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Best of September (and Omni Podcast): Tracy Kidder, "Strength in What Remains"

You may well have already heard something about Tracy Kidder's new book, Strength in What Remains. Enough people have, through All Things Considered perhaps, or Ron Suskind's NYT review on Sunday that called it "one of the truly stunning books I've read this year," to put it in our top 25 books right now. We've been talking about it for months here in our cubicle warren, ever since we started passing around galleys in June, so I wasn't surprised at all when it ended up as our Best of the Month Spotlight pick for September, even though it's one of the most crowded publishing months we've seen in years.

Ever since his Pulitzer-winning bestseller, Soul of a New Machine, nearly 30 years ago, Kidder has been one of our leading long-form journalists. A few years ago, he was drawn away from his mostly local subjects (his five books beginning with New Machine were all set in Massachusetts) to profile Dr. Paul Farmer, the tireless and uncompromising international health advocate, in Mountains Beyond Mountains. Strength in What Remains is a sequel of sorts to that book. Kidder met Deo, a young Burundian working with Farmer, and a few years later, after hearing parts of his story, asked his permission to tell it. It's a hell of a story, terrible and heartening, about Deo's escape to Manhattan from the genocidal killing fields of his home country (a neighbor to Rwanda), his improbably fast rise from anonymous poverty in the city to Columbia University, and his return to Burundi to establish a health clinic in his old village, and Kidder tells it well, with a humility toward the horrors and triumphs of Deo's journey.

This won't be the first recent story of an African man escaping wars at home for the sometimes ambivalent opportunities of America to jump onto bestseller and best-of-the-year lists, but each story is its own. (For one thing, as Kidder points out below, Burundi isn't Sudan or Sierra Leone.) For another story from Africa we love this month, see William Kamkwamba's The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which Dave will be writing about in the space in a few days.

I spoke with Tracy Kidder about Deo's story, and how he chose to tell it, at BookExpo America in New York at the end of May. You can listen to our podcast here, or read the transcript after the jump. Your new book, after a short preface, starts with a flight, an airplane flight. Could you describe that journey?

Tracy Kidder: Yeah. Deo was escaping his homeland after six months of running, first from the onset of civil war in Burundi. Then, unfortunately for him, he ran to Rwanda, and then he had to escape the genocide there. Got back to Burundi, and the book opens after the short preface, he's on his way to New York on Aeroflot. Not straight to New York.

Kidder: No, not straight to New York. Very strange for him--in some ways, everything has got something amusing about it--he had been taught all his life by French-speaking schoolteachers, and he was under the impression that French was the universal language, because it was also the best language, and he couldn't understand why there was nothing written in French in the airplane.

I think they flew first to Entebbe in Uganda, and then I think to Cairo, and then to Moscow, and then they flew to Shannon Airport in Ireland, and when he got off the plane, he thought he was in New York. And he got stopped by a couple of cops. Fortunately for him, the Irish cops didn't speak French, but a Russian journalist did, and she helped him. And then she kind of grilled him on the flight to JFK, which made him very uncomfortable.

He had expected that she would help him get through immigration, but she didn't. She probably had problems of her own, being a Russian back in '94. But lo and behold, a baggage handler, who was from Senegal, who spoke French, arrived just when he was being grilled by these immigration agents. He not only helped him get through there, but said, "You can come home with me." Home, however, was an abandoned tenement in Harlem. This was the mid '90s, it was pretty bad. So that was the end of that flight. The first half of your book is called "Flights," plural. So Deo, this is '94, and he grew up in the country, but he's been a medical student in Burundi for three years.

Kidder: For three years, yeah, he was about to enter his fourth year of medical training. In many countries in Africa they follow the European system. When you finish high school, you go right to medical school for seven years, so he was about halfway through, or nearly halfway through. When he arrives in New York he's not recognized as a medical student.

Kidder: He's nothing. He has 200 dollars in his pocket that a friend gave him--although he thought that was a fortune, he discovered otherwise pretty quickly. He had no contacts, severely traumatized, and no command of English. And for a time he really struggled, but he managed to survive. One thing that's striking about his story is that what he finds in New York is in some ways as traumatizing, almost as traumatizing, as what he comes from. He continues to run.

Kidder: As he put it to me, "No one was chasing me with a machete anymore," but he said, "Now it was my mind's turn to run." So he's still fleeing memories that assail him. He did have a couple of unpleasant incidents, when police pulled up and decided he must be a drug dealer. He ended up with a gun shoved in his face and a flashlight shined in his mouth and so on. But he weathered that. He was robbed once up there. He ended up finding a better place to sleep, which was in Central Park, which he did for a while. He worked for a grocery chain for pretty much starvation wages for a while.

