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  • From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women's Writing by Catherine Gilbert
  • Madelaine Hron
From Surviving to Living: Voice, Trauma and Witness in Rwandan Women's Writing
Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2018.
294 pp. ISBN 9782367812687 paper.

The year 2019 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, and an exciting array of scholarly works have been published in commemoration, including Jean Hatzfeld's Blood Papa: Rwanda's New Generation, Rangira Béa Gallimore's Art from Trauma: Genocide and Healing beyond Rwanda, Nigel Eltringham's Genocide Never Sleeps: Living Law at the International Criminal Tribunal [End Page 257] for Rwanda, Jastine C. Barrett's Child Perpetrators on Trial: Insights from Post-Genocide Rwanda, as well as Nicki Hitchcott and Hannah Grayson's two collections of Stories of Change, one by survivors and the other by scholars. Catherine Gilbert's thought-provoking contribution—an analysis of seventeen testimonial texts by women survivors—is timely and significant given the #metoo movement and nicely complements other monographs published in 2019 on women in wartime, including Sara Brown's Gender and the Genocide in Rwanda: Women as Rescuers and Perpetrators, Laura Sjoberg and Jessica Peet's Gender and Civilian Victimization in War: Kill the Women First, and Christina Lamb's Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women.

Gilbert's engaging study focuses on Rwandan women's testimonial accounts, a corpus that, as of yet, has been largely dismissed. Gilbert mainly centers her analyses on somewhat familiar Franco-Rwandan authors (e.g., Mukagasana, Mukasonga, Mujawayo, Kayitesi), although she occasionally also alludes to English writers (e.g., Ilibagiza, Nganemariya), lesser known texts (e.g., Musomandera, Gwiza), or Hutu accounts (Umutesi, Mukamunganga, Bagilishya). To develop her arguments, Gilbert draws on trauma theory, Holocaust studies, and critical approaches to testimony/testimonio. Her general approach to these frameworks counters the "impossibility" of witnessing, which Gilbert argues, "derives as much from the audience's inability to hear the story as from the survivors inability to express the trauma" (38).

The work's first chapter examines the authenticity and legitimacy of the witness, comparing accounts by direct witnesses, secondary witnesses, and those who saw more or less atrocity and delves into such issues as debt, guilt, and hierarchies of suffering. The second chapter explores trauma, in its sensory and cultural translations, as well as in its temporal manifestations. It also scrutinizes these testimonials' nuanced rhetoric of pain that works to inculpate the international community. The third chapter investigates the role of the "collaborator," or the Western cowriter, interpreter, and intermediary, a subject position that is often overlooked in the transmission of testimonial texts, but one that can critically shape or even change witness testimony by its editing. Particularly thought-provoking are Gilbert's case analyses of contradictory collaborations with Patrick May. Ultimately, Gilbert emphasizes collaboration is a thorny, negotiating "survivor strategy" (163), yet she also suggests that collaboration, as empathetic listening in a reciprocal relationship, can minimize the unspeakable suffering and loneliness of trauma (132–35) and may even offer the survivor some form of healing or liberation (157–58).

Gilbert's fourth chapter adds to the overworked theme of silence in witnessing by developing on silence's role as resistance in (post)colonial contexts, as abandonment by the West during the genocide, as well as a form of censure in Rwandan gendered and politico-cultural contexts post-genocide. Focusing on post-genocide reconciliation, confrontations with perpetrators, as well as on women-led communities such as AVEGA or Tubeho, the final chapter further discusses these women writers' complex victim-survivor positions in post-genocide Rwanda, as both remembering and future-oriented, as both individual and collective witnesses, but also as both materially and physically vulnerable. Throughout her study, Gilbert deftly negotiates the promises of testimonial witnessing—as truth-telling, denouncing, documenting, or even as healing—with the fragile real-life conditions of survival in a post-genocide context, as manifested, for instance, by [End Page 258] Berthe Kayitesi's tragic random death at thirty-five in 2015, to whom this work is dedicated. In all, From Surviving to Living is essential reading for...


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