In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder inhabited the world of a globe-trotting Boston doctor to produce an absolute page-turner about an absolutely boring topic: public health.
Fans of the 2003 book (and if you’re not one, you should be) will be happy to know that doctor, Paul Farmer, makes a cameo in Kidder’s new book, Strength in What Remains.
The subject of Kidder’s latest true story is a man known to readers only as Deogratias, or Deo. A survivor of Burundi’s civil war, Deo arrives in the United States in 1994 alone and nearly penniless. A combination of luck, hard work and remarkably charitable friends takes Deo from the streets of New York City to Columbia University. Eventually, Deo returns to Burundi, where he establishes a health clinic.
Kidder, 63, spoke with WW about Strength in What Remains from Western Massachusetts before his Tuesday, Oct. 13, appearance at a Mercy Corps event.
WW: There’s a growing number of books on survivors of African wars, such as Dave Eggers’ What is the What and Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. What did you want to add?
Tracy Kidder: You know, it’s funny. I can honestly say I wasn’t keenly aware there was a growing number when I set out on this. When I first heard this story, it just seemed like an interesting story to me.
What was special about your subject, Deo, a survivor of Burundi’s civil war?
There’s a quality about him that is really quite alluring. He’s charming and interesting. There’s a warmth to him that’s quite amazing. I just think that what he’s done is astonishing.
A critic of your book wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “The market for Africa books seems to demand a focus on the worst horrors—Liberian child soldiers, the lost boys of Sudan, rape in Congo, war and genocide in Darfur and Rwanda.”
I’ve heard that a lot. It’s so becoming a cliché about a cliché, isn’t it?
Could you respond?
My response depends on where it’s coming from. If it’s coming from a Westerner, it’s often an act of self-promotion of political correctness: “I’m in a position of special knowledge and uttering it proves my moral, intellectual superiority.” If it’s coming from one of the many nations situated on the continent of Africa—which is not just one big, dysfunctional nation—then it’s more interesting to me. If it’s coming from an African country’s elite who wants to pretend everything’s just great, it’s not an important criticism.
When is it an important criticism?
When it’s coming from, let’s say, Ghana, and it’s a cry of pain, I think it’s legitimate. The real problem with that is how the word “Africa” gets used. It’s an example of our ignorance perhaps—and, perhaps, our indifference, if we Americans tend to talk about Africa as if it’s a single dysfunctional country. Anyway, I didn’t write about Africa. I was telling a story partly set in a country that most Americans hadn’t heard of that happens to not have been the site of a lot of good news for the past 100 years or so.
How did it make you feel asking Deo to recount his difficult life over and over?
Well, parts of it made me feel pretty guilty. I hadn’t anticipated how difficult some of it would be for him. I really wondered if this was something I ought to be doing. There were a couple of times when I offered to stop because it just seemed like too much... At one point he said to me that he didn’t want to be silenced. I hope he doesn’t regret it now. He’s a very private person.
You write in the book that when you visit Burundi, you’re told not to mention genocide in public. Why is that?
It’s considered very rude. Maybe even worse than rude. I can’t speak with great authority about Burundi culture. But I do think by and large—except for entrepreneurs of violence and the people who still want to make use of ethnicity—this is becoming, one hopes, a dead issue for Burundians.
The last line of your book is a quote from Deo. “Remembering is not going to benefit anyone,” he says. But the subtitle of the book is “A journey of remembrance and forgiveness.” What gives?
I guess since I allowed it to go on the cover I shouldn’t disown it, but I don’t like subtitles. They’re kind of forced on you these days.
GO: Tracy Kidder will appear at a community event co-hosted by Mercy Corps and the Oregon Council for the Humanities in the Mercy Corps Action Center, 28 SW 1st Ave. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Oct. 13. $20 includes admission and a copy of Kidder’s new book. Call 896-5701 for tickets.