Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

Welcome to Black European Studies


Lost Password?

Register now!

Literature (Re)Acting in History: Francophone African Literary Representations of the Rwandan Genocide

Amy Marczewski

In 1994, as many as a million people died in Rwanda over the course of three months. The massacres that occurred from April to July of this year solicit concern that stretches across disciplinary as well as geopolitical boundaries. As scholars from history and political science attempt to explain the mechanisms that led to the genocide and its aftermath(s), the legacy of the genocide persists in the form of social ramifications ranging from public health issues (in particular, escalating rates of HIV infection) to methods of communal healing and questions of justice and reconciliation. At the same time, memorialization efforts have been undertaken in the visual arts and music as well as in literature. In the year 2000, a unique form of literary memorialization emerged when a group of nine texts by Francophone African authors was published under the rubric Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire (“writing by duty of memory”).

My dissertation proposes a reading of this group of texts as a literary “site” of memory, while at the same time attempting to consider literature’s specificity in its responses to sociopolitical realities. The project I propose to present at the BEST conference will focus on the relationship that the writers who participated in this project while living in Europe maintained with Africa by participating in a cooperative project destined to set a precedent both in African literature and in the continuing historical relationship between Africa(ns) and Europe(ans). In short, the “writing by duty of memory” project exemplifies the crucial role that Africans living in Europe play in elaborating the literary and historical discourses of the African continent.

The project was created by Chadian author Nocky Djedanoum as part of the yearly literary and artistic festival Fest’Africa in 1998. Djedanoum, who lives in Lille, France, had been engaged with the genocide since 1994; he explains the origins of the project in this manner: “C’était un projet personnel. En 1994…j’étais à Lille. Avec des associations comme Survie ou la Cimade, et des particuliers, nous avons créé une fédération informelle…Au bout de deux ans, cette initiative s’est essouflée. J’avais envie d’aller plus loin [It was a personal project. In 1994, I was in Lille. With associations such as Survie or la Cimade, and individuals, we created an informal federation…After two years, this initiative ran out of steam. I wanted to go further].” Exasperated by the absence of an African reaction to the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, his goal was to bring Africans together and “se recueillir et comprendre. Faire un travail contre l’oubli [To gather together and to understand. To complete a work against forgetting].” This collective effort against forgetting produced eight texts during a period in which few intellectuals in France or in Africa were working on the genocide.

The project produced nine texts that were destined to allow both African authors living in Europe (or other African countries outside of Rwanda) and their readers to “share the mourning process” with the Rwandan people. In this way, the project is easily understood as a “minor transnationalism,” as defined by Lionnet and Shih. The writers in the project were engaging in “South-South” relations: the project proposed to provide a particularly African response to an African tragedy, but it was organized from—and mediated by—the atmosphere in France where the organizers live. As Catherine Coquio explains:

L’opération Fest’Africa a permis à un regard transversal, sinon à un discours commun, d’exister à nouveau en Afrique, et de susciter une réflexion en termes de mémoire africaine… La question du tiers se repose ici…par la projection sur la réalité rwandaise de deux modèles, qui, bien qu’a priori contraires, ont inspiré l’opération: le panafricanisme, d’une part; le très européen ‘devoir de mémoire’ d’autre part [The operation Fest’Africa allowed for a transversal view, if not a common discourse, to once again exist in Africa, and it created a reflection in terms of African memory…The question of the third person reemerges here…by the projection of Rwandan reality onto two models, which, although a priori do not mesh, inspired the operation: panafricanism, on the one hand, and the very European “duty of memory” on the other”].

She concludes that the project is therefore “pleinement réussie en tant qu’opération occidentale [clearly a success in terms of a Occidental operation]” (21). In reading the project as a “minor transnationalism,” I will complicate the simple binary of African to African discourse by considering the project, as Coquio implies, as both essentially African and essentially European. As a result, the project’s importance stretches far beyond memorialization efforts in Rwanda or important moments of literary history; it serves as a metaphor for the telling of Black European history itself.

In considering the project as important to African literary history as well as an intervention in contemporary African intellectual history, I will illuminate the importance of the writers’ presence in France and its mediating role in the project. As Djedanoum explains: “les histoires de la France et du continent africain sont liées. Ce n’est pas pour rien que Fest’Africa a d’abord existé à Lille! [The histories of France and the African continent are linked. It is not without reason that Fest’Africa first came into existence in Lille!]” The project was born both of Djedanoum’s frustration with Africans’ silence and of the relative silence in France, by both French and African intellectuals. Contextualizing the project in terms of the relationships both among Africans and between Africans and France, the project becomes an important moment of resistance both against forgetting and negationism, as its title suggests, but also against simplifying relationships between France and Africa as simple binaries. My reading of the project as a minor transnationalism illustrates the need to view Black European history, not as a simple legacy of colonial power, nor as a way of Africans to remain locked in a particularly African world, but as a dynamic domain where dialogue on the European continent is just as important as dialogue with the African continent.

Potential Questions for Workshop: Representing Black European history

  1. In the Francophone world, many authors, particularly novelists, have sought to represent Africans living in France; this novelistic tradition is exemplified in works from Bernard Dadié’s Un nègre à Paris (1959), written during the colonial era, to Alain Mabanckou’s recent works Bleu Blanc Rouge (1998) and Verre cassé (2005). I am interested in the ways in which Africans are portrayed or how African authors portray themselves in other European countries. How do Black Europeans represent themselves in literature outside of France, and how is this representation linked to historical relationships between the countries? Have these representations evolved in the post-colonial era?

  2. Brent Hays Edwards’ recent book The Practice of Diaspora (2003) traces Black Americans as well as Caribbean and African intellectuals in France and the importance of considering their movement as part of their intellectual history. How do emerging theories of diaspora and transnationalism(s) help us to theorize the place of Black Europeans in contemporary historical (literary, cultural, etc.) discourse?

  3. How can Black European history be better understood in communication with other diasporic communities? For example, can African American studies inform Black European studies, or must a new model emerge to accurately portray these groups?

  4. In recent Black European francophone literary texts, movement is a crucial motif: examples range from Djiboutian author Abdourahman Waberi’s Rift Routes Rails (2001) to Togolese author Kangi Alem’s prize-winning novel Cola Cola Jazz (2002) and its sequel Canailles et Charlatans (2005). Each of these authors lives in France and their works tell stories that move in between Africa and Europe, frequently focusing on the suspended areas that defy national boundaries, such as airports and cruise ships. The characters lead quests for identity, such as Alem’s Héloïse, a métisse who travels to a fictive African country to find her elusive father, or they travel and find the Occidental comforts of home in African resorts, such as Waberi’s unnamed characters in
  5. Rift Routes Rails. How can the writing of Black European history benefit from the proliferation of this literary motif? In other words, if, as one of Waberi’s characters claims in his latest novel, Transit (2003), “la trajectoire de l’homme n’est pas linéaire comme l’horizon…elle est reprise, rhizome et ramifications,” can—or perhaps, should—movement be an essential element of Black European historical discourse, and how can we integrate disciplines in order to achieve this?

Printer Friendly Page Send this Article to a Friend

© by Black European Studies 2005, provided by,
hosted by Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz, Volkswagenstiftung