Civil Wars: ‘Narrating Horror and Hope’

Buffalo conference to scrutinize the appalling phenomenon of civil war itself

Release Date: March 18, 2014 This content is archived.

“This conference places the American Civil War in a broader context, one that offers a range of perspectives from which to examine the phenomenon of civil war itself. ”
Carole Emberton, PhD, associate professor of history
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. —  Nigerian poet and novelist Chris Abani, a self-described “zealot of optimism” and one of  America’s premiere authors, will participate in “Civil Wars: Narrating Horror and Hope,” an international conference on the nightmares engendered by civil wars across time and space, presented March 28 and 29 by the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute.

The free, public event will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 28 and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 29 in the Center for Tomorrow on the UB North Campus.  It will feature presentations by seven visiting scholars, including Abani.

As part of the conference, Abani will read from his work at 8 p.m. March 28 at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

Imprisoned three times by the Nigerian government, Abani turned his experience into poems — he has published seven volumes — that Harold Pinter called “the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable.”  His novels include “GraceLand” (2004) and “The Virgin of Flames” (2007), and most recently, “Song for Night,” which The New York Times said “contains, at once, an extraordinary ferocity and a vulnerable beauty.”

The conferences will include other scholars, writers and artists whose work represents some of the provocative and imaginative explorations of the relationship between war and society. The program schedule can be found at

The years 2011-14 mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, a defining event in U.S. history. It has been dissected for 150 years and analyzed from angles too numerous to cite. Resulting studies, books, films, poetry and stories have held up a mirror to a culture clash and a contemporary debate not unlike the one that sent mortars flying across Charleston harbor into Fort Sumter.

But Carole Emberton, associate professor of history at UB and a historian of the American Civil War who convened the UB conference, points out that ours was hardly the only appalling civil conflict to visit itself on the human race.

 In fact, they are legion. Since World War II alone, more than 60 civil wars have exploded throughout the world and 10 of them continue today in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“This conference,” says Emberton, “places the American Civil War in a broader context, one that offers a range of perspectives from which to examine the phenomenon of civil war itself.

“The questions to be raised,” she says, “include how civil wars differ from conventional wars, what is at stake in thinking about a conflict as one or the other, how do survivors cope with the violence they’ve witnessed and experienced, and what is the relationship between trauma and history. We also want our speakers to discuss how their own work expands the boundaries — geographical, temporal, conceptual — of what ‘civil war’ means.

“We will consider artistic visions of civil war, as well, and how this poetry, music, visual and performing art is created and contested, and the role it can and has played in the process of recovery for survivors,” she says.

“The panelists and speakers will include historians, political scientists, sociologists, cultural scholars, anthropologists and writers, and artists in several genres who will address many other issues as well,” Emberton says.

Joining Abani as a conference speaker is Lisa Brady, author of “War Upon the Land,” which traced the transformation of the southern landscape during the American Civil War and pioneered a new field of environmental studies of that conflict. Her talk is titled “Killing Fields: Korea’s War in Environmental Perspective.”

Also presenting are Nicole Schuldeberg Fox of Brandeis University, who will address her research focus on Rwandan genocide survivors and  how memory, commemoration and religion affect the process of recovery and reconciliation, and Thavolia Glymph, a historian of U.S. emancipation, whose talk is titled “Gender and Trauma in the American Civil War.”

Stathis Kalyvas, a Yale political science professor, is author of the award-winning “The Logic of Violence in Civil War,” a comparative look at the causes and dynamics of civil war that argues against the prevailing view that such violence is an instance of impenetrable madness. His talk is titled “What Are Civil Wars, How Have We Thought About Them, and How Have They Changed Over Time?”

Another speaker will be Veena Das, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, who employs an ethnographic approach to questions of violence, social suffering and subjectivity. Her major works include “Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia” and “Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary.” Her talk is titled “War, Violence and the Instability of Voice: Rereading the Ethnographic Record.”

She will be joined by historian Stephen Platt of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, author of an acclaimed history of the massive Taiping Civil War in southern China from 1850-64, who will discuss that conflict.

A discussion moderated by Sarah Bay-Cheng, associate professor of theater and dance at UB, will feature Albani (“Stories of Struggle, Stories of Hope: Art, Politics and Human Rights”) and Rebecca Schneider, professor of theater arts and performance at Brown University, whose most recent book engages historical re-enactment in popular culture, theater and visual art. Her presentation is titled “War, Camp, Sincerity.”

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