Having narrowly escaped the Hutus’ slaughter of her Tutsi countryman across Rwanda, Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s character Blanche, in her debut novel, All Your Children, Scattered, experiences survivor’s guilt. Her guilt is complicated by the facts of how her mother and half-brother, Immaculata and Bosco, have survived. As Blanche, half-French and light-skinned, makes a new life for herself in Bordeaux, tragedy compels her to reconnect with her Rwandan family, her home language, and culture.
Having endured tumultuous love affairs with her children’s fathers, the ironically named Immaculata’s rule of thumb was “when it’s too late to speak, you keep quiet”, an approach that has confounded her children as to the whereabouts of their fathers. Her experiences during the 1994 genocide have driven her even deeper inside herself. To make matters worse, something has happened to Bosco, and Blanche is pregnant with her son, Stokely, who, if Blanche isn’t careful, will grow up even more disconnected and disoriented than she has. What follows is a family regeneration story. Told through stream-of-conscious and epistolary forms, Mairesse’s female characters break decades of silence, piecing together more integrated identities.
The early chapters of All Your Children, Scattered alternate between Blanche addressing Immaculata and Immaculata addressing Bosco. We learn these addresses are unsent letters in which the women interrogate their mothers for their silences and secrets while establishing greater accord with each other. Though there are many unsent or unreceived missives, through their writing, the women inhabit themselves more fully. Blanche’s chapters convey her struggle as a fatherless, biracial person:
As if mixed-race people could only ever choose between white and black, as if a child could only ever be either its mother or its father…A father’s color clings to our skin. His absence marks our brow, flays us within, creating a tortured flow of mixed blood in our body. It is everyone else, those who believe they have the luxury of being a single color…They are the ones who tell us we must choose, who categorize us, crucify us.– All Your Children, Scattered
While the genocide is in the past, the legacy of racial classification continues to affect Blanche. She describes an internal experience akin to the violence physically experienced in the massacre. Blanche’s refusal to be easily classified reverberates in her family and home country. Bosco, her half-brother, is half Hutu. And though Blanche is a Tutsi, she berates her and her people’s demure and secretive natures. She casts a critical eye on their proverbs which seem to mask “the fears long hidden beneath a veneer of wisdom”. Of course, her critiques are tinged with a survivor’s reflexive self-blame. “If we’d agreed to look straight at the increasing awkwardness in people’s gazes, maybe we could have fled in time,” Blanche says as she mourns the loss of a murdered friend.
While Blanche is tortured with survivors’ guilt, Immaculata’s passages depict how the genocide has re-infected the raw wounds of Rwanda’s past. Immaculata’s riveting monologues illuminate her rue at being a single mother of two. Her homilies on motherhood sizzle with subversion as they incinerate gender myths. “If women kill less,” Immaculata muses, “often it’s not because they’re overflowing with tenderness, it’s because they’ve had their fill of repressed violence, the one that inhabits the hollows of their fecund bodies, which belong to all of society.”
Though the disappearance of Bosco renders her mute, in her writing, Immaculata soldiers on, directly addressing what she saw during the killings and the nature of her relationships with her children’s fathers. Through her searing honesty and lyrical brilliance, Mairesse transfigures Immaculata’s portions into a form of resistance.
For Blanche and Stokely too, language becomes a way to resist cultural leveling, as alive in France as in the US. One French woman reacts to Blanche with ugly pity, implying how much more civilized the French are than the Rwandans, all the while ignoring both the horrors of the French revolution and how French backing of the Hutus enflamed the conflict. Blanche can’t afford such a lack of self-awareness. She refuses to blame the French people for its government’s actions. At the same time, in an anti-colonial act, she teaches Stokely her notoriously difficult home language (Kinyarwanda). Even when her mind flags from the effort, her body takes over. “Without realizing, she passed on all the body language of her own upbringing.”
Yet, as All Your Children, Scattered is a story of reconciliation, for Blanche, her mastery of French offers her a way of connecting with the father she never knew. “She looked for him in every description of a clear gaze of an adventurous life, of a thwarted paternal love.”
Even the book’s title, lifted from Catholic liturgy, represents a linguistic olive branch, Catholics having heightened tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. Indeed, the closing image in All Your Children, Scattered is of the family coming to terms with their place in a complex personal and cultural history.
Through her formal daring and insight, Mairesse’s writing is densely compact. All Your Children, Scattered is a slim 183 pages. Mairesse’s prose-poetry is sublime enough that a reader may not realize there are only a handful of narrative drops. However, there are places in which the work loses its balance.
Like all lyricists, Mairesse can veer into mellow drama and head-scratching sentences. Take this one describing Stokely and Grandma Immaculata’s relationship. There was “always the music between them, like a piece of twine tying the stars to their canvas in the firmament, to keep their sensibilities resonating.”
In addition, Mairesse doesn’t quite pull off Stokely’s voice, as his letters to Immaculata plunge into a narratorial mode used for authorial commentary on full display here: “It was the white colonialists who rammed their nineteenth-century racist theories onto traditional Rwandan society, changing social categories that were actually more tenuous and shifting into ethnic groups.” Mairesse’s summary of colonialism’s effects is fair, but would a young man sermonize like this in a letter to his grandmother, who knows this history all-too-well?
Nevertheless, Stokely’s lovable precociousness becomes the grout to reseal the older generations broken bonds, and through him, the story waxes as the elements of intrigue come to a satisfying conclusion. “Hearts cannot be repaired the way a roof can, or a road or a city razed to the ground”, Blanche observes. Indeed, it takes a novelist like Mairesse to show how language, both of the tongue and of the body, can help us heal even the deepest of wounds.