The ‘Tree of Forgetfulness survives today in all its bloodied glory’, writes Wole Soyinka, essayist, dramatist, poet, Nobel laureate and a global literary phenomenon. Soyinka was referring to a ritual in places like Ouidah (now in Benin) during the age of slavery.
Chained slaves brought to this port town from the African hinterland were asked to circle the Tree of Forgetfulness (nine times for men, seven times for women), in the belief that this would cause them to forget their country and their culture. From Ouidah, they were put on the ships to the New World. The ritual was meant to signal the erasure of their memories necessitated by their new, and terrible, life, as slaves in America.
Soyinka, remembering African victims at the hands of African victimisers, goes on to argue that Africa forgets, and hence the Tree survives even today. A collective amnesia of what Africans did to each other enables the repetition of genocide and interethnic strife, suggests Soyinka. We do not, in short, need a forgetting, but rather we need to remember.
The thorny question of whether cultures should remember their traumatic pasts, or move beyond it by forgetting has been the subject of debate across the social sciences and humanities. Do we owe it to the victims that we remember exactly how the process of victimisation was set in motion? Or do we, in the guise of ‘working through’ trauma and creating new histories, erode these memories? When Benin sought to have Ouidah – a notorious port to many – declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2016, these were the questions that came up.
Soyinka’s answer, as we can see, is very clear: to remember is to apportion accountability and responsibility, and memory is pre-emptive. Cultural memories, preserved through carriers (such as litterateurs), materials (museums, books) and processes (commemorative events) are pre-emptive because they can serve to prevent similar instances from recurring. The problem is, communities can rarely agree on how to preserve the traumatic memories, even if they commemorate events like national independence.
This does not mean we live in a miasma of victimhood – that is more or less a given, since, in much of the Global South we are happy to blame everything, from potholes in our roads to corruption, on the colonial era. Rather we should recognise signs of victimisation that are still current, before these signs manifest as actions producing victimisation. Cultural memories, manifest in, say, Literature, are pre-emptive because they document these signs.
Take the 1994 ‘Writing in Duty to Memory’ project in Rwanda. Organised by journalist Maïmouna Coulibaly and writer-director Nocky Djedanoum, ten writers were invited to Rwanda in order to bear witness to the genocide of 1990. Nine of the ten participating authors, subsequently, published works on the genocide, including novels, poetry, plays, and nonfiction, of which Véronique Tadjo’s The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda and the Senegalese Boubacar Boris Diop’s Murambi, the Book of Bones became celebrity texts. A critic commented on these works:
They [show it is possible to remember past trauma as a way of preempting future violence] by illustrating the political and social deterioration that led to the genocide, showing the horrific consequence and pushing Rwanda and the broader world to move forward constructively.
The production of cultural memory is, admittedly, a colossal task, one that requires not only careful attention to detail but also a clear agenda that we need to preserve even the community’s horrific acts so that the future generations understand what we have done.
War memorials honour the dead soldiers when the latter’s names are inscribed on to the cenotaph. But when such monuments are devoid of specific names of the dead they also invoke the recognition that many men – too many to be even listed – lost their lives in an act of politically-induced madness. Here the anonymity of the cenotaph is not the memorialising of (supposedly) honourable deaths alone, but also of wasted lives and lives erased from memory, where not even a name exists.
It is in these circumstances that the power of the literary comes to the fore. In her introduction to the magnificent volume, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, the editor Carolyn Forché states: ‘These poems will not permit diseased complacency’. Complacency would entail complicity – and to forget is to be complicit in erasing the victims even further.
Literature bears witness to atrocity. This explains the efforts by totalitarian regimes or even democratorships (democracies that are, in effect, dictatorships), to proscribe, censor the literary. Another Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, reminds us:
Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists.
A Big Danger
The Tree of Forgetfulness is a dangerous tree, for cultural amnesia facilitates the ‘ever again’ in place of the ‘never again’. In many liberal democracies, if that is what they are, the Tree of Forgetfulness takes the form, and ritual, of the electoral process through which, in an act of collective forgetting, the populace brings to power those culpable for victimisation.
Perhaps in such eras of amnesia, a Literature, such as Nayantara Sahgal’s newest, The Fate of Butterflies, MG Vassanji’s Nostalgia or the many works of Octavia Butler, emerges that helps us – those who wish to – remember.
The last word on Literature and its task of bearing witness belongs, indisputably to Toni Morrison in her 2015 essay, ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear’:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)