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Review: ‘The Barefoot Woman,’ by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated from the French by Jordan Stump

December 7, 2018

As a Tutsi child growing up with her displaced family in Rwanda, Scholastique Mukasonga heard these rattling words from her mother, Stefania: “When I die, when you see me lying dead before you, you’ll have to cover my body … No one must see a mother’s corpse. Otherwise it will follow you, it will chase you … until it is your turn to die.”

Many years later, the dire warning turned out to be prescient: Stefania was among the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis murdered, often dismembered with machetes, by marauding Hutus, her “remains dissolved into the stench of genocide’s monstrous mass grave.”

Sadly, Mukasonga wasn’t there; she wasn’t there to cover her mother’s body — and the American edition of her memoir, “The Barefoot Woman,” is a symbolic gesture, an attempt in 10 short chapters to “weave a shroud for [her mother’s] missing body” one sentence at a time.

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump, the book immediately establishes the beginnings of a formidable story about survival in an inhospitable new land, about internally uprooted Tutsis living in the face of constant fear and violence. The narrative here revolves around Stefania, specifically her actions, her worries and her beliefs. Utmost in Stefania’s mind was the survival of her children, and she did what she could to ensure that day after day, “she’d snatched them away from death’s clutches.”

She stacked big jugs and baskets against the wall in their house so her children could crawl behind them if Hutu soldiers barged in; outside, Stefania “left armloads of wild grass in the middle of the field, mounds just big enough for her and her three girls to slip into.” She tried to decipher omens on castor leaves and in the “waters of Lake Cyohoha.”

By depicting the desperate actions of her mother in exile, Mukasonga sets in motion a particular narrative upon which rests our investment, as readers, in the lives of Stefania and her family. But about halfway through the book, the focus shifts, and it widens greatly — we leave behind the more intimate spaces of the nuclear family and new homemaking, by and large, and become situated within the wide-ranging parameters of Rwandan traditions and culture, of Christianity and its influences, of women’s affairs, of what is consumed (bread) and why. The shift, somewhat anthropological, leaves the reader in a bit of lurch, wondering how Stefania and her family lived out the rest of their lives.

Ever clear and laudable, however, is Mukasonga’s consistent portrayal of her mother as a guardian of the family and of Rwandan lore and customs in the deadly wake of expulsion and exile. No doubt, this small book — an unevenly woven “shroud” — bears an unimaginably heavy weight.

Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based book critic and award-winning fiction writer.

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