There was something about Deo that none of the people who helped him along the way could quite define for me. But one feels it. There's a kind of, I don't know--there's just this spirit in him. He was delivering groceries to an Upper East Side Catholic church, and an ex-contemplative nun, who was still very religious and working there, recognized that quality in him, I think. (Although she was there to help anybody she could.) And she took him on as a project, to the point where it was driving him nuts. She decided he needed a home and she was going to find it. And then she found this extraordinary couple who had had some experience with Africa, an artist and a sociologist. And they took him in and essentially adopted him. There are lots of fits and starts and ups and downs to this, but he did end up going to Columbia University. So many of the people in this book--the Wolfs, the couple you talked about, Deo himself, Paul Farmer, and maybe most especially Sharon McKenna [the former nun]--are unreasonable people. But that's what makes them heroic.

Kidder: Deo is an unreasonable person too, in the sense that for his own well being, probably the last thing he should have done was to decide just at the beginning of his return to medical training that he should go back to Burundi and build a clinic. But he absolutely felt he had to do that. And if you go to Burundi, to a country that is just emerging from this horrible civil war, the usual wreckage is in place. The system of public health and medicine is just crying out for something, and he hopes he's made a beautiful beginning.

And he's managed to rally all these--not just Paul Farmer, who's pitched in, and other members of Partners in Health--but all these friends and new friends around New York, and he's raised the money to do this pretty much--with the help from others, but it was his charisma that did it. And it's a beautiful facility, and growing. I think the idea is to make it an inspiration for the country. Although I said in my talk this morning, the doctors have all been on strike lately in Burundi, so the clinic is even more jammed than it has been before, which is a big problem of course, so people come from all over the country to go there.

They already were. People also have been coming from places like Tanzania and the Congo, and a few have come not because they were sick, but just to see the clinic. Deo asked one of these travelers why he'd come, and the man said, "To see America." Incorporated in that is a sentiment that, perhaps, I sometimes think we ought to, as Americans, endeavor to live up to. Tell us a little bit about Burundi. I think the ethnic conflict and the genocide in central Africa has had one word in America: "Rwanda." But what went on in Burundi was quite connected to what went on in Rwanda.

Kidder: It was connected. It was different, but it was connected. It's terribly complicated. There's a long history to it. I think in Burundi, even more than in Rwanda, it begins with colonialism, it begins with the Belgian--well, the German colonization of the country right around the end of the 19th century. Basically, the way I read the history, and some of this is disputed, I should say, is that ethnicity, so-called ethnicity--and mind you, we're talking about ethnic groups that speak the same language, practice the same religions, really share the same cultures and, I think speaking very generally perhaps, not quite the same professions--was probably not the most significant social difference, at least in Burundi, at the time of colonization.

But for their own purposes, the European colonizers promoted it into something it had never been before, and even added to it this bizarre racist theory that somehow or other the Tutsis were white people whose skin had turned black, and the Hutus were somehow the degenerate race of--I mean, it's just utter nonsense, just trash, and vicious trash at that, because the result, the differences among the Hutus and Tutsis were differences among relatives.

I'm not even for a moment suggesting that Burundi wasn't an enormously hierarchical society. It appears to have been, but it was a pretty complicated one. The long and short of it is that the two countries ended up being like mirror images of each other, where you had, in both cases, a small, elite clique. But you had a Hutu clique in power in Rwanda, and a Tutsi one in Burundi, and Tutsis are minorities in both countries. Events in each country tended to reinforce--violence in one country tended to create violence in the other.

I have a young Burundian friend who told me a wonderful story about his village--not a wonderful, a horrible story, really--about a guy who married his friend's sister, and so that guy went and married the other guy's sister--apparently this is true, I mean, he told me it was anyway. One night everyone is outside eating and cooking. It's a nice night. And he heard his sister wailing, and he called over the hill and said, "What's the matter," and she said, "My husband is beating me." So he turned around and started beating his wife, who was that guy's sister. This is a perfect analogy to what Rwanda and Burundi did, how they played off each other.
 And it seems like as you reckon with what happened, especially in the '90s, the whole question of storytelling, people telling their own stories about what happened, seems crucial. And it's crucial to your book and to Deo's life: how much of his story he is able or willing to tell, who he tells it to. And I'm curious, both about how you learned his story, how you got to know him, and then also how that structured your book, because your book has an interesting two-part structure, and it's related to his story.

