August is Women in Translation Month, hosted by Meytal at Biblio. I’m hoping to post a few times this month but given my current blogging pace that may be a hope in vain! Anyway, I’m really pleased with the start I’ve made as it’s two authors I’ve not read before as well as two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.
Trigger warnings for pretty much everything: mentions of violence, genocide, rape, incest, and animal cruelty although I don’t go into detail for any of these.
Firstly, Our Lady of the Nile by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga (2012, trans. Melanie Mauthner 2014). Scholastique Mukasonga fled Rwanda for Burundi and has lived in France since 1992. 27 members of her family were killed in the Tutsi genocide in 1994. She set Our Lady of the Nile in 1979 and the future massacre haunts the story.
The titular school is in a remote region on a ridge of the Nile:
“There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred metres, the white teachers proudly proclaim […] ‘We’re so close to heaven,’ whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.
The school year coincides with the rainy season, so the lycée is often wrapped in clouds. Sometimes, not often, the sun peaks through and you can see as far as the big lake, the shiny blue puddle down the valley.”
This opening immediately put me in mind of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, and like Godden’s story there is a creeping oppression and tension amongst a group of women living together within an institution. Unlike Godden’s nuns though, the tension arises primarily from the wider political situation. Early in the story we meet class leader Gloriosa, who is wholly influenced by her father’s views on how to treat Tutsis.
“’The chiefs’ photos have suffered the social revolution,’ said Gloriosa, laughing. ‘A dash of ink, a slash of machete, that’s all it takes…and no more Tutsi.’”
That flippant mention of a machete is completely chilling. The girls are at that stage of adolescence where they are simultaneously naïve and aware of wider ramifications as they navigate one another, the attentions of men and the political situation.
As we follow the girls over the school year, the story is episodic and not told from one point of view, successfully building a picture of the remote community and the threats that exist within and without.
Two Tutsi girls, Veronica and Virginia have to manage Monsieur de Fontenaille, a coffee grower who idealises and objectifies their beauty; there is Father Herménégilde who is a paedophile in a position of power in the school; Gloriosa’s polemic about school quotas and Tutsis taking the place of Hutus is deeply disturbing and divisive.
The education of the girls also demonstrates the legacy of colonialism and how its brutality continues, how the genocide has its roots firmly in the past:
“History meant Europe, and Geography Africa […] it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history.”
“Because there were two races in Rwanda. Or three. The whites had said so; they were the ones who had discovered it.”
The story builds towards a denouement that is horribly predictable, terrifying and shocking. As part of these events, Gloriosa encourages a truly despicable violent act on a classmate that I’ve decided not to detail here. It’s not remotely sensationalist but it demonstrates the total horror that human beings can enact on each other.
Our Lady of the Nile is a stunning piece of writing, managing to convey the immeasurable costs of political violence with great humanity.
“It’s time we remembered who we are and where we are. We are at the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile, which trains Rwanda’s female elite. We’re the ones who’ve been chosen to spearhead women’s advancement. Let us be worthy of the trust placed in us by the majority people.”
My second choice doesn’t offer any reprieve from these brutal themes, as Cockfight by Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero (2018 trans. Frances Riddle 2021) is unflinching in its depiction of violence against women, animals, family members and of rape and incest.
I’m not going to go into too much detail from the stories as they are all such tough reads, but I’ll give an idea of a few of them. Ampuero is a compelling, precise writer and her stories pack a steely punch. If you feel able to read the stories I would urge you to do so, but they are definitely not for everyone and I certainly couldn’t have managed them last year when I was feeling a lot more fragile.
In the first story, Auction, a woman is kidnapped and offered up with others to the highest bidder. The situation reminds her of the cockfights she witnessed as a girl, having to clean up the remnants of the brutal sport.
“All these people, men and women alike, have been punched in the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the cockerels. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and cockerels. Come on, don’t be such a girl. They’re just cockfighters, dammit.”
The mutually reinforcing processes of patriarchy, misogyny, violence and commodification are drawn with ease, and played out in this situation in a visceral and degrading display.
Passion differs from the other stories in the collection, telling the story of (possibly) Mary Magdalen through a second-person narrative.
“You know, the only thing you know, is that you’re not going to be able to live without him. What you don’t know, and what you will never know, is that he loved you. That is something that can only be known by someone who has been loved before. You are not one of those people.”
In this story, Mary is the miracle-worker, abandoned by a man when she is no longer useful. Within the context of the collection, the story shows the long history of women being used and disregarded by those more powerful than they are.
Mourning was one of the most difficult reads, detailing the repulsive violence – physical and sexual – meted out by a brother on his sister. The brother dies and the two sisters rejoice:
“Marta said that at times like this – only at times like this – you need a man in the house, and Maria, who was standing on a chair with her skirts pulled up around her waist, started to laugh like a person possessed, and said no, that she preferred cockroaches, all the cockroaches in the world, over a man in the house.”
Ali and Coro are two linked stories that are incisive in detailing the hypocrisy and corruption that lies behind the moneyed façade of the rich.
“They grow up right there in the kitchen: eating with you until they get big, and then it seems weird to them that they love you so much, even though deep down they know you were their mother, and they see you one day in the future, once you’ve left, and they don’t know whether to cry or run into your arms like when they were little and fell down, or just nod their heads at you because now they’re little ladies and little gentleman of society who know you don’t greet the help with hugs and kisses.”
The collection ends with Other, which was probably the only story I read without flinching. The contents of a woman’s shopping basket distil the choices she has made, meaning she and her children constantly deny their own needs to meet those of an entirely selfish husband and father.
“He likes expensive fillets even though he won’t let go of one red cent for the rest of the month after buying them. So you grabbed three boxes of off-brand cereal instead, one for each child, and the worst brand of pads, the scratchy ones, the ones that come apart right away and cover your panties in little balls of fluff.”
Cockfight is fiercely feminist, urgent and unrelenting. Ampuero doesn’t waste a single word as she evokes everyday violence and degradation in non-sensationalist writing.
These are two brilliant works, stunning and important, but after I’d finished them I had to recover with a Golden Age mystery. I needed something where there was a guarantee that I wasn’t going to have to read graphic depictions of any sort of brutality. Having spent some time with Inspector Alleyn, I now feel ready to re-enter the fray!
As respite from my descriptions of two such harrowing works, here is a cheery number from an Ecuador-based band for you: