In 2005, I had worked as part of a global team on a seminal report published by UNRISD called Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World. The particular section that I had researched was “Gender, armed conflict and the search for peace”. It was an extraordinary eye-opener for it highlighted the horrendous levels of violence perpetrated upon women and girls, across the world. Somehow conflict situations become an arena where the wild lawlessness thrives and the stark reality of the violence women experience is gut-wrenching. The women are treated worse than animals. Just flesh They are easily dispensed with once the women outlive their utility which in most cases is that of being sex slaves. The UNRISD report went a step further than merely discussing the violence but also documented the various methods of peace that were initiated by women or with the establishment of institutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and of course, the International Court of Justice.
Award-winning war reporter Christina Lamb in her book, Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women reports from various war zones around the world. She travels far and wide meeting women who have been victimised, abducted, raped, sold by one soldier to the next, etc. She met people like the Beekeeper of Aleppo, Abdullah Shrim, and Dr Miracle or Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Denis Mukwege, who have helped women. Or the incredible Bakira Hasecic, Association of Women Victims of War, who said her hobbies were smoking and “hunting war criminals” and she was not joking, having tracked down well over a hundred. Of these, twenty-nine were prosecuted in The Hague and eighty in Bosnia. Abdullah Shrim has rescued hundreds of women who were kidnapped by the ISIS and reunited them with their families. He has run extremely dangerous operations and created a vast network of safe houses and carriers who would help bring the women to safety. It has been at great economic cost to the women’s families, who at times have had to fork out sums as large as US $70,000. Dr. Mukwege, meanwhile, has helped reconstruct and fix women victims of sexual violence.
…either suffered pelvic prolapsed or other damage giving birth, or were victims of serial violence so extreme that that genitals had been torn apart and they had suffered fistulas — holes in the sphincter muscle through to the bladder or rectum, which led to leaking of urine or faeces or both.
In twenty years of existence, the [Punzi] hospital had treated more than 55,000 victims of rape.
He is recognised as having treated more rape victims than anyone else on earth. As a trained gynaecologist, he had set up multiple maternal hospitals around Congo so as to tackle the growing menace of maternal mortality, where women uttered their last words before going into labour as they were never sure if they would live. Once the Rwandan genocide occurred, Dr Mukwege, he began to help women victims.
Each group seemed to have its own signature torture and the rates were so violent that often a fistula or hole has been torn in the bladders or rectums.
‘It’s not a sexual thing, it’s a way to destroy one another, to take from inside the victim the sense of being a human, and show you don’t exist, you are nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s a deliberate strategy: raping a woman in front of her husband to humiliate him so he leaves and shame falls on the victim and it’s impossible to live with the reality so the first reaction is to leave the area and then is totla destruction of the community. I’ve seen entire villages deserted.
‘It’s about making people feel powerless and destroying the social fabric. I’ve seen a case where the wife of a pastor was raped in front of the whole congregation so everyone fled. Because if God does not protect the wife of a pastor how would he protect them?
‘Rape as a weapon of war can displace a whole.demigraohic and have the same effect as a conventional weapon but at a much lower cost.
The accounts in this book are meticulously documented. Christina Lamb even manages to speak to some of the victims. One of them, Naima, who had been abducted by the ISIS recalled the name of every single abductor she was sold to. It even astonished Christina Lamb that Naima was able to recall in such detail. ‘The one thing that I could do was know all their names so what they did would not be forgotten,’ she explained. ‘Now I am out I am writing everyting in a book with everyone’s name.’ Lamb travels and meets people in Argentina ( the Lost Generation and the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), Nigeria and the Boko Haram, Bangladesh and the birangonas or brave/war heroine, the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in Bosnia, the Rohingya camps of those who fled Myanmar, the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and the Tutsis, the women abducted and kept by the ISIS, the former sex slaves of Japan or the rape of the German women by the Red Army during the Second World War etc. The list is endless and exhausting.
The graphic descriptions in the book are vile but most likely tamer versions of what was really said, shared or documented since it is impossible to collate it as is for a lay readership. The anger and revulsion that Christina Lamb feels and conveys in her documentation regarding the sexual crimes perpetrated against women is transmitted to the reader very clearly. The mechanical manner in which the women are raped over and over again, leaving the women numb and injured is blood curdling. It is also imbued with a sense of helplessness trying to understand how can this wrong be ever corrected — Why are women pursued in this relentless manner, used and discarded? Or even seen as war trophies. What is truly befuddling is the ease with which men rape women or conduct mass rapes. It is not only the systematic violence that is perpetrated upon the women but the horrifying thought that this attitude probably exists in a daily basis. Men see women as dispensable, as a sex that they have limitless and unquestionable power over and the authority and prerogative to do what they like. War crimes only bring to the fore that which already exists already. It is not a gargantuan leap of imagination by men that requires such methodical violence perpetrated upon so many women in this brutal and agressive manner. What is even more chilling from the facts Lamb unearths is the despicable manner in which the rapists are rarely convicted, and if they ever are convicted it is usually for war crimes. Their convictions are carried out on the strength of the ethnic cleansing that they perpetrated. The absolute lack of respect or value accorded to a woman survivor’s testimony, if some of the victims agree to testify, is atrocious. Instead as Bakira points out that if you do not testify it’s as if it never happened. “Women should be allowed to say things the way she wants, tell the story how she wants.” Unfortunately what emerges is that even the institutions of justice and remedial action are so patriarchal in their nature and construct that they do not wish to acknowledge the ghastly trauma women suffer. Chillingly “in Bosnia it’s better to be a perpetrator than a victim. The perpetrators’s defence are paid by the state while we [the women] have to pay our own legal costs. And there’s still no compensation for victims.”
Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is not easy reading. There is a visceral reaction to reading the accounts. But as Lamb points out that this is a very dark book but she hopes that the reader too will find the “strength and heroism of many of the women inspiring”. She continues, “I use the expression ‘survivors’ to emphasise the resilience of these women, as after all they have survived, rather than ‘victim’ which has a more helpless connotation and some see as a dirty word. Meeting all these women, the last word I would use about them is passive. However, while I do not want to make ‘victims’ their identity, at the same time they are victims of an appalling brutality and injustice, so I do think the word has some validity. In some languages, such as Spanish, the word ‘survivor’ means survivor of a natural disaster. Colombian and Argentinian women I met told me it made no sense to refer to them as survivors. So I have used both where appropriate. In the same way, Yazidis told me they did not object to being described as sex slaves, as long as that was not seen as their identity.” Gender divisions are an age-old phenomena. Seeing women as loot, especially at times of war is also many centuries old. But the fact that these ugly, ruthless, mindless, violent practices continue to exist despite there being so many conversations about gender equality and sensitivity is extremely painful. It is as if those who believe in the dignity of women and in gender equality are expending energy on a losing battle. When will it stop? Will it ever cease? And surely these are learned behaviours and attitudes towards women, so how and when are the younger generations of men being indoctrinated and encouraged to behave in this abominable fashion? It is true that many men still believe firmly in the idea of masculinity being that when you prove your supremacy as an individual upon women, but seriously, can this old-fashioned attitude not stop? War zones are a stark reminder that these attitudes are not going away in a hurry. My only objection is to the cover design of this book depicting women wearing head scarves. Thereby signalling that the violent behaviours documented by Lamb exist more or less within one specific community, ie. the Muslims, who are equally conveniently seen as terrorists. This is wrong. The cover design should have been either an illustration depicting conflicts and different scenarios or had a montage of images from different regions and communities. This striking black and white image does a great deal of disservice not only to the community it represents but also to the book.
Nevertheless, please read this extremely powerful book.
I read Gaël Faye’s book more than a year ago. Loved every word of it even though the story itself is horrific about the Rwanda genocide. The genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. Gaël Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother was also killed after taking refuge in a church. Small Country is a heartbreakingly painful story to read but it does not leave you in a hurry. It is magnificently translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone. For ever so long I had wanted to meet/interview Gaël Faye. In Jan 2020, Gael Faye was invited to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival. I did get the opportunity to meet him at the French Institute in Delhi. Unfortunately, due to a set of unusual circumstances I was caught in a traffic snarl and could not make it to the venue in time. Instead Isabelle Jaitly stepped in to interview Gael Faye on my behalf. She asked him the questions I had drafted and added some of her splendid ones as well. The interview was conducted in French since they are both fluent in the language. Isabelle has translated it from French into English. It has taken time as it is a long and complicated process. It involved first transcribing the interview from an audio recording and then translating it into English. The translation was also delayed by factors beyond our control — the Covid19 pandemic. It effectively forced the French government to cancel the Book Fair in Paris where India was going to be the guest of honour. Isabelle who works at the French Institute in Delhi was inundated with first the planning for the fair and then helping with the aftermath. It has been a surreal year. So I am truly delighted to publish on my blog this extraordinary interview with an extraordinary singer-cum-author and an extraordinary backstory!
Gaël Faye is an author, songwriter and hip-hop artist. He released his first solo album in 2013, with his first novel following in 2016. Born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother, Faye moved with his family to France in 1995 after the outbreak of the civil war and Rwandan genocide. His debut novel Small Country was published to international acclaim. Written in French it has been translated brilliantly by Sarah Ardizzone. A lot must have been called upon her to invest in this translation. To delve into another language, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but Sarah has done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.
Gaël Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people, then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.
In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gaël Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gaël Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gaël Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? The translation too would have been tough leaving its mark on the translator. This is not a passage easily forgotten.
The fluidity of the prose is breath-taking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening.
The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve. But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her nieces and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. I had a zillion questions for Gael. So when presented with an opportunity to interview him, I posed some of them.
Here are lightly edited excerpts of the interview conducted by Isabelle Jaitly and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose.
1. Why write a novel, rather than a long poem?
That’s a form I had never tried and I had been wanting to write a novel for a long time. And as I already write songs, which are for me some kind of poems, I felt there was a certain limit to this form. At the same time I imagine that this novel is in a way a long poem, because I tried to introduce poetry in it as much as I could, as indeed I try to put poetry in everything I write.
Was it unsettling going from a very constraining form to a very free form?
One has to find one’s bearing. I used some ‘devices’ to help myself in this. I wrote letters inside the novel; the narrator sends letters to someone and these letters acted in a way as milestones, which gave a sense of time and frame to the action. A little bit like rhymes in a song. That said, one never knows how to write a novel, it’s through trials and errors.
2. What do you prefer: prose or poetry?
It depends on the mood… I like to navigate from one to the other. But in a way, poetry is not a form in itself. Poetry can be found everywhere. There is such a thing as a prose poem! There is no tight limit, no frontier between the two.
3. Can reading a book change a person? How do you think your book may have impacted others?
Yes, a book can alter the way you see the world, alter things within oneself. I have been through it, and I imagine others have as well. About my book, it’s difficult to speak on behalf of my readers, but from what I have seen through the feedback I have got, it has helped many people unlock silences in their families, or admit things to themselves that they have been able to own, like the experience of exile, or a trauma from the war or genocide. I have received these kinds of feedbacks. In a lighter vein, many people have discovered a reality they had no idea about though my novel. I have received feedback from Afghan readers, from Iran. But not from India, and I am looking forward to it.
And you, have you ever been changed by a book?
Yes, and even by several books. One author who had a great influence on me is René Duprestre, from Haiti. I was overwhelmed when I started reading him. He was for me like a mentor, a sort of Pygmalion. Another book answered many questions I had in my childhood, about my metis, the book of ‘peau noire, masques blancs’ (Black Skin, White Masks) a book by Frantz Fanon, a writer from Martinique. it helped me come to terms with my origins without being in conflict with them. And the list can go on. I go on reading amazing books, which in a way change my outlook. But the books we read as teenagers have a very strong effect on us. As teenagers, we are in the process of being formed, so my strongest emotions as a reader happened during that time.
4. Was it difficult to write about the genocide?
Not really. I spend part of the year in Rwanda, I come from a family who went through the genocide, who are survivors. We live with this. And I find that my novel, on the contrary, considerably minimizes what happened. I didn’t open a wardrobe full of memories I wanted to forget. These are things with which I live, because around me the society lives with it, the society in Rwanda lives with the genocide. So the biggest difficulty for me was to make this part of history accessible to those who have not gone through it. So, in a way, to bring it to a universal level. And avoid thinking: this is a genocide that concerns a far away country in Africa, so it’s not my story, it’s not my business. I wanted to make this story a topic of discussion to anybody anywhere
5. What about the pain?
No, there was no pain. I am always surprised to see how people want it to have been painful. No, this is work, so there are days when it’s harder than others, but not emotionally. It is painful for the narrator, but not for me, I am the writer! It is my job to make it feel real, to give the feeling that for the character, there are doubts, there is pain and suffering. But me, as a writer, I sit at my table, and some days the writing comes easily, and I am pleased, and some days, I am depressed, because I haven’t been able to express my thoughts the way I wanted. This is the daily life of any writer. It may be surprising, but I wrote this novel with a lot of joy, a real lightness. Only one scene was difficult for me to write, and that is the scene of the mother being violent towards her daughter. It wasn’t easy, this scene, because I have children, and somehow I did a transfer, of a parent hitting their child, and that was probably the hardest scene. Of course the scene of the mother who comes back from Rwanda and, sitting at the table with her family, tells about what she has seen there, that was not easy, but here again, it so much falls short of what really happened, of what I hear everyday, of the story told by those who have survived, that, in the end, writing about it was not as hard as one could think. The hardest for me is to find the form through which to express all this. The ideas are there. There are so many topics I want to write about in my songs, in novels. but the hardest for me is to find the angle, the right angle. And this, you can not learn, you have to try out, and that’s always the hardest thing, whether you write a song or a novel. Let’s say, I want to write about peace: It’s so cliché, everyone has written a song about peace! But actually, nothing is ever cliché, you just have to find the right angle. Same about love.
So what may be surprising here is to see that this novel is not an autobiography, it is a novel. Although the title Small Country refers to one of your most popular songs, “Petit Pays”.
Yes, that’s right, it’s not an autobiography. But here again, it’s complicated… I think every novel is a form of autobiography. Here, there’s a great closeness between me and the character: his origins, the context in which he spends his childhood, what he goes through during his childhood, this time of war, and indeed I have gone through this myself, the transition from a time of peace to war… but if you go into details, what happens to him is not at all what happened to me. Of course I used my feelings at the time to write about him, but everyone does that when writing a novel. It’s a material, and everything becomes a material.
7. What prompted you to write this book?
First it’s the frustration of not being able to put all this in a song. I wrote a song called ‘L’ennui des après midi sans fin’ (‘The boredom of never ending afternoons’), which was very long, with a long text, and I had the frustration of not having said everything: about childhood, about the time of insouciance. So that’s how I started the novel: I wanted to expand on this song. Then, there were the events, in my area of Paris, the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, there were scenes of war in Paris. It took me back 20 years. Hearing the Kalashnikov, the atmosphere of fear, or terror even. I lived for two years in the war. So there was a feeling of déja vu, a feeling well buried which came back in the everyday setting of Paris, it was very strange. That also fed the desire I had to write about the cocoons one creates around oneself. In the novel, there is a space that is that of the impasse (dead-end). This is a symbolic space for me: it’s the space where one withdraws, a space which is a cocoon, and at the same time this space becomes a trap. So there’s a swaying between the two. And to me, life in France has this feature: a mix between the cocoon, the desire to see the world through an idealised typical image, as if everything is fine and going well. It creates a distance with the world and its violence. At the same time, the world and its violence catch up, because there is no frontier between human interactions, and a conflict that happens at the other end of the world can impact France. So there was this ambivalence. And this child, in the novel, finds himself in this desire to create a distance between him and the violence around him.
8. Why do you use a child, a boy-narrator, as a literary device? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement?
This too was through trial and errors. At the beginning, I wrote the novel through the voice of an adult, and actually this voice still comes through here and there. Finally, I chose the voice of the child. It gave me an angle, because it allowed me to unfold the story through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the environment he is in, more than the reader. Adults tend to always be one step ahead. The child is innocent in the political environment; he will discover it at the same time as the reader. That allowed to be didactic without showing it. And it was essential for a story that speaks about a country, Burundi, about a history, the history of the Great Lakes region, that nobody knows anything about. This way, the character goes forward at the same time as the reader. This way I don’t have to explain and justify feelings and motives. Adults, especially on the issue of ethnicity, find reasons to explain even absurd situations. I liked the naive point of view of the child, who will ask questions, because he doesn’t understand, and actually there is nothing to understand, because it is absurd. This is what comes through at the beginning with the explanations about ethnicity being divided according to the shape of their noses. This is a reality. But it’s absurd of course Children don’t find excuses. They look at the world as it is.
Beforehand, I wasn’t conscious about it, but now, I am very aware of how much the reader looks for the writer in a book. It think it is a mistake (a flaw). Maybe it goes with the society we live in, where everyone stages himself, stages his life, this world of reality shows… for me, a novel is a novel, it’s a story. Whether the writer has lived this story or not, what matters is whether one is carried away, touched by the story. Being invented doesn’t, for me, affect the power of a story. But I do wonder… my book has been translated in more than 40 languages, I have travelled a lot, met a lot of readers, and this question keeps coming back.
10. If people believe so much that it happened to you, it’s a compliment to the power of conviction of your writing.
Yes, it maybe a compliment, but what if it hadn’t happened? What does it take away from the book? If everything had been invented from beginning to end, for me that wouldn’t take anything away from the book, from a story. Actually I am very shy about my life, I don’t share anything about it. Unless someone is an historic figure, like Mandela, or Martin Luther King, I don’t feel there is a point to write an autobiography, according to me at least. And real lives are always so much more complex that lives in novels. If I wrote about my life, nobody would believe me, because my life is 100 times more complex. A novel allows to give the broad lines, so that the reader can identify with the character or the story. Going into complexity, one looses the link we have with the reader. I believe this is the role of artists: what is the common denominator between human beings, that allows to bring human beings together. These are often banalities, such as love, friendship, hate, war, things that are experienced everywhere. The story has to be simple. If you go too much into complexities, you lose the distancing. And this is not what a novel is about; at least, it is my point of view.
11. With the intentional blurring of the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape, it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why did you choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.
It is not a device. The voice of the adult at the beginning comes back at the end. I did it to speak about something that is close to my heart: the feeling of exile. If I had started with the voice of the child, this feeling would have not been there, and I wanted it to hang over the novel (suffuse?). I wanted it to be a novel about exile. Because I would never have written a book, if I had stayed in Burundi. I feel this very deeply. It is the distance with my country that allowed it. Actually, when I went to live in Rwanda, went back to the region where I spent my childhood, the writing dried up. I couldn’t write any more about the country, the environment: it was here, under my eyes, and I needed the distance. It’s like love letters. It fills a vacuum. Writing for me had this function for many years. So I wanted there to be a character that made the reader feel certain things. This character says things that are essential, for example about exile being a door that is left ajar. Saying that the exiled person is not the one who decides to leave, but the one who has to flee. Another important aspect is that we know, we guess from the beginning that this child is going to be confronted to war, and that either it will end badly for him, or he will have to flee. That’s what happens. But I wanted to show that the region I come from is not an open sky cemetery. Yes, there is war and violence, but life goes on. Businesses spring back on their feet, they go on. So it was important for me that the character should leave, and also come back. Africa is not a continent that the character leaves, and nothing else happens, it falls into oblivion. The link with one’s past is always there. So it was important for me to have this voice, this point of view too in the novel. It also shows, through this, what happens to a child who goes through all this, what kind of an adult he can become. If one stops at childhood, there is no hint about what this child may become later. And I am passionate about imagining the trajectory of people, where they come from and what they become. In my family, people have had incredible destinies. Born in a village, with nothing, they go on to live in world capitals, do long studies, get jobs. I am always fascinated to see how, in a few years, one can change one’s condition. So, emotionally, I find this interesting.
You say we can be changed by a book. What changes do you hope to see though this book?
My hope is simply to make life in Burundi human and tangible. It’s not just a statistic. Burundi, Rwanda, these are countries one only see through the prism of war and violence. So obviously the point of view is distorted. One cannot imagine that families there may live normal, simple, happy lives. There are no novels about Burundi. I certainly have never seen one. So this is like a manifest: we existed, we had simple, banal lives. I wanted to give it a voice. It’s not much, but it’s already something. I want to remove the exotic, the set images, set ideas. I am part of a new generation of writers writing about the region. And as such, we constantly have to go back to explain things from the beginning. We have to explain the history of the place, because it is unknown. When I got an award in 2016 from high school students (Prix Goncourt des Lycéens), many young people told me they didn’t know about the Great Lakes region. The hope is that one day we can write stories without having to go through this didactic process. I hope we will allow this to happen for the younger, next generation… They will be able to write about lighter, more banal stories, love stories, and science fiction.
12 Has the success of Small Country been paralyzing for you?
Writing has moments of epiphany, great joy, where I feel: this is why I write! But it is also great suffering. You have to give a part of yourself, to put part of yourself on the line. I need this to feel that the work is sincere. This is probably due to the fact that I started writing for reasons that were not light reasons: war, being a witness etc. So my pointer is always this: Am I being sincere? There is already so much noise on this planet, everywhere, non stop. Why add to it? I need to feel that my writing is not gratuitous. If I take the attention of people, it is to bring something to them, not to say, hello, I exist. It is so tempting today to exist just for existing. When we open a book, we try to create silence around us, in us. Great songs are the same for me. They bring you something that you can’t hear otherwise. The artist has to fight the urgency. We are pushed into it. But it’s like a child who needs nine months to be born. The artist needs a gestation period which cannot be dictated. It’s only an intimate feeling that can tell us that we are ready, we have found the right angle, the right voice. So I know that the process I am in at the moment, of writing a new novel, is complicated. There is an expectation: but that, I have to forget about. But mainly it is complicated because I want to put myself on the line. It’s fascinating, but it’s crazy, so much work! Put oneself on the line and at the same time remember that nobody is waiting for it, it remains something superfluous. Radicalism is dangerous. There is no radicalism; the most radical thing in the world is to find a balance — take it from a metis person!
I read Gael Faye’s extraordinary Small Country earlier this year. It left a powerful impact upon me and months later, after much other reading, I still cannot forget this slim book. At the time I had written to the brilliant translator, Sarah Ardizzone. Unfortunately Sarah is convalescing and is unable to reply to the questions at the moment. But she did manage to reply to the email I sent upon reading Small Country. This is what she wrote:
” Dear Jaya, What an amazing e-mail! Thank you for your extraordinarily heartfelt response to Small Country. I’d be delighted to answer your questions once I’m back.“
So while I wish Sarah a speedy recovery I thought it best to post on my blog edited excerpts of the email lest I forget that this was one of the fascinating books I read in 2019.
I simply had to write to you after reading Small Country. What an extraordinary book! I marvel at your translation abilities. A lot must have been called upon you to invest in this translation. To delve into another languages, capture the rhythms and transfer them seemingly seamlessly from the language of origin to the destination language is never an easy feat but you have done it brilliantly. I do not know French but am familiar with it sufficiently to know the softness of the spoken word in French is very different to the cadences that English has to offer. I do not know how else to say it since I only know English. Yet, while reading Small Country I could not get over the fluidity of the prose. At times one forgets it is a translated text that one is reading.
Gael Faye is a poet, rapper, musician, so rhythm probably comes easy to him. It is in all likelihood a part of his being, his DNA. Those who have music in them walk, talk and breath music and rhythms. If you witness such musically talented people then it is pure joy to see them move and talk. Even an ordinary conversation with them takes on a precision that is delightful to experience. And somehow this oneness of spirit with music makes them seem like free spirits too. It conveys itself beautifully when such talented souls express themselves. Murakami says in his conversations Absolutely on Music that rhythm is important the text.
In the case of Small Country the boy-narrator comes across as a medium for sharing many of Gael Faye’s own experiences or perhaps events he has witnessed. Using the fictional literary device tends to distance the author from the event. Yet using the first person to narrate events makes it so personal but also continues with the fictional deception of something so horrific. The only time the mask seems to fall is when the narrator recounts his mother’s witnessing of the murders in Rwanda. And that is not even a technique. It just comes across as someone who must at all accounts convey what his mother witnessed. In fact if you read transcripts of testimonies of women traumatised by conflict, the tone is this. The only difference is that while the mother in the book never really slips into the third person, all women survivors of a conflict situation always speak in the third person especially when they come to that particular point of describing the actual trauma. It is extraordinary but this is a fact that has been documented over and over again through decades of research on gender and conflict. While absorbed in the story the turn of events are not questioned even the deadpan monotone manner in which the mother tells her story at the dining table. Even her slow descent into a “madness” is done brilliantly. It is later upon closing the book that so many questions come to my mind. For instance, this eye-witness account has to be true. Probably the mother is an amalgamation of many such witness accounts or perhaps it is someone extremely close to Gael Faye. Then I wondered how on earth did Gael Faye capture this deadpan manner of narrating the genocide ? Did he record it? Did he revise this portion? Then I wondered how on earth did you translate it, Sarah? This is not an easy passage to translate and the kind of engagement that is required of you will, I suspect, forever haunt you, Sarah.
The fluidity of the prose is breathtaking. It is meditative so when the long passages on reading appear, the mind is sufficiently lulled to appreciate every moment of that experience…a trance-like space that seasoned readers will recognise. Then it is explosively disrupted with the accounts of lynching, the stench of death, hatred and sheer ugliness of the revenge violence unleased everywhere. It is frightening, Sarah. It is ever more real for us in the subcontinent as these are many of the incidents occuring here too. The video clips showing lynching of innocent people has resulted in WhatsApp changing its global policy of forwards. So instead of being able to forward messages to 250 people at a time there is a restriction — now messages can be forwarded to only 5 people at a time. Anyway, I digress. The maturity of the boy-narrator to express himself so clearly in his interior monologues can only come with time. A layered narrative if there ever was one. It is as if the adult-boy is reflecting back on the past without in any way undermining what he saw as a 10/11-year-old boy. It is a tough balance to achieve. But I often got the sense while reading Small Country how did Gael know when to stop layering the memories? My apologies for intermingling the fictional and the real experiences but there are some moments in the book that are too real to be ever imagined by a sane human being. The description of the mother coming upon the rotting bodies of her neices and nephews that her hand goes through the pieces while she attempts to gather their remains for a decent burial. Once the book is read the images of the genocide and the slaughter of the crocodile for a birthday feast merge into one. While I have a zillion questions for Gael on why this book? How did he come to write it? How did he choose the point of view? Why a boy-narrator? Does it make it any easier to cross boundaries within a disintegrating society and offer multiple perspectives that only a child can offer –more or less without judgement? Although this book has been launched as a debut novel the title refers to a song he wrote. When he is intentionally blurring the lines between the lived and the fictional landscape it becomes hard for the reader to separate the identities of the boy-narrator and the author. Why does he choose an opening to the novel with a bar scene, reflection and then a flashback to a conversation between father and son before plunging into a conversation? Why not begin the novel straightaway? Why the artifice? It is not as if it any way eases the shock and distress at seeing the violence erupt.
