Narrating Itsembabwoko

When Literature becomes Testimony of Genocide

by Josias Semujanga (Author)
©2016 Monographs 248 Pages


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.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Narratives of Genocide, Emotion, and Reader
  • 1. The Narratives Seed of the Genocide
  • 2. The Oldest Orphan: The Child’s Voice Telling the Unthinkable
  • 3. Harvest of Skulls: Recycling the Fragments of the Holocaust
  • 4. Murambi, The Book of Bones: Polyphonic Voices and Testimony
  • 5. The Shadow of Imana: Traveling over the Maze of Genocide
  • 6. Murekatete: The Broken Brotherhood and the Inability to Love
  • 7. The Hill Moth: Eros and Thanatos
  • 8. Fire under the Cassock: The Question of Collective Guilt
  • 9. Inyenzi or the Cockroaches: Trans-generational Memory
  • 10. Shake Hands with the Devil: Humanitarian Rhetoric and Genocide Testimony
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Preface and Acknowledgments

This book is about the idea of a testimony of genocide by narratives including fiction and storytelling and testimonies about the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. The title is a methodological tool that takes up the question of how to recount genocide and thus orient the debate in another direction by focusing on the philosophical component of narratives, which seek to communicate the common truths of human existence.1 I shall discuss some concepts that have been used to understand the Holocaust, namely the idea that the unspeakable character of genocide is a rhetorical tool used to arouse emotions shared between the writer and the reader. I call this shared raw emotion a basic human truth. I suggest that the reader, regardless of how he came to these emotions, can identify and understand how they were presented in both fiction and storytelling narratives of the Rwandan genocide or Itsembabwoko. I will discuss how this human truth is different from the truth of historians, which is based on real conditions of existence and sets out to explain the roots of social events, while the narratives aim to frame events in order to bridge emotions between the reader and the author. I will show that these basic human truths can be found throughout the narratives of genocide. They are made apparent in themes such as denial, love, violence, hate, death, rape, and solidarity, which, although they can be presented in many different ways, are emotions and experiences that any reader can recognize and share. I will show how literature and storytelling allow readers to identify with the events of any narrative even if they have not shared the specific experience referred to. Many of the narratives of my corpus unfold around the theme of a woman raped during the Tutsi Itsembabwoko. Even while recognizing a character as fictional in novels, every reader can understand the shame caused by rape, like the one perpetrated on the Queen in The Hill Moth (ch.7). I argue that these narratives could be somehow compared to history, because in novels and testimonial accounts, as in historical accounts, writers incorporate a variety of cultural information on the ← 9 | 10 → traditions and history of the Rwandan people in order to give us information about genocide.

It would have been easy to analyze the question of genocide accounts without looking at the specificity of fiction and other narratives like those of Scholastique Mukasonga and Roméo Dallaire, which are testimonies. There is, as we know, a tradition, which, since the Holocaust, has offered insight into the question of literature and genocide. However, instead of grounding this project within this controversial debate, I prefer to understand the production of literature and poetics in such a way that I can transcend the dichotomy between fiction and storytelling, and at the same time account for their conception. Consequently, my suggestion may surprise many. I express, in effect, that both fiction and storytelling – the former by a writer and the latter by a victim – are narratives. They exhibit many rhetorical and argumentative aspects, which construct a shared emotion about genocide between the writer and the reader in order to prevent it from losing its power to shock, to sadden, or to provoke the extreme emotional reaction warranted by the extreme acts perpetrated. In so doing, the narratives about genocide – fiction or storytelling – as texts and discourses are ethically involved in challenging moral indifference to human misery even when, as with genocide, the whole world is involved.2

In this book, I argue that to provoke this raw emotion in readers, which is also an empathy with the victims, writers use both aesthetic tools, which include the mechanisms governing the operation of a literary work whose nature is verbal or linguistic on substantive narrative, and an ethical dimension evaluating the actions of the narrators. In this, the novel should be qualified by evoking texts and genres whose functions are to refer to a historical and social institution: literature. Even if each work is specific, it refers permanently and systematically to literature as a collection of existing and future works. Novelists, poets and playwrights evoke this artistic phenomenon in their texts. So we can say that historically there are patterns for literature of violence like genocide worldwide. In this study we’ll see how writers use stereotypical themes and images from the Holocaust, African literature, world literature, and Rwandan history and culture in order to mobilize the emotions of the reader.

