January 21, 2010

Philip Gourevitch, You Are Definitely a Cool Person

Oh, my. Philip Gourevitch. What a fabulous reading. His eyes are intense ~ you can tell his mind has leapt out far ahead of what he’s saying ~ yet here and there his face relaxes with humor at a question or as he mimics the old-school NYC accent, with its “oi” for “r” and “oh” for “ah.” When asked a question, he gives a full answer, teasing it round and round to present it from all sides.

I’ve done a little freelance journalism ~ a few profiles and historical pieces ~ and what bothered me about writing them is that you have to tell coherent unified story. You have only maybe 800 words, if you’re lucky, to tell what happened. You have to tell the truth, of course, but not the whole truth, and that’s why I am drawn to literary fiction. One of the aims of literary fiction, in my mind, is to get at the nuances and complexities of life, not to simplify it.

And that’s what I love about Philip Gourevitch’s work. He’s writing nonfiction, yet he’s trying to understand what happened from the ground up, in the hearts and minds of the people who were there and how they view it after it happened. He doesn’t simplify it; he complexifies it.

He read from his book We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which explores the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He talked about how reporters called the genocide “unseeable, unimaginable, and unspeakable.” The person who was supposed to be the European expert on Rwanda said, instead of there being good guys and bad guys, “they’re all bad guys.” How dismissive, Gourevitch said. Isn’t that the job of journalists to see, imagine, and speak?

That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in fiction. Everyone has a reason why they do something, emotional or otherwise, and to call them crazy is to dismiss them and their realities. It’s laziness or timidity and lack of imagination on your part. It’s the Why that always fascinates me. People fascinate me.

And that’s what Gourevitch said he’s trying to do too. He’s interested in the criminal mind and in aftermaths. He’s fascinated that a murderer would justify his actions by talking about all the people he could have killed but didn’t. He talked about Rwandans and how they make gallows-humor jokes about the killers and the trials. He’s interested in our common humanity and how ~ in theory, around the dinner table ~ we believe that everyone on the planet has a common humanity. Yet, in practice, we act locally, and that becomes a problem when we set policy in theory yet act locally once we get there.

Gourevitch wrote about the Rwandan genocide (We Wish to Inform You …), about an unsolved (until recently) NYC murder case (A Cold Case), and about Abu Ghraib (Standard Operating Procedure, or The Ballad of Abu Ghraib). What I’m left wondering is: What does that do to your beliefs about human nature? Are we base creatures or essentially good or somewhere in between? How can you witness all that, imagine and cogitate for months about all the horrible and wonderful human acts in order to write about them, and not be affected?

What I’m Reading Today: Still reading Best European Fiction 2010. Each story is just a gem.

No comments: