Posts Tagged ‘Philip Gourevitch’

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

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016
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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:

Philip_gourevitch

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.

Philip Gourevitch: “Memory can be a kind of disease.”

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012
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Gourevitch: Telling stories

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.

Alduy

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.

Philip Gourevitch on human rights: “Do you care what happens next?”

Thursday, July 26th, 2012
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French marines in Rwanda, 1994

Horrific things are happening – in Syria, Nigeria, or the Sudan.  We don’t send troops in – and face universal censure.  We send troops in – and later, when the bodies of American soldiers are dragged through the streets, or we face a long, debilitating war in a far-flung place, we want out.  Any commitment to human rights is cancelled. It’s their problem, after all.

We don’t want war. We can’t make peace.

So what’s the answer?

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, doesn’t have an answer either, but he challenged some current household gods in a provocative talk at Stanford last night.  In particular, he questioned “human rights absolutism,” finding that the lens that human rights organizations bring to issues is sometimes “freezes time,”  without historical perspective or historical judgment, capturing complex events in one moment that clearly divides victims and perps like oil and water.

What would Human Rights Action have said about Abraham Lincoln?  He suggested that, with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Sherman’s March, and “obvious gross human rights abuses,” the president would flunk the human rights test today. Yet we can also view these moves as bad actions in a cause we judge as good, rather than funneling them through a “single measure,” he said.

Of course, Lincoln’s drama unfolded over years.  Today’s immediate 24/7 media coverage means complex situations are frozen in a single, horrible moment almost instantly.  Think Abu Ghraib.  “If there’s a famine in Somalia, now you’ll hear about it” – Gourevitch snapped his fingers – “right away,” We seem to be living in an anti-historical, freeze-time era, fast as a camera shutter.

“A premise in our culture, in most religions, in the human rights movement and the law, is that we are united by a common humanity,” said Gourevitch,  “that the suffering that is happening far away might be our business.” However, he said, “In reality, few of us live that way.  What is near to us is near to us, what’s far away is far away,” he said.  But now it’s on CNN or twitter and in our living rooms – in an instant.

“Americans’ reaction is ‘why don’t we do something?’” said Gourevitch, a former editor of the Paris Review. “Why should I expose myself to grievous suffering if I can’t do something about it?”

“Frankly, it is naïve to think we know what’s right” – and even more naïve to think we can implement it.  “Action is often a story of distortion,” he said.

He questions "human rights absolutism."

Human rights groups are the “last universalist organizations still standing.”  They are neither left-wing nor right-wing, but rather they “take the side of the suffering,” and demand that human rights abuses be adjudicated as crimes.

They’ve met with success in public awareness:  20 years ago, there were no summer sessions in human rights and no human rights majors.

But their vision is “not entirely accurate,” he said, because “none of us live in an extra-statal world.”  Without considering political reality, “you might provoke a worse atrocity.”

“Human rights abuses are often a symptom,” Gourevitch said – a symptom of more systemic problems. While a human rights agenda is essential, it tends to be a legal agenda.  It’s “an entirely negative measure” – in other words, you find human rights abuses, and then you penalize them.  In such a view, “it starts to look like there are no politics,” he said.

And often the results need a rethink.  In 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for crimes committed against the people of Darfur and issued a warrant asking the rest of the world to arrest him.

“They’re calling for a coup d’état.  What’s your response?” he asked. “Do you care who comes next?”  When considering atrocities, “It’s always important to remember that the nastiest thing you see can be exceeded.”

We hope indictments, sanctions, and other actions act as a deterrent – but where does this confidence come from? he asked. “Right now it’s pure speculation.” We know that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, “but the same exact people are arguing for the deterrent effect on heads of state.”

News board in Monrovia during Charles Taylor's trial

Often, we are dealing with nations where “there have always been wars about succession” and where  “there’s never been a head of state who has left office alive.”

For these leaders, “the primary fear is not that you might wind up being in a Swedish jail,” he said. “It’s bad for your image – but it’s not the worst option.”

Is it appropriate to let dictators “sneak out the door”?  Such arrangements were made for Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who had a safe exile in Nigeria for awhile.  He was eventually apprehended and turned over to Liberia – a series of actions that undermined such safe options, anyway.  Are such deals “promoting a culture where there is no accountability”?