While there are many questions to be asked of Gael Faye, I could not help but marvel at your professionalism too, Sarah. What extraordinary reserves of inner strength it must have required to translate this slim novel. In fact its slimness belies the powerful storytelling and the pure, senseless, mad hatred man has for man. Sadly this is seen everywhere now in the world. I truly am amazed at how you stayed with this book and translated it, Sarah. Some of the questions that I wanted to pose to you while reading the book were:
How and why did you select this book to translate?
How long did it take to translate Small Country?
When you translate a book such as Small Country do you only focus on the text or do you also have to read around to ensure you have captured the nuances?
Did you keep Gael Faye in the loop at every step of the translation? When do you begin your conversations with the author regarding your translations?
What is the nature of these conversations? What are the topics that are discussed most often while translating a book? Were there some exceptional insights to the writing and translation process for Small Country?
Would you know if subsequent translations of this book in other languages rely upon the English translation or do they read the text in French? Have you had conversations with translators of other languages of this book?
What is it that you seek in a good translation?
How do you choose the books you wish to translate?
How did you become a professional translator?
Which are the translated texts that you would consider your gold standard in translation? Who are the translators you admire? Do you think the “rules” of translations change over time?
While reading Small Country, I was reminded of Fiston Mwanza Majila’s Tram 83 which I reviewed some years ago ( after which the rights to it were bought and an Indian edition was published). His performances at various book events involved a lot of music — fascinating performance poetry.
One day I hope we can meet in person, Sarah. With warmest wishes, JAYA
It is an uncanny coincidence that today two seminal articles have been published online analysing journalism as we know it today and its complicity with the powers that be even if it means resorting to unethical practices and compromising their positions. Both articles are by reputed journalists. The first is by Rafia Zakaria in the Baffler called “Stalking the Story” or what she sees as the calling card of predator journalists. The second is by Suchitra Vijayan as a part of The Polis Project called “Journalism as Genocide” tracking hate speeches, fake news etc as propaganda tools to ultimately result in hate crimes such as genocide or other forms of violence like lynchings and the attempted assassination attack on student activist Umar Khalid.
The predator journalist is a creation of the War on Terror, whose narrative requires all that is Western to be anointed while everything else is reduced as a tool in service of it. The journalist who sets out to “unravel” its mysteries is thus as much a warrior in service of this narrative as the soldier who visibly enacts its agenda. All this would at least be less objectionable if it were owned and admitted, if those searching for rape stories among Yazidi women or taking pictures of women attending secret schools did not pretend to be journalists or aligned with a code of ethics that requires consent of subjects, respect for their humanity, and a commitment to confidentiality.
The lethal aspect of the predator journalist is the pretense, the implication to readers that they are in fact “objective,” bound by ethics, even when no such moral restraint inhibits their actions. This is a debasement of the idea of truth, now reduced to an outmoded goal of journalisms past, whetted by a now-debunked idealism. The remainder is a crass predation, a reduction of insight to access, and deeply reported stories to orchestrations of pressure and predation on hapless subjects. In the theater of the War on Terror, the United States need no longer send predator drones; it can avail the talents of predator journalists, whose sly shape-shifting is a much sleeker and at times a more lethal weapon.
Suchitra Vijayan says:
Upon analyzing witness testimonies from the Nuremberg, Yugoslavia and Rwanda trials, two things become increasingly clear. First, truthful reporting of facts, analytical investigation of issues, and a stand against violence by journalists in all these instances could have both changed the behavior of the perpetrators, and in some instance even prevented the slaughter. Second, when airwaves become a platform for ideological, socio-religious-nationalist populism, there are clear roadmaps with milestones and perfected patterns of hate that lead to eventual violence and destruction of a society. Some of these milestones include:
While the list enumerated above is a repetitive pattern of behavior gathered from over hundred witness testimonies from Nuremberg to Rwanda, their relevance resonates for India today, as we are birthing a new dystopia of hate and bigotry. This list holds up a haunting mirror to the ugliness on display and the vileness employed by some Indian news channels, anchors, and journalists. It is as much a war over the minds of the people, as it is a war to enact extrajudicial and unconstitutional laws that encroach into and legislate the private lives of citizens. The absolute essence of this priming is the stamping out of pluralism in all its forms – pluralism of ideas, opinions, faiths, beliefs, memories, myths and even gods.
Sudhir Chaudhary, editor, Zee News, in an interview to Outlook magazine stated that: “It has become necessary for media houses to take a stand on certain issues. It has to be a nationalistic approach. That benefits the people of India. What do you call neutral and secular? No one is neutral anymore. I will pitch for a nationalistic reporting, …” He further states, “If you want to live in India and want the breakup of India, then why do you want to live here? Leave the country and go.”
What happens to journalism when it willingly wraps itself in a flag? To borrow from Adorno it facilitates a politics of murder and destruction.
While nationalism will continue to mediate many facets of our life, it cannot become the prism through which we understand the complexities of the world. Chaudhary, and many like him, hold an immense power of persuasion and present a position of unthinking hawkish nationalism that uncritically propagates a retreat to banal patriotism. This excludes the possibility of criticising the state and its political projects. Journalism is not the witch’s brew from Macbeth, and journalists cannot become the agents of chaos and conflict. Journalism demands detachment and objectivity that allows for dissent, disagreement, and freedom of expression. In the absence of such ethics, it clears the ground for violence and does a great disservice to the democratic way of life.
While handing down its judgment in the media trial, the ICTR rightly criminalized the hate speech of a powerful media against a vulnerable minority. The great fight for individual humanity against crimes by the state – and the journalists who defend it – has to begin with accountability. To rephrase what Rwandan journalist Thomas Kamilindi testified at the war crimes’ tribunal, how should we hold journalists accountable for their actions, and if need be prosecute them, if they knowingly caused harm, and incited violence. We must find a way to articulate and respond to such abuses of power without violating the principles of freedom, which are an indispensable cornerstone of democracy.
( This blog post was picked up by the award-winning news website, Scroll. An edited version of this review was published by Scroll’s literary editor, Arunava Sinha, on Sunday, 19 June 2016. The original url is: http://scroll.in/article/809971/six-hundred-pages-that-will-tell-you-more-about-yourself-and-your-future-than-anything-else . )
The real magic was imagination.
( L-R) Chiki Sarkar, Publisher, Juggernaut, Siddharth Mukherjee, Nirmala George, journalist and Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, IIC, New Delhi, April 2014
Siddharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History is an extraordinarily riveting book. It is easy to forget you are reading a densely packed account of the gene. In 600+ pages Pulitzer prize writer Siddharth Mukherjee narrates the discovery of genes, evolution of genetics as a scientific discipline and the rapid strides this science has made in about a century. Consider this. The term “gene” coined by Mendel in the nineteenth century was all but lost for more than six decades only to be revived in early twentieth century and then became a common term. A few decades later it led to the coining of “genocide” in Nazi Germany. Half a century later the helical structure of DNA & RNA were discovered. Two decades later questions were being raised about the ethics of genetics and tinkering with genes. Yet recombinant genes were put to use in commercial production for insulin to a resounding success. By 2000, about a century from when the word “gene” was revived, the Human Genome project was announced. There is a phenomenal amount of technical information packed in the book with a few anecdotes, some personal, inserted judiciously into the narrative.
From the time of Pythagoras, Aeschylus and Plato who were convinced that the “likeness” of a human being passed on via the “mobile library” preserved in the semen to Aristotle who rejected this notion by astutely observing that children can inherit features from their mothers and grandmothers too. The Gene details over the centuries the manner in which people pondered over what carried information across generations without really understanding the mechanism or even having a name for it till Mendel and his pea experiment and Darwin’s theories. It was Mendel, a monk, who first used the term “gene” except it was lost for a few more decades till resurrected in the early twentieth century. This was a watershed moment in the history of genetics as suddenly there were a concatenation of events that led to a furious progress in understanding the gene mechanism. From coining the word, understanding the structure, the mechanism, the potential, exploiting applied genetics as was done by the Nazis to enable Rassenhygiene or “racial hygiene”, using this branch of “applied biology” to justify their policy of lebensunwertes Leben or “lives unworthy of living” and justifying the establishment of extermination centres such as Hadamar and the Brandenburg State Welfare Institute. It was based on the premise that identity was fixed. Curiously enough another ideological position in existence at the same time in Soviet Russia viewed the principle of heredity as having its basis on complete pliability. In both cases science was deliberately distorted to support state-sponsored mechanisms of “cleansing”. Rapid advancement in genetics led to discovery of recombinant DNA to create crucial medicines such as insulin and its commercial production by biotechnology industries, the ability to clone as was done with Dolly the Sheep, to questions being raised about the ethics of genetics, to the establishment of the Human Genome Project. It has been a phenomenal few decades for curious and imaginative scientists trying to understand the principles of heredity, what makes it tick, what information gets passed on from generation to generation, what is gained and what is lost in evolution — always striving to push the boundaries to ask more and more questions.
To a lay reader The Gene is a brilliant historical overview but it also does a fantastic job of reinstating Rosalind Franklin as one of the four scientists responsible for discovering the helical structure of DNA. A fact that had been lost in history for some decades even when the Nobel Committee conferred the prize on Watson and Crick for discovering the helical structure. It is only recently that Rosalind Franklin’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick. Siddharth Mukherjee lays down the facts of their experiments and analysis in such a way that it is evident the scientists were working simultaneously on the same subject, albeit not together.
