Deogratias: a Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen — Integrating graphic texts with multimedia studies of nonfiction and memoir

Deogratias: a Tale of Rwanda

One somewhat regrettable pleasure of teaching world literature is the opportunity to study historic events in more recent decades. Whereas publishers play catchup and curriculum writers should ideally revise social studies curricula annually (if not more often), literacy classrooms tied to performance-based curricula have more freedom to present wider varieties of texts that address more current events that history classrooms may not always address. While history teachers surely address the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, it would be easy to allow this event to fall to the wayside in a rush to prepare students for end-of-semester standardized tests. Additionally, such instruction may rely solely upon the popular (and deserved) 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, an engaging and thoughtful glimpse at hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s efforts to save as many lives as possible in the face of death and corruption.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Hotel Rwanda is a popular film to use in both history and English classrooms. I use it, too. But what else could we bring in to deepen understanding and thought?

The film may not have even been eligible to be shown in most schools if it were not for Director Terry George’s efforts to change the original R-rating to PG-13. The film is not necessarily a sanitized portrayal of genocide; in fact, I’ve observed students look away in shock many times. While film is a great way to engage all learners in critical analysis of history and literature, it’s also a more passive activity than reading for some students. Given the gravity of the three-month extermination of 800,000 Tutsi citizens of Rwanda, one hopes that more texts will begin to creep into classrooms quick enough to keep it relevant. Still, only sixteen years old, the history books are still being written on this highly visible and relevant human event. This is where Deogratias should enter the picture.

Vivid, honest, occasionally vulgar (containing generally accurate depictions of sexism), and sometimes confusing, Deogratias is exactly what a narrative surrounding this event should be: tough to swallow, hard to digest, and requiring active re-reading. Stassen structures the narrative in a way that will confuse just about any reader, but this strategy is effective. Each panel has either a black border surrounding it or no border at all. Borderless panels take place before and during the genocide, and black-paneled borders take place afterward. The reader also clues into the narrative structure by examining Deogratias’ appearance. As another blogger/reviewer Liz B. notes, “Deogratias’ appearance lets the reader know whether the setting is the present (1995), with Deogratias dressed in rags, or the past (1994), with his clothes fresh and clean and whole. And, of course, the change in his dress is not just because time has passed; the battered outward appearance reflects Deogratias’ emotional and psychological damage” (2007). Some of this damage results from Deogratias’ dependence on urwagwa, the popular homemade banana beer: a ritual and symbol of brotherhood in Rwanda that grows into a possible poisonous deathtrap for unwitting citizens during this time period.

As a text and teaching tool, Deogratias offers students an opportunity to engage with the experiences of a character more actively. Why does Deogratias react so negatively toward his lesson regarding Hutus and Tutsis at school, leading him to call the teacher a fool? Why does Deogratias wait on hosts to sample urwagwa every time that he finally finds his substance of desire? Why does Venetia sleep around to offer her daughters a better education? Why do Philip and other missionaries tend to lack a detailed understanding of the country’s culture and history until smacked in the face with it?

These questions are not necessarily answered while viewing Hotel Rwanda – nor should they be considering these are entirely different texts. Again, I plan to continue showing this film to my own students, but I’d love to find other ways to engage them in thinking about this international crisis.  For these purposes, a text like Deogratias will appeal to young adult readers because of what Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud calls “closure” (1993, p. 63). Amidst various panels, McCloud explains how comics require more active mental participation on the reader’s behalf than film.  In interpreting meaning in comics, the reader must interpret events that happen in between panels which forces active involvement with the graphic text; this involvement is a unique experience for the comics reader that cannot be replicated by film or by text alone.    According to McCloud:

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloudThis phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole has a name.  It’s called closure.  In our daily lives, we often commit closure, mentally completing that which is incomplete based on past experience.  Some forms of closure are deliberate inventions of storytellers to produce suspense or to challenge audiences.   Others happen automatically, without much effort . . . Part of business as usual.  In recognizing and relating to other people, we all depend heavily on our learned ability of closure . . . In film, closure takes place continuously — twenty-four times per second, in fact — as our minds, aided by the persistence of vision, transform a series of still pictures into a story of continuous motion . . . Between such automatic electronic closure and the simpler closure of everyday life — there lies a medium of communication and expression which uses closure like no other . . . A medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change, time and motion.  See that space BETWEEN the panels?  That’s what comics aficionados have named “the Gutter!” And despite its unceremonious title, the Gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics!  Here in the limbo of the Gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.  Nothing is seen between the two panels but experience tells you something must be there! . . . The closure of electronic media is continuous, largely involuntary and virtually imperceptible.  But closure in comics is far from continuous and anything but involuntary.  Every act committed to paper by the comics artist is aided and abetted by a silent accomplice.  An equal partner in crime known as the reader.  . . . Participation is a powerful force in any medium.  Filmmakers long ago realized the importance of allowing viewers to use their imaginations.  But while film makes use of audiences’ imaginations for occasional effects, comics must use it far more often!  . . . Clsoure in comics fosters an intimacy surpassed only by the written word, a silent, secret contract between creator and audience (1993, pp. 63-69).

Even in citing McCloud, much of the point is lost without his illustrations, panels, and the implications of what lies between each panel — and how these elements combine with his words to create a unique, meaningful experience for the reader. Thus, while a viewer can watch a film like Hotel Rwanda and certainly engage both emotionally and intellectually, a graphic text such as Deogratias provides a different, unique opportunity for the reader to develop understanding of the Rwandan Genocide through another avenue that may trigger different thoughts and emotions than the film.

Of course, traditional text can and obviously should be a piece of this study as well. Rusesabagina’s autobiography An Ordinary Man provides more detailed and direct experience via memoir, and various excerpts (including this audio excerpt from NPR) can be found scattered across various Google searches. Other teaching tools might include various news reports, print and film, easily found on the internet, as well as PBS Frontline’s Ghosts of Rwanda documentary.  Many other texts about genocide are easily located.

As a final thought, one striking scene in the film occurs when journalists staying at the hotel realize that some of their footage, however brutal, absolutely must be aired for the world to see. Western governments, militaries, and citizens need to actually see the brutality and inhumanity of genocide to even begin to comprehend or develop intervention strategies. Given the plethora of internet imagery related to the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, or even current affairs in Darfur as well as other historical examples of genocide, students can easily produce moving, powerful audiovisual documentaries using (often) free programs such as Microsoft Photostory or Windows Moviemaker such as the Deogratias book trailer viewed earlier in this post. Samples of such projects are widely available from any streaming video website. Such a photo-documentary may not seem like a comic at all, but McCloud defines comics as:

Scott McCloud's definition of comics

McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding comics: the invisible art. New York: HarperPerennial, p. 9.

Given this definition of comics, everyone – not just teachers – should probably rethink what role graphic texts (or comics, or graphica, or whatever other term we want to throw out there) can play not just in the classroom, but just about everywhere around us.


About marcginsberg

I teach high school English in Athens, GA. I read graphic novels and catch live music whenever possible. I walk my dog Humphrey and kid myself that I'm a distance runner.
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