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Naomi Benaron: The Powells.com Interview

Naomi BenaronRunning the Rift is the most recent winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, as awarded by Barbara Kingsolver. It's also an extraordinarily beautiful and heartfelt book. Naomi Benaron tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Tutsi boy growing up in Rwanda in the midst of profound political tensions leading up to mass genocide. But as the country fractures around him, Jean Patrick is on track to become an Olympic runner, which he believes might save him and his people from the violence.

Kirkus gave Running the Rift a starred review: "[W]here Benaron shines is in her tender descriptions of Rwanda's natural beauty and in her creation of Jean Patrick, a hero whose noble innocence and genuine human warmth are impossible not to love." Publishers Weekly also gave it a starred review: "Benaron accomplishes the improbable feat of wringing genuine loveliness from unspeakable horror....It is a testament to Benaron's skill that a novel about genocide...conveys so profoundly the joys of family, friendship, and community." Graceful, subtle, and overwhelmingly moving, Running the Rift is a powerful and important debut novel and an obvious choice for our subscription club, Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: How did Running the Rift begin?

Naomi Benaron: That's a really complicated answer. [Laughter] It came in fits and starts. When I saw the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, there was a swimmer named Eric from Equatorial Guinea. He'd never even swum in a 25-yard pool, let alone a 50-meter pool. They had a wild card preliminary heat for people who wouldn't qualify in their wildest dreams for the 100-meter freestyle. There were two other swimmers, and they both false-started, so this kid got through. He managed to struggle through 100 meters. I'm a swimmer, so I know how hard that is. It was just amazing. I was sitting on the edge of my seat cheering for him. I was so touched by his heart.

That was in 2000. In 2002, I was newly becoming a writer again, and I still had this swimmer in my heart and my head when I took this fiction class. One of our assignments was to write about a place that we were really unfamiliar with. I wanted to write about a place with conflict, so I chose Burundi. Also, I'm a massage therapist, and I have a client who was an 800-meter runner in the Olympics for Burundi. This all happened simultaneously: I was deciding to write this story and set it in Burundi, and he became my massage client and my friend.

Then, I was talking to my dog trainer [Laughter], and I told her that I was having lunch with this guy from Burundi, and she said, "Wow, I am so in love with Rwanda, and I've just been invited there."

Did you ever see the movie Gorillas in the Mist?

Jill: Yes.

Benaron: The movie was filmed at Roz Carr's plantation. Roz Carr was a good friend of Dian Fossey, and she was played by Julie Harris in the movie. My dog trainer had been invited to her 90th birthday party, and she said, "I don't want to go alone." I said, "I'll go!" [Laughter]

So, off I went to Rwanda. The first time, just coming in, I hadn't slept in two days. And, as we came down, it was morning, and this glistening, green jewel of a country rose up beneath the wings. It was the most amazing experience. Riding through the countryside, I fell in love with the country.

Then, when I was walking on the shores of the lake in Rwanda, I discovered some bones. They were everywhere. My foot hit one, and I picked it up and realized it was humanI discovered some bones. They were everywhere. My foot hit one, and I picked it up and realized it was human; there were teeth and parts of skulls. And I thought, I have to tell this story. I'm thick and stubborn, so it took me awhile, but finally I realized: Don't write about Burundi, you idiot. Write about Rwanda. You've been there. So, I started putting it all together.

Then the last piece of the puzzle was that I was working with African refugees here in Tucson, and I started working with a family who was Somali Bantu. The Somali Bantu are persecuted. It's like in Sudan; they're persecuted because they're dark and because the more ethnically Arab Somalis want their land. So, they went through and killed everyone in their village.

In the family I was working with, the husband and wife were having dinner at her mother and father's house when this band of Somalis came and started killing people. The wife said to the husband, "Jump. Just go out the window and run." He didn't want to, but she said, "I might survive; you will never survive." So, he jumped out the window and started walking to Kenya. Obviously, they eventually found each other again.

Jill: That's amazing.

