Naomi Benaron talks about the resilience of the human spirit in her debut novel about the genocide in Rwanda, Running the Rift.
You’ve worked with Rwandan genocide survivors. What is your involvement in that community, and how did you research the novel?
I first worked with a genocide survivor in Tucson, got to know her, and then went to a genocide conference in Sacramento. There’s a wonderful man, Alexandre Kimenyi; I dedicated my book to him and his wife, Mathilde Mukantabana. Most of the genocide survivors I worked with, I met through them. I went to Rwanda in 2002 and felt very connected to the whole story—my mother lost most of her family in the Holocaust. I went back twice for research, and last June I went to the wedding of my unofficially adopted son there.
Your novel carries unlikely themes of acceptance and forgiveness. Are these messages you’ve heard from the genocide survivors?
Yes and no. A lot of the genocidaires feel a chilling unrepentance for what they’ve done. Mathilde’s parents were murdered; they’d never found the bodies. Then the killer confessed that he’d thrown the bodies in a latrine. Mathilde and her husband went back to Rwanda to that location. They were digging and digging, but didn’t find anything. Then the killer confessed, “I didn’t really throw them there. I just said that to get out of prison.” So there’s an undercurrent that it could happen again, that nothing has changed. But there have also been Hutu who have gone to their neighbors and said, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” So in some instances, forgiveness has taken place.
One of your most complex characters is a genocidaire. He feels no remorse, but he has one relationship that, in a small way, redeems him.
What I was getting at with him is the complex history of believing what one is told. He truly believed that the Hutu were a superior people, that the Tutsi were trying to enslave them. This had come down to him through his education, his military training, the media. But he had a genuine love for the main character, Jean Patrick, and yes, that is what redeemed him.
It takes audacity for a writer to assume the perspective of another culture. Were you concerned about your role as an outsider?
Every day. There’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek piece, Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa,” about white people writing about Africa. I’ve kept that in the back of my mind as pitfalls to avoid. What has been important to me has been to present the culture with as much understanding, respect, and love as I could. My sister spent a year in Malawi. I started with a love of the continent from her.
You write vividly about running. Has running informed your writing?
I’m a triathlete. Running is when I do my best living and my best thinking. I love the discipline, pushing yourself to suffer as much as you can, because it leads to a form of redemption.
That sounds like writing.
It is like writing—but it’s easier because you can always get in some kind of run. With writing, sometimes you have to erase everything you wrote the day before.