Naomi Benaron drew on her volunteer work teaching English and life skills to refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, and Burundi to write Running the Rift, the story of a Tutsi Olympic contender who flees Rwanda. Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded biannually by Barbara Kingsolver to a novel that addresses issues of social justice, and Algonquin will print 50,000 copies.
"When I got the phone call from Barbara, I nearly hit the ceiling," says Benaron, 59, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. "I'm still up there."
Algonquin senior editor Kathy Pories says Benaron's work recalls A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Vintage, 2001). "Just as Mistry gave us a window into India during the state of emergency, so Naomi brings us into Rwanda and the genocide via the story of one boy. I was struck by how I came to worry over these characters. But most importantly, I came to understand the genocide from the inside out."
Benaron, who is represented by Daniel Lazar at Writers House, traveled to Rwanda to be sure she got cultural details right ("indoor or outdoor showers, boxers or briefs, bra or no bra—little things like that"). Her own mother escaped Eastern Europe in 1938, and she says, "It's my hope that by identifying the ways in which those in power lay the groundwork for such seemingly impossible behavior, I can make some small contribution to stamping out genocide. I want ‘never again' to be more than a phrase that gets put on a wristband."