Kidder: Yeah. I finally decided this was the way to do it, the only way I could do it. The only way I could do it. Maybe someone else could have done it better. I had gone to visit Paul Farmer, my wife and I, and he was laid up after a knee operation. I think this was 2003, and Deo was there, and I talked to Paul, and my wife talked to Deo mostly in that time. When we left, on the drive home, my wife told me his story as she remembered it. But it was so dramatic and strange and mysterious to me, and it stayed with me, the memory of someone else's memory of someone else's memories!

Finally, some years later, I decided I'd like to go hear it for myself, and I did. I didn't sneak up on him, but I think very bravely he decided that he would let me tell it. He didn't do that for self-aggrandizement. He is tremendously publicity shy, and I'm hoping to shield him from much publicity.

I think it is important to tell these stories. I have these simultaneous and opposite feelings about the whole business. I think it's important to have these memorials, to have the Holocaust memorial, to have these memorials they have in Rwanda, but "Never again" has become a really empty-sounding platitude in this day and age. And I also think that too much remembering is a really bad thing.

You know, there's a great deal of wisdom in some of Burundian culture, what little I know of it. Bound up in that word "gusimbura" which is only one of two words--I have a linguist friend, and he said, as far as he knew, there was no other language that had one word for this, for reminding people of something unpleasant, and Kirundi has two. One is more general, but to gusimbura someone is to remind someone of something unpleasant by naming the dead. Right, you don't speak the names of the dead. And that makes talking about what happened very difficult.

Kidder: Of course, I should qualify that by saying that I know Burundian culture through one family, basically. I'm not a great scholar. I suspect it's pretty generally true. Burundians are quiet people as a rule, and stoical. But there's something to be said for that. That's really all I'm trying to say.

I told this story twice, in a sense, although I hope it doesn't feel repetitious. I open in the first person, just very briefly, just to establish that first person, and also to introduce you to this guy and to this idea about gusimbura. And then I tell it in my own words as he told the story to me, and I think it's a very dramatic and powerful story. I did not embellish it. I tried to stick to what he had told me. And then in the second part of the book I give you Deo as I knew him with me and reliving those memories, going back to those places. 

One reason for doing that is that no one's memory is perfect. In fact, all our memories are far from perfect. And I wanted to acknowledge this to the reader: "Look, I'm sure that the story I just told you is full of non-intentional errors and so on." So I checked what I could check, most of it, but the other stuff is true. I'm sure it's all true, but this is as accurate as I could make it, the second part.

I don't know how I came to it [the two-part structure], it was just a problem. I was having trouble making certain things come to life on the page when it all had to be filtered through Deo's consciousness. I didn't know enough. But it seems to me right: the memories, and then you should see the person in the throes of memory. I think bringing you into the story, this is truly speculative, but the book before your book on Paul Farmer and this book is called My Detachment, about when you went over to Vietnam as a young lieutenant. These last two books are not detached at all.

Kidder: Actually, My Detachment came in between Mountains and this one, but I'd started that book back in 1985. Most of the books that I'd written before that were written in the third person or in a very distant first person. I like to think that the choice of point of view is a choice among tools. It's only a moral choice in the sense that if you make the wrong one, it can lead you to dishonesty as a writer.

In neither case, with Farmer or with Deo, was I trying to be self-revelatory. I just felt that for some reason there had to be a character, however sketched. Paul Farmer is a little different than with Deo--the reasons anyways. But I hope they were good reasons. I don't know. Just to prove my point, I suppose I'll have to write the next thing in the third person, or maybe the second person. I think there have been some books in the second person, but it must be pretty hard to sustain: "you, you, you, you." I was just talking with Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn about their book, which is very much about closing the gap between stories like Deo's and Americans who might be interested in helping him. Engagement seems important to that story.

Kidder: I'm tremendously grateful to Nicholas Kristof for the stuff he's been doing. Africa, first of all, is not a country. It's many, many countries. And it is beset by what seems like a huge, unseemly number of problems, many of them vile and horrible. There are reasons for that. But we shouldn't lump them all together, and I think foreign aid, international help, has often not been very well done, but that's no excuse for not trying to do it right.

That's for me, by the way, the moving thing about Partners in Health and about what Deo is doing. They don't go into a place and then screw up and blame the people that were supposed to come and help. They fix it, and they don't quit. It's nice. They're unreasonable.

Kidder: They're unreasonable.


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It has been described by the Baltimore Sun as the “master of the non-fiction narrative.” In this new book, Kidder gives us the superb story of a hero for our time. Strength in What Remains is a wonderfully written, inspiring account of one man’s remarkable American journey and of the ordinary people who helped him–a brilliant testament to the power of will and of second chances.

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