Philip Gourevitch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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What was the hardest part of listening and then telling the story of Rwanda?
Over time, trusting what one had heard, that one wasn't missing out on certain things. Being honest about it without being utterly depressed all the time. I mean, it's a dark story, it's bleak. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, and also refusing to. Sticking with the evidence of one's own eyes. When I started writing about Rwanda, saying the things I'm saying about the refugee camps was considered extremely controversial and outrageous. It is now essentially the accepted version. Saying the things I said about Kofi Annan and the UN's role was considered extremely outrageous and sort of renegade and, you know, "Well, that's your opinion." Now the UN has published an extensive report, commissioned by Kofi Annan, which confirms in letter and detail, and in critical language, the account that has increasingly become standard. With time, these things become standard. So in some way, having the confidence that this is what I'm seeing, this is how it is.
There was a study done. During the first thirty days of the genocide, in the American print media virtually no Rwandans, no Rwandan civilians were identified by name. So you had a faceless, anonymous mass of Africans. And what do Africans do in the American press? They die of miserable things. And what I actually found were living people who were highly articulate, who were in the middle of complex lives, who were in many ways what we would call bourgeois: doctors, educated people, store owners, middle class, people with families. And trying in some way to convey in a tradition that they don't have, which is really kind of the written account like this, some of what their world was. That felt like quite a responsibility.
Any advice for students to prepare to be able to tell stories like this in the future?
Listen. Study the stories that you like reading, see how they were done. And basically look and listen. It really is that. It's looking and listening and trying as best as you can to serve what you've seen and heard.
Philip, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us and talking about your writing and about your book on Rwanda.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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