A French-Rwandan Rap Star Turned Novelist From Burundi

“Small Country,” by Gaël Faye, is about a boy, living in Burundi during the war between the Hutus and Tutsis, who loses his innocence in spite of desperately wanting to cling onto it.

PARIS — “It felt like an injustice to me,” said the rapper and novelist Gaël Faye, about having to leave civil-war-torn Burundi in 1995 to come live in France. Mr. Faye, who was 13 at the time, had to contend with the shock of a new culture and moving with his younger sister into the cramped space of his mother’s apartment in Versailles.

Months went by without unpacking his suitcases. “When I went to school I used to take what I needed and put it back afterward,” the 36-year-old author said in a recent interview in Paris. “I’d convinced myself that any day my father would ring up and tell us that the war had ended and we could come back. But the war ended up lasting until 2005 by which time I was an adult.”

In his first novel, “Small Country” — a huge hit in France when it was published in 2016 and where it sold 700,000 copies — Mr. Faye wrote with a rare and subtle yearning about his youthful escapades in and around Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. It has now been translated from French into English by Sarah Ardizzone and is being released by Hogarth on June 5.

Credit...Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

“Small Country,” which in its original language shares the title of one of Mr. Faye’s most popular songs, “Petit Pays,” is told from the perspective of Gabriel, a 10-year-old boy with a French father and a Rwandan mother (the same mixed-race parentage as Mr. Faye). He is part of a gang of young boys sneaking beers in cabaret bars and stealing mangoes from local gardens to sell on the black market.

This mischievous idyll comes crashing down when Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, is assassinated in 1993 after winning a landmark election. Hutus and Tutsis who had previously lived peaceably start killing each other in a frenzy of recriminations for ancient slights. The violence spills over to startling effect in neighboring Rwanda, where members of Gabriel’s Tutsi family are caught up in a blood bath.

Mr. Faye’s apartment in Paris, where we met earlier this month, is decorated with several framed photographs. They mark the 24th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, which began in April 1994 and lasted 100 days. Some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, were killed. There is a picture of Mr. Faye’s French-Rwandan wife’s Tutsi grandmother, who was killed after taking refuge in a church, and another of a gacaca community court — roughly meaning “justice among the grass” — where a perpetrator of the genocide is being tried.

Two years ago Mr. Faye left Paris with his wife and two young daughters to live in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. He is now temporarily back in Paris with his family to promote foreign versions of his novel (it has been translated into 35 languages) and prepare for a tour of his music in France. Not for one second though did Mr. Faye give the impression of being harried.

The author’s connection with Rwanda dates back to his mother, who was born there in 1959 but fled to Burundi with her family four years later after an anti-Tutsi pogrom broke out. In “Small Country” Gabriel reflects on a part of the world where earthquakes are a regular feature of living on the axis of the East African Rift. “The people of this region mirrored the land,” Mr. Faye writes. “Beneath the calm appearance, behind the facade of smiles and optimistic speeches, dark underground forces were continuously at work, fomenting violence and destruction that returned for successive periods, like bad winds.”

Didn’t this knowledge put Mr. Faye off moving with his family to Kigali? “No, Rwanda today is at peace and has been stable for a long time,” he replied. “When I’m over there I can feel this energy, which I instantly want to be a part of. We’re not the only ones who have decided to move over there. There are a lot of young people who have done the same.”

Mr. Faye was already living in Kigali when “Small Country” was published in France. Its success, which included winning several French literary awards, took him by surprise. “To be honest I was expecting it to sell about 500 copies and then I would quietly go back to my music,” he said. The road to publication had been curious to say the least. Mr. Faye had not set out to write a novel but his songwriting talent came to the attention of Catherine Nabokov, an independent French editor.

About five years ago Ms. Nabokov’s teenage son, a keen fan of French rap, played her some of Mr. Faye’s music. “It was quite a jolt,” Ms. Nabokov said in a telephone interview. “I thought the lyrics were very well written and also some of his songs were built like narratives, in particular “L’ennui des après-midis sans fin” (The boredom of afternoons without end).”

Ms. Nabokov eventually managed to get hold of Mr. Faye’s email address and wrote to see if he’d be interested in meeting her. “We saw each other regularly over several months and he told me a lot about his life,” Ms. Nabokov said. “Then one day he sent me ten pages which were the beginning of a novel and I thought ‘wow!’ He told me that he’d decided to write a novel and not a memoir because he felt it gave him more freedom.”

Those first 10 pages begin with a child’s fascinating disquisition on the state of Burundian noses. First Gabriel asks his father whether the Hutus and Tutsis are at war on account of them not sharing the same land. Then he asks whether it’s because they don’t speak the same language or don’t have the same God. “No” his father replies to all of these queries. “So why are they at War?” Gabriel insists. “Because they don’t have the same nose,” his father replies.

In many ways “Small Country” is about a boy who loses his innocence in spite of desperately wanting to cling onto it. One of the novel’s most chilling side notes is the way that classical music is played on Burundian radio whenever a coup is underway. In 1966, it had been Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 21; in 1976, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; in 1987 Chopin’s Bolero in C Major; and on Oct. 21, 1993, it was Wagner’s “The Twilight of the Gods.”

Later Mr. Faye learned that it’s not just something that happens in Burundi. “A Haitian friend told me that the same thing happens in Haiti,” he said. More recently, Mr. Faye met a Rwandan woman in Nice, at a commemoration for the genocide. “She told me about when she arrived in France for the first time,” he said. “When she switched on the radio and it was playing classical music she immediately thought that there had been a coup d’état and Chirac had been assassinated.”

After musing on the absurdity of this situation, Mr. Faye tells me that he has begun working on a new novel. “It takes place far from Rwanda and Burundi,” he said. “I’ll go back to that but I’ve decided my next book is going to be about a rock star. I wanted to do something completely different.”

Ms. Nabokov can’t wait.

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