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Memorializing the Genocide of the Tutsi Through Literature, Song and Performance


“Memorializing the Genocide of the Tutsi Through Literature, Song, and Performance” examines how the 1994 Rwandan genocide has been commemorated in literature, music, and theater performances. Over the past twenty years, in the goal of reconciliation, the Rwandan government has developed a single acceptable narrative of the atrocity; this discourse is enacted and perpetuated through cultural practices (such as yearly commemoration events and marches) and through selective silencing (discussions of ethnicity are illegal in Rwanda). Far from smoothing over the troubles of the past, this rewriting of Rwandan history creates a set of complex challenges for the scholar seeking to interpret representations of genocide, particularly insofar as the cultural texts in question produce counter narratives that question both the official story and their own capacity to represent the trauma of ethnic cleansing.

Literature has been the main focus of Rwandan cultural studies post-1994 (particularly the work of the Ecrire par devoir de m?moire project). My first chapter participates in and simultaneously contests this narrow focus by analyzing how novels about the genocide – Le pass? devant soi by Gilbert Gatore and Murambi: Le livre des ossements by Boubacar Boris Diop – suggest the insufficiency of the written word and, by extension, the urgent need to turn to other media. In subsequent chapters, I focus on two alternative cultural vectors – music and theater – forms that can perform commemoration in ways that literature cannot. The second chapter focuses on musical works performed at the 20th-anniversary commemoration ceremonies (known as Kwibuka20). Although they hew closely to government rhetoric, the lyrics, when read attentively, reveal a far more ambiguous narrative, particularly in their treatment of perpetrators and the supposed inevitability of the genocide. Finally, I turn my attention to theater, which, like music, was highlighted in 2014 and is also capable of reaching a wider population. By comparing these recent plays to previous commemorative productions, I demonstrate how the narrative of genocide continues to change in compelling and often unexpected ways.

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