Responsibility in Rwanda: Rick Bass, In My Home There is No More Sorrow
Posted July 12, 2012on:
Consider your immediate associations with the word Rwanda. The image of Don Cheadle’s face from Hotel Rwanda may flash in your mind, and those from a generation older than I may even remember actual news stories that relate to Rwanda’s troubled history or Philip Gourevitch’s masterful We Are Here To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. As in many African nations, Rwanda’s post-colonial period has been plagued by revolts, massacres and civil war, specifically the ethnic majority Hutus dominating the Tutsis, the former comprising 85% of the country’s 11 million population. In his new book, bundled in the new issue of McSweeney’s, prolific fiction and nonfiction writer and activist Rick Bass revisits Rwanda’s history as he contemplates its present and future.
In My Home There is No More Sorrow has two sections. The first involves Bass exploring Rwandan villages and being a guest lecturer at the writing department of the National University of Rwanda in Butare. The very first page contrasts the beauty of the natural landscape with the remains of human bones from the 1994 genocides. It is apparently not an uncommon sight to witness these remains in villages, the arrangement of skulls and bones, not as any sort of threat, but as a reminder, as we have our bland and inoffensive cemeteries in the States. After recounting a brief history of the most recent Rwandan genocide in April 1994, Bass moves back to the present, filled with conflicting existential questions and emotions: “What was I doing, in April of that year?” “I might as well air it all out, here in my whiteness, my opening-heart, lucky to be alive and so blessed with health…” “Never forget. Never again. But how many times has the world said that?” In a complete 180 degree twist, the second part of the book details Bass’ trip (with his wife and 16-year-old daughter) to a gorilla sanctuary between Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo. Notably, this comes after Bass wonderswhich seems to be the book’s main theme: “What is the responsibility of a charmed life?”
Throughout, Bass contemplates his whiteness (as a metaphor), the guilt of not taking action during the genocides, the anxiety that kids in Rwanda are learning English when America (or anyone else for that matter) did so little to help them. Paradoxically, Bass has a vague sense of optimism. For as much doubt that he expresses and regret that the world has not been more responsible (a recurrent word in this book), he seems hopeful that Rwanda is not doomed. Instead he sees metaphorical hope in the landscape, as he reiterates constantly how beautiful it is; he even posits that “landscape is escape.” He also finds hope in the collegiate writers he teaches. For all his anxiety leading up to the classes and the sensitivity of issues to discuss in class, the writings by the students come out quite profound (he shares some examples at the end of the book).
The frustration of reading In My Home There is No More Sorrow is Bass’s constant expression his guilt (his other favorite word). His focus on this singular feeling muddles any possible answers to the questions he asks. Although he clearly wants to help his students become better writers, his posture of guilt essentially strips them of any personality that can exist outside of ‘genocide-survivor.’ As a German concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl shows us in Man’s Search for Meaning there a complex array of emotions that are exposed after going through something like the Holocaust. Not everyone gets angry or feels the need for revenge. People do not always lose inspiration when they lose material possessions or even their families. Love, art, and humanity can still break through survivors’ hardened exteriors. While it’s impressive and entirely admirable that Bass gives his students a voice, its dehumanizing them symbols rather letting them express themselves as individuals.
Eventually, Bass admits that he doesn’t know what he’s searching for in Rwanda. I suspect his constant nagging guilt and regret and hope is used as a sort of cautionary tale: dear privileged reader, take action now so that you may never have to live with these feelings.
While at the gorilla refuge, Bass laments the critical endangerment of these magnificent creatures, who roamed the jungle freely before human intervention. He never blatantly makes the connection between genocide and deforestation or animal rights but it’s not much of a leap to bridge that gap.
After an hour on the grounds and some brief contemplation about the evolutionary relationship between humans and gorillas, the Bass family’s 10-day trip comes to an end. While he may not have known his purpose there, raising more questions than answers, he actually reaches one conclusion about guilt and responsibility: “There can be sorrow in knowledge, but its undeniable that there can also be great beauty. Nowhere else have I seen the two so twined.” it’s an impressive statement and one in keeping with the spirit of McSweeney’s mastermind Dave Eggers, who wrote about the lost boys of Sudan in his 2009 novel Zeitoun. They seem like a likely pair to develop further the relationship between Rwandans demanding a voice and an international audience that still needs the means to hear them.
Andrew Hertzberg is a Chicago music writer for Windy City Rock, a deep dish pizza slinger, a night-time cyclist, and a regular Frontier Psychiatrist contributor. Recent reviews include Adam Levin’s Hot Pink, Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head, and Teju Cole’s Open City.