Monday, August 6, 2012

In My Home There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda

by Rick Bass

When I got the latest issue of McSweeney's, bundled with it was In My Home There Is No More Sorrow, a travelogue of sorts by Rick Bass, detailing his short trip to Rwanda in 2011. Bass travelled to Rwanda with his wife, daughter, and close friend, writer Terry Williams, to assist her in a two-day workshop for writers at a university in Kigali.

Bass opens the book with a visit to some of the churches that have been made into memorials for the genocide that took place there in 1994.  These churches were promised as safe havens for Tutsis looking to escape slaughter at the hands of their Hutu neighbours, but they were in fact used to corral the victims more easily.  Many of these sites have been turned into memorials, displaying skulls and bones, bloody clothing, or in one instance, the barely-decayed bodies of the dead.

Bass visits these sites as an American outsider, and his perspective is probably the only one I would be able to relate to.  His guide at one site, who he discovers wishes to be a writer herself, becomes a central figure in the book, with her quiet determination and dignity.

The writers' workshop takes up the centre of the book, and it is probably the only instance I can think of where a discussion of writing has ever affected me as emotionally as this one has.  Bass and Williams recognize that their contribution is small, but they are in a country with no publishing infrastructure at all.  The young writers that make up the audience do not have any outlet for the stories and poems they write largely for themselves, although they desperately crave one.  When one student takes Williams to task for avoiding the difficult issue of the genocide, she returns the next day determined to open a door into the traumatic childhoods of the participants.  It's like opening a floodgate, legitimizing their feelings and need to tell their stories.  This part of the book is immensely powerful.

Following the workshop, the author and his group travel to the north, to visit the national park where Dian Fossey studied gorillas, and so that the Americans can see some themselves.  Bass is an incredible writer, and he conveys a great amount of wonder in this part of the book.  The family tries to find their lodge in the middle of nowhere on their own in the dark, and the apprehension of Bass's passengers, as he drives along switchback roads in the middle of the night near the border to Uganda is palpable.  Even better though, is the writing about the next day, when they travel into the jungle and observe a group of gorillas at play.

There are two things this book does exceptionally well.  It gives a small platform for Rwandan writers to share their stories.  There are four pieces (three poems and one story) by the participants in the workshop included at the end of the book.  While they are not quite as strong as they could technically be, they mark the first time that I've read actual Rwandans writing about the genocide.  Prior to this, the only accounts I've read have come from North American writers (I cannot recommend Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families enough), so it's good to experience that authentic response.

The other thing that Bass does well here is show us that Rwanda is not what it once was.  We are given example after example of happy, well-adjusted people, a vibrant social life, and pride in what the country has to offer (while being very realistic about the state of its ecology).  The people are shown as kind and solicitous, eager to help or look after visitors from another place.  Reading this book makes me want to visit the country, and especially go see the gorillas before there are none left.

No comments: