April 2018 | ISSN 2516-8045
During a horrific period of violence in 1994, over one million Rwandans were killed. The Genocide against the Tutsi left a legacy of trauma and pain and destroyed the social fabric of Rwanda, which would take huge efforts to reconstruct. Alongside suffering on a huge scale, researchers have found evidence in testimonies of positive growth in individual Rwandans’ stories since 1994. Yet these stories of growth have received little attention. How is individual growth best articulated in Rwanda today, and how is it best understood by scholars and practitioners around the world?
This article explores how psychological frameworks might be mediated for understanding contemporary Rwandan stories, taking into account pervasive narratives and cultural influences. Giving testimony can form part of the process of meaning-making that happens after the shattering effects of trauma, and can create space for individuals to describe positive psychological and social adjustments they have made. This article builds on research into survivor and perpetrator testimonies to explore the contextual correlates of post-traumatic growth in Rwanda. The framework of post-traumatic growth (PTG) provides a helpful lens for examining changes in personal strength, relating to others, and appreciation of life. Yet the Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (used to measure PTG) has not been adapted for a Rwandan context and needs to account for culture- and language-specific influences on understanding and expressing growth. What affects the semantics and politics of expressing individual psychological change? And how are such models to be adapted to help individuals describe growth in Rwandan terms?
Casa de las Américas is a prestigious cultural institution founded in 1959 in connection with the Cuban Revolution. Its annual literary prize was established simultaneously, and in 1970 a prize category in the genre of testimonial literature was introduced in response to the increasing political intervention in cultural matters at that time. In order to assess how testimonial literature was conceptualised aesthetically and politically in the early history of its institutionalisation in Latin America, this article examines the metadiscourses surrounding the installation of the prize category ‘testimony’, focusing on the juries’ proceedings from the first quinquennial of the award (1970-1975), which are read in light of the ongoing debates during the sixties and seventies on the relationship between poetics and politics. Furthermore, the winning texts from the first quinquennial of the award will be examined in order to respond to questions arising from the reading of the juries’ minutes.
While fiction and testimony may seem to be genres at odds with one another, fictional literature has been at the forefront of advances in memory and trauma studies. Theories such as Marianne Hirsch’s postmemory and the so-called ‘transnational turn’ in memory studies have aided in describing how later generations deal with inherited memories of past traumas and those from other contexts through literature. Nevertheless, as history surges on, we find ourselves ever more distanced from the violence of the twentieth century century, whose losses, both material and abstract, are now inherited by the present postmemory generation and can only be assumed vicariously. These conditions, coupled with the effects of an ever-globalizing world, result not so much in a deficit of factual memory but a deficit of ethico-political or emotional positions from which to confront the violent past and its losses.
Within memory and trauma studies much has been written on literary or cultural representations and the work of mourning. The original Freudian concept of mourning as it is positioned opposite melancholia has often been critiqued and written off as conservative, exclusionary, conducive to amnesia, and so on. These concerns are particularly relevant in the case of postmemory, posttraumatic narratives where the losses of previous generations to be worked through in a potential, collective mourning process are temporally distanced from the present.
Nevertheless, I propose a view of mourning through these types of works that moves beyond the original Freudian consolatory paradigm: that is, a literature that seeks to offer neither a substitute nor consolation nor promises of overcoming a loss. Instead, I envision a process of mourning that transcends this temporal distance through the sustaining of loss, the incorporation of absence within the narrative form and on the level of the diegesis, where the irrecoverability of the past becomes evident through the necessary recourse to invention, supposition and fiction itself.
This same acknowledgement of past losses as irrecoverable and the notion of our position in the present as inconsolable before loss can also serve as an affective model for mourning that transcends not only time but geographical or even cultural distance. In other words, the recognition of the irreparability of loss through the fictional work can serve as a means of reframing claims of injustice transnationally. I see these narratives as constituting a sort of testimony that allows us not only to heed the imperative to remember but also permits us to participate in a collective mourning process that transcends not only temporal distance but cultural and geographic as well.
