by Pam Nichols (Director, Wits Creative Writing Centre)
MURAMBI: Difficult, necessary and resonant writing
In 1998, 10 African writers were invited to go to Rwanda to find ways of writing about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The idea, developed at a French African Literary festival, was that this horror in Rwanda could not only be described by western journalists, but also needed an African record and reflection. As members of this group Veronique Tadjo and Boubacar Boris Diop wrote respectively, The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda and Murambi: the Book of Bones. These are both extraordinary books because they face horror without sentimentality or sensationalism, and instead find a way for us to begin to conceive of what happened without reducing the victims and the killers to stereotypes. Moreover, in writing with respect and care about this troubled territory, they allow a human and humanizing consciousness to reassert itself.
Recently Veronique Tadjo’s initiative to bring important writers from Francophone Africa to Wits, brought Boris Boubacar Diop to the Wits Writing Centre. After realising the weight and importance of Murambi, its particularity to Rwanda and its universal resonances, we had the idea of holding a master class with Boris Boubacar Diop on writing about trauma. A group of South African writers (Vuyo Seripe, Kgaogelo Lekota, Retsepile Makamane, Thabisani Ndlovu and Allan Kolski Horwitz, as well as a group of musicians, ‘Singata,’ headed by Londiwe Langa) met several times with Boris Boubacar Diop to discuss his novel and its challenges and to read and develop their own short stories, or songs, in response.
A striking commonality in the work of Veronique Tadjo and Boris Boubacar Diop on Rwanda, is that both books showsthat great literature about violence and genocide can preserve a longing and possibility for hope. How do they do this with a subject so hard to conceive of without being brutalised? I believe they succeed because they have an approach to the subject which puts the reader in a frame of mind which can begin to comprehend the reality. The authorial voice in both texts is deeply respectful, precise and careful of people and events. Boris Boubacar Diop with his strong background as a journalist as well as novelist would have been reasonably expected to have recorded journalistic truth. Instead he used the craft of fiction to shape heard stories, but it is a fiction which has listened hard to stories so as to shape an architecture to hold and preserve their emotional, ethical, human experiences. As Londiwe Langa said of Boris Boubcar Diop’s book – the author ‘carries’ us. At the beginning of the workshop, Boris said that when he went to Rwanda he was sure of his understanding of the politics and history of the tragedy and confident about his ability to write about what had happened. However, after he had been there only a short while, he realised that he knew nothing and so started listening. His book is about listening – listening to voices remembering and discovering, listening to voices learning what they have to do next. Boris understood that Journalism cannot write genocide. It rather has to be an act of a listening imagination, a profound, responsible act of listening and trying to understand.
I think this presence of hope and the assumption of the necessity to listen actively and carefully, created the possibility to develop some difficult, striking and necessary writing in response. Our responding writers found very different points of connection. Retsepile Makamane writing overnight in the UK produced a dream-like sequence generated from an incident in Murambi. Thabisani Ndlovu initially said that he never wanted to write a war story again and then said, but there are stories to be written about the unforeseen fallout of violence, and so developed his story set in the aftermath of the Zimbabwean Ghukuruhundi massacres in Matabeleland. Vuyo Seripi , our youngest writer, approached the subject from a remove and wrote a daughter’s voice observing her father, creating what Boris Boubacar Diop called a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ take on her parents’ trauma. Kgaogelo Lekota experimented with overheard totsi-taal and the wild jealous traumatic fantasies of revenge on a cheating girlfriend. And lastly Allan Kolski Horwitz bent continents and wrote an Everyman experience which links Rwanda with the European holocaust of WW2 and ends with a prayer poem for hope, which in turn our wonderful musicians made into a song.
Writing about trauma in this workshop was not about therapy, nor an amateur invasion of private pain, but rather an investigation into how writers can use the material of violence to create literature. South Africa and Africa experiences extraordinary violence, it is part of our everyday experience. We need writers to imagine it so that it doesn’t dominate in its mad, visceral form. We need them to write so that we can restore a human and humanizing consciousness to our experience.
I would like to conclude by sharing some of the questions put to Veronique Tadjo and Boris Boubacar Diop at the reading of extracts from these stories at the Mail and Guardian Literary Festival which took place in Johannesburg in September 2010. The answers are unfortunately not recorded but the questions are deeply relevant.
You are both writing teachers. When you are working with creative writers and the subject matter appears difficult and traumatising, do you have any thoughts about the responsibility of the writing teacher to ensure that the class remains about writing and not therapy?
Veronique, how does myth relate to history in your work, particularly in writing about Rwandan history?
Boris, your stories are based on actual stories and then fictionalised I think? Who owns the stories and what are some of the ethical questions about factual recording and fictionalising that you thought about when writing Murambi?
Boris, you wrote Murambi in Switzerland. Why did you have to go so far away to write?