Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Tallent’

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

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016


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:


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.

National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward: “I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina”

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Self-effacing star at Stanford (Photo: Adam Johnson)

When author Jesmyn Ward was named the winner of the 2011 National Book Award at the awards ceremony a few months ago, she covered her face with her hands.  She had believed the earlier notification that she was a finalist to be “a joke or a scam,” but winning seemed even farther beyond the reach of a girl who came from a “rural, southern, mostly poor” Mississippi town.

She didn’t take her hands from her face, or respond to the applause, or move to accept the award for her novel Salvage the Bones. Her publicist finally grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted her name at her.

National Book Award winner?  “I still haven’t come to terms with it – I still hesitate to say it,” the Hurricane Katrina survivor told an audience Monday night at Stanford.

In a world of self-promotion, Ward’s modesty and humility were downright charming.

Author Elizabeth Tallent‘s introduction to the reading included this snippet from Ward’s interview in The Missoulian:

I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina. …  After the hurricane, I didn’t write anything for around two-and-a-half years. I didn’t realize how it had affected me at the time. I was here with my family for the hurricane.  So not only did I have to deal with the experience of surviving the hurricane, being out in the hurricane when it was going on, but with the residual terror in the knowledge that a storm like that can take away everything your family has within a matter of hours. I had to contend with all that, and the rebuilding process.

We got hit by the worst of the storm. After the rubble was cleared away, it just looked like things disappeared. There was a gas station there, and it’s not there anymore.  And the trailer park there, it’s not there anymore. I had no hope during that time. So I needed enough time to pass beyond Katrina to see that people would come back and they would rebuild.

The New York Times review called the book “a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale.” One author, fellow Southerner Ken Wells, said that she writes like “an angel with a knife to your throat.”

But great books affect people in different ways. For Tallent, reading Salvage the Bones resulted in a different understanding:  “I realized I needed a dog in my life again.”

So she credits author Ward – and the novel’s white pit bull named China (“on a shortlist of great dogs in literature”) – for the shelter dog she recently acquired.  Tallent said that although Ward had been a Stegner fellow from 2008-10, “we all think of it as five minutes ago.”

During the question-and-answer period following the reading, Ward was asked if she had ever envisioned herself as a successful novelist.  “It was my dream. I didn’t think I would ever be good enough.”

Ward’s memories of Stanford are nuanced and complex: “Much of my years here was feeling overwhelmed, that I didn’t deserve to be here.”

Monday’s applause for her work is gravy:  “I’m coming back to Stanford as the person I wanted to be as an undergraduate.”