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“History, Memory & Reconciliation”


A scene of the apocalptic atmosphere in Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti, days after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation on January 12, 2010.
Photo Credit: Dewald

Memories of Loss Help Communities Recover From Tragedy

Mankind has regularly witnessed the immense destruction wrought by natural disasters. Similarly destructive to human life are man-made atrocities, like war and genocide. Those who are lucky enough to have survived either type of cataclysmic event must then begin the process of confronting and reconciling the memories of the catastrophe that befell them. 

Public commemorations of these events have run the gamut from poetry and works of art to government sponsored “truth commissions” and institutional reform. The ways in which people chose to memorialize hardship, whether organized by a group or expressed by an individual, offer illuminating insights into the human psyche and post-conflict justice and also provide valuable information about a society, government or culture.

Several Stanford groups are sponsoring a series of events and research projects designed to explore the many facets of the human phenomena called ‘memory’. Scholars participating in the endeavor, entitled “Contemporary History and the Future of Memory,” represent a broad spectrum of disciplines, but share a common objective: to analyze the range of ways that people have coped with adversity in the past so that future communities may benefit their experience. Attention to the role that memory plays in helping people move beyond tragedy is especially pertinent now as citizens of Chile and Haiti transition from survival to recovery after the devastating earthquakes that took place in each country.

“Contemporary History and the Future of Memory” began in the spring of 2008 with the launch of a multi-year research and public policy program sponsored by Stanford’s Forum on Contemporary Europe (FCE) and the Division of Literature, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL.) The aim of that program, as described on the DLCL website, is to investigate “how communities that have undergone deep and violent political transformations try to confront their past.” In the fall of 2009 the Human Rights Program at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law joined the initiative, bringing with them expertise in reconciliation, a fundamental phase in the cycle of memory. 

The series title was amended to “History, Memory & Reconciliation” in recognition of their contribution. This year’s events featured a visit by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, the internationally renowned scholar of comparative literature from Columbia University, who addressed the subject of cultural and linguistic memory. During the spring quarter human rights and memory will be addressed in separate events by two guest scholars. Cambridge Anthropologist Harri Englund gave a talk on April 6th and University of Chile Law professor José Zalaquett will take part in several events on April 22nd and 23rd. Four Stanford scholars co-chair “History, Memory & Reconciliation.” They are French Professor Elisabeth Boyi, Assistant Professor of English Saikat Majumdar, Law School lecturer and FSI fellow Helen Stacy, and Roland Hsu, Assistant Director of FSI’s Forum on Contemporary Europe.

Professors Majumdar and Boyi answered a few questions about the value of delving into memory and how humanities research informs the broader dialogue.

The multi-year "History and Memory" research and public policy program includes faculty sponsors from a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. What do humanists bring to the conversation?

SM:  Humanists are most likely to be interested in memory as a document of culture, especially the way such documents form the basis of aesthetic experience. Poems and plays, films and artwork, are all unique receptacles of personal and collective cultural memory. Personal and collective memories are inseparably intertwined with each other, and the study of aesthetics offers a unique perspective on this complex entanglement.

Humanists are most likely to be interested in memory as a document of culture, especially the way such documents form the basis of aesthetic experience. Poems and plays, films and artwork, are all unique receptacles of personal and collective cultural memory. Personal and collective memories are inseparably intertwined with each other, and the study of aesthetics offers a unique perspective on this complex entanglement.  

EB: Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines approach the topic of “memory” differently, including varying points of view about the significance of memory and how and why to study it. A humanist perspective is particularly valuable because memory is a way of processing and conveying the human experience, and memory reaches beyond printed records and dated documents. Literature and the arts are places where humanities scholars can explore memory.

In addition, humanities scholars are interested in the significance of how and what people remember, even when memory is sometimes unconsciously flawed, or in cases where people have different or conflicting memories of the same event. What seems to matter most is how events and their consequences have impacted personal individual or collective lives.

What aspects of literary studies are relevant to explorations of topics like post-conflict justice, reconciliation and truth commissions?

SM: These topics have a primary relevance to literary studies in as much as they capture and address significant human experience. But they also have a heightened relevance to the political and social conscience of literary studies, something inseparable from its aesthetic concern. Take, for instance, the most powerful novels, plays and poems about the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Truth Commission that followed it – neither their aesthetic appeal, nor their political urgency is imaginable without the other.

