The Barefoot Woman


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Book Description

The Barefoot Woma​n is Scholastique Mukasonga’s loving, funny, devastating tribute to her mother Stefania, a tireless protector of her children, a keeper of Rwandan tradition even in the cruelest and bleakest of exiles, a sage, a wit, and in the end a victim, like almost the entire family, of the Rwandan genocide. But it’s also a wry, sharp-eyed portrait of the world her mother lived in, from its humblest commonplaces (beer, sorghum, bread) to its deepest horrors (rape, murder, unimaginable loss).

In a telling both affectionate and haunted, Mukasonga sinks her feet into this dense “land of stories.” Each step, each verse of her careful lament carries both the weight of her mourning and the fortitude of the myriad silenced voices she speaks for. Whether describing the dry, cracked layers of mud on her mother’s feet, or the stretch marks that line strong legs, Mukasonga follows the threaded rivulet of her mother’s pulsing memory.

The Barefoot Woman is simultaneously a powerful work of witness and memorial, a loving act of reconstruction, and an unflinching reckoning with the Rwandan Civil War. In sentences of great beauty and restraint, Mukasonga rescues a million souls from the collective noun 'genocide,' returning them to us as individual human beings, who lived, laughed, meddled in each other's affairs, worked, decorated their houses, raised children, told stories. An essential and powerful read.
Zadie Smith

Mukasonga is a master of subtle shifts in register — a skill inherited, perhaps, from the Rwandan traditions of intricate courtesy and assiduous privacy that Stefania maintained. She turns everything over restlessly: In her prose, poignant reminiscences sharpen into bitter ironies, or laments reveal flashes of comedy, determination, defiance.
Julian Lucas, The New York Times

The Barefoot Woman moves effortlessly from moments of lyrical and pastoral beauty to evocations of tragic events in the past and future. That the tone can be at once heartwarming and elegiac is a testament to Mukasonga’s talent as a writer. This is a work of nonfiction that immerses the reader in emotion and memory, a haunting and experiential volume.
Tobias Carroll, Words Without Borders

Radiant with love...The Barefoot Woman powerfully continues the tradition of women’s work it so lovingly recounts. In Mukasonga’s village, the women were in charge of the fire. They stoked it, kept it going all night, every night. In her work — six searing books and counting — she has become the keeper of the flame.
Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

The Barefoot Woman is an elegiac tribute by Scholastique Mukasonga both to her mother, Stefania — the focal point of the book — and to what life was like for Tutsi residents in Rwanda before the devastating 1994 genocide ... Ultimately, The Barefoot Woman is meant to serve as its own marker, not only of the atrocities that have been committed but also of the people these acts attempted to erase.
Li Zhou, Vox

I loved the sharpness of Mukasonga’s eye, the graceful construction of her chapters, the way a story wrapped up in unimaginable loss is told with a little smile, and the way in which that smile sometimes abruptly disappears.

Jordan Stump, Asymptote

The Barefoot Woman shines attention on a person who might otherwise be overlooked.
Gregory Cowles, The New York Times

The Barefoot Woman is lyrical but also informative and ethnographic, as much a memoir of a mother as it is of her way of life. ... Mukasonga has done far more than remembering and recognizing the human beings she grew up with; she has immortalized them.
Helen Epstein, The Arts Fuse

​The Barefoot Woman​​ is an important book. It’s a work of memory, and a refusal of disappearance. Quietly, lovingly, Scholastique Mukasonga brings her mother back to life, back from the 20th century’s last genocide, the slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus. As ​​The Barefoot Woman​​ tells us how her mother lived, it strikes back at the silence every genocide seeks to impose.
Gaël Faye

The Barefoot Woman is a living-record document, the voice of culture, tradition, and hope as well as a representation of the history lived by a group of Tutsi during the Rwandan genocide. It is a great performance where language has the stage, where words are revered and carefully chosen.
Andreea Gabudeanu, World Literature Today

This is an important book written for a strong and loving woman.

Elizabeth Rowe, Bookish

Ever clear and Mukasonga’s consistent portrayal of her mother as a guardian of the family and of Rwandan lore and customs in the deadly wake of expulsion and exile. No doubt, this small book – an unevenly woven "shroud" – bears an unimaginably heavy weight.
Angela Ajayi, The Star Tribune

The fiercest of wars are fought by so many invisible heroes. The boldest of warriors will take on hell, descend into its depths, armed with a fiery love and set it differently alight. And even though this is a threnody, it is also a soaring story of grace, of faith, family, friendship, in-betweenness, and keeping just one nightmare away from the bogeyman; of Stefania who lived beyond boundaries, including those limits defined by those who would, and did, destroy a body, but never, oh no, not ever the dauntless soul of this, the most intrepid of mothers, a woman who drank fully of life, with a love that throbs through ever word in this epigrammatic book. A daughter’s lyrical tribute, The Barefoot Woman is a resonant revelation.
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

A loving, urgent memorial to people now ‘deep in the jumble of some ossuary’ who might otherwise be forgotten in time.

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Extraordinarily, this story is at times horrifying in its content and at other times playful; lyric in its style and tender in its handling of the central character. While the reader's knowledge of the genocide to come hangs over the narrative, the everyday events often retain a quotidian feeling; Stefania and her neighbors worry over their children but also laugh and celebrate and arrange marriages. As a literary work, this establishes a rare balance. Jordan Stump's translation from the French beautifully conveys this sense of both tragedy and day-to-day joy.

Shelf Awareness

The Barefoot Woman engrosses the reader in the dazzling beauty of the Tutsi culture. Mukasonga's narrative is laced with heartwrenching reminders that the lively inhabitants of these memories are no more. Her words are vivid and raw as she provides a humbling glimpse into her Rwandan childhood, reminding us to take nothing for granted, to hold our loved ones close simply because we have the privilege to. Mukasonga roots this gentle memoir in images of her mother; each word is a precious gift that manifests this woman's strong will, her ferocious love, and the dreams of the future she envisioned for her children. With this book, Mukasonga has woven a unique shroud for her mother - one that does not hide her but reveals her, eternal, the glowing fire in the center of her family's home.
Kaitlyn Radel, bookseller at Oxford Exchange

The genocide and the violence always lurks at the edges of this tale, but by forcing it to the margins and concentrating on the ways in which life and hope emerged through and despite that violence, Mukasonga makes a critically important contribution to the literature of Rwanda and of humanity alike.

Hans Rollmann, Pop Matters

Scholastique Mukasonga’s tender paean to motherhood and community (originally published in French in 2008 and seamlessly translated by Jordan Stump) explores how exile robs people of their traditions and identity . . . The Barefoot Woman is an extraordinary tribute to 'Mother Courage,' as well as a timely reminder of war’s devastation.
Lucy Popescu, The Guardian


Harrowing... Mukasonga’s powerful and poignant book plants itself in that terrible absence, its stone etched with a difficult, necessary grief.

Publisher's Weekly

A thoughtful, sobering firsthand account of the refugee experience, a story that speaks to readers far beyond the African highlands.

Kirkus Reviews

Cockroaches is vital precisely because it reconfigures not only a common understanding of the genocide in Rwanda, but privileged assumptions about peace more generally ... When she left Rwanda, Mukasonga understood that her role was “to live in the name of others.” You get the sense that every sentence in Cockroaches bears this weight and is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.

Lara Pawson, Times Literary Supplement

Following her award-winning debut novel, Our Lady of the Nile, which revealed in quietly devastating detail the tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in 1970s Rwanda through the microcosm of a Catholic girls’ boarding school, Mukasonga returns with an expanded autobiographical novel chronicling the endemic violence in her homeland. The book opens in the late 1950s, when the first Hutu-led violence against the Tutsis occurred, then moves inexorably through the years of internal exile, deprivation, and escalating violence to 1994 and “the genocide, the long-awaited horror.” The Hutus called Tutsis Inyenzi, or cockroaches, and they were to be stamped out brutally. Mukasonga, who was not in Rwanda at the time and lost almost her entire family, chillingly observes, “I was not with my family when they were being hacked up with machetes.” The entire novel is related with brave, sobering, steely-eyed calm.

Library Journal

At our best we bear witness to the horrors of the human condition with solemnity and respect that we might learn from our collective histories and move forward together with some hope for a shared future. That Mukasonga’s lyricism allows us to endure those troubling spaces with grace and wit is not just deeply moving, it’s a blessing.

M. Bartley Seigel, Words Without Borders

Notably, this English translation of Cockroaches challenges Western discourses concerning the Rwandan genocide that stress the narrative of the West’s failure to intervene as opposed to the narrative experiences of actual Rwandans impacted by the regime. Mukasonga’s intimately personal (yet concurrently collective) account of the build-up to and aftermath of the genocide thus not only reclaims the voices of those lost in 1994, but also resists the voices of those continuing to silence them today.

Alexander Dawson, Warscapes

A kind of memoir also, a real homage to the dead that Mukasonga loved and that she stands vigil over now. This book gives them the dignified burial that they never received.

Marie-Alix Saint-Paul, Africa Vivre

Mukasonga recounts the details of her childhood, adolescence, and early womanhood in precise, compelling prose that emphasizes the suffering of others both in her family and among her fellow Tutsi neighbors. It is a harrowing account in which the writer focuses on telltale facts and relates instructive personal experiences, all the while soberly revealing her own emotions...Mukasonga is a vital witness to life in Rwanda during the three decades that preceded the atrocities. What went on during those years is much less known, and she memorably tells that gruesome story.

