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The Powells.com Interview with Tracy Kidder

Over the course of his career, Tracy Kidder has written about the dawn of the computer age, a year in the life of elementary schoolchildren, his experience in Vietnam, a biography of a small town in Massachusetts, and Paul Farmer's medical and humanitarian work in Haiti, to name a few of his subjects. His books have won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, amongst many other awards and honors. Tracy Kidder

Kidder's incredibly moving and vivid new book, Strength in What Remains, follows and accompanies Deo, survivor of the genocide in Burundi who came to America in the '90s to make a new life for himself. Though Deo had little money and no English language when he landed in New York, he eventually found his way to Columbia University and medical school. Through his account of Deo's remarkable journey, Kidder makes the abstract achingly personal and showcases a genuine hero. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring, Strength in What Remains is some of Kidder's finest work yet.Beautiful, heartbreaking, and inspiring, Strength in What Remains is some of Kidder's finest work yet.

Jill Owens: The first half of your book is in third person, from Deo's point of view; the second half is in first person, through your own eyes. How did you decide to structure the book this way?

Tracy Kidder: There is also a little introduction that is in the first person, and it's there for several reasons. First, to introduce you to the idea of gusimbara (not reminding people of something unpleasant), but also to somehow let you know that there is a first-person narrator working here somewhere.

I write by trial and error, and the problem is that after I've done something and it seems to work, then I'm able to come up with all sorts of explanations and justifications for it. The truth is that I'm really just searching for something that works. It became clear that I couldn't tromp all over the story, which is told pretty sparely. It is really a recounting of Deo's memories. Some of the characters who were quite beguiling to me, like Charlie and Nancy and particularly Sharon, weren't coming to life through Deo's eyes. I couldn't do it honestly that way. So in experimenting a bit, those things did seem to work much better in the first person. That was the initial impulse. The truth is that I think it was a kind of lucky try that made things come to life.

There are a bunch of reasons for shifting to the first person. One is that I wanted to acknowledge openly, without somehow interrupting Deo's story, that this is a story of memories. Therefore, I can't vouch for every bit of it, nor can he, nor could anybody. We know how plastic memory is and how untrustworthy it can be. I became quite satisfied that the story was, as I think A. J. Liebmann once put it, "in its entrails, true." But I did want to make that acknowledgment to the reader. It felt like something I had to do, and I do that, as I recall now, very early in the second part of the book.

Also, it seemed like a really neat way to do something here. This is a book about memory, to a large degree. I wanted you to know Deo's story, but then I wanted you to see him in the throes of memory, going back over that story. I wanted you to know Deo's story, but then I wanted you to see him in the throes of memory, going back over that story. That's the reason for the doubleness of this book.

I guess the question that comes after someone's been through something like this is: How does a person recover, if that person's going to recover? How do you make a life in the presence of tormenting memories, memories with this ungovernable quality about them, which I'm afraid a lot of memories do have? It seemed to me that that was an even richer story, or a rich enough story to carry the second half of the book. It seemed to work.

Jill: I absolutely thought it worked. It was interesting reading the book knowing I'd be doing this interview; a lot of the questions I was jotting down during the first half, you went on to answer in the second half.

Kidder: Good, good. I couldn't find another way to tell it. I hate writing rough drafts, and I love rewriting. That's what I really love to do. So I try different things out. I've learned, over these 35 years or so, to have no problem throwing things away. I think young writers have the problem of falling in love with what they've written. Often, it's the worst thing that they've written that they fall in love with. There's some kind of protective mechanism, I think, that particularly young writers build up around stuff that they've labored over. There's some subconscious awareness that it really isn't very good.

Jill: You met Deo through Paul Farmer, who you wrote about in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. What were your first impressions of Deo, and how did they change or stay the same the more you got to know him?

Kidder: When I met him, I was struck first of all by the fact that I knew that he wasn't American. This was before I even heard him speak, and heard his somewhat accented English, and he wasn't dressed unusually. I don't know quite why, but I think it was this amazing openness, this wonderful friendliness about him. These are ineffable things, impossible to prove, but like Paul Farmer, Deo has an aura about him, a charisma. There's a warmth and an openness about him that I'm not accustomed to encountering with Americans, between strangers.

I thought he seemed like a really neat guy, but I spent my time there talking with Paul. Paul had had a knee operation, and my wife and I had gone to visit him at his apartment at Harvard, and Deo was there. I spent almost all of the time talking to Paul, and Franny, my wife, spoke with Deo.

