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Pacifique Irankunda.

Burundian writer Pacifique Irankunda has been awarded a $40,000 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant. The grant is for the completion of his book, The Times of Stories, which the judges have called “one of the most astonishing debuts of a generation.”

The Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant is given to “writers in the process of completing a book of deeply researched and imaginatively composed nonfiction.” The grant “is intended to encourage original and ambitious projects by giving recipients the additional means to do exacting research and devote time to composition.”

The Times of Stories, which will be published by Random House, focuses on Pacifique Irankunda’s life both in the U.S. and in Burundi during the long civil war between the Tutsi and the Hutu, which lasted twelve years, from 1993 to 2005, and cost the country 300,000 lives. Here is the description of the book on The Whiting Foundation’s Website.

In the East African nation of Burundi, civil war raged for over a decade between the Hutu and the Tutsi. In creating a portrait of his life, his family, and his childhood experiences during this long civil war, the author’s personal narrative intersects with the larger currents of history in Burundi. It is layered with his perspective of living in America for eight years, finding this new home both a privilege and a source of longing and pain. The book is at once a testament to the enduring traditions of Burundian culture, and a deeply researched investigation of the country’s political and cultural history, from the effects of colonial exploitation to the recent civil war. The story of resilience, diaspora, and the refugee experience is also the intimate story of a family, and of a young man making sense of what remains.

Pacifique Irankunda was announced alongside seven others: Michael Brenson for David Smith and the Transformation of American Sculpture; Philip Gourevitch for You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know; Seth Kantner for A Thousand Trails Home; Jay Kirk for Avoid the Day; Meghan O’Rourke for What’s Wrong with Me? The Mysteries of Chronic Illness; George Packer for Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century; and Julie Phillips for The Baby on the Fire Escape. Here is the grant jury’s comment on his manuscript.

A radical innocence infuses this luminous, beautifully wrought narrative of growing up amidst the violence of civil war. What surety of writing! And not just in the poetic beauty of individual sentences, but also in the mature control of the book’s structure. Despite the complexity of what Pacifique Irankunda has lived through, his voice is direct, the stories like pure running water on the page. As a child, this young Tutsi listened, rapt, to the stories the elders told before the oral tradition of thousands of years, long under threat from the encroachment of colonialization, was wiped out by war. In his peerless testimony, as transparent as it is true, he brings the reader into the deep waters of genocide, diaspora and the refugee experience. This will be recognized as one of the most astonishing debuts of a generation.

Pacifique Irankunda was born in Burundi and came to America at the age of 19 as a scholarship student at Deerfield Academy. His first published work, “Playing at Violence,” appeared in The American Scholar in 2013 and won a 2015 Pushcart Prize. He graduated from Williams College in 2013 with a degree in psychology and political science.

Here is an excerpt from The Times of Stories.

*

There was a time when silence reigned all over my village. Rivers were loud, but their rhythmic sounds were part of the silence. People worked in their fields with hoes. There were no cars, no factories. I imagine that to Westerners that time and place would have resembled the Stone Age. Planes flew over the village, but never more than once a week.

There was another season that broke this silence. It was the time of crops growing. From the early stage of the seeds’ sprouting, parents would send their kids into the fields to make noise and chase away the birds that ate the seedlings. This went on for a month, and after that the silence would come again. I enjoyed the quiet, but it did not last. Another season erupted and broke all the silence. It was the season of war. It came in the fall when I was four, and it lasted for more than a decade.

In this new season, just as in any other, some things died and others were born. Everything was transformed. When the militia attacked a village, it left behind the remains of the dead — people and animals — and the houses in ruin. People moved from their houses to live in the forests. New words appeared — ibinywamaraso (“the blood drinkers”) and ivyamfurambi (“deeds of the wrong first born”) — and new expressions: kamwe kamwe ku ruyeye ku rwembe (“one after another, gently on a razor”). This slogan and others like it said not to worry if you did not kill many people. The secret was to keep killing.

This new season made children my age wish they had been born blind and deaf so they couldn’t see their houses being burned and their mothers being raped before being killed, or hear the sounds of bombs or their parents screaming and crying. But at other times, you wished you had the eyes of a hawk and the ears of a deer, so that you could distinguish, in the dark, a black stump with branches from a man dressed in black pointing a gun, or a thin string tied to a mine from a long blade of grass lying across your path. These were times when you needed to know that the sound of raindrops falling on leaves wasn’t that of militiamen approaching on tiptoes. For a while you wished for something, and after another while you wished for the opposite. You learned to cover your eyes in the day; you learned to see in the dark.

Congratulations to Pacifique Irankunda. We are excited for him.

Read the announcement HERE.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young
Otosirieze Obi-Young is a writer, academic, and Deputy Editor of Brittle Paper. His fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review ("Mulumba," 2016), Transition ("A Tenderer Blessing," 2015), and in an anthology of the Gerald Kraak Award ("You Sing of a Longing," 2017), for which he was shortlisted. His work has further been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2016 and a Pushcart Prize in 2015. His conversations appear in Africa in Dialogue, Bakwa, SPRINNG, and Dwartonline. He is the curator of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, Enter Naija: The Book of Places (October 2016), focuses on Nigerian cities. The second, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (June 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. Born in Aba, he combined history and literature at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, is currently completing a postgraduate programme in African Studies, and teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu. When bored, he just Googles Rihanna.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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