It starts with the fragment of a story; the first outline of a confession almost immediately interrupted by the rift between a mother and her daughter. After a three-year absence, Blanche, a young French-Rwandan woman, returns home to see her mother Immaculata. The daughter fled the genocide, went to college, and fell in love with a man. The mother stayed in Butare, watched her son Bosco join the fight, and almost died while trapped in a cockroach-infested cellar for 100 days.
In the shade of the jacarandas, wreathed in the smoke of a shared cigarette, Immaculata tries to describe how the killers would leave their homes each day to do their dirty work, and return in the evening to rest. “How can it be you didn’t know anything about the extermination that was coming?” demands Blanche, burning any hope of a bridge between them. It takes years, and the birth of Blanche’s son Stokely, for a fragile, intergenerational dialogue to slowly take shape. Between one woman who lived through the Rwandan genocide, and another who carries a heavy burden of guilt for having left.
Shifting between the perspectives of Blanche, Immaculata, and Stokely, as if the characters were separated by impenetrable walls, Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse juxtaposes three narratives and three visions of the world. Blanche struggles to talk to Immaculata, whom she calls “Mama,” as she tries to make up for lost time, asking about her origins and her French father. Immaculata speaks to Bosco, her son from a previous relationship with a Rwandan man, who returned from the war so traumatized that he put a bullet through his head. Stokely, whose name is a tribute to the Black Panthers activist Stokely Carmichael, stands at a crossroads between several memories and heritages, including that of negritude, passed down from his father.
Through the fate of a family dispersed and divided by political violence, Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse shines a light on Rwandan history: its colonization by Belgium, the Tutsi exile in the wake of the pogroms and ethnic discriminations after the country’s independence in 1962, and France’s responsibility in the genocide that killed almost 800,000 people. Readers will make out the autobiographical inspiration behind each fictional character, which may have been the only way for the author to reconnect with her “severed country.”