Benaron: Yes, it is amazing. Her parents were killed, but she found her husband again. She was stabbed in the stomach and gravely wounded, but she walked to Kenya, too. That stuck in my head. Imagine what it must be like to jump out a window and leave the woman that you love behind. So, that transformed into Jean Patrick leaving Bea.

Jill: You said you were "newly becoming a writer, again." What does that mean?

Benaron: I had written since I was a kid. I remember the first story I wrote. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade, and I was taken with the idea that the Luna moth lives such a short amount of time. And it doesn't even have a mouth! It can't even eat! Of course, I didn't understand that its only purpose is to mate. [Laughter] But, I was really touched by this idea, so I wrote this story about a Luna moth. Now, thinking about it, it was my first experience in trying to come to terms with death.

Also, my dog Scout had a newspaper called the "News Flash Journal." For about a year, Scout chronicled his daily adventures. [Laughter] I call it the "Barkive Journal" — I stole that; someone else gave me that term. I have this huge book, actually, of Scout's adventures, from the time he got neutered up through the time he was helping me train for marathons.

But I always wrote as a kid. I was a solitary child; I lived a lot in a fantasy world. I still do, actually. [Laughter]

Jill: I think that's a trait you share with a lot of other writers.

Benaron: I think so. [Laughter] However, I was supposed to be a doctor. Both my parents were doctors, and it was assumed that I would be a doctor. I finally said, "Okay, I give up: I'll be a doctor." But then I got into physics and geophysics, and I became a geophysicist. I was always writing, too, but not seriously. I wrote some really lousy poetry.

I started toying with the idea of becoming a writer, and I met this wonderful woman who is now one of my dearest friends. Her name is Barry Ryan, and she's a poet here in Tucson. She was a hospice volunteer when my dad was in hospice. I started sharing some of my writing with her, and she started telling me, "You have to go take this fiction class with my friend Meg Files." She kept on me until, finally, after about a year or so, I submitted a piece to see if I could get into the advanced fiction class.

Jill: I haven't read your collection of stories, but it sounds like some of them deal with Rwanda as well. How did you know this story should be a novel rather than a short story?

Benaron: For one thing, as soon as Meg told me about the Bellwether Prize, I thought, I have to win that prize. I'm a very competitive person. [Laughter] I was really terrified of the idea of writing a novel, though, so I tried it as a short story first. When I initially tried it, it was still set in Burundi. That ended up being about 35 pages. Then, when I was at Antioch College, I worked on it, and it turned out to be longer, so I thought, Hmm... Maybe this is a novella. I started in June 2004, and, in January, I said, "Okay, I'm going to write this novella as my senior project." And then, 600 pages later... [Laughter] It used to be a lot bigger than it is now.

Jill: I was impressed with the pacing of the book, the slow unfolding of the violence over time. Your readers, by and large, know what you're building up to, though, of course, they don't know what happens to these specific characters. How did that affect the way you paced the story?

Benaron: That's a really interesting question, and you're the first person to ask that. I went through a lot of turmoil and editorial angst, because at first I was really tied to the facts. I started 10 years before the genocide. I wanted to start before 1991, which was when the civil war began, when the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] came down from Uganda and invaded Ruhengeri. And I wanted Jean Patrick to be a kid. I wanted him to gain awareness at the same time as the readers.

In the beginning, I was way too tied to the history. I thought, This is this month and this year and this has to happen. The novel was really stale. Then, I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie. She had this really cool thing in the back where she talks about how she couldn't be true to the facts of the history, but she wanted to be true to the spirit of the history of the Biafran War.

I read that, and it was like somebody had just taken 200-pound weights off my shoulders. There were certain key events, obviously, that I had to have. And I did stay true to the chronology of the war. Everything moves so slowly until the moment of genocide. But if you look at the curve of the story arc, it's kind of like that. It starts building up, and then it just accelerates and accelerates. And, then, the president's plane gets shot down.

