Kathryn Mara

2015-16 Research Report

The Commodification of Trauma and Memory in African Genocide Literature

My research investigates the condition in which literature(s) are assigned value, dependent on such qualities as the author’s proximity to the events described, the authenticity of the narrative, and its aesthetic value. This trajectory goes far beyond who is best equipped to represent the trauma of genocide, or who “owns” its memory; instead, it hopes to determine the manner in which genocide is experienced without the author having necessarily experienced the genocide. Indeed, following Boubacar Boris Diop’s departure from the “bookish vision of the realities of the African continent,” I am interested in what he describes as the “relationship with the outside world, of an often-proclaimed shared destiny, and the urgency to live for the truth.” Most of all, I want to interrogate the ethics of representing an experience that may not be one’s own.

Having completed a master’s thesis on the literature of the Rwandan Genocide at Michigan State University, I am interested in crafting a dissertation on a similar topic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In particular, I am interested in tracking the development of the “official narrative” of the Rwandan Genocide, specifically, or creating a conceptual framework to understand trauma across African literature more broadly. Already within my African Cultural Studies coursework, I have examined the relationship between literary representations and the memorialization of Ethiopia’s Red Terror in African 700: Reading and Writing African Cultural Studies, as well as the role of melodrama in the development of the official narrative of the Rwandan Genocide in African 901: Melodrama. In addition, I am exploring researcher positionality in African Studies in African 925: Literary Ethnography, which, in combination with my other courses, is helping me to write a comprehensive, nuanced dissertation.

Finally, in order to carry out my research, I have also been studying Kinyarwanda independently in African 697: Directed Study of a Less Commonly Taught Language. To help other L2 speakers of Kinyarwanda, I have developed this website:


Although I am proud of my website and about my progress, I am most excited to return to Rwanda this summer and develop my language skills further there.

Image: Located at Ntarama Genocide Memorial, the verse, originally written in Kinyarwanda, reads, “If you knew me, or if you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me” (Felicien Ntagengwa).