Then after we left, in the car, she told me a brief version of the brief story that he had told her, and I remember that I was really struck by it. I filed it away, though not in a conscious way. It just went in, as someone's memory of someone else's memory, so third-hand, almost. I was looking around about three years later, thinking, "What should I do next?" And I thought, "I'd like to go hear this guy's story for myself," so I did.

My impression of him, as it does with anybody, deepened. The sense of warmth and enthusiasm never really went away, but of course I began to learn more. I began to learn about his vulnerability. One impression of him, my sense of a slightly damaged, needy guy, which wasn't a strong feeling, really evaporated when we got to Burundi. All of a sudden, he was the person in charge, and he seemed to be really happy. I wrote that he seemed a size larger, and that's about the best way that I can say it. He seemed authoritative and in control, and that was another side of him that I hadn't seen. He'd never been in that position when I'd been around him. And nothing happened after that to change that impression.

I did get a very good look at how difficult a burden he carries. My sense is that everyone who goes through something like that — and unfortunately, there are far too many people in the world who have — carries something.My sense is that everyone who goes through something like that — and unfortunately, there are far too many people in the world who have — carries something. Some people can deal with it better than others. In his case, I think it's interesting to see how, I hope, I found all his really essential formulas for help. One of the chief ones, aside from Sharon and Nancy and Charlie, was Columbia. In some ways, that to me is one of the more moving things in his story.

We think of a college education as something you've got to do. You've got to get the piece of paper and it's a nice four years of your life. But it had an awful lot more meaning for him than it does for most of us, certainly than it did for me.

Jill: His reverence for books, and for libraries and bookstores in particular, was very moving to me.

Kidder: And he'd go to sleep there sometimes, though not for long in the Barnes and Noble.

Jill: No, Barnes and Noble wouldn't let you do that for long, I would think.

At one point, you write that when Deo stubbed his toe on his way to school, he'd have to walk slowly for a while: "walking, as he pictured himself, like a chicken that had lost its other leg." How did you get into that level of detail, down to Deo's thoughts?

Kidder: That's what he told me. We had a lot of conversation, and it wasn't all in one sitting. Some of the detail came from when we were in Burundi. Some of the stuff he told me as he remembered it while we were there. He had told me that would happen, and it did. He has a way of expressing himself that's really quite colorful. That chicken that lost its other leg — that's literally what he told me. Once I'd been there and seen that walk to school and so on, I could put it together. We lingered around the school and we took the walk together that he took every day as a boy, so I feel like I got it pretty well covered. I was able to confirm things with him on that walk.

Jill: I love some of the fables that Deo's grandfather told him, and some of the Burundi proverbs that you include in the book.

Kidder: That was supplied to me. I got an actual book that I guess Burundians — well, poor Burundi. I don't know what Burundian schoolchildren get in school today, but that was a very common book in Deo's youth. I have it somewhere, and I have a young friend who translated it for me. But the stories from his grandfather were ones that Deo told me.

Jill: Why has there been so much less attention paid to Burundi than to Rwanda, in America at least?

Kidder: That's a really good question, and I don't know the answer. I have a young friend who, when he says he's from Burundi, and people ask, "Where's that?", has taken to saying, "It's a country near Rwanda." Both countries are very small, and economically insignificant — to us, that is, though obviously not to the people who live in them. But they're not particularly significant in Africa economically. However, that isn't entirely true, since they both are adjacent to the Congo, which of course is of enormous economic significance in a largely horrifying way.

Rwanda wouldn't be well known, it seems to me, without that genocide. It was a dramatic event that lasted from April to July. Burundi's catastrophe lasted for roughly 13 years, depending on when you date the end of the civil war. There was plenty of horror — my god, mountains of horror — being perpetrated by both sides: the government troops largely commanded by Tutsis, and the Hutu militias, with the population, as usual, caught in the crossfire. There were horrific massacres, truly terrible stuff. But perhaps journalists didn't find it easy to cover. Perhaps it seemed like, This is an Africa story. This is just what people do to each other in Africa and we've heard this one before, awful thought though that is.Perhaps it seemed like, This is an Africa story. This is just what people do to each other in Africa and we've heard this one before, awful thought though that is.

