Trauma: The Question of Representation and Memorialization

After reading Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda for class, I found myself thinking about representation and memorialization of the genocide in Rwanda and other tragic events. What makes a successful representation and how do they work to memorialize what happened in Rwanda for the victims and for future genocide prevention? I hope to explore that idea here.

We have read much on the complexity of the idea of telling and issues of whether it helps or hurts in victims’ search for justice and closure. While truth-telling can be incredibly therapeutic to victims, helping them to feel liberated (to at least a certain extent) from the holds of their traumatic pasts, sharing one’s memories is a very hard thing to do, both emotionally and logistically. How does one transmit memories (especially those as awful as what happened in Rwanda) in a way that doesn’t reduce, decontextualize, or otherwise alter them? Perfect transmission is impossible. Victim’s memories deteriorate over time and, more importantly, interpretation of victims’ narratives by outsiders is inevitably altered by their unique analytical lenses. Such was the problem for Yvonne Khutwane and many others who testified at the South African TRC. Despite her diverse experience of harm during apartheid, Khutwane’s experience was reduced by the setup of the testimony interview to the point that it was only analyzed under the frame of sexual violation, an aspect of her experience she did not even intend to discuss. This reduced and decontextualized her narrative, presenting important implications for the efficacy of storytelling. Additionally, sharing one’s story can also have undesirable effects in that it often appears to consign the events to the past. Storytelling has adopted a certain character of finality, a sense that sharing stories puts the traumatic events of the past into a box that can be locked away. In this way the act of storytelling seems to imply both that victims and society have moved past the trauma and that it no longer can have an effect on the present, implications that are both problematic.

Representing a tragedy like Rwanda, as a form of such truth-telling, is hard. How does one adequately describe or portray the enormity of the horrific crimes against humanity that occurred? The only way, it seems to me, after much mulling of my thoughts on my plane ride home for break, is to present the memories of victims and the events that occurred across a wide variety of mediums and through the experiences of a wide variety of victims and onlookers. Each individual memorialization will inevitably be inadequate to the weight of what occurred, but only by creating a diverse presentation of voices and approaches can we do our best to capture and understand the broad magnitude of what happened.  Having a variety of experiences and a variety of approaches, from interviews to songs and films to paintings and murals and statues to graphic novels like Deogratias, best encourages active interpretation of the past. By challenging ourselves to think of the tragedy through a myriad of lenses in a myriad of non-reducing ways, we can best gain a nuanced understanding of the events that occurred in a way that hopefully encourages active participation in their prevention in future. With such a broad approach to memorialization, we can hope to best present the stories of victims in a non-reducing, non-finalizing way that helps them achieve justice and closure and prevents future trauma.


Works Cited

Ross, Fiona. “Narrative Threads.” Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconcliation Commission in South Africa. London: Pluto, 2003. 82-102. 

Stassen, John-Phillippe. Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda. Macmillan, 2006.




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One thought on “Trauma: The Question of Representation and Memorialization

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