Monday, September 20, 2010

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

This morning my husband, Charles, asked if I had a good audiobook, as he needed something to listen to on his long drive to work. I recommended "Strength in What Remains."
"What's it about?" asked Charles.
"Well," I responded, "it's a genocide memoir."
There is a trend towards genocide memoirs these days. Despite the discomfort this label can evoke, these books have the ability to transform a story so mind-numbingly overwhelming in the scale and scope of its horror into a singular, compelling narrative. I'm reminded of Dave Eggers's "What is the What," another story of a massive-scale tragedy told through the eyes of one person. And what could possibly be more compelling than one person's story?
"Strength in What Remains" is the story of the recent genocide in Burundi and Rwanda, as told by Deogratias, a medical student from Burundi who is forced to travel through Rwanda to escape. Once in America Deo works delivering groceries and sleeps in the park. Ultimately, though, amidst Deo's gruesome struggles both in Africa and America, he finds help, and eventually returns to Burundi to help rebuild his homeland. Through Deo's efforts in Burundi, the reader is reminded that goodness can prevail over the suffering inflicted by the misguided or evil among us. Ultimately, what remains is hope.
"Strength in What Remains" is a difficult and inspiring story, and like all genocide memoirs it also educates, one of the side benefits of stories like these. The history, geography and political science (the stuff I snoozed through in high school and college) that informs the plot are told through the lens of one person's story, rendered, finally, in a personal, attention-holding way. Here's the tidbit that fascinated me the most, one I gleaned from Kidder's explanation of the seeds of the Hutu, Tutsi dispute: These two peoples coexisted peacefully until Belgium and Germany colonized the areas. The colonialists, in order to maximize their profits, chose to spend the majority of their time in Europe and therefore needed to use natives in order to implement their plans. To facilitate this, the colonialists created a mythology. They spread the story that the tutsis were white, even though their skin was black. Then the colonialists gave the tutsis power over the hutus, charging the tutsis with enforcing their mandate that the hutus do their back breaking labor. By the time Burundi and Rwanda reverted back to self-government, the rift between the tutsis and the hutus had been cemented.
I was glad to have listened to Kidder's beautifully told story about Deogratias. Next time, though, if I want Charles to listen to something other than NPR, I'll have to find a way to rephrase the genocide memoir label.

No comments:

Post a Comment