On July 25, I wrote about the New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, and his talk that night at Stanford – it’s here. It was standard hit-and-run coverage: you go to a talk, take copious notes, write it up and – bam! – it’s on a blog within hours. Not the same experience as sitting down with someone, one on one, for several hours of conversation.
Cécile Alduy got that privilege the same day, before his talk. The results of her interview have been published in the current issue of the Boston Review. Here’s an excerpt. You can read the whole 5,500-word interview here.
Cécile Alduy: In your writing, you always find a balance between bringing in the long history to understand the way things develop over time and the very detailed hour-to-hour reporting on how it happened. How is your job different from that of an historian?
Philip Gourevitch: Above all, I suppose, to be a good historian you don’t necessarily have to be a good storyteller. You can be a good historian by virtue of making a contribution to the field without making a direct contribution to literature or public understanding. What historians, or anthropologists, or political scientists are interested in can overlap considerably with my interests, but the methodology, discipline, and long-term purpose are really different. I mean, I’m first and last a writer. If I weren’t writing about Rwanda right now, I’d be writing about something else entirely; and if I weren’t writing reportage, I would be writing fiction or plays. That’s not true of most historians who are going to write about Rwanda. They’re going to be coming at it as Rwandanologists. They’re going to be Africanists. They’re going to be Genocide Studies people. They’re going to be legal scholars or professors of postcolonial studies. And their frame of reference will be largely prescribed by that academic discipline—which is, I guess, as it should be.
Cécile Alduy: … In an oral tradition, it might be even more apparent that history is all those little myths that you recombine to carry yourself forward as a collective. I sense that throughout the material that you write about, you’re interested in showing that fluctuating relationship of a people with its own story and that we’re not going to have a neat little package at the end—
Philip Gourevitch: Yes. But I do think that mixed in with what you call myths there’s such a thing as the truth. There are solid truths and demonstrable falsehoods in there. We may not always be able to get to know them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And the history that interests me most is the history we’re in the midst of—and that means it’s hotly contested history. In Rwanda, where there has been so much killing, it’s also very raw, very open. Questions of crime and punishment hover over so many of the stories there, which means that the people involved are also thinking about their relationship to accountability, what they want from the telling. There’s a lot of accusation and defense—and whether trials and judgments are anticipated, or feared, or in progress, or have been concluded, is always something you have to factor in.
But what really interests me ultimately is not to record the past, so much as how people live with the past and get on with it. There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.
I think that people live many story lines at once, and that we make choices within them, without always being aware how our decisions will be balanced or thrown off balance by the big ideas and the big forces that organize our time and place. We’re none of us free of larger powers, but no larger power is free of us either. And, to me, in many places that I’ve looked at (Abu Ghraib as much as Rwanda) what’s interesting is that accordion relationship between ordinary lives and state power. That’s where historical experience happens—at that intersection of private and public dramas. That’s the crossroads where I like to report and to write.