Tara Cheesman-Olmsted at The Quarterly Conversation:
The opening pages of Cockroaches, Mukasonga’s memoir about the Rwandan genocide and the decades surrounding it, introduces a distinctive narrative style and framework onto the story that follows. Mukasonga creates an intimate space where she can speak. She seats us across the table and, in hushed tones (her children sleeping in the next room), shares her memories.
It begins in the late 1950s, after the Rwandan Revolution. Hutus are in power. Mukasonga and her Tutsi relatives are forcefully relocated to Nyamata, in eastern Rwanda. Then they are moved to Gitwe, a village built by the government specifically to put displaced Tutsis. They will remain there for a time, but eventually will find a more permanent home in Gitagata. Gitagata is where her family will be killed.
Mukasonga scrutinizes the events leading up to and including the 1994 Rwandan genocide subjectively, focusing on memories of her family and childhood. She uses individual experience as a way to personalize what most of us know only from the newspaper. Some of her memories are good—time spent with her mother, ditching school to gather fruit with friends, and the making of banana wine. Others are painful—being called Inyenzi, cockroach; the threat of rape; hiding in the bush from men with machetes and spiked clubs. She speaks of the persistent state of fear, of looming danger, that she and her loved ones endured. She describes “noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of bees, a growl filling the air.” This is the sound of the “pogroms.” Horrors appear on these pages in the guise of normality.