EB: Memory in history is part of a “creative imagination.” Fictionalization of historical events in a novel for example, offer fact-based accounts of historical events (see such novels as Edouard Glissant’s Le Quatrième siècle, or La Lézarde, Emile Ollivier’s Mère Solitude, or Marie Chauvet’s La Danse sur le volcan. Even if these novels do not feature real historical characters, they present accounts that capture a historical period and context, and inscribe a memory of the past in the narrative. Issues such as post-conflict justice, reconciliation and truth commissions, in South Africa for example, were part of the process of healing in communities there, and allow readers to consider the present, look to the past, and think of the future.

Events in the "History and Memory" series examine how communities that have endured trauma, caused by natural disaster or political upheaval, memorialize tragedy and change. Why is it valuable to study this uniquely human phenomenon?

SM: Literary studies is concerned with human subjectivity in its individual and collective forms. Topics like these remind us that such subjectivity is historically shaped by conflict and its consequences. More specifically, post-conflict justice and truth commissions often deploy, for ethical and political purposes, many of the techniques of literary and performative art, such as narration and memoralization. Fiction with such an urgent burden of history is an enormously complex problem, for literary studies as much for historians, social scientists and political activists. The personal and intimate nature of witnessing before truth commissions have given many such reports a novelistic texture, not in the sense they are fictional, but in the sense they are close to the private sensibility, which is the hallmark of the aesthetic.

EB: When a catastrophe (natural disaster, war) occurs, there is a before, and an after. Looking at the before could certainly help people think about how to look at the after, or how to manage the after. This ‘after’ includes diverse elements: reconstruction from a purely material point of view, but also psychological and emotional reconstruction, possibly through individual verbalization or construction of personal or collective narratives. Recollecting and giving form to experience by organizing its different components can help alleviate the trauma. In addition, those narratives are valuable records that will last. If history repeats itself, one can draw lessons from the past. Thus, these narratives embody a human experience and they can serve as constant reminders that can help people learn from the past.

How would you describe the difference between public memory and private memory, and why is it an important distinction? 

SM: It is an important distinction, but in practice they are hard to keep apart from each other. It is impossible to determine where private ends and the public begins even within a single human mind. But we all remember even the same set of events differently, and the private aspects of memory lie in this difference. But social and national groups also have collective memory, to which customs, rituals, traditions act as vehicles. Both public and private memory have played important roles in literature.

Myths, legends and lore circulating in public memory have been transformed by private authorial visions into unique literary texts and performances. The modern western aesthetic sensibility, however, has somewhat tended to privilege private memory – take the retrospective poetry of William Wordsworth. But within literature produced by historically oppressed or marginalized social groups, such as people formerly enslaved or colonized, collective memory has a kind of importance not always available to those historically more privileged.   

EB: Often, individual memory is part of the collective memory. Consider novels like the French novelist George Perec’s W, ou, le souvenir d’enfance. It is the history of his family. But beyond this family history, it is the collective history of the Jewish people through space and time; so is the case with the Franco-Tunisian Albert Memmi’s novel La Statue de sel in regard to North African Jews. One could also cite the Congolese Henri Lopes’ novel Le Lys et le flamboyant, an auto fiction through which one could decipher the history of the Congos in the nineteen-sixties.

The Franco-Algerian woman writer, Assia Djebar’s novels, Les Enfants du nouveau monde or Les Alouettes naïves narrate the story of a young Algerian girl growing up. They are at the same time a metaphorical representation of an Algerian nation’s growth towards emancipation and independence. Another Franco-Algerian writer Nina Bouraoui in Le Séisme recounts her memories of an earthquake in Algeria when she was a young girl. The seismic movements and the consequences are used as an allegoric representation of contemporary Algeria where wars, ruptures, dislocations, shocks and pains are prevalent. 

How does remembering acts of imperialism and colonialism in literature help cultures deal with the ramifications of those periods of tumult?

SM: Memory is far from a passive act; it is an active interaction with impression left by external stimuli. Remembering historical acts of domination such as colonialism, can therefore, have a range of affective consequences on the individual and social consciousness, from trauma to shame to anger to cathartic self-recognition, even willful oblivion. Acts of remembering phases of colonialism and imperialism are therefore most meaningful when it helps those recalling such memories develop an understanding of the process and consequence of such domination. At a pragmatic level, this is historical self-awareness – on a more affective level they act as they would with any private trauma, to develop emotional, intellectual and psychic control over oppressive memories.   

EB: Major events in history such as periods of colonization might be considered a catastrophe by those who are being colonized. Like victims of natural disasters survivors of war, imperialism, and colonialism have had their share of dislocation, loss, physical and symbolic disappearance, and cultural amnesia. History is a dialectic process that embodies past, present and future. Remembering a period of colonization, without romanticizing those memories, allows societies to better understand the present and contemplate the future. Reflection can take the form of individual accounts, works of art, and narratives as illustrated by different genres in artistic production from former colonies.

