Monday, May 23, 2011

Strength in What Remains

I will read anything Tracy Kidder writes. I don't care what it's about. It helps that I trust him--the only one of his books I couldn't get through was his very first one, The Soul of a New Machine, but what I love about his other work is the people in it. The people in it, and how he gets into the story by knowing them and appreciating them also by recognizing how much he can't understand about them. He puts himself into the narrative and one thing I love is how he never claims or even implies neutrality, he gets so close but he always recognizes that he is Tracy Kidder with a perspective on the story, and he always remains aware of that perspective and keeps his readers aware. It's part of what makes me trust and respect him. And admire him.

I taught his book Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), my first and only time teaching a college-level intro research/writing class. I didn't do a very good job, and one of the consequences was that my students didn't love this book anywhere near as much as I do. There was a lot of "Why are we reading this? I don't even care about Haiti! This isn't a class about Haiti and doctors!"

I've gotten better--and stricter, and more confident--about helping students understand that reading about any subject can make you a better and more critical reader, and researching any subject can make you a better researcher, and writing about any subject can make you a better writer. But yeah.

If I ever taught Mountains Beyond Mountains again, I would approach it so differently. I have learned so much about teaching since I tried that.

I didn't read Kidder's next book until now. A teacher friend at school loaned it to me months ago, and I told myself I had to get it back to her before the end of the school year, so this weekend I moved it to the top of my list and read all weekend. It was chemo weekend, so that was part of it, but it's also just such a good story. I don't read much non-fiction, but Kidder's books flow so beautifully that I don't care, and that's often one of my main problems with non-fiction. I like an arc.

Strength in What Remains
is the story of Deogratias, a refugee from Bujumbura who ends up in New York City. I didn't know jack about Bujumbura before I read this book--now I know a lot about it, and it made me think (again, some more) about how big this world is, and how little I know of it. But all around the world they hear too much about the United States--how can I not even know Bujumbura exists?

Bujumbura is next to Rwanda. Both were colonized by Germany in the late nineteenth century, then became Belgium's after WWI. Apparently the European colonizers inflicted a racial system on Bujumbura, persuading them that their two major groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, were essentially racial groups, not castes. Kidder says in a historical note at the end,

European colonists brought a myth with its own long history, a myth tailored to account for what looked to them like an anomaly: civilization in darkest Africa, kings and aristocracies and peasants, an advanced social order a little like Europe's. Tutsis, many colonists seem to have believed, descended from the biblical Ham, the banished son of Noah. Tutsis had degenerated through long contact with the inferior race of native blacks, the Hutus. But Tutsis were still Caucasian under their black skins.

I'm sure Kidder came to this story because Mountains Beyond Mountains is about Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, and Deo was training as a doctor in Bujumbra, and eventually discovers Farmer's books when getting his undergraduate degree at Columbia. (Deogracias has a terrifying, horrible life in so many respects, but he is also one of those hugely blessed people--first of all, he has a friend wealthy enough that his family is able to buy him a plane ticket to NYC and get him out of Bujumbra. Then, flying into NYC from Bujumbra, he meets an immigrant from Senegal who works at the airport and brings Deo home with him and finds him a job. A lousy job, but a job. The luck and coincidences continue--he ends up living with a couple in their SoHo loft, attending Columbia, then he goes to Harvard's School of Public Health, then Duke for med school! Certainly, he deserves every bit of this, but who ever gets the luck they deserve?!)

This is a captivating, beautifully written book, about so many things I am able to live my life without examining. I am so glad I spent a weekend with it. Highly recommended.

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