Monday, February 06, 2012

White People, Black History: Naomi Benaron Revisits Rwanda's Genocide

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

I hope you know that every person who makes my special White People Telling Black History List isn't automatically suspect. Making the list doesn't make you a bad guy in my book. In fact, today's author, Naomi Benaron, gets my full respect. So without further ado, meet Naomi Benaron.

Naomi Benaron's debut novel, Running the Rift was just released last month by Algonquin Books. The book tells the harrowing story of young Tutsi boy in Rwanda who comes of age just as the rising tensions leading up to the 1994 genocide are ripping his country apart. Jean Patrick is a gifted runner with dreams of making the Olympics. He is also smart, wants to go to college, hang out with his friends and fall in love, but the cruel politics of being a Tutsi in Rwanda keep getting in the way of his dreams of a peaceful life.

Admittedly, when I got my hands on this book, I didn't want to read it. I just wasn't in the mood for a story about genocide. I mean, when are we ever in the mood to read about the senseless, violent deaths of an entire people? Still, I picked it up and started to read and immediately found myself drawn in to the story of Jean Patrick and his quest to be an Olympic runner, while watching his country fall apart around him. And that's what makes this book so wonderful. Benaron is able to tell the story of Rwanda's genocide through the eyes of a genuine, relateable character who, like us, just cannot believe things could really descend into the madness that eventually takes over that country. So, instead of reading a story about genocide, you're reading a lyrically-written, entirely engrossing story about a young man with hopes and dreams and family and friends, who is in this impossible situation but somehow manages to survive. The ancillary characters that are part of the story -- Jean Patrick's politically minded love interest, his hardened track coach, the somewhat clueless White American professor --  are equally well-developed and add depth and interesting plot twists to the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this powerful and nuanced debut and recommend it to anyone who, like me, wants to understand what's going on in the world but doesn't always want to hear it through the evening news cycle.

Benaron's Success: First off, Benaron's book was published because it won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which is an award created by Barbara Kingsolver for unpublished novels that address issues of social justice. The prize comes with a cash award and a book contract. It's too early to know sales figures for the book, but it did receive starred reviews from all of the major book industry publications.

On Being a White Woman Writing about Black Africa: Benaron didn't grow up in Africa. She grew up in Boston. She's not married to a Rwandan, nor is she now living in Africa. Her connection to Rwanda comes from meeting Rwandan refugees in the United States, then traveling to Rwanda a few times, including a trip just for research for the book. She is very much aware of the paradox of her telling this story. And she responded this way when asked about it by Publisher's Weekly:

It takes audacity for a writer to assume the perspective of another culture. Were you concerned about your role as an outsider?
Every day. There’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek piece, Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa,” about white people writing about Africa. I’ve kept that in the back of my mind as pitfalls to avoid. What has been important to me has been to present the culture with as much understanding, respect, and love as I could. My sister spent a year in Malawi. I started with a love of the continent from her."

So there you have it. Do you think Benaron has the "right" to tell this story? Is there a Black and/or African writer who has told this story already? I'm listening.



Anonymous said...

Is she educating the public about injustices? Is it more important that the story get told or that just the right person tells it? Is her story paving the way for the so called right person to tell the story? As long as we are too busy judging who as a right to tell what story, we are never going to get to where we up to go. racial and intercultural harmony.
Should the only people who should be scholars on a certain region be from that region? Doesn't detachment somehow put on a clearer lens?
All of this asks many more questions than it answers.

Cyretha said...

I don’t believe that a person’s ethnicity should decide on what one writes about. If one has passion about the story and researches it well, then their origin or ethnicity should not play a part. However, if the intent is just to sell books and exploit a subject than that is a different matter.

Last year my mother received a kindle as a gift. One of the first books she wanted to read was “The Help”. I had never heard of the book at that time, but I helped her to download it and then read the review from “The New York Times”. I knew right away that that was one book I was not going to read. I was not going to pay one penny for it. During the second half of the year I was on two long-haul flights and “The Help” was a movie choice. Since I was on the flight and did not have to pay for it, I thought I would watch the movie. I did and it was pretty much as I expected, so glad I did not buy the book, even though I know books are better than the movie.

Regarding Naomi Benaron’s book, I did not know of it until now. Thanks for mentioning it and I shall look it up. I remember reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book “The Poisonwood Bible”. At that time, a friend recommended it and I thought it would not be a good read. I read it anyway and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact it is the only book I have read by her. I am glad to hear of her award.

I just want to mention that if anyone is looking for a similar book that relates to social injustice, please read “Nightmare Along the River Nile: A Story of Twentieth Century Slavery”, by Suzanna E. Nelson.

LT said...

Great questions. And I certainly don't have all the answers, only opinions. But I do think it's important to ask the questions even if it only serves to make us think.

I agree with your first two points. Why can't I follow my passions as a writer, but with that, I do have to be prepared for criticism if I get 'it' wrong. And thanks for the book suggestion!

Reuben said...

William Willberforce was white, and devoted his life to ending slavery.
Abraham Lincoln was white, and led a war that had the issue of slavery as one of it's core instigators.
John Newton was white, and he wrote powerfully on freedom.

Often times it actually takes someone perceived as part of the problem, to stand up against the problem, in order to end the problem.

To me it is about whether the writer is empathizing with the sufferer or exploiting the sufferer!In other words are they talking about them, or actually trying to tell their story.