It did not go unnoticed in Africa. I didn't write much about this in the book, but Nelson Mandela, some people say, was the person who really said, "We've got to create peace here." It was more significant than one realizes. The destabilization of the Congo (that is, the current one ) — there are so many, many forces that have created that. But certainly the influx of that genocidal army and militias from Rwanda, and also militias from Burundi, really radical ones, have played a big role in the current horrors there. Then the invasions by the Rwandan government, not to mention Uganda… I'm getting sidetracked, but what I really mean is that I don't know the answer to your question. I think most Americans think of Africa as one country, although there's renewed interest in it, lately. But it's a very complicated place.

Jill: Deo's survival trip is so horrific, and yet these little miracles kept happening to him. For example, the fact that leaving his door unlocked saved his life, and then the Hutu woman who helped him when he was about to give up and die.

Kidder: What I love about the story about the woman who helped him is what it shows you about the disposition about most of the people in Burundi. My sense is that most people in that country, and most people in countries that have gone through things like this, want peace. The hatred is something stirred up by people with an interest — entrepreneurs of violence.hatred is something stirred up by people with an interest — entrepreneurs of violence. I'm afraid most countries have plenty of those. But it's an encouraging story.

I have wondered sometimes if she hadn't helped him, and he hadn't crossed the border into Rwanda, he might have been able to find his way back to the capital of Burundi sooner. He would have been spared that, at least. But of course how could he, or anyone, have ever known?

It was pretty striking, how many people helped him.

Jill: It was interesting to me that you really can't tell if someone is Hutu or Tutsi by any sort of physical feature, despite the stereotypes.

Kidder: You can at the extremes, but even then you can be wrong. There are stories about people who were murdered in Rwanda who were mistaken for Tutsis but were in fact not. It's never foolproof. I think there are some people you can look at and say, "He's almost certainly a Tutsi or a Hutu." But there's been enough intermarriage that it can be very hard to tell.

Of course, the origins of these two groups are so obscure that in the end I think you almost have to throw up your hands. Who knows? But the idea that they came from very distant places and were coherent groups that came from different places, or that one was indigenous and the other was not, I think has been largely refuted as nonsense. These were divisions that arose within a civilization in this region of Africa. At least, that's what the best historians I read seemed to say.

Jill: You give a cogent explanation for as much as we can know, I think, in the book.

Kidder: I hope I got it right. I fully expect some historian to come in and disagree.

Jill: When you were driving to the hospital, the extreme strangeness and discomfort you felt — do you think it came from Deo, or the place itself? The way you describe it, it almost seems like both, as though the very ground held some kind of memory, too.

Kidder: I could imagine making a trip like that to a place like that by myself, and I'd just be curious. But I was with Deo, and he was going back to a place of real terror for him, and I could sense it. Part of my job is to try and be as sensitive as I can to the people I'm going to write about. I'm sure I was picking up something from him, and I was adding something of my own to it, which may be innate cowardice. I don't believe we were ever in any physical danger, but psychologically, I found it… I'm not sure I can explain it. Maybe it's just a question of the fact that I'm older now than I was awhile back. Some of it was coming from lots of different sources.

But my sense was that this past was really there in the present to me. I began to feel like I was in a dream. I think I say that in the book. I felt like I was in a dream that he was dreaming. I was watching myself in a dream of Deo's, and at the same time seeing the source of that dream, what inspired it.I was watching myself in a dream of Deo's, and at the same time seeing the source of that dream, what inspired it. It was weird.

Jill: That paragraph, where you write that very thing, sounds incredibly surreal and rather profound. It made me wonder if that might be about as close as we can come to experiencing what someone else has gone through.

Kidder: Yes. I have always resisted the postmodernist notion that it's so hopeless trying to imagine what another person has experienced that you might as well not even try. I hate that notion because unless we try to exercise sympathetic imagination, there's no hope for the world. I think that's a really important part of our constitution. I feel like we're born with that. I hope that's true. We need to exercise sympathy. I think that's a phrase from Joyce, sympathetic imagination.

It is true that it can never be done completely, and I think that's especially true in the cases of people who have been through great horror. But I don't think that's a reason not to try. What I hoped to do was to acknowledge the impossibility, and at the same time I wanted to suggest what I did think was true.

Jill: Your portrayal of Deo's different psychological states and then your own, in Africa, are very vivid. I've read several books about the genocide in Rwanda, but this book felt much more personal. My heart physically ached while reading this book, and I think Deo's story is a moving and important lens through which to try and understand this kind of experience.