I have been criticized for being too slow. But the way I justify that, I think, is that, despite the American preoccupation with instant gratification, it's okay to be slow. [Laughter]

Jill: I do think it's okay to be slow, and I think it's very effective, in this case, because it shows that normal life is still going on as much as is possible. While there's this steady creep of violence and malevolence in the background, school is still going on, people are still falling in love, etc.

How did you think about inhabiting Jean Patrick's character?

Benaron: That was also a complicated process. In terms of his soul and his mind, the running and the science? That was me. I have that. His competitiveness? I have that. And then I mixed up a lot of other things. I have my friend Patrick Nduwimana, the 800-meter runner. He told me a lot about the 800, and he revealed so much about his own character and his own drive while he was talking about it. A lot of that made it into Jean Patrick's character, that hunger to do well. I understand it from myself, but Patrick really helped me with that.

I had a couple of other friends whose stories I used parts of. Then, I had this really weird coincidence. At the time this happened, I was just starting the book. I knew it was a novel, and I knew that Jean Patrick would come from this town called Cyangugu and that his uncle was a fisherman. Then, I met Mark Bizimana, a receptionist at a hotel where I was staying in Butare. It was like he walked out of my novel. It was bizarre. I mean, he looked a little like the way I imagined Jean Patrick to look — and he was from Cyangugu, and his uncle was a fisherman... We became friends. I ended up paying for a good portion of his university, and he's graduating in about three weeks. I'm so excited.

So, for a lot of the personal details, I would ask my friends. I have another friend, not Mark, who I can be very frank with, and I would ask things like: What kind of underwear do you wear? [Laughter] It was really important to me to stay as true as I could to the culture.

Jill: You use imagery and metaphor that Jean Patrick would relate to — comparing the cattle's horns to Inyore dancers, for example — but then you describe it fully enough that any reader would be able to picture it. I found that an interesting and useful technique to get the reader into the mind of another culture. How did you think about that voice?

Benaron: Everything is character. That's the most important thing to me. I'm a child of two psychiatrists, which might have something to do with it. [Laughter] I almost approach it like method acting. The chapters that work for me, or the short stories that work for me, are the ones where I'm moving as the character and thinking as the character, where I am the character. So, it's really important for me to inhabit their heart and their soul and their head.

The two people I dedicated the book to, Mathilde Mukantabana and Alexandre Kimenyi, were so helpful to me. Kimenyi was so helpful because he was a linguist, and he studied Rwandan culture and grew up with it. I asked him a lot of questions, and I read a lot of articles that he wrote. Mathilde, his wife, was also very helpful to me. If I had questions about funerals or other things, I'd ask, "How would this work? What would Jean Patrick think?" I knew, for example, that cattle were so important to the Tutsi, and I knew that a lot of their proverbs and a lot of their sayings are related to cows and cattle.

It's things like that that make me wish I had become fluent. It's kind of a double-edged sword or a catch-22. You can't really speak Kinyarwanda unless you know the culture, and you can't really know the culture unless you speak Kinyarwanda. It's a really difficult language to learn, with a lot of complex tricks of phrases and pronunciation. I tried to learn as much of it as I could and to speak it as much as I could, which isn't very much. But I can get by, kind of.

Jill: The epigraphs for the different sections of the books are Rwandan proverbs. They're well chosen and frequently chilling. How did you find them?

Benaron: A lot of searching on the web and going through books. I read every book about Rwanda that I could find. Some of the proverbs are really common, and others I found from Kimenyi, because he has whole articles about some of the sayings.

The one that says, "God spends the day everywhere but comes home to sleep in Rwanda," that's a very common one. Then there's "buhoro buhoro," which is a short form of, "Slowly, slowly, a bird builds its nest." That one is also very common. And that was really scary, because that was quoted a lot during the genocide, in preparation for the genocide. It's creepy, because I'd listen to excerpts of RTLM, the radio station, and you hear them say, "Buhoro buhoro, buhoro buhoro," over and over. It's very staccato, and it almost invokes a hypnotic trance.

Jill: Were the quotes you use from the radio and the newspaper actual quotes?

Benaron: Yes.

Jill: They are absolutely terrifying.

Benaron: I know.

