Literature of Exile: Burundi’s Gaël Faye

I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler.

Exile is always a profoundly traumatic experience. But what of those exiled twice?

While the world is largely aware of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, what is less well known is that this was not the first attempt at eliminating the Tutsis. During the Rwandan Revolution of the early 1960s, Hutu dominated governments replaced the Tutsi rulers installed and supported by the Belgian colonizers. Thousands of Tutsi were killed in Hutu reprisals, and over 300,000 Tutsi fled Rwanda for Burundi and other neighboring countries. Thirty years later, the assassinations of Rwanda’s and Burundi’s Hutu presidents were the catalyst for the large scale Rwandan genocide and the Burundian Civil War.

Gaël Faye, a French/Rwandan musician and author, grew up in Burundi, where his mother was a Tutsi refugee . Born in 1982, he was 11 when Hutu/Tutis violence broke out in Burundi. His mother travelled briefly to Rwanda hoping to find relatives left behind; traumatized, she returned to Burundi with the news that most of her family had been murdered. As the violence intensified, Faye, his parents and sister escaped to France.

Faye’s novel, Small Country (translated by Sarah Ardizzone) tells a fictional version of his family’s story, and the double tragedy of his mother; first losing her Rwandan home and family, then being driven from the country where she had taken refuge. She is Tutsi, but now belongs to neither Rwanda nor Burundi; his father is a Frenchman unwilling to give up the privileged life of a European expatriate, even at the risk of his family’s lives. As his mother slowly comes to recognize that his father, (a voluntary exile from life as “a nobody”) is a colonizer at heart, their marriage founders.

Faye’s fictional self, Gabriel, attempts to integrate multiple “selves”; French girls demand to know his nationality, (“I’m a human being”, he responds tersely) yet he is uneasy with both parents, fearing each rejects and resents half of his blended identity. Despite the violent horrors he witnessed as a child in Burundi, he can not let go of his homeland :

I am haunted by the idea of returning. Not a day goes by without the country calling to me. A secret sound, a scent on the breeze, a certain afternoon light, a gesture, sometimes silence is enough to stir my childhood memories. “You won’t find anything there’, [his sister] Ana keeps telling me. She refuses to hear another word about that “cursed country”…so I put it out of my mind. I decide once and for all that I’m never going back. My life is here. In France.

There are many memoirs of the Rwandan genocide, and I plan to introduce a few more this month. Yet Small Country is unique in its exploration of the multi-generational aspects of this tragedy, and how exile can exacerbate barriers within families.

For more on Gaël Faye and Burundi:

BBC Burundi timeline

Interview with Faye in The Guardian

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

3 thoughts on “Literature of Exile: Burundi’s Gaël Faye

  1. I loved this book and read it in French before it was translated and was fortunate to see the premiere of the film which opened here in Aix en Provence, sadly a week before the country went into confinement for two months.
    I was intrigued too see the landscape of Burundi, childhood’s being so reminiscent of the physical environment within which they are played out. Gaël Faye allows us a glimpse in his song/video of the same name ‘Petit Pays’.


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