Naomi Benaron and The Indomitable Human Spirit

December 29, 2011
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Running the Rift cover
Running the Rift
by Naomi Benaron

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Naomi Benaron,
Author of Running the Rift

 

 

By Diane Slocum
January 2012

Benaron’s debut novel tells the story of a young Rwandan whose goal is to run in the Olympics. His powerful coach brings him close to his dream as Rwanda falls apart around them, putting in doubt whether Jean Patrick, or any Tutsi, can survive the genocide.

“When I discovered human bones from the genocide on an early morning walk, I knew I had to write their story.”
—BENARON

 

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to write your novel about Rwandans?

 

 

BENARON: I work with a Somali Bantu family in Tucson. The husband told me his story of survival, particularly how he had to jump out of a window in his wife’s home and run for his life just as a gang of Somali bandits were about to break down the door and attack his family. He ran into the forest and then walked to Kenya, not knowing if his wife was alive or dead. Happily, they were reunited in Kenya, in a refugee camp. The story resonated in my head and my heart; I kept wondering how it would feel to have to make such a decision. Then, in 2002, I went as a tourist to Rwanda and fell in love with the country and the people. When I discovered human bones from the genocide on an early morning walk, I knew I had to write their story. That was when the two tales began to mix in my mind and my book was born.

AUTHORLINK: How did you learn so much about Rwanda?

BENARON: I have made extended visits to Rwanda and stayed with Rwandan families in their homes. I ate with them, drank with them, went to the market with them, and stayed up many nights talking and laughing. I learned how to cook their food, I learned as much as I could about their customs and language, and when I was writing and had questions, there was always a friend I could ask. I also went for the commemoration of the genocide in 2008. That was profoundly moving for me; I went to the services for victims, and even though I could only understand a fraction of what was said, words were not necessary to see, if not understand, what they felt.

In terms of research, I have two bookshelves filled with books about Rwanda and the genocide. One book in particular was indispensable: Leave None to Tell the Story, researched and compiled by Alison Des Forges from Human Rights Watch. This is a detailed history and analysis of the country from independence onward, chronicling the march toward the unraveling moment of genocide and then beyond, to the events of the genocide itself. Running the Rift would not exist without it.

“Passion, I firmly believe, transcends cultural barriers.”
—BENARON

 

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: How did you enter the heart and soul of a Rwandan boy/young man to be able to tell Jean Patrick Nkuba’s story?

 

 

BENARON: I made many friends in Rwanda. One was a young man who could have walked out of the pages of my budding novel. He is now my unofficially adopted son, and he has been wonderful with opening his life to me. I have asked him everything, from the smallest details of his daily life to his hopes and aspirations growing up and, finally, about his own personal story of survival during the genocide.

I have a friend who ran the 800 meters as part of the Burundi Olympic team. His help was invaluable. As it was essential to me to have a protagonist whose heart and soul I could understand on a personal level, I had to give Jean Patrick traits I could identify with. I am a runner and in the past have been a competitive triathlete. I know what it feels like to put in the miles and the suffering that Jean Patrick Nkuba put in. I am also a scientist, so on the most visceral level, I understand Jean Patrick’s heart and soul; I know what makes him tick. Passion, I firmly believe, transcends cultural barriers.

AUTHORLINK: The Rwandan genocide has to be among the worst examples of people dehumanizing each other. Did you come to any times when you felt emotionally unable to continue?

BENARON: That is a good question, and yes, I did. There were times when I was reading survivor accounts that I had to put the book down and force myself to breathe. If it was during the day, I would go for a run to give myself the strength to continue. Being in Rwanda for the commemoration nearly undid me, although in that instance, I used my writing to bring me back into life.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people will learn from living through this horrendous time with Jean Patrick?

BENARON: Another really good question! The most important thing, I guess, is the indomitable strength of the human spirit. I am continually amazed at what human beings have the strength not only to endure but to rise above: a rebirth, if you will. The country of Rwanda is a perfect example. They have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps from near total annihilation to become one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. And of course I think love has a lot to do with it in Jean Patrick’s case. If we let it into our hearts, love, I believe, is so much more powerful than hate.

AUTHORLINK: How well was your weaving of Kinyarwanda words throughout the story accepted by people who read the manuscript?

BENARON: Responses to that varied wildly. My editor at Algonquin took out about a third of what I originally had, and I know she was right to do so. I wanted to include enough of the language for readers to get a feel for it—Kinyarwanda is a language of poetry—but I know now that I went overboard in the earlier drafts. Reading over my manuscript now, I believe I have achieved a good balance.

“It has been an incredible ride so far, and when I think that it is only beginning… ”
—BENARON

 

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: How did you feel about winning the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction?

 

 

BENARON: When I picked up the phone on April 16th 2010, and a voice said, “This is Barbara Kingsolver,” I jumped out of my chair, screamed, and nearly hit my head on the ceiling. In some ways, I have not come down. Ever since I first found out about the Bellwether Prize in 2002, I wanted very badly to win it. I wanted it as much as Jean Patrick wanted to win gold in the Olympics. It has been an incredible ride so far, and when I think that it is only beginning, I get chills. I am so grateful to Barbara Kingsolver, not only for myself but for the fact that such a prize exists at all. Fiction that addresses issues of social justice does not get the recognition I feel it deserves.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?

BENARON: I am working on a novel about three generations of Holocaust survivors: a grandmother who survived Terezín and Auschwitz concentration camps, her daughter, and her granddaughter. It deals with the transformation from silence to witness and the power of artistic expression to facilitate that transformation.

About Naomi Benaron:

 

 

 

 

Benaron advocates for African refugees in Tucson and genocide survivor groups in Rwanda. She also teaches at Pima Community College and online for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
Diane Slocum
About
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.

 

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This post was written by Diane Slocum