Jill: Jean Patrick's relationship with Coach is, in some ways, at the heart of the book. It is a conflicted one, and yet it's loving as well. What made you want to create someone who was fighting against the Tutsis and yet who obviously loved Jean Patrick, too?

Benaron: Coach came to me fully formed, in terms of his complexity. I knew that he was going to be a regimented person and really tied to the ideology of the Hutu, but I also knew that he truly loved Jean Patrick. Coach really is a good human being. I wanted to have a character who showed how complex it was. It wasn't as simple as Good people are Tutsi and bad people are Hutu. There were a lot of good Hutu people who were in a very conflicted place, who ended up doing very bad things.It wasn't as simple as Good people are Tutsi and bad people are Hutu. There were a lot of good Hutu people who were in a very conflicted place, who ended up doing very bad things. But there were also a lot of Hutu who don't regret it and would do it again in a second. These were complex people. It was the same thing during the Holocaust.

Jill: Were there really people like Jean Patrick that the government held up to the outside world to pretend that nothing was wrong?

Benaron: Not to my knowledge, but that doesn't mean there weren't. It was more that they let certain Tutsi stay in the university and certain Tutsi remain politicians. These people got away with things for awhile, up until they got assassinated. It's really true that you would step over bodies in Kigali, from people being killed left and right.

Jill: Jonathan and Suzanne, Jean Patrick's American friends, are interesting characters. Did you draw from your background as a geophysicist for Jonathan's character?

Benaron: Yes, I did. I also drew from the first book I ever read about Rwanda, which was a book of poetry by Derick Burleson called Ejo. Derick was over there as a Peace Corps volunteer, and now he teaches at the University of Alaska. I've never even met Derick, but I've communicated with him. In fact, he was the original reason I joined Facebook, so I could be his friend. In many ways, Jonathan is the way that I imagine Derick to be. But, of course, his love of geology, that's from me.

Jill: How many Americans — just citizens, like Jonathan — were in Rwanda at the time?

Benaron: I don't think there were that many. And as far as I know, only one stayed through the genocide. Have you seen the Frontline documentary "Ghosts of Rwanda"?

Jill: No, I haven't.

Benaron: You should see it, and then you'll see the guy who stayed. He's a minister, and he refused to leave. As far as I can determine from any source, he's the only white person who stayed. There were white clergy in the church, and I know a few of them were killed for protecting Tutsi.

Jill: How did you approach writing about religion in Running the Rift? There are strong elements of Christianity, but there are also a lot of Rwandan folktales and mythologies.

Benaron: I have a good friend who is a very religious Catholic in Rwanda, and I used to go to Mass with her, which is a pretty amazing experience. I went to Mass with her in Butare right near the field where Jean Patrick used to run. All the walks in the book are based on my walks with her there. So, I got to see how religion in Rwanda was from her. And, again, I did a lot of research. Kimenyi talks a lot about the blending of the earlier mythologies with the Christian religion and how those things became melded together. The Rwandese people did accept Christianity, but they put their own spin on it.

Jill: Bea is a remarkable character. Where did your inspiration for her come from?

Benaron: She was the hardest for me, which is interesting, because I thought she would be the easiest.

Jill: Why did you think she would be the easiest?

Benaron: I guess, because she was the most like me. But I needed to see her physically. So, I have two pictures on my desk: one is Mathilde and the other is this woman — actually, her name is Bea, too, Beatrice. I kind of made Bea physically out of these two people. When I told Kimenyi I was writing this story, he put out a call to this survivor's group on the web and asked if anyone was willing to talk to an author who was writing a book about the genocide. The only person who responded was Bea, and she said, "Why are you telling the story of a man? There were women who were very brave, too." Beatrice was a journalist. That's how Bea was born.

Jill: What made you want to write about the genocide in the first place?

Benaron: My mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust. She was born in a horse-pulled wagon while her family was fleeing the First World War. They were from a village called Chernovich in the Ukraine.

