Where Do the Dead Go? Grief by Scholastique Mukasonga

I recently subscribed to The New Yorker Magazine. Back in the day, before social media became all the rage, I used to relish reading weekly magazines. Unlike newspapers, which feature the breaking news of the day, magazines feature long form articles on a variety of topics. It’s about depth, not breath. 

If you’ve ever studied journalism or public speaking, you’re taught to be concise and succinct. Go on and on and you’re likely to lose the attention of your audience–unless they’ve explicitly signed up for it. There’s no hard and fast rule about what works. News-friendly pieces are typically 500-800 words, which translates to around 4-8 minutes if you’re giving a speech. Long form articles, on the other hand, are usually between 1,200 and 1,800 words. 

This New Yorker cover portrait of George Floyd is a powerful ...
Portrait of George Floyd in the New Yorker

Magazines like The New Yorker are where readers like me go to find depth. I’ve been reading the magazine on the app–and as much as I enjoy the convenience of the digital version–I was elated when my very first hardcopy arrived yesterday. It’s backdated 22 June…but even that didn’t take away from the pleasure of ripping through the thin plastic and running my fingers down the cover. It truly is an experience for all the senses.

As I flipped through the magazine, I came across Grief by Scholastique Mukasonga. I was immediately taken in by the simplicity of the artwork on the page next to her article. Size must make a difference. It is highly likely that I scrolled past this when I read the digital version on my phone. Once I finished reading her article, I put it away… and then read it again and again. 

Scholastique Mukasonga (Author of Our Lady of the Nile)

Mukasonga is a French Rwandan author who was rewarded in 2014 with the Seligman Prize against racism and intolerance. Mukasonga’s words came to me at the exact moment I needed to read them. It’s amazing how writers manage to do that–how their words travel through time and space and find you at the exact right time.

The autobiographical elements of Mukasonga’s story ‘Grief’ are reimagined with fictional themes. In this piece, she has lent the young woman in the story the feelings she had when she heard about the murder of her loved ones, in 1994, and during her first journey back to Rwanda, in 2004.

Here is an excerpt from Mukasonga’s article that shook me to my very core:

“You went to your house in Gihanga,” the old man said. “Don’t tell me what you saw or thought you saw there. You went right through to the end. There’s nothing beyond it, and no way out of it. You won’t find your dead in the graves or the bones or the latrine. That’s not where they’re waiting for you. They’re inside you. They survive only in you, and you survive only through them. But from now on you’ll find all your strength in them—there’s no other choice, and no one can take that strength away from you. With that strength, you can do things you might not even imagine today. Like it or not, the death of our loved ones has fuelled us—not with hate, not with vengefulness, but with an energy that nothing can ever defeat. That strength lives in you. Don’t let anyone try to tell you to get over your loss, not if that means saying goodbye to your dead. You can’t: they’ll never leave you, they’ll stay by your side to give you the courage to live, to triumph over obstacles, whether here in Rwanda or abroad, if you go back. They’re always beside you, and you can always depend on them.

Now the rising sun was illuminating her tiny room. She sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on her knees, head in her hands, listening. She let the guardian’s words sink into her, and slowly despair loosened its grip.

They sat for a long while, looking at each other in silence. Her visitor picked up a small gourd that he’d set down at his feet. He dropped a single straw into it. “I made this sorghum beer for the dead I watch over,” he said. “Share it with them as I do.”

He handed her the gourd and she sucked up the liquid. She closed her eyes. A gentle bitterness filled her mouth, like something she’d tasted long before.

“Now,” the guardian of the dead said, “what is there for you to fear?”

Grief.jpg
Image courtesy of The New Yorker. Illustration by Lucy Jones

Author: Dipa

Editor-in-Chief & Founder | Mith Books | The Merchant of Stories

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