“These are problems we should be thinking about,” he said, rather than focusing on them simply as legal issues. “Is this in the interests of that people?  Is this better for the people in that place?   A lot of the time it has nothing to do with the people in that place.  What they [human rights organizations and activists] are interested in is international law. They’re lawyers.”

In such cases, “the consequences for Rwanda are irrelevant.  It’s a different set of issues.  Moral clarity rams into political reality every step of the way.  It’s impossible to solve problems without it.”

And are these issues as black-and-white as they seem?  What would human rights scoresheet have looked like during, say, the Siege of Troy?  Would Homer’s lines be less moving if they described UN blue helmets and post-conflict resolutions for the Greeks and Trojans?  Or what about Macbeth?  “We look at those stories in their complexity,” he said.  (Incidentally, he’s providing another small argument for the study of literature.)

Gourevitch recalled meeting a survivor of a Rwandan atrocity, after school students refused the Hutu guerrillas’ orders to separate into Hutus and Tutsis, and were massacred. “That dark courage – that’s what hope looks like in that place,” he said.

But the story didn’t stop there.  The guerilla commander who is alleged to be responsible for the massacre has now been reintegrated into the Army – he’s even been promoted to colonel.  Gourevitch was able to get his phone number within a day. He met the officer, who said that he had nothing to do with the slaughter.  Yet it’s widely believed that he did, and there has been no trial.

“All of this is completely at odds with human rights thinking,” Gourevitch said.  But he was told by one Rwandan, “if we keep adjudicating, we’ll never build a nation and integrate the army.”

“It’s a very troubling proposition,” he said – but he suggests that the alternative may be even more troubling.

Justice?  Write to your congressman, attend a protest, send off an op-ed.  Instead, Gourevitch quoted the first line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”

Meanwhile, Gourevitch below on the Paul Holdengräber Show:

“We are nothing without our language.” Salman Rushdie and courageous footwear.

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
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Breyten Breytenbach, an unnamed editor, Philip Gourevitch, and the man himself (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

This week, we posted about great literary slugfests.  But are they a thing of the past?  One prominent literary agent thinks so:

“The day of the writer as public character is greatly diminished,” said Mort Janklow, the veteran literary agent. “Writers are more professional. You don’t hear about feuds. You don’t see the most prolific writers out.”

“It’s hard to be a great social figure and a great writer.”

And that, apparently, means the end of feuds.

This comment came from a New York Times article about Salman Rushdie, that witty, brilliant, and increasingly banal figure on the public literary scene.

Just when you are about to give up on him entirely, just when you want to see no more of this leering, goateed, grizzled grandee with another grinning babe on his arm, just when you are about to conclude that he has descended on a smug, one-way trip into vulgarity and a cliché, he whips out with a crisp comment like this one:

“The human being, let’s remember, is essentially a language animal. We are a creature which has always used language to express our most profound feelings and we are nothing without our language. The attempt to silence our tongue is not only censorship. It’s also an existential crime about the kind of species that we are. We are a species which requires to speak, and we must not be silenced. Language itself is a liberty and please, do not let the battle for this liberty be lost.”

The comments are from The Guardian article about his “rousing address” in Delhi – read the whole thing here; I found it rather plodding and waspish, always ready for a jab at a foe.  I guess after what he’s been through he’s entitled to the jabs.  One just longs for … well, a little nobility, a little moral grandeur.

The fatwa thrust him unexpectedly to an international stage – potentially the foremost in a new generation of giants such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, Vaclav Havel. So it’s dispiriting to see him living in a cheesy fantasy of celebrity; he’s shrinking before our very eyes.  Am I missing something?

My friend Zygmunt Malinowski, the photographer who provided the images for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, alerted me about the NYT article.  He’s a bit more cautiously optimistic than I am: “I don’t know what to think about a writer who is that popular in the celebrity business. It seems to me that he broke the mold of the isolated writer such as Salinger, Updike and of course Czeslaw Milosz. Good for him.”

He sent me this photo: “I photographed him a few years back by the  New York Public Library with the editor of Paris Review and with Breyten Breytenbach and his editor walking close by.  They just finished a talk about Ryszard Kapuściński.  S. Rushdie was very interesting to listen to.

“Their footwear is fun, sneakers and red shoes – that takes a bit of courage too!”