January 25th, 2017
I’m pleased to announce that my book, Negotiating Genocide in Rwanda: The Politics of History, has just been published with Palgrave Macmillan’s Studies in Oral History series. As a major revisionist monograph of relevance for oral historians, Africanists, genocide scholars, and human rights practitioners, it refocuses the historiography of modern Rwanda, which is dominated by Euro-American studies of the genocide, on popular understandings of Rwanda’s past, drawing upon life history and thematic interviews with Rwandan officials, survivors, bystanders, former combatants, and convicted perpetrators. Throughout, it engages with critical questions about a relatively recent shift in the practice of oral history: namely, the application of oral historical methods to the study of mass atrocities.
Negotiating Genocide in Rwanda begins with an overview of the Rwandan government’s official history surrounding the 1994 genocide, which claims that over one million of the nation’s ethnic Tutsi minority population were murdered by ethnic Hutu extremists motivated by virulent anti-Tutsi hatred. This official history oversimplifies the genocide—dividing the population into innocent Tutsi victims and guilty Hutu perpetrators—to legitimize the predominantly Tutsi regime that currently controls Rwanda’s government. It is disseminated to the public through genocide memorials and other transitional justice mechanisms, and a strict law against promoting ‘genocide ideology’ prohibits public contradiction.
However, the main purpose of the book is to examine how Rwandans from different sides of the conflict relate to this official history. I argue that memorial staff, rural genocide survivors, convicted perpetrators, and other cohorts within Rwandan society rarely find their experiences of the genocide, and Rwandan history more broadly, reflected in the current official history. Furthermore, in probing their complex life histories, I reveal a powerful reservoir of not only ethnic tensions—as is commonly argued—but also regional, political, and social tensions around different events in Rwandan history. Of particular importance, I find that these tensions undermine many Rwandans’ willingness to engage in initiatives aimed at facilitating post-genocide social repair and transitional justice, and suggest further political instability is possible. Negotiating Genocide in Rwanda thus calls into question many of the assumed benefits of transitional justice in post-conflict contexts, particularly those that are dominated by authoritarian regimes.
December 24th, 2016
In advance of the next issue of Oral History Review, the journal has published my review of Mark Cave and Stephen Sloan’s new edited volume Listening on the Edge: Oral History in the Aftermath of Crisis (2014) online. To summarize, Listening on the Edge is essential reading for anyone engaged in the practice of oral history in conflict and post-conflict settings, and is particularly valuable for its ability to provoke readers to think through some of the particular ethical and methodological challenges of this kind of research, as well as the potential insights and benefits that it might produce. In the review, I provide a brief summary of each of the volume’s chapters, but this by no means does justice to their importance for the field, nor does it serve as an adequate substitute for a full and careful reading of the volume as a whole. Taken together, I argue that “Listening on the Edge advances the literature on the practice and ethics of crisis oral history by taking readers through the various negotiations that are often inherent in this work. Among its most important contributions, it offers insights on working with witnesses of traumatic events; the necessary distinctions between the often overlapping fields of oral history, psychology, and journalism; the dangers of vicarious trauma and other forms of emotional distress for the interviewer(s); and the necessity of bringing multiple experiences into conversation to reconstruct and comprehend how crises affect peoples’ lives. In doing so, the volume clearly demonstrates the many benefits that can emerge from applying oral history methods and theory to the study of crises, while simultaneously exploring the subfield’s potential pitfalls and limitations. That each chapter is grounded in interview excerpts, bringing interviewees’ voices into conversation with the oral historians’ analysis, is a particular strength of this volume.”
November 1st, 2016
I’m pleased to announce that my latest article, “The danger of a single story: Iconic stories in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide,” has just been published online with Memory Studies. The article explores the phenomenon of iconic stories—previously described by Linda Shopes (2002) and Sherna Berger Gluck (2011) as concrete accounts of unique and totemic events that come to have particular historical, political or personal resonance for narrators, prompting them to incorporate these accounts into their life histories, adopting them as their own—as it relates to Rwanda following the 1994 genocide. In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the government of Rwanda—much like other transitional regimes around the world—has prioritized reconciliation initiatives that educate civilians with a highly politicized understanding of the conflict and encourage them to speak about the conflict and its aftermath in a manner that reinforces the legitimacy of the current government. However, individual survivors, bystanders, ex-combatants, and/or perpetrators of the genocide find various subtle ways to reinforce, resist, or complicate the current official history. The article analyzes a series of “iconic stories” that are repeated by Rwandans in different settings due to their historical and personal resonance for what they can tell us about the ethnic and political tensions that often continue to divide Rwandans and the overall challenges associated with everyday life since the genocide. Yet, engaging with these iconic stories places the researcher in a difficult position where the democratizing potential of oral history is potentially undermined. The article therefore argues that even while qualitative researchers have an obligation to listen deeply to their informants, their moral and professional obligations to avoid reproducing narratives that promote potentially reprehensible agendas—for example, genocide denial or the legitimation of authoritarianism—make contextualizing their participants’ narratives in relation to the personal, historical, and political climate in which they are being produced essential. The print version will be part of Memory Studies 10(2), to be published in 2017.
Gluck SB (2011) Trust, betrayal, and “truths”: reflections on what we do/don’t say about our oral histories—and why. Paper presented at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling Conference, Off the Record: Unspoken Negotiations in the Practice of Oral History.
Shopes L (2002) What is oral history? History matters: the U.S. survey course on the web: 2–23. Available at: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/ (accessed 30 July 2016).
October 27th, 2016
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Marburg Centre for Conflict Studies conference “On Collective Violence: Actions, Roles, Perceptions.” It included three jam-packed days of presentations by scholars and practitioners approaching the study of collective violence in different settings from a range of (inter)disciplinary backgrounds. In addition to being expertly organized by Kristine Avram, Melanie Hartmann, Miriam Leiberich, Philipp Schultheiß, and Timothy Williams, the overall format of the event resulted in many excellent papers and fruitful conversations between those in attendance. Read the rest of this entry »
October 12th, 2016
In honour of the Oral History Association’s 50th anniversary this year, the Oral History Review has published a special virtual issue containing the journal’s fifteen most influential articles since its inception in 1973, which taken together demonstrate the value of oral history. The editors—Kathryn Nasstrom, Troy Reeves, and Andrew Shaffer—have selected my 2011 article, “The limits of oral history: Ethics and methodology amid highly politicized research settings,” to be showcased alongside the work of such notable oral historians as Ronald Grele, Alex Haley, Linda Shopes, Alessandro Portelli, and Valerie Yow, among others. The virtual issue is now available to the public online free of charge until the end of 2016, and includes the following articles: Read the rest of this entry »