Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Importance of Telling Stories

Tonight I have begun reading Philip Gourevitch's incredible book, We with to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda. I did not read it when it came out some ten years ago even though it was a bestseller in our store. I felt I could not. The news accounts of the genocide in Rwanda I had read in the papers and magazines had been more than enough for me. I have a vivid imagination and am more than a little empathic. Describe your headache to me and I'll develop a sympathy headache in response. I was heartbroken at the senseless, unspeakable cruelty of it. I was enraged by our government's anemic response. What could I do? My heart went out to the suffering and the dead. Yet I knew I was not relief mission material. I would continue to do my part by selling copies of Philip's book and speaking out against racial and ethnic prejudice when I encountered it in closer quarters.
Now I find myself needing to understand a country whose history had been reduced in my mind to only one terrible moment of barely 100 days, days in which, Philip writes, between eight hundred thousand and a million people were slaughtered at a rate three times that of the Jewish holocaust, a rate matched by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How can I be an effective mentor to a Rwandan bookseller if I can only see her through this horrific prism? I want to try to know something of Rwanda that does not reduce it to its darkest hour. I want to see Lydie as more than a victim or survivor. I want to know what Rwandans and their country are like when they aren't killing one another. When they are working, or playing, going to movies or taking a drive. This is not something you get from news accounts, which are reductive and focused on the fearful awful.
Thankfully, there are books. I have not been able to travel the world as I have always imagined I would, but I have been grateful for armchair travel. When I learned I would be hosting Lydie, my first thought was I have to read up. It seems, ironically, that at least in the United States, when you want to read up on Rwanda, what you get is primarily, accounts of the genocide. Fine. I'll start there. It's at the center of my mind anyway.
But I won't talk about what little I've learned so far from Philip's book about the genocide specifically. What I want to consider for a moment is this passage in his book:

"But there is no reliable record of the precolonial state. Rwandans had no alphabet; their tradition was oral, therefore malleable; and because their society is fiercely hierarchical the stories they tell of their past tend to be dictated by those who hold power, either through the state or in opposition to it. Of course, at the core of Rwanda's historical debates lie competeing ideas about the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis, so it is a frustration that the precolonial roots of the relationship are largely unknowable. As the political thinker Mahmood Mamdani has observed: ' That much of what passed as historical fact in academic circles has to be considered as tentative--if not outright fictional--is becoming clear as post-genocidal sobriety compels a growing number of historians to take seriously the political uses to which their writing have been put, and their readers to question the certainty with which many a claim has been advanced."

There is so much in that paragraph. What first comes to my mind are the implications for a bookseller. There is no alphabet for the indigenous language. The traditions are oral and the stories are told by the ruling classes. Academic historical accounts of the place are suspect. I think of our store, of Left Bank Books, of the novels--stories we tell about ourselves--of the history and politics, how relatively easy it is to take for granted that we will always have those stories, fictional or not, these accounts that tells us who we are, make us real. I wonder how Lydie and her Librairie Drakkar can be keepers of her country's culture. I am reminded of how even in a culture that has been as extensively documented as ours has, so many stories are still to be told. How many have historically been repressed or left untold. Stories of American women's lives that only began to surface with the second wave of the women's movement in the 1970s. Stories of African Americans. It wasn't until the financial success of Terry Macmillan's book Waiting to Exhale that mainstream American publishing took seriously the stories black women tell. I am filled with questions about what, besides scientific texts and the literature of other countries, one will find on the shelves of a Rwandan bookstore.

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