye made the audience laugh. Finance was a decision he made to avoid unemployment, but writing was always his passion. At the end of that course of study, Faye chose a different path, and took a chance on his passion, turning first to a career in music, becoming a well-known French rapper.
How then does a celebrated hip hop artist turn to writing a novel? Although he had nursed an interest in writing a novel when he was younger, reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky was both inspiring and intimidating for him when he discovered these books at age 19, he was left thinking that he wouldn’t have the material or the craft to produce a novel until he was 60. An encounter with Catherine Nabokov, an independent French editor changed that. She discovered Faye’s music through her son, and was struck by his lyricism. When they met, she asked him if he had ever considered writing a novel, and when he expressed doubts, told him she thought he was ready. And so it began; a tour that had been scheduled fell through and Faye was left with three spare months on his hands. He surrounded himself with pictures and memories of his childhood and began the novel.
How does one reckon with a genocide? As Faye explored art, music and literature as a child and young adult, he found himself looking for artists who could tell him the story he came out of. Mostly, he found silences. Until recently, there have been few Rwandan and Burundese writers, and, quoting Faye, “My generation didn’t dare to speak out and up for ourselves out of deference for what our elders had been through, and they were in the urgency of living through exile, through trauma – but I believe that we need to write for ourselves rather than have someone write for us.” However, most importantly, Faye asserted that this was not a novel about the genocide, it is about a childhood paradise lost, about going back to the ways in which life was banal, humorous and mundane before an event that shattering submerged all talk and memories of those times. “I wanted to talk about a banal childhood, I wanted the novel to rehabilitate the everyday life we talked about – before the conflict,” he said.
As the conversation continued, Faye took the audience through his path to literature, and explained that he found literature not only in books, but also in music. “We tend to underestimate the textual and symbolic power of French rap, but that was an education to me,” he said. Asked what his future writing projects would be, and whether they would continue to reckon with the genocide and its impact on memory and life, Faye’s answer was striking. “Writing, or making art,” he said, “is an excuse to meet things, a way to break our solitude.” And, though the genocide is a part of his history, that he has felt compelled to reckon with, driven by a desire to tell his own story rather than have it told for him, “I do not want to be a prisoner of this history,” he concluded For many African writers, there will likely continue to exist a desire to tell their stories, to speak into places that have long been home only to silences. But though our stories are a part of us, and we ought to be the ones to tell them, the act of writing frees people from the weight of these stories and allows them to carry on, and create new things.