Kidder: Thank you. The denouement is really what is extraordinary to me. I would never have gone back if I were he. But to go back and to build this clinic, to rally all his friends — it's not an easy thing to do. It's really quite wonderful.

There's been trouble there recently. I don't know if you saw the little op-ed I wrote for the Times, but there was a horrible murder. The driver was shot to death. We don't know all the details yet. But that sort of thing is going to happen. I remember talking to Paul Farmer about it, shortly after it happened, and he said he had never worked anywhere in these kinds of settings where something like that hadn't happened.

But I think it's an extraordinarily brave thing for Deo to have done. I also think that finally, it is the recipe for… I refuse to use the word "heal," because it's been appropriated and ruined, like the word "rage." People who are just pissed off like to talk about their rage. But actually, "heal" would fit here. Deo finally healed. It wasn't just his troubled mind, or troubled memories. It is also this rift in his life, that had been chopped in two. How do you put it back together? And it seems to me that that's exactly what he's done. It isn't as though he's sat down and said, "I want to put my life back together." He said, "I want to go back and help my people." It isn't as though he's sat down and said, "I want to put my life back together." He said, "I want to go back and help my people." This is an ancillary benefit, I think.

I hate to sound like a moralizer, because I have no right to be one, but I've talked a lot about Paul Farmer and Partners in Health to college students. Mountains Beyond Mountains has now been inflicted on students at about 150 to 200 colleges. [Laughter] When I've talked to students about it, one of the things I've said, and I believe this, is that if one of your aims is to improve the world, even in a little way, and you begin doing that, then you don't really have to worry so much about improving yourself. If you do the first thing, you will have begun to do the second, by my definition anyway.

Jill: In Home Town, you wrote, "A place can't function or improve through compassion alone, but it can't become a good place without it." I think both halves of that theme seem to run through many of your books. Compassion is essential, but not enough.

Kidder: I think that's true. I'm not sure if it's true in all my books, but it is a truth. I'm sure that you and I could come up with all sorts of stories of people who've meant really well, who really sincerely did mean well, but then did awful things, often through sheer incompetence. I never imagined that people do things for one reason only. Compassion isn't the only thing that motivates a person like Paul Farmer, but it has to be there, or else he'd be working on Wall Street.

Jill: You mentioned talking to college students, and I was wondering: what have been some memorable reactions from some of your readers?

Kidder: When I'm signing books after a lecture, college students often come up and say, "Your book is, like, awesome. It changed my life." [Laughter] I'm 63 years old, and I'm aware that a good, active, healthy, American college student has a life-changing experience at least once a week. [Laughter]

I'm not even sure what they mean, but I'm not in any way tempted to challenge them. I'm glad that there are people who still read, and who are still moved by what they read. This seemed much more obvious up until about nine months ago, or whenever our stock markets crashed, but my feeling is that we really have lived through one of the most materialistic ages in the history of the world, and certainly in American history. I've gotten the impression, talking to college students in a superficial way, that a significant percentage of them, though not a majority, are a little sick of it. They're looking for something that has a little more juice to it, a way to construct a real life that isn't just about material possessions.

Some colleges don't require that students attend the talk, if it's one of the places that I've gone to speak. I find that the most interesting, because then I can get an idea of what percentage of a class was interested enough to come to the lecture. I think it was at the University of Florida, which is a really big school, that I made a calculation that it was something on the order of ten to twenty percent, which I thought was pretty good.

I do think that an awful lot of college students, when sober, anyway, are interested in issues of morality.I do think that an awful lot of college students, when sober, anyway, are interested in issues of morality. Why do we do what we do? What are we here for? They're trying to find answers themselves; they're trying to construct selves. It's actually been nice for me, because my kids are now adults, and it's nice to be around teenagers again.

Jill: Do you know what your next project's going to be?

Kidder: No. I wish I did. The only complaint I have about my job, which is a wonderful job, is that it's always so hard for me to figure out what I'm going to do next. I'm terrified of wasting a year, or two years. I've sometimes wasted as much as a year trying to figure that out.

Jill: But if you do eventually figure it out, then it's not really wasted time.

Kidder: Right. It does feel like it, though. [Laughter] I don't know what I want to do next, but I want to do something that's set here, in the United States.

Tracy Kidder spoke to me from Maine on August 5, 2009.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Strength in What Remains
    Used Hardcover $6.50

  2. Among Schoolchildren
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. My Detachment: A Memoir
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. Home Town Used Trade Paper $4.95
  5. Mountains beyond Mountains: The...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

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