I heard Siddharth Mukherjee deliver a public lecture two years ago when he came to India to receive the Padam Shri from the President of India. At the time he was still working on the manuscript of The Gene and here is an account: https://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ . In 2015 he gave a fascinating TED Talk followed by a brilliant exposition on the subject published as a TED Book by Simon & Schuster. Here is the link: https://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddhartha-mukherjee-the-laws-of-medicine/
What began as an attempt to understand the reasons for “madness” that seems to exist in his family, Siddharth Mukherjee embarks upon an absorbing account of the “triggers” that are responsible for mapping information and carrying it from generation to generation. The Gene is phenomenal for the manner in which it weaves together the author’s precise scientific temper offering technical information against the backdrop of factually accurate and significant contemporary events of the time. Siddharth Mukherjee puts forth a magnificently rich historical narrative of the gene accessible even by an ordinary reader.
Siddharth Mukherjee The Gene: An Intimate History Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2016. Hb. pp. Rs 699
The Blue Between Sky and Water was my first introduction to Susan Abulhawa’s writing. It is about four generations of a family but focuses primarily on Nur a descendant born and brought up in American but moves to Palestine on work/love and ultimately settles there. At so many levels I enjoyed the novel. I liked it sweeping across generations while mapping the history of Palestine (as modern people know it to be), from the 1940s. This novel has a very strong sense of history to the present day of horrific living conditions, camps, ghettos, food tunnels, unnecessary violence and rape. To be put together in one place ostensibly as fiction but embedded in hard facts is what makes it so astounding. Accessing information ( most of it disturbing) about Palestine is fairly easily got on the Internet today — the frisking and innumerable checkpoints at the border, visiting Palestine by applying for a visa application at the Israeli embassy etc. In fact a few days ago I came across wearenotnumbers.org and discovered that Susan Abulhawa is a mentor in the programme. Till then I had heard of the food tunnels but to read a story about a runner in it who then lost his job came home very sharply to me when I began reading The Blue Between Sky and Water . So to get a novel that puts it all in one place is fascinating. It makes the ground reality accessible to a far wider circle than speaking only to the converted. Using the technique of telling a story of four generations of women is a trope familiar to contemporary fiction. It is useful since it is familiar to most contemporary readers so they are lulled into a comfort zone. Plus focusing on women/ communal matriarch structures that seem to operate in the camps, gives the novelist ample opportunity to be relaxed, comment, observe and analyse frankly and in a matter-of-fact manner. The observation about women and their relationships is fascinating. I read about these all the time and yet this is a favourite passage of mine in the book about the relationship between the social worker Nzinga responsible for looking after Nur when she was in foster care and Nur. “…the thing between them remained. It changed as they needed it to. Its parts were made of motherhood, sisterhood, womanhood, comradeship in struggle, political activism, mentorship, friendship.” (p. 163) Or the beekeeper’s widow who inspired other women to invest in themselves and their dwellings.
The creation of Khaled too fascinated me. The evolution from an imaginary friend to a son of the family who is then trapped in his body, so in a sense remains the observer/ non -participant he was at the very outset of the story. It gives a perspective to the story which would not be easy to introduce. Being his voice could not have been an easy literary technique to create as well.
Creating a piece of fiction about a relentless, unforgiving and senseless conflict could not have been easy for the author. Where do you start? Where do you end? So to see a neat dip into a slice of history without losing focus of the horrors of violence is probably what kept me spellbound.
In India, we have writers and readers obsessed with commemorating Partition through literature which throws up another series of questions since it is a violent moment from our past. But an emerging trend is to have writers commentating about places of “conflict” that exist in our country. Where it will take us I have no idea. A few days ago I was watching Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on The Daily Show. Many of the issues he raises in the conversation about violence, hatred, racism etc could be about any other land as well. Have you seen it? http://thedailyshow.cc.com/extended-interviews/sx47nw/exclusive-ta-nehisi-coates-extended-interview?utm=share_twitter Author and legal advocate Bryan Stevenson’s moving acceptance speech for Carnegie Medal in nonfiction for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau) makes the valid point that “literature has the ability to accomplish a narrative shift”. ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/awards-and-prizes/article/67546-is-this-the-greatest-book-award-acceptance-speech-ever.html ) Such writing is embedded deeply in the politics of the land and has to be but in The Blue Between Sky and Water the precision with which it comes across is so sharp. Even a first time comer to the conflict of Israel and Palestine will get a good sense of the troubles that ail the region.
I discussed Susan’s novel with her via email. We exchanged emails furiously. But here is a snippet from our correspondence that encapsulates the essence of such fiction. This quote is being shared with the author’s permission. “…Maya Angelou once said: ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’. I understand well how a collective trauma – Slavery, genocide, Nakba, Partition, etc. – can become a nation’s center of gravity, around and from which stories go and return. I believe that’s true in part because one’s greatest wound is often one’s greatest source of strength and power. I believe it’s why we become protective of everything cultural that belongs to that wound; why cultural appropriation, and narrative appropriation are such important issues relating to identity politics.”
Susan Abulhawa will be participating in literary festivals in 2015-16 in the Indian subcontinent — Jaipur Literature Festival, The Times of India LitFest, Hindu Lit for Life festival (Chennai), and Lahore. Here is an interview with the author from 2012 by the absolutely wonderful Marcia Lynx Qualey, Editor of Arabic Literature ( in English) http://www.full-stop.net/2012/04/16/interviews/marcia-lynx-qualey/susan-abulhawa/ .
The Blue Between Sky and Water is a shatteringly astounding novel. It is a must read.
Susan Abulhawa The Blue Between Sky and Water Bloomsbury Circus, London, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 292 Rs 499