Bearing Witness Through Fiction

A small group of students and faculty from the International Languages and Cultures department gathered in a classroom in Montgomery Hall on the afternoon of February 4 for a presentation by Elizabeth Applegate, a doctoral candidate in French at New York University.

Applegate prefaced her presentation, entitled “Bearing Witness Through Fiction: The Rwandan Genocide in Gilbert Gatore’s The Past Ahead” by thanking the faculty for a “warm welcome at St. Mary’s.”

She then proceeded to introduce her dissertation, which is based on the question “What does it mean to bear witness to genocide through literature?”

Through this question, Applegate questions whether survivors are the only ones who have the right to be witnesses to genocide, or if the readers of an account of genocide can also become witnesses through hearing a testimony of the events.

Applegate’s presentation was centered The Past Ahead (in French, Le passé devant soi) a novel by Rwandan writer Gilbert Gatore, who fled Rwanda during its civil war when he was 13.

As a boy, Gatore kept a journal recounting the violence he witnessed during the early 1990s.

The journal was lost in the succeeding years, so Gatore turned to fiction to regain the memories of his experiences.

Gatore is the only Rwandan writer to recount the genocide in the form of a novel.

According to Applegate, this was surprising because African writers are generally politically involved, and write about the misunderstandings and injustices imposed by African or Western rule.

The Rwandan genocide was virtually untouched by African writers, both during and after the civil war.

It was not until 1998, when a literary project named “Fest Africa” challenged ten African writers to publish works about the Rwandan genocide.

The Past Ahead differs from these other works in that it’s author is Rwandan and it’s subject matter is controversial.

The novel focuses on the lives of two post-genocide Rwandans: Isaro, a young woman who is adopted by a French family, and Niko, an older man still living in Rwanda who is haunted by the murderous crimes he committed during the war.

Applegate said that Niko’s past sins are not revealed until later in the novel, causing the reader to abruptly reevaluate their original perception of Niko as the pathetic poverty-stricken victim.

Not only were critics and survivors of genocide shocked that Gatore had made the reader empathize with the killer, but they were also outraged that the link between the victim and the killer is strengthened: later in the novel, it is revealed that Isaro has returned to Rwanda to document testimonies from victims and perpetrators, including Nico, meaning that all of the parts of the novel written from Nico’s perspecitve is “written” by Isaro.

Applegate disagrees with this assessment of Gatore’s work as unethical, and believes that  the lyrical and literary merit of the novel is enough to exonerate Gatore of any artistic license he took with the heavy material he chose to work with.

By the end of the novel, Nico is dead from starvation and loneliness, and Isaro, unable to contend with her demons, commits suicide.

In spite of this grim ending, Applegate believes that Gatore’s message is not as pessimistic as it is on the surface.

She theorizes that Gatore’s purpose was to convey hope about reimagining the world, amidst critical claims that his attempt to understand the mind of a killer is “unrealistic.”

Much like traditional politically-involved African writers,  Applegate states that Gatore is providing his stories to reach the ears of Westerners who are unlearned in African historical and cultural matters.

Applegate was lucky enough to interview Gatore himself.

He is currently planning to write a second novel, although its release has been delayed because he did not want to write about Rwanda again, in opposition to his publisher’s wishes.

It is Gatore’s and Applegate’s sincere hope that Gatore is not “boxed in”  to the category of  the “African writer,” and that he is instead elevated to the status of the “world writer.”

Of the lecture, senior Mary Donohue said “ I found it interesting because [Applegate] is a candidate in French and I have never taken a French class, but [her lecture] transcends so many areas.”

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