Philip Gourevitch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reporting the Story of a Genocide: Conversation with Philip Gourevitch; 2/11/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Reporting

Once you pick the story or the tale that you want to pursue, how do you go about researching the story, finding out all the players, the details, the environments? Talk to us a little about that.

That's the other part of it. There are basically two separate activities, one's called writing and one's called reporting. And when you're doing factual, nonfiction writing a great deal of it has to do with actually getting the story straight. And there are many ways.

I try to approach it often with a certain degree of ignorance. I like entering a story not knowing, presuming that I don't know, presuming that I'm at sea. And not necessarily doing a whole ton of reading at first, but starting to look around and then absorb the reading almost with this idea that, my God, what a lot of time I could have saved if only I'd known that earlier. But if I'd known that earlier I would have had some blinders on about what was out there. So trying, to some extent, to see things fresh is always one of the greatest challenges to getting at a story. You wander into a situation, you start making calls, you start going to people. You have to have a certain amount of moxie and just go and knock on doors. Reporting is a wonderful excuse for getting out into the world, getting out of the room where you do your writing. It's the opposite: when writing, you close off when you get in your room and sit at a desk and have to have a lot of sit power. Reporting is about asking a lot of annoying questions relentlessly.

I guess there's a lot of listening, actually, once you find the people that you want to talk to.

Most of it is listening. Most of it is actually trying to hear the things that you wouldn't have imagined on your own. I think of reporting and factual writing as an imaginative form. One imagines the story, one sits in some place and, for some reason or other, a story appears to you.

One story that for years I wanted to do was the story of the boat people from Vietnam who remained in the refugee camps in the years well into the eighties and early nineties and had been completely forgotten about. This had once been a big story after the fall of Saigon, and now it was ignored, silenced, and so forth. And yet they sat festering in these refugee camps in a limbo between the place they'd fled and [the futile hope for] asylum. And I became obsessed with this story, I became obsessed with the idea of these people who put to sea in small boats, risking an incredible amount to get away from the Stalinist regime in North Vietnam and how we, having fought this war and having felt bad about this war, kept forgetting that in some way we'd let these people down, or that the people who were fleeing were fleeing our enemy and that maybe there was something wrong with our enemy even if there was [also] something wrong with our war. All of these many complexities, plus the situation of people sitting out at sea, being attacked by pirates, engaging in cannibalism when there was no food left, getting into shipwrecks. Extraordinary dramas!

All of this obsessed me, and I spent a lot of time cutting clippings, reading things, imagining it, and writing. I wrote some fiction about it. Finally after many years, on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, [from] 1994 [to] April 1995, I finally went on assignment for Granta to do this story. And it felt like walking into my inner life at that point. I was able to just march right in to these refugee camps and ask questions. It felt like I was almost talking to a world I had imagined. And at the same time people would say things that completely astonished me because they fell outside things I'd imagined.

Part of this work of the imagination, of research, is actually becoming part of the community or the individuals' lives that you want to cover. So does the conversation, the interview that you have with them create a resonance that allows you to find out more?

Let's say that you're going to ask people about a rather extreme situation. You're asking somebody who has never met you before to tell you their life story in an intimate and intense level, to talk to you about extraordinarily charged moments in their life that they may either wish to forget, keep private, or so forth. And you, in some way, are offering them what? You're offering them the opportunity to be heard. That seems to be what attracts people to talking to reporters. Everybody thinks, at least for once, somebody's going to pay attention. On the other hand, people will tell you a kind of pat recitation of their story if you ask them the normal twenty questions. But if you sit down and say, "I'm writing this story about boat people. You are one. Tell me the story of your life beginning with birth," -- it's a gambit -- many people say, "Well, I was born in 1943 and I left Vietnam in 1978." There's a big chunk missing, but they're getting to the point. With other people it works. You want to try and find the story tellers. And how do you do that? You do it by listening, by not filling silences, by waiting, with patience, and by starting to say, "Oh, but wasn't such and such going on at that time?" You realize if they were here and here and here, if these three things are part of their story, then these other things must be. The sum of those things is another possibility, ask them about it.

So it's listening and listening. Because as they're telling you what may be rote, in your responses you're bringing them to a new level of revelation of their own story.

I don't know. I mean, yes, every once in a while one has the feeling that somebody is hearing themselves say something for the first time. You're also looking for people. In reporting, just like fiction writing or any other kind of writing, you're selecting the material out of a vast universe for your reader, and you talk to a lot of people. In order to write a piece in which, say, there are five or six main characters, you quite often go through a hundred people that you talk to in one way or another who give you tidbits, who make you know when you hear something exceptional, because you've heard many, many versions of the same experience and then suddenly somebody comes along who says those things and then takes them further. And you know what you're hearing. You know that you're hearing something new. It takes time.

As a writer, and we'll talk in a minute about your book on Rwanda, it seems that your challenge is to move from the general notion, the general concept: What is justice? What is the nation state? What is a country? Questions that the people whose stories you tell ask in the course of your conversation. But at another level, you focus in on the detail, the real human being named Paul, for example, in the Rwanda story. Tell us about that movement as a writer from the general to the specific. Anything in particular?

I think André Gide said it perfectly well: expressing the general in the particular, the particular in the general, that is the drama of our lives, and he was speaking as a writer. It's not hyperconscious. The one has to contain the other and vice versa. To talk about the general generally, to me it's simply boring, it's simply inaccurate and I don't trust it, I don't know what it means. People will say, well you know Rwanda the nation state, the da da da ... I don't know what we're talking about here. What are we talking about? What is the lived experience of that? What are the political calculations of that? Who's making that happen? On the other hand, if you just go to people's stories and the journalistic cliché, putting a face on the catastrophe, then there's this idea almost like a postage stamp. Then you're saying: here's the general and here's one individual. But it's not one individual. You have to develop the relationship between an individual and an ongoing public course of events. And that is the issue that most interests me in writing, that place where the private lives of individuals intersect with massive historical public events, and the two become confused. And in some way, one loses a fully private life because of pubic events.

Next page: Rwanda and Extreme Situations

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