As an example of a transnational posttraumatic narrative of mourning, I will briefly reference the North American Jewish author Nathan Englander and his novel The Ministry of Special Cases (2007), a novel about Argentina’s detained-disappeared that presents itself as incapable of offering consolation while, at the same time, offering itself as a testimony of how, despite distances, we are affected and touched by suffering across borders.
From his testimonio to his poetry, from his written renditions of oral tradition to his work in the fields of anthropology and leadership studies, Victor Montejo’s work inhabits a world that takes place in the Western Highlands of Guatemala and the Chiapas region of Mexico. What might we learn about Testimony Studies and about Place Studies if we ask of Montejo: ‘What are the ways in which your testimony takes place?’ Clearly, this question covers a lot of ground. If we focus on the temporal character of ‘taking place,’ we are asking questions about the event of testimony. If we focus on the ‘ways’ testimony takes place, we are asking questions about the form(s) or genre(s) of testimony, but also on who gives voice to these ‘ways.’ We may also, in an ethical vein, be asking about what place to give testimony in our considerations. And, if we focus on ‘place’ in the ways that the emerging fields of Place Studies or Geo-Humanities may teach us, we are asking questions about the ways a sense of place shapes testimony, as well as the ways the act of testimony shapes our sense of place.
One way, perhaps, to tie these questions together is by focusing on the thread of testimony as a response to a loss of some kind. This is not to say that testimony is to be defined strictly in these terms, but it is certainly a familiar thread in the literature on testimony and is evident in Montejo’s work. To the extent that Montejo’s work is a response to loss, what can it tell us about testimony as a response to the loss of place and the place of loss?
This article examines Charles Reznikoff’s work Testimony in light of theories of documentation and witness. Culled from decades of actual courtroom transcripts, Reznikoff poeticizes and reframes the testimony of victims of crimes—particularly African Americans and the poor—to provide an innovative epic of America. At the same time, this work shows the language of documentation and the court to be, like poetic language, subject to essential and complex frames of meaning and rules. Citing the theories of Giorgio Agamben, I argue for the character of witness as it applies to the poetic act itself. In a further extension of the specific readings and theoretic frames this investigation of Reznikoff’s work offers, I also suggest that conceptual writing—often a terrain of at least an ostensibly apolitical dimension—can, in fact, engage texts and documents in ways that do not merely absorb those sources into the poetic but, by poeticizing them, illuminates the texts in their own right as well as in terms of the potentialities of the poetic act itself.
The French Revolution and particularly the period called The Terror (June 1793 – 27 July 1794), incited by conflict between rival political factions, was marked by mass executions of the ‘enemies of the revolution’. Aristocrats, Girondins (the political faction rival to the dominant Jacobins), and all the citizens suspected of furthering a return to Monarchy were threatened. All of this period can be considered, in fact, as traumatic. In order to be a witness to a disappearing world, to plead one’s own cause, and to testify to overwhelming and horrifying events, memoirs and written accounts proliferated during the decades following the Revolution. Among a lot of accounts that were published are those whose authors were well known enough and which had the rhetoric and literary qualities necessary to interest a public. At the same time, the victims as witnesses had the will to share their feelings, to attempt to make people understand their traumatic experience. The rhetoric and poetic heritage, requiring verisimilitude and decorum, acted as a brake on the realization of this purpose. To pass on their experience, the narrators had to create specific ways to show and to make people feel what they saw and what they felt. Leaning on three testimonies of witnesses having escaped death during the Terror, which have rhetorical and literary competences, I will study in their accounts the different processes by which they create a strong effect of presence at the traumatic scene, especially by contingent details and narrative processes of showing, restitution of sensory perceptions, internal focusing and a confined point of view, reported discourse and narrative slowing down.Subverting requirements for a traditional plot – a narrative logic and a chain of plausible events- erasing the marks of causality, this kind of narrative, far away from any attempt at convincing or pleasing, tries to restitute the strangeness of the scene. These accounts of traumatic events are all the more specific in their historical context since the narrative of the period, in history as well as in a novel, remain submitted to rhetorical and aesthetic canons and to a limited set of techniques.