John Taylor, The Arts Fuse

Cockroaches is a physically small book with a small, soft voice that whispers to us of the thousands of unnamed, unwritten memoirs, reaffirming their existence, refusing to forget: it is both witness literature and, likely against Mukasonga’s own intentions, a survival epic...For Mukasonga, staying alive meant the burden of bearing witness to the event and the duty to disclose it...But what if survival is not the equivalent to redemption? [...] Mukasonga’s story also teaches us that survival itself can be just at the margins of tolerable existence: “Sometimes I hear that growl in France, in the street I don’t dare turn around, I walk faster, isn’t it that same roar, forever following me?” We are left listening for bodies slithering through tall grasses in the night.

M. René Bradshaw, Asymptote

[Mukasonga] describes with humility the daily inferno that was her family's existence during the years before the massacre in the spring of '94...Sholastique Mukasonga cannot obtain reparations for the horrors she endured, but here she accomplishes a feat of memory and a story of surprising sobriety.

Urobepi, Coups de Coeurs Littéraires (Et Plus)

Jordan Stump’s translation of the original French allows Mukasonga’s sentences to ring like completed, present instants. The sentences are sparse, distinct, like clipped phrases, their reality is the act that they contain, and they bleed into one another to give the impression of continuous inevitability.

Asymptote Journal

Heavy, unflinchingly raw, inspiring.

Book Stalker Blog

We are told that Rwanda is now a peaceful country; the ethnic massacres of the 1990s are all behind them now and all is forgotten and forgiven(?). But even before that ethnic cleansing, before the term was even used, there were post-colonial massacres that singled out Tutsis. Told by one who survived and thrived by some miracle, Scholastique was a 12 year old girl who had come accept that she would always be a peasant with “ … a filthy scarf tied around my head, I would hoe the earth. I would do that all my life, assuming they let me live.” But, at her father’s urging, she took the national exam and succeeded in getting one of the few places in the secondary school in Kigali allotted to her group. In the midst of “the pious, racist ghetto that was Rwanda, one little island had been spared, a place where you could find a normal life by our work alone.” But it didn’t last; she and a brother were selected to escape to a neighboring country while all the rest of her extended family, some 27 members, were slaughtered along with thousands of others. Now a social worker in France, she revisits her homeland and hopes she has carried out her parent’s wishes—to survive and to remember. Her memories are bitter and I challenge you to read this without tears and without wondering what is to become of humanity.

Darwin Ellis, Books on the Common​

Written with a restraint and simplicity that touches directly...on the heart of life, on the eye of the cyclone. There is a force to these words, something that delves into the most profound depths of things. Scholastique Mukasonga's voice is as if broken away from the night, taut but pure, clear, vibrant, with a tranquil force...Read it.

Farenheit 451

Indispensable reading for anyone who cares about the endurance of the human spirit and who hopes for a better world. The conclusion is a stunning illustration of how precious little this courageous author has salvaged from tragedy.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Los Angeles Review of Books

[Scholastique Mukasonga is] ...a fabulous writer... Her talented translator, Jordan Stump, needs to get started on translating her other works.

Charles R. Larson, Counter Punch

What I love so much about Mukasonga’s writing is how she manages to interweave the political and the personal so skillfully and to such powerful effect. Everything I’ve read by her so far has been gorgeously written and incredibly moving. I hope we’ll have more books by her in English soon.

Susan Bernofsky, TRANSLATIONiSTA

Who knew such a small book could have such weight? The Barefoot Woman engrosses the reader in the dazzling beauty of the Tutsi culture. Mukasonga's narrative is laced with heartwrenching reminders that the lively inhabitants of these memories are no more... With this book, Mukasonga has woven a unique shroud for her mother - one that does not hide her but reveals her, eternal, the glowing fire in the center of her family's home.

Kaitie Radel, Oxford Exchange Bookstore

We invite you to read an excerpt from The Barefoot Woman in Literary Hub.

You can read an excerpt from The Barefoot Woman over at the Tin House blog here.

Browse Scholastique Mukasonga’s website for a short biography of the writer, news, a book list and reviews.

Watch Mukasonga speak briefly with Le Point, in French, and at l’Institut Français du Rwanda.

From Words Without Borders, read this interview with translator Dr. Jordan Stump.

We invite you to read an interview with translator Jordan Stump on Asymptote.

We invite you to read Scholastique Mukasonga’s story “Cattle Praise Song,” a generational story on cows and Tutsi culture in Rwanda, nostalgia, and exile. You can explore more about Mukasonga and her relationship to Rwanda and Tutsi history through this detailed interview for The New Yorker Magazine.

Mukasonga talks with Julian Lucas at The White Review about the historical and cultural contexts of her writing and the overlap between autobiography and fiction in her work.