This photo is an instant classic. It depicts a friendly moment between Rwandan novelist Scholastique mukasonga and President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In capturing the customary kiss-on-the-cheek between two friends, it enacts the deep connection that ties two seemingly different worlds. Mukasonga’s many books have won awards. She is one of those rare writers who are accomplished in multiple genres.
Mukasonga shared the photo on Instagram two days ago, following da Silva’s swearing in. He is the 39th president of Brazil and comes from a working class background, an experience that has greatly influenced his politics and leadership. She shared it with the caption: “In memory of a beautiful meet” and references a quote by da Silva in which he says that “Atlantic is just a stream between Brazil and Africa.” It has since garnered nearly 2000 likes and over 100 comments, possibly the most engagement Mukasona has every received on a post.
Photographs are reminders that a fleeting instant can be a powerful inspiration for reflection. On social media, we constantly see images that move us to respond in some way: click, like, comment, share, scroll on, etc. But sometimes a photo compels us to stop and ponder. This photo made me stop when I saw it, for the way it captures the connection that has always existed between literature and politics. A writer builds worlds, as does the politician. Writers imagine worlds and builds them on page. Their stories examine societal problems. In her writing, Mukasonga builds rich, lush worlds. Her characters are real, fleshy and haunting. In all her writing, she examines power, how it works, why it gets abused, and how to fight it. Writers do not only build worlds, they also offer explanations for why some worlds are designed badly and how to repair them.
Political leaders, the smart ones, do very similar things. Like writers, they build worlds, though theirs is more physical. Like writers, they think deeply about what makes worlds fail. And like writers, they draw inspiration from the possibility of a better world. Writers and presidents do have a lot in common. One imagines virtual worlds. The other builds towards a better world.
In the second photograph, Mukasonga and da Sylva are standing before a map of Africa while he holds copies of her book in his hand. She is most likely pointing to Rwanda on the map. The gesture symbolizes the shared spatial imagination of both the writer and the political leader. Both are captivated by space. They want to conceptualize it, bring life to it, sustain life within it, but ultimately, give shape to it.