Friday, July 22, 2011

Deep and Horrifying Graphic History

Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda
There is something about a graphic novel depiction of a horrible situation, war, genocide, etc, that stays with you for a long time. I think it might be the fact that "comics" are assumed to be fun and light-hearted, but graphic novels and even comics have take a whole new approach. They don't limit themselves to fun, slight stories. They can be dark, serious, and very, very real. Jean-Philippe Strassen's graphic depiction of the Rwandan genocide will stay with you long after you have read the last frame. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda is a powerful book.

The story is told in two parts. It shows the life of Deogratias, a young Hutu man who has been driven mad by the genocide, and it shows his life before the genocide in constant flashbacks. Deogratias was in love with with Appollinaria, but when she turned him down, he started dating her younger sister Benina. He loved both girls. It didn't matter to him that they were Tutsi and he was Hutu, or how their mother made her money to support them. When the President's plane is shot down and the genocide begins, Deogratias hides Benina in his house, but she cannot stay there without knowing what happened to her mother and her sister.

The present time show Deogratias, or what is left of him. He is still a young boy, but he has been driven mad by the things he has seen and the things he has done during the genocide. The people in the village treat him like a pet, a dirty stray dog. At night is when his demons haunt him and he drowns them with local banana beer. It isn't until the very end of the book, after witnessing Deogratias' flashbacks and loss into madness, that you see the return of a foreign priest who fled before the genocide got really bad. With his return, you learn the truth of what happened during the genocide to cause Deogratias' madness.

The illustrations in this book are dark and scary. There are times at the beginning where it is hard to tell what is happening, especially when you see Deogratias start to transform under the stars into a dog. The flashbacks give you part of the story bit by bit, and you have to puzzle everything together. Because you have grown to care and worry about Deogratias, learning the truth about his time in the genocide is very painful. Unfortunately, this is a very true depiction of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Hutus who lived and worked with Tutsis for their entire lives were forced to kill their family and neighbors to avoid being killed themselves. It is hard to digest, but not because it is a graphic story (although it is), but rather because it is a true story.

I think this story is an incredibly important story for any young adult to read. Because of the horrifying nature of the genocide itself, it would need to be handled with background knowledge and sensitivity for the reader. The introduction by the translator gives a wonderful summary of what was happening in Rwanda during the time before, during and after the genocide. It is perfect for any student who isn't familiar with the events in Rwanda in 1994. The story can be violent and sexually explicit, but that is simply the nature of a genocide where rape was a tool for torture and murder was committed on a scale that is unheard of- 800,000 people in a few short months. So while you might be worried about giving this to a younger student, I understand your concerns, but think the benefits far outweigh the possible concerns, especially if it is taught well and with a strong purpose. I plan to use this graphic novel in my Rwanda unit this year, and am interested to see how my students handle it.

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