Last week, I participated in an event sponsored by the Institute of Public Knowledge at NYU and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). It was an honour to share the presentation stage with Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Virginie Ladisch, Head of the Children and Transitional Justice Program at the ICTJ. The presentation included a screening of a short, documentary film (introduced by Tamara Cremo) made by several high school students who attended the Halifax national gathering last year. Commissioner Wilson spoke eloquently about the work done thus far by the commission and Virginie Ladisch shared her knowledge about both the opportunities and challenges in engaging youth in processes of transitional justice.

I think a video of the talk may be available shortly so for now, I’d like to focus on a conversation that happened after the talk. The panelists, organizers and budding filmmakers/students went out to dinner after the presentation. The conversation touched on everything from the challenges of motherhood and work/life balance, transitional justice in other international settings, and the importance of creating more awareness about the IRS legacy. We also spoke briefly about Antjie Krog’s work. A journalist and author who covered the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Krog wrote about the work of the commission throughout its mandate and eventually wrote the award-winning book, Country of My Skull. In discussing the lack of national media coverage about the IRS TRC in Canada, Marie Wilson asked, “Where is our Antjie Krog?” Her question made me pause. It’s true. Why hasn’t there been more national coverage about the reconciliation process? Why haven’t journalists and/or media outlets offered sustained media coverage of the IRS TRC? Where is the journalist who has taken up the reconciliation process to portray all its political and personal complexities?

A few years ago, when the commission was still in its early days, I gave a talk at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference at Harvard University. During the Q and A, a member of the audience, a scholar writing about the TRC in Sierra Leone, asked me whether the IRS TRC and the process of reconciliation had galvanized the Canadian public. I answered quickly and with disappointment that it had not. In fact, there are still many Canadians unaware that such a commission even exists. Although there has been some excellent media coverage, it has been sporadic and often appears in local presses. The national newspapers and broadcasters may run a short story on it from time to time, but there hasn’t been any sustained coverage of the reconciliation process. Why is there no weekly or even monthly column that regularly covers the TRC in the Globe and Mail or National Post? Why doesn’t the CBC have a regular radio or TV segment on Canadian reconciliation?

Some people are quick to point out that there are, of course, differences between the South African TRC and the Canadian one. In South Africa, the system of apartheid implicated and effected everyone and it happened in the immediate past. But, I would argue that the same is true in Canada. The Indian Residential Schools and their legacies implicate every Canadian, not just Aboriginal peoples. The last school closed in 1996, suggesting that this history is still fresh and its repercussions are playing out in the present.  More national media coverage is necessary for a greater and deeper awareness of how the reverberations of the IRS system reach out through Canadian society.

The title of the front-page Toronto Star article today, “No Truth, No Reconciliation” refers explicitly to those former students who have passed on since the creation of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006. For those students, the article states, there can be no truth, and no reconciliation. The article also implies that the quest for truth and reconciliation may be stalled in general, painting a picture of a commission facing extreme difficulties: “The saga of truth and reconciliation is fraught with scandal, power struggles, firings, lost friendships and soul-destroying delays,” writes author Linda Diebel.

I agree that the commission has faced struggles, and also that time is of the essence for aging survivors. I also believe, however, that the road to reconciliation is always fraught with challenges. Having attended the first national event in June in Winnipeg, I witnessed the complicated journey towards reconciliation. The event was filled with contradictions and conflicting voices.  And having lived in South Africa almost a decade after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established (I was there from 2004-2005), I know that these challenges are not easily resolved. Indeed, people still debate the strengths and weaknesses of the South African TRC in dealing with the injustices of apartheid.

Linda Diebel’s article discusses the challenges of the commission, including the heavy hand of government involvement, the setbacks caused by resignations and staff shuffles, and budget concerns. It’s important that we are made aware of these challenges, and that dialogue about the commission occurs in the public sphere. I think too that it is important to remember that reconciliation must occur both through the commission’s work and outside of it. Otherwise, Canadians (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) won’t feel engaged or implicated by the reconciliation process.

To read more from Linda Diebel’s article, click here.

“I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing – the contingent way that images arrive in the work – lies some kind of model of how we live out lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.”

– William Kentridge

An exhibit of William Kentridge’s work is currently on display at MOMA in New York until May 17, 2010. I went to see it the other day with my friend Lauren and am now completely enamored with his work. Before visiting the exhibit, I knew a bit about the artist, mostly through his work on an amazing play called Ubu and the Truth Commission, but didn’t have a sense of his range and diversity. For the most part, Kentridge, a South African artist, deals with the realities of living in an apartheid and post-apartheid state. He engages issues of oppression, resistance, hatred, love and desire through several mediums including drawing, film, printmaking, collage, and theatrical performance. Go see it!

The image above: William Kentridge. Drawing from Stereoscope 1998-99. Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper. For more on Kentridge at MOMA click here or for a review, click here.

I’ve just returned to New York from North Bay, Ontario where I attended Nipissing University’s conference on Truth, Reconciliation and the Residential Schools. The organizers put together a great program that involved both the academic community and the Nipissing First Nations community. I presented a short paper entitled: The Limits of Testimony: Contextualizing Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.

Because the IRS TRC is still in its early stages, the paper focused on a comparative analysis. In particular, I focused on one specific, puzzling testimony, given to the South African TRC in 1996 by Mrs. Konile, whose son was killed by apartheid security forces in 1986. A recent book has been published about this testimony, co-authored by Antjie Krog (an Afrikaner poet and journalist), Nosisi Mpolweni (Xhosa lecturer and linguist) and Kopano Ratele (psychologist).  The book is entitled There Was This Goat: Investigating the Truth Commission Testimony of Notrose Nobomvu Konile and the authors spend the bulk of the book discussing one particular testimony, given by Mrs. Konile. This testimony was difficult to understand for many reasons – it did not follow a linear trajectory, it mixed her dream life with her waking life, and made reference to cultural and traditional symbols that would have been difficult for outsiders of her culture to understand. Add to that that her testimony was translated from Xhosa to English and transcribed, and one begins to understand how difficult it may be to comprehend one not-so-simple testimony.  The authors of There Was This Goat, which is a line from Mrs. Konile’s testimony, embark on a journey of understanding as they imagine conversations about this testimony and begin to discuss with Mrs. Konile her experience of losing her son, with the truth commission and its aftermath. In one section of the text, where the authors imagine a conversation between two black South Africans, one says to the other:

To fully understand our words you have to understand a whole history of fear, hiding, running, evading, and still trying to maintain a sense of dignity and a life worth something. To truly hear Mrs. Konile’s truth, and the truth of most of the black people who testified at the Truth Commission hearings, you have to work hard to understand it, you have to gain our trust. It’s not going to be given to you just like that, because you may turn and use it against us, as happened many, many times under apartheid (32).

By looking at Mrs. Konile’s testimony and the work of Krog, Mpolweni, and Ratele, my paper explored how testimony is something that must be actively engaged and understood within a much larger historical and cultural context. (I posted a few weeks ago about another of Antjie Krog’s books, Country of My Skull, and There Was This Goat is another excellent, engaging read about the politics of truth commissions.)

Thanks to the organizers and the Nipissing First Nations, who were so generous with sharing their experiences.

While I was preparing for my specialization exams last summer, I read a ton of books. For the two exams, I had about 100 books to read in a very short period of time. I got good at skimming the material and pulling out relevant quotes, but because of the pressure to read quickly, I lost out on some of the nuances and beauty of the texts. Luckily, I recently had the chance to re-read one of these books and found that without the looming exam, I was able to appreciate the text much more.

In Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, journalist Antjie Krog tells the story of the South African truth commission. It is a highly personal reflection on the process of national reconciliation after the fall of apartheid. When I first read it, I was looking for two sorts of information: 1) What were the basic facts of the commission? Who were the commissioners? Who testified? What was the public response? And 2) What were some of the theoretical issues with which the commission wrestled? How did it conceptualize truth? How did the concept of reconciliation change during the process? What did it mean to different sets of people within the country?

But on my second reading, I was able to focus far more on Krog’s personal experience of the commission and her struggle as a white Afrikaner dealing with the conflicting emotions of guilt, shame, pride, love and hope. It is a beautifully written, complex story that blends personal narrative with historical context and social commentary.

As I continue to follow the TRC in Canada, I wonder: How does one tell the story of a truth commission?With all its complexities and contestations, how does one weave together some sort of narrative that can speak to its inherent contradictions? Antjie Krog shows us that a layered text produced through a mixture of prose, poetry and journalism may be the answer.

Berlin! (Part 1)

November 2, 2009

naomi-berlinI recently returned from Berlin where I was participating in the Eleventh Berlin Roundtables on Transnationality. The event, generously supported by the Irmgard Coninx Foundation, was amazing. The Foundation sponsored about 50 young scholars from around the world to participate in discussions centered around three themes: Memorials and Museums, Transitional Justice and Political Discourse. I presented my research on the IRS TRC in Canada and had the pleasure of hearing others present their work related to issues from Ghana, Cambodia, Peru, Japan, Israel, Yemin, and Cypress among others.

The Foundation also arranged for three guest lecturers:

Karl Schlögel (Professor of Eastern European History, European University Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder): “Divided Horizons, Divided Memories: The Year 1989 and Europe”

Albie Sachs (Judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa): “From Prison to Constitutional Court: The Changing Face of Justice in South Africa”

Daniel Libeskind (Architect, New York): “Counterpoint: The Architecture of Memory”

The lectures were great. Albie Sachs’ talk was particularly inspiring. Sachs was a freedom fighter in South Africa and during his exile in Mozambique, he survived a car bomb attack. He lost his right arm and partial vision in his eyes, but, as he said in his talk, retained his sense of humour and his will to fight. After the fall of apartheid, he returned to South Africa where President Mandela appointed him a judge on the newly formed constitutional court. After his talk, I had the opportunity to speak with him briefly – a truly generous and special man.

The Foundation has recently announced its next Call for Papers. The theme is Cultural Pluralism Revisited: Religious and Linguistic Freedoms. I encourage everyone to apply!

Next on my list: Washington, DC. I head there on Friday for the annual American Studies Association (ASA) Conference. My last conference of the year!

coombscover1In History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, Annie Coombs explores several specific sites of memorial in South Africa, highlighting the ways in which drastic political and social changes call for a re-negotiation of important historical sites. For example, Coombs explores the symbolic importance of Robben Island, as embodying both the troubled history of South Africa and the promise of a new future. Because of the central role it played in the discourse of political resistance under apartheid, the fate of the island during the shift to a post-apartheid society was hotly debated. It was eventually decided that the island should become open to the public as a tourist site. Former guardsbecame tour leaders on the grounds of their past incarceration. The site becomes a “living memorial,” where narratives continue to evolve. 

Her comparison of the Robben Island Museum with the District Six Museum allows her to contrast the ways in which other categories of identity, including gender, enter the discourses of oppression, loss and memorialization. The discrepancy she notes between the two museums is indicative of the importance placed on the struggles of the prisoners at Robben Island (including Nelson Mandela) as opposed to the families displaced by the forced relocation of District Six residents. Written before the completion of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Coombs can only speculate about the way in which the narratives understood through an examination of The District Six Museum and Robben Island are voiced in the new museum space. 

Coombs’ work on contextualizing the implications of a changing history on the physical representations of these histories is interesting in the Canadian context. The Canadian TRC, in other words, is only one way in which this neglected history will be explored. By the end of the TRC’s five year mandate, museums, public spaces and existing and new artwork will have to be reinterpreted.