“A sheet of paper and a pen calm my madness during those sleepless nights in exile, far away from my little country with the great lakes in Africa. My life began beautifully, I’d like to begin it again but – you know how it is… and now we’re lost in the streets of Saint-Denis”, go the lyrics of Gaël Faye’s autobiographical song Petit pays. In his novel of the same title, published this summer with Grasset, the 34-year-old son of a Frenchman and Rwandan mother writes again about his family’s story, which is characterized by war, fleeing and being torn between different countries and identities.
His father, a French “butter croissant”, as Faye calls him in the title track to his first solo album, Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre, met his mother – a pretty “Pili Pili peppercorn” – in Burundi, on his journey through Africa, where they had fled from the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. In 1994, about one million Tutsis were killed in the country in just 100 days by members of the Hutu majority. A killing machine that Faye compares with Auschwitz in one of his songs.
Born in 1982 in Bujumbura, Gaël Faye spent a happy childhood in Burundi, until the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsis – as so often before – also flared up in his homeland. His parents sent both their children to France where they grew up in a Parisian suburb. In single-minded determination to emancipate himself from any related clichés, Gaël Faye graduated in economics and worked for several years for an investment fund in London. “That was the time when I – being young, dynamic and highly motivated – wore ties with mayonnaise stains and knew only too well that I would prefer to do something entirely different”, he recalls. Back in France, he finally devoted himself to writing, initially as a slammer and rapper. Together with the Franco-Cameroonian, Edgar Sekloka, in 2008 he founded the duo Milk Coffee Suggar, which rapidly rose to fame, and he toured schools in the Parisian suburbs, in Kigali and Bujumbura, to help young people here and there to voice their issues using slam, rap and hip-hop. Music was presented as a mental refuge and outlet. Phrases like Le cul entre deux chaises, je m’assoie par terre (“My ass between two stools, I sit on the ground”), which are crystallized like rough diamonds in Faye’s songs, speak from the soul and strike right at the heart.
However, as a song is too short to tell complex stories, Faye wrote his novel in which his alter ego, ten-year-old Gabriel, experiences the same gruesome events as he did. He had to watch how the war turned everything on its head in Burundi, and put a brutal end to his childhood. Quick as a flash, Gabriel understands what it means to be French, Tutsi and a refugee. In contrast to Gaël Faye he is immediately aware of all these terrible things. “That particularly irritated me during writing, as I took so long to grasp this myself”, explains the writer. He needed this distance to write about the violence with intense emotion. The genocide in Rwanda and Burundi was widely reported in the media. The world followed it with horror. Through the rhythmic, initial language, Faye’s destiny – that stands for so many victims of these wars – gets under the reader’s skin.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright