Philip Gourevitch: “People want to speak so as not to be annihilated.”

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tallent

Tallented.

The English Department at Stanford, along with its Creative Writing Program, regularly hosts five-star writers to the Stanford campus, but to my mind they’ve outdone themselves this spring with the dynamite team of Philip Gourevitch and his wife, Larissa MacFarquhar, both of The New Yorker.  

Gourevitch is best known for his first book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998), which was honored with, among other awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and, in England, the Guardian First Book Award. In 2011, We Wish to Inform You was included in the Guardian’s list of the hundred greatest non-fiction books from the past 2,500 years. He has returned to Rwanda in recent years and is working on a new book about the country, You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know. He gave a reading from it a few weeks ago – it was an unforgettable experience. 

Today at a 11 a.m. colloquium, he fielded questions from the Stanford community. Fortunately, he had Elizabeth Tallent provide the introduction. She’s a powerful essayist (and fiction writer) in her own right. Here’s what she said:

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Signing books in 2008. (Photo: Larry D. Moore/Creative Commons)

At a PEN America panel, talking about his reportage on the genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath, Philip Gourevitch said:

“Three words that motivate the political reporting I’ve done on the aftermath of political violence: unimaginable, unthinkable, and unspeakable, reflexive words that give voice to the magnitude without actually addressing it. They are words with which the press gives you permission to forget about and ignore things. They are the words by which we let ourselves off the hook…These words were almost universally applied to Rwanda. ‘Unbelievable’ was the casual form of all three words put together. But: believe it. What else is a writer supposed to do but think and speak. And imagine.”

A little later he added:  “People want to speak so as not to be annihilated. Often in situations where there’s a sense of crushing forces very, very close to the bone, people want to speak simply to exist.”  …

About We Wish To Inform You, the Guardian’s reviewer Rory Stewart wrote, “Gourevitch’s book insists on being always articulate. In the hardest situations, his reactions can remain uncannily precise.”

gourevitch-bookAgainst, counter to, conventions of authority and detachment, We Wish to Inform You offers a humane, troubled voice that meticulously documents its uncertainties and offers moments of self-disclosure. After having been taken through a hospital ward full of the mutilated survivors of machete assaults, he has to lie down on the cool cement of the hospital corridor.

A vigorous style characterized by vivid small separate acts of noticing. In We Wish to Inform You, Philip Gourevitch has a series of conversations with a doctor who is a survivor of the genocide, and about one of these conversations, she wipes at her eyes, and he writes, “It was the only time she wept in telling me her story. She covered her face with one hand, and the fingers of the other tapped a fast pulse against the table. Then she said, ‘I’m going to get us some sodas.’”

Philip Gourevitch’s careful, forceful, sustained search for the reality of our—of humanity’s—varied, sometimes truly horrific struggles enlarges the share of available reality for each reader of his work. If the reality we gain from reading Philip Gourevitch is sometimes an intractable or wounding reality, we are offered, in his clarity, in his searchingness, in his repeated defiant decisions to keep looking, a model of what it may be like to resist conventional evasions and do, instead, the hard work of finding the horrors we have inflicted on ourselves imaginable, speakable, thinkable.


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