My mother grew up in Switzerland. She had this long, flaming-red hair, and she was a very liberal person. When the Nazis came to power, she got involved in resistance groups. She told me that she was giving her passport to people who would then use it to get Jews out of Germany. And, looking at all the stamps on her passport, I'm 95 percent sure it's true.

Jill: Then they would send it back to her once they were out?

Benaron: Yes. And I know she was involved in resistance groups in Switzerland that were going back and forth across the border, which was quite dangerous. When the Nazi ambassador came to the town where my mother lived, she crawled on top of his car and ripped off the Nazi flag.

My grandfather was a prominent businessman, and someone told him, "Look, the Germans want your daughter deported. They're trying to get your whole family deported back to Chernovich." So, my mother and her parents left Switzerland in a hurry. My grandfather was writing to his family, telling them, "You've got to get out!" But they were all saying, "The Germans are our friends, and we're assimilated. We don't even really feel Jewish. And Hitler's crazy! This will all blow over." It's remarkable, the similarity there to what happened in Rwanda.

My mother wasn't very specific about what happened to her family, but she did tell me about these pleading letters after it was too late. They wrote, "Please, get us out." But by that time there was nothing that my grandfather could do. And then he got a letter from his sister. She went to France and was not safe there. Then she was rounded up and put on a train to Auschwitz. She dropped a postcard through the slat in the train saying that she was being sent east.

Jill: And the postcard made it to your grandfather?

Benaron: Yes. And then she was never heard from again.

So, I guess I have that history. But I wasn't ready to go back to the Holocaust, yet. I wanted to start with a novel that was a bit more removed from my own family.

Jill: How did you feel when you found out you did win the Bellwether Prize? I think it's amazing that you set out to win it, and then you did.

Benaron: I know! Well, I was a finalist in 2008, but, as it happens, I'm really glad I didn't win that year, because my novel ended up being so much better. It took me about a month to pick myself up off the ground; it was like slogging through mud when I didn't win it. Then I thought, All right, and got back to it.

About a week before the deadline for the Bellwether last year, I thought, I'll write to them and see if maybe I can resubmit. And they said that I could. So, I frantically went through the whole thing again and got it as ready as I could.

I started getting nervous around the first of April. I would go 10 times a day to the website, which said, "The winner will be notified at the end of April." Then I would talk to myself, "Okay. End of April. You don't have to worry yet." [Laughter] Still, every time the phone rang, my heart would be in my mouth. But then it would just be a doctor's appointment or credit card services or something like that.

The day after taxes were due, I was messing up something on my computer, which is pretty common. I was involved in trying to fix it, and the phone rang. I just thought of it as an annoyance. So, I picked up the phone, and this voice said, "This is Barbara Kingsolver." I said, "Excuse me," and I put the phone down and screamed. [Laughter] We talked for about 45 minutes, and I didn't sit down the whole time. I just paced from one room to the other. And I would periodically say, "Excuse me," and go into the other room to scream. [Laughter] It was the most amazing thing that's happened to me, and I will be forever grateful to her for making this a reality. Truthfully, I don't even know if the novel would have been picked up by now otherwise. And Algonquin has just been wonderful to work with. I love them. My editor is so smart. She really helped me polish the novel. It wouldn't be the same without her.

Jill: Is there anything you want to say about the book that I haven't asked?

Benaron: I know that one reason it might not have gotten picked up is because people don't want to read a book about the genocide in Rwanda. But this isn't just a book about genocide. It's about what human beings can do to each other. But it's also, more importantly, about how humans rise above what is done. It's about the strength of the human spirit. It's not a book of graphic violence; it's a book of beauty. I hope, anyway.

Jill: It also seemed to me that it's very much about the closeness and strength of family: Jean Patrick's blood relatives, in the beginning, but also the family that he makes as he gets older, with his friends and loved ones, and how strong those bonds are.

Benaron: Yes. It's really a book about family and love.

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One Response to "Naomi Benaron: The Powells.com Interview"

  1.  
    Marie Kat February 6th, 2012 at 8:59 am

    This is really interesting conversation between Jill and Benaron.

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