Could you give an example of how have people memorialized or reconciled acts of violence when they are living under an oppressive regime?

SM: To continue with the example of South Africa, the hearings and the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after the abolition of apartheid is a complex web of private and public memory of the oppression and human rights violation of the regime. The literary and performative aspects of the hearing and the report – say the use of detail, description and dialogue in the recapitulation of past violence – were more than evident to most South African writers writing at that time. The TRC report loomed like a pervasive alter-ego to most South African literary works dealing with the apartheid regime, though the book that most directly incorporated the findings of the TRC was Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull. 

EB: In some cases, at least in African societies, literature, for example, also functions as a means of escape from the harsh reality of an oppressive regime, but at the same time, it can be a representation of that reality - with transparency (the writer ends up in prison or in exile), or under the veil of an allegoric narrative.  At the level of popular culture, paintings, songs, music, and linguistic innovations often serve as an outlet.

What role should the Haitian government play in helping the Haitian people record and remember the earthquake tragedy?

SM: Right now, with hundreds of thousands people dead and critically injured, this question is meaningless. The event itself is still in the realm of the real for most people, and far from that of memory. It will be a long time before it becomes the subject of memory, and in a sense it never fully will, as the consequences of something of this scale will always be tangible and immediate. If and when, in the future, the most that can be done to alleviate the loss and suffering has been done, this question might take on some significance – not so much in terms of commemorating the tragedy itself as that what it has destroyed.

Art and architecture, always a prime site of national memory, have been heavily damaged in the earthquake, including the incredible Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s national memory, and the world’s historical image of the nation, is a powerful one, and a triumphal one at that, as the first black-led republic in the world and the venue of the legendary slave-revolution that triumphed over Napolean’s military might to gain independence. This is the memory that should thrive into posterity.

EB: I am not sure if the Haitian government, or any government could or should play such role. It is rather through artistic creation that this role could be implemented: literature and other arts play the role of cultural memory. In the context of the recent earthquake in Haiti, if the government has a role, it is to rebuild infrastructure, schools, places of cultural and artistic expressions, and, above all, allow full and free expression of artistic creation in literature, music, painting etc.  Besides the sometimes sensational media coverage, so far Haitians writers are the only ones from within who have spoken and written about the tragedy, who have raised their voice to talk not only about the misery that comes with the catastrophe, but also about the government silence, the heroic acts and actions of small people in the middle of a total disarray.

Have you seen trends in the ways that people process a natural disaster versus a man-made disaster?

SM:The sad thing is that the line of distinction between natural and man-made disasters is not always as clear as we’d like to think. For instance, economists and historians have demonstrated that many famines, especially in locations under colonial rule, could be partly or wholly avoided but for the exploitative economic regimes of colonialism. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845 is a perfect example, where British colonialism and absentee landlordism by the Anglo-Protestant aristocracy was probably just as responsible for the widespread disaster as the crop-destroying potato blight.

Personally for me, an intriguing pairing of memories of “natural” and “man-made” disaster has consisted in listening to my grandparents talk about the Bengal Famine of 1943, and the violent Partition of India in 1947, which also especially affected the pre-independence state of Bengal (now divided into Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) that was home to both my parents’ families. Like the Irish famine, the Bengal famine also heavily worsened by the British colonial administration, who strictly regulated food supply to local population so as to make provisions for Allied soldiers.

But I have to say I found the difference between people’s memories about the “natural” and the “man-made” to be quite predictable, with a greater sense of fatalism dominating the supposedly “natural” disaster. There was an awareness of the political factors behind the “natural” disaster, but they were not thought of as quite as significant as later economic research was to reveal. This is how, anyway, the events were being talked about half a century later – the contemporary response could very well have been a whole different thing.

EB: Natural disasters are typically seen as unavoidable, but in some cases people come to believe that the damage was in fact man-made. The recent disaster in Haiti is a good example. Media and outsiders speculated that had structures followed building codes, then, the human toll and the physical and material damage would have been lessened. Human actions or lack of action are thus being blamed as a cause: negligence in building, deforestation, corruption, bureaucracy etc… This interpretation might be true, but perhaps it is not one hundred percent accurate.

In Haiti, seemingly solid buildings such the Presidential Palace and the almost hundred year-old Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, collapsed, while smaller houses and of a lesser stature survived unscathed. Natural disasters can have unpredictable consequences. It suffices to remember how destructive the January 1995 earthquake in Kobe (Japan) was in terms of human lives and material damage, despite Japan’s strict building codes and reputation of safety-conscious industrial development.