In many ways, Narrating Itsembabwoko insofar as I assert that here are natural facts that contribute to the reality of genocide as an event that ← 10 | 11 → occurred historically in Rwanda, and it is as such different from, say, the Holocaust. On the other hand, in order to be successful, a novel, the narrative fiction, has to provide first and foremost a good story.

Early versions of some sections of Narrating Itsembabwoko have appeared in Le génocide, sujet de fiction?3 I am grateful to Guy Champagne of Éditions Nota Bene, who permitted their inclusion in this book, which along with new material have been reworked making them very different chapters. Moreover, I added three texts, a fiction by Benjamin Sehene (Fire under the Cassock), and two accounts, one by Scholastique Mukasonga (Inyenzi or the Cockroaches) and the other by Roméo Dallaire (Shake Hands with the Devil), in order to show that the argumentative mechanisms to tell the genocide are the same for both types of narrative: literary and testimony. The main objective of any narrative of genocide is to provoke feelings of sympathy in the reader with the victims.

The Bibliography includes books I consulted and had to hand. They are not necessarily original versions. I chose to use and refer to English versions even when I had the original French. Thus, when, in the Bibliography, I refer to a non-English original, its translation in the text is my own. Also many terms in the Kinyarwanda language used in the book are my own translation and definition.

I wish to acknowledge the contributions of a number of colleagues and friends.

First and foremost, I am grateful to my wife and friend Marciana for encouragement and understanding. I am also deeply grateful to Eugenia Santos and Aimable Twagilimana for their help in translating some texts into English, and to Tristan Barsky, Yzabelle Martineau, and Bob Barsky for their meticulous reading of the manuscript and critical observations that have made it possible to retain the nuances of my oriented French writing in English.

I extend my gratitude to Michael Rinn, Jean-Pierre Karegeye, Marie- Chantal Kalisa, Catalina Sagarra, Eugène Nshimiyimana, and to Philippe Basabose for presenting me with several occasions to develop and strengthen many aspects of this study, notably the relationship between literature and ethics. I have benefited greatly from many colleagues and friends; the ideas, interpretations and opinions herein, however, are my own responsibility. ← 11 | 12 →

1 See Peter Lamarque’s Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

2 See Tom Rockmore, Foreword, in Origins of the Rwandan Genocide (New York: Humanity Books, 2003), 9–14.

3 Le génocide, sujet de fiction? Analyse des récits du massacre des Tutsi dans la littérature africaine (Québec: Éditions Nota Bene, 2008).

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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, witnesses, and poets described the events and atrocities experienced by the Tutsi under the regime of the Hutu Power, an experience of dehumanization 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 genocide? 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 exorcise it. After the end of the genocide, many terms were used. The term Itsembabwoko is still used primarily among Tutsi survivors; Itsembatsemba, 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 with the hope that the amalgamated words may give social peace. In 2002, the Itsembabwoko-n’itsembatsemba was replaced in the country’s new constitution by the word jenoside, the English word spelled phonetically according to the logic of the Kinyarwanda alphabet. In 2008, Cabinet decided that the official designation of massacres in Rwanda is the Genocide against Tutsi or jenoside yakorewe Abatutsi.

Behind the ambiguity of naming the atrocity one reads intentionality between the lines: to use the word genocide is to condemn its authors and their ideology of hatred. The ethical dimension of the word is such that to use it is to designate the culprit and to utter a judgment on the ← 13 | 14 → executioner. In the absence of the moral dimension, genocide becomes “massacre” or simply “self-defense”. Those neologisms – Itsembabwoko, Itsembatsemba, jenoside – which were necessary to describe the new event, genocide, show the difficulty inherent in the nature of language: words cannot properly speak of genocide, an event that destroys all links, all values, and all social foundations.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (April)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Josias Semujanga (Author)

Josias Semujanga is Professor of African literature and literary theory at the University of Montreal. His research interests are the analysis of social discourse, the narratives of the Genocide, the African novel and anthropological narratives. He has published numerous books and scholarly articles including Les récits fondateurs du drame rwandais, The Origins of the Rwandan Genocide, Le génocide, sujet de fiction ? and Dynamique des genres dans le romain africain.


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