[Notes from a panel presentation: fiction and genocide, w/Boris Diop. Some repeats, some tweaks.]
A path to genocide studies, and how the subject finds its way into my plays; how the Tutsi genocide in particular is figured; some reflections on international artistic collaboration in RW.
As a Catholic, each day I’m asked to consider first: peace – how to admit it, how to serve it, how to serve as a vehicle for it. This sense of hope – this motion to the invisible – supports a reading of the world as revelation: there’s a massive (literally, total) project of creation going on that catches us all. Another word for revelation is apocalypse; a feature of my spiritual training is study and practice of the language of apocalypse. There’s all kinds of room in Catholic thinking – ideally, room for everything – but an aspect of the core is the regular contemplation of deicide and the murder of the person of Jesus… (But really, who reads the news has ample practice in apocalyptic and radically moral reflection). My faith considers the fracture of our absolute self-description as children of God. We willingly violate that which defines the best in us. Genocide is more intimately connected with suicide than homicide – we come to see ourselves as unclean, and we operate destructively on our own bodies. Life itself is seen as life’s problem, and we rend ourselves in oxymoron.
Genocide is revelation of a fundamental aspect of the human capacity for sin – for a disordered relationship with peace, and the natural way of creation.
So, by religious culture and philosophical inclination, I am inclined to view genocide as a fundmental aspect of the human grammar; it is a word we reiterate, a word that wants to be the last word and an ultimate relaxation of the responsibility to mean anything. As humans we weary of the job of building – of building meaning, of adding value to raw material… We want the final, tallest tower, the unshakable defense. With genocide, we say we are done with making; and, clean, cleaned out, we’re in a time of pure having.
Specifically, why the Rwandan genocide…
I was a member of a research delegation to El Salvador in the early 90’s, sponsored by Santa Clara University where I was teaching at the time. My eyes were opened to poverty on an order new to me, and to a first-hand encounter with the practical technology of genocide… The trip also woke me up to U.S. complicity in poverty, torture, and massacre. I had a friend in Serbian Yugoslavia during that genocide. A mass grave was discovered in Tulsa (where my mother and sister live), rumored to contain bodies from the city’s anti-black race riot in 1921 (up to 300 dead; the grave was never exhumed, despite eyewitness and radiographic evidence; the government is just waiting for the survivors to die…). I was moving from a theological appreciation of genocide to specific instances. Rwanda of course was there – and I had no access to it, for years. The trial of the nuns of Sovu gave me a road in; there were two particular people with a specific set of charges laid against them; they were Catholic, and continued to pray even as they abetted mass killings; I felt I had an avenue forward through their prayer life.
Having gone to Belgium for the trial, I had to go to Rwanda, which I immediately loved (with love being complex), and have been coming back ever since.
I’ve been writing about various genocides for 20 years now, and early on begon to conceive of them as a linked series. This is now Soulographie… There is a Rwandan vein through it.
Maria Kizito reflects the point of view of a perpetrator, especially in spiritual terms.
Drunk Still Drinking centers on guilt by obliviousness… A woman never conceives of herself as having a relationship to genocide. In Europe on a lark, she falls in love with a nightclub performer, who proves to have been a genocide singer on the lines of Simon Bikindi; she suffers at his hands.
Burnt Umber is about a US scholar hired to write negationist articles – he doesn’t perceive how his philosophy sis destroying his own family.
I wanted to write plays that admitted to my own perspective, without being solely about my perspective (so, a play about how interesting white men are when considered against blackness, or a play that toggles between the self-consolations of emotional flooding and donor-mentality opinions).
And I believe that the vanguard of contemporary performance esthetics is searching out the form of the memorial.
Features of memorial writing (covered in an earlier post, a bit refigured here) – it includes:
Mourning, memory, the void and the absolute/absolution.
Mourning: The “ordered incomplete” – testimony and information are put in new arrangements with no pretense at the encyclopedic. The account is admittedly broken. We build, but we build a ruin – a house without a corrupt roof and incomplete walls. (The ceiling of Nyamata retains its shrapnel holes and blood stains.) The shape is difficult to read (what were the exact dimensions? What was this room used for?) and impossible to live in for very long.
Memory: The ruins are navigable. Spectators are given room in space and time to structure their own experiences (Soulographie = 17 plays, some played simultaneously – it is impossible to experience the whole sequence as an uninterrupted event. And play by play, the effort is towards a constellar dramaturgy, where the action revolves around a central way of knowing rather than moving towards the outline of a story).
The void: pretty high-fallutin’, but the best word for the job. The navigation is known to be hopeless – progress is indeterminate, looping (the big middle of Lear is a model). In Noh terms, a wide ha; each play spends a lot of time breaking.
The absolute/absolution: One can’t finish but one can leave.