‘You need to get under people’s skins. See what is inside’: Memoir and Generic Variation in Véronique Tadjo’s The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the heart of Rwanda

R.A Knighton, University of Cambridge

2014 has been an important year for remembering the Rwandan genocide. Twenty years after the genocide took place, various events have been held around the world to commemorate the period of one hundred days between April and July 1994, which saw an overwhelming number of killings as a result of ethnic tension between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority in Rwanda. Genocide memorialisation in this specific context, however, has remained a contested terrain. Some organisations have decided to look back to the events of the past, while others have centred on the importance of looking forward, focusing, in part, on what life in Rwanda is like today. A number of questions arise from these strategies. How can we look to the future without forgetting the past?1 How do we remember an event that was so traumatic to the lives of many? How do we prevent the perpetuation of reductive narratives of the genocide in international reportage?2 These questions represent just some of the many ethical considerations of genocide memorialisation in the case of Rwanda.

Véronique Tadjo’s The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the heart of Rwanda (2002) forms part of the immense body of literature that has been created in response to the genocide since 1994. Tadjo’s text arose out of a French ‘Fest’Africa’ project that commissioned ten African writers to travel to Rwanda in 1998 with the pursuit of ‘writing as a duty to memory’.3 This essay explores the contribution of The Shadow of Imana as a literary text to the memorialisation of the Rwandan genocide, and specifically the narrative strategies Tadjo uses to represent it. Reading Tadjo’s text as a memoir account, I argue that her techniques of generic variation are central to her project of conveying the impact of the genocide to her readers. Nigel Eltringham describes the genocide in Rwanda as an event that ‘will always resist being reduced to a single, absolute “account”’.4 The critical tendency to reduce the genocide to ‘a single, absolute “account”’ can be attributed to the prevailing desire to understand this event, despite its complexity.5 Tadjo responds to this issue in her memoir through her focus on a multiplicity of viewpoints. Encapsulating these different viewpoints within her account, Tadjo illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the genocide, whilst also addressing several of the major difficulties surrounding genocide representation.

‘Third-wave’ autobiographical theorists, Bart Moore-Gilbert, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, underline generic flexibility as a characteristic feature of postcolonial autobiography.6 Discussing modes of discursive decolonisation, Smith and Watson allude to the ‘political purposes’ of generic classification, claiming that the breaking of the ‘laws’ of autobiography presents a ‘challenge’ to Western hegemonic structures.7 Similarly, in his analysis of the generic ‘reconsiderations’ of postcolonial autobiography, Moore-Gilbert argues that ‘[a] comparable fracturing of the boundaries of autobiography, as traditionally conceived, is widely observable in the postcolonial field’.8 Like Smith and Watson, Moore-Gilbert views such ‘fracturing’ as symbolising a method of resistance towards dominant social, cultural and political forces.9 Whilst Tadjo’s narrative displays features of generic destabilisation, however, her text also opens up a new dimension in the analysis of postcolonial autobiography. Rather than disrupting generic categories as a mode of political or anti-colonial subversion, her memoir is ruptured on account of her subject matter. It is Tadjo’s techniques of generic variation with specific regards to genocide representation – and the distinct political commentary that arises from this – that I will examine here.

Generic variation is central to Tadjo’s aesthetics as a writer. In an interview published in 2003, she underlines the poetic nature of her work, claiming to ‘function as a poet, yet within the prose medium’.10 Discussing As the Crow Flies (1992), she asserts that ‘[i]t isn’t an A to Z kind of narrative’, conveying its formal unconventionality and calling for the reader to ‘find the little threads that are running through the different stories’.11 Emphasising her status as an African writer, she also underlines her influence ‘by the African oral tradition’, ‘which always used a melange of genres, freely switching from one mode to the other’.12 Central to Tadjo’s generic flexibility is her stress on multivocality as she affirms that ‘to tell one story, you have to tell many stories’ (Tadjo’s italics).13 Her argument that ‘you have to rea[d] all stories to get a better picture’ is directly applicable to her writing of The Shadow of Imana, which covers a range of perspectives relating to the Rwandan genocide.14 Tadjo’s technique of inter-genericity is, therefore, an important feature of this text too, as she blurs the boundaries of memoir to include voices other than her own. In order to examine the text’s ideological framework, I will begin, however, by addressing the features of Tadjo’s personal account, analysing its functions and peculiarities.

Tadjo’s choice of the memoir genre to write about the genocide is unique among the ‘Fest’Africa’ writers, and sheds light on her wider literary pursuit. Not only does the inclusion of her own perspective underline the importance of individual experience in the text, but it enables her to establish the aims of her project and to convey its wider significance.15 Describing the ‘autobiographical occasion’ as ‘a site on which cultural ideologies intersect’, Smith and Watson confirm the agency of memoir, where the writer can shape the narrative according to their own ends.16 In this way, Tadjo uses her personal account to underline the moral imperative of the text, with her own voice substituted for the facts of her initiative. She writes that ‘I was starting from a particular premise: what had happened [in Rwanda] concerned us all’ (3), later affirming that ‘to remember. To bear witness. That is what remains for us in our attempt to combat the past and restore our humanity’ (85). Tadjo’s accounts of her two journeys to Rwanda act as moments of reflection and reiteration, where her own feelings are secondary to her role as witness. Ending with a call ‘to understand’ (118), Tadjo’s account demonstrates the manipulation of memoir in the context of genocide memorialisation, where the narrative subject is replaced by an appeal to a collective consciousness.

  1. See Suzanne Buckley-Zistel on the complexity of memory in post-genocide Rwanda, ‘Between Pragmatism, Coercion and Fear: Chosen Amnesia after the Rwandan Genocide’, in Memory and Political Change, ed. by Aleida Assmann and Linda Shortt (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 72-88. []
  2. The online synopsis for the Cultural Institute of King’s College London’s exhibition, Rwanda in Photographs: Death Then, Life Now, for instance, includes the statement that: ‘Too often the country is reduced to images of violence and death, as seen through the eyes of outsiders.’ <> [accessed 16th April 2014]. []
  3. See the ‘Acknowledgements’ section on the final page of Véronique Tadjo’s The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the heart of Rwanda, trans. by Véronique Wakerley (Oxford: Heinemann, 2002). All subsequent references to this edition will be provided in parentheses within the text. []
  4. Nigel Eltringham, Accounting for Horror: Post-genocide Debates in Rwanda (London: Pluto books, 2004), p. 182. []
  5. Eltringham, p. 182. []
  6. Roger A. Berger defines ‘third-wave’ autobiographical criticism as ‘an approach that attempts to recuperate autobiography by reconciling socially constructed discourse with self-liberationist agency or by conflating the postmodern with the postcolonial’, in ‘Decolonizing African Autobiography’, Research in African Literatures, 41.2 (2010) <DOI: 10.1353/ral.0.0250 > [accessed 29 October 2012] (p. 34). []
  7. De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, ed. by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p. xviii. []
  8. Bart Moore-Gilbert, ‘A Concern Peculiar to Western Man? Postcolonial Reconsiderations of Autobiography as Genre’, in Postcolonial Poetics: Genre and Form, ed. by Patrick Crowley and Jane Hiddleston (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), pp. 91-108 (p. 97). []
  9. Moore-Gilbert, quoting Frederic Jameson, argues that: ‘As a “socially symbolic act”, postcolonial reconsiderations of the genre as it has been understood and deployed in the West challenge the “value system” which underpinned and encouraged colonialism, notably its demarcation of the “properly” human and appropriate means to narrate that privileged identity. This is a first, fundamental step towards the construction of new identities which can justly be described as postcolonial, and which are possible to organize around politically.’ (Moore-Gilbert’s italics), p. 92. []
  10. Véronique Tadjo, ‘Véronique Tadjo Speaks with Stephen Gray’, Research in African Literatures, 34.3 (2003) <> [accessed 15 March 2013] (p. 145). []
  11. Tadjo, p. 145. []
  12. Ibid, p. 145. []
  13. Ibid, p. 145. []
  14. Ibid, p. 146. []
  15. See also Zoe Norridge’s emphasis on the personal nature of Tadjo’s work, Perceiving Pain in African Literature (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 135; pp. 142-3. []
  16. Smith and Watson, p. xix. []

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