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Narrating Itsembabwoko

When Literature becomes Testimony of Genocide

Josias Semujanga

The tenacious belief in a disjunction of genocide and art has risen a persisting polemic in literary cricism. Narrating Itsembabwoko challenges this dichotomous thinking by assuming that a narrative about genocide is both a work and a testimony because the sense-making in work is a shared construction between writing, reading, and meaning to the point that artistic expression seems to be the irreplaceable nature of art to ensure the memory of events. The main assumption is that the aesthetic process brings together the forms, motifs, or themes already available in the vast field of literature and art, which are known to the reader, and integrates them in a particular text; however, the axiological process is an argumentative level, which governs and shapes the enunciated values in the work. This book shows how through their works writers seek forms – language or genre – that allow them to represent the horror of extermination, making the reader think about the moral range of narratives about genocide – fiction or testimony – using words that communicate the values of humanity, in opposition to the macabre deployment of absolute evil.


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Introduction: Narratives of Genocide, Emotion, and Reader


On July 16 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces took the town of Gisenyi on the Congolese border of northwestern Rwanda. The war and the genocide were over, and Rwanda was officially liberated. Under the debris of a hateful regime, a new literature was about to be born, although it would require a great deal of contemplation and would be undertaken with apprehension. In a remarkably unified voice, writers, journalists, wit- nesses, and poets described the events and atrocities experienced by the Tutsi under the regime of the Hutu Power, an experience of dehumaniza- tion that recalled the horrors of the Nazi regime. The writers discussed the capability of art or narrative accounts to tell the inhumanity and barbarism that led to the Tutsi genocide or Itsembabwoko. How could one tell geno- cide? This was the question in the aftermath of the horror. In Rwanda after the genocide, new life began on the ruins of the former. Rwandans attempted to name the horror in order perhaps to exor- cise it. After the end of the genocide, many terms were used. The term Itsembabwoko is still used primarily among Tutsi survivors; Itsembat- semba, whose meaning is, in essence, the same, is used in liberal Hutu environments to underline the fact that many Hutu political leaders were killed under Hutu Power for promoting power sharing with the Tutsi group. The two terms were joined only in the official discourse, in which Itsembabwoko-n’itsembatsemba testifies to the difficulty of naming this murder, and...

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