Big events are best told through small stories. At least that’s the approach author Tracy Kidder took for his latest book, Strength is What Remains, which details the journey of a genocide survivor from Burundi, Africa to Columbia University medical school.
Kidder has been called a “purposive write,” one who analyzes and exposes larger issues and proposes solutions, but he says his focus is more modest—the individual. “I have a hard time bending my own mind around generalizations. Often all I can think of are the exceptions,” he said to a crowd of nearly 100 at Northwestern University Wednesday as part of the One Book One Northwestern initiative. “Stories can be windows into enormity,” he added.
Kidder met Deogratias by chance and was struck by the Burundian man’s remarkable story of survival and perseverance. Deogratias narrowly escaped death by leaving his door open—his would-be killers assumed he had fled—and through a mix of luck and sheer tenacity he arrived at JFK airport with $200 and a Visa under false pretenses. After eking out an existence delivering groceries and sleeping on benches in Central Park, he encountered an ex-nun who found a home for him. Less than two years after his perilous escape from Africa, Deogratias enrolled at Columbia University. He was later accepted into medical school and eventually returned to Burundi to open a clinic and Village Health Works, a collaborative health organization of Kigutu villagers and Americans.
Kidder said Deogratias’ story stirred a sense of wonder in him about the people he encountered. “I hoped that I could never again look at anonymous faces in quite the same way, particularly the faces of people with foreign accents,” he said. “Who are they really? What memories and dreams do they carry? ”
Although Kidder is hesitant to define what the book is, he’s very clear on what it’s not. It’s not simply another story about Africa, nor does it intend to cast Burundi in an exotic light; instead, he wanted to humanize the country.
The book touches on many topics: civil war and genocide; courage and endurance; the generosity of strangers; and memory. However, the truths about these subjects are widely known and Kidder wanted his readers to explore these elements, not as truisms, but as experiences through Deogratias, he said.
And for Kidder stories are more than words on a page. He believes they have the power to move people to empathy, a necessary first step in spurring people to action to ameliorate suffering.
Although Kidder prefers to keep a temporal separation between his writing and activism, he was moved by what he observed when he accompanied Deogratias to the future clinic site in 2006. While speaking to a crowd of Kigutu villagers, he promised to do everything possible to get the clinic built. He eventually donated some of his own money to help speed the project along.
However, Kidder modestly downplays any suggestion that his writing has inspired others to take action. After a woman in the audience credited his book with determining her daughter’s career path, he replied: “I’m first of all a writer, and I don’t set out to tell these stories to do a good deed. If they do, in fact, do a good deed, then I can’t take credit for it.”
But Kidder is willing to acknowledge that his writing aims for a higher purpose.
“What I aspire to is art,” he said. “And art has the great power to transform the experience of suffering and injustice into something beautiful.”