Tracy Kidder is a superb writer with a gift for digging into interesting stories and making them even more interesting. His 2009 Strength in What Remains embodies just such an effort. Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza was a medical student in Burundi when he desperately fled the genocide that had erupted. Kidder tells the story of that harrowing escape, followed by some very difficult days after Deo managed to get to New York City, where he had virtually no money, no friends and a big language barrier. The story of how Deo made his way in the United States is sobering. His decidedly mixed and sometimes resentful reactions to the people who went many extra miles to help him provide an instructive slant on the immigrant experience.
Apart from Deo’s own story, Strength in What Remains tells the story of Burundi’s genocide, which actually lasted many years longer than the better known Rwanda genocide. Spoiler alert, it started when the Belgians left their colonies in a such mess as to virtually ensure disaster.
The graphic details and the staggering numbers of the murders in Burundi are difficult to grasp, but Deo’s experience brings us so much closer because Kidder reports what happened through Deo’s personal experience. He saw horrific murders and mutilations; his life and education were completely disrupted; he had no idea what had happened to his family and had every reason to fear the worst; and then he was miraculously transported to New York City. He was alive but homeless in New York, and there is little to no mention of any social service organizations set up to help him. The good news is that he got out of Burundi before he was killed, and he was able to get into the United States in a less xenophobic period. The bad news is that this shattered homeless man endured his own hell here until enough people reached out to help. This story wouldn’t have ended as well as it did if Deo had been less intelligent or less resilient and resourceful.
Even more remarkable is what Deo determined to do with his life. He got an education and he went back to Burundi to help his parents and help his community. No one can ever recover from the trauma he endured, but his determination to take back his own life and help others is absolutely heroic.
This is an important story, well told, and I highly recommend it.
Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.
I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.
The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.
This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.
It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!
Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011. Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery. Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness. They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue. Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis. Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other. Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.
Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence. The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations. I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.
I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative. The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters. Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy. The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.
I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.
Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war. Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah. His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically. These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah. But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations. Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides. He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see. Conflicts ensue. There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems. Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.
Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee. He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back. The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face. Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy. They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story. The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story. After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast. That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.
I recommend this book. Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.
At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing. You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine. Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home. First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.
This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky. The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear. No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots. It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions. They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.
Fortunately, Ung managed to get out. After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers. She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community. In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began. Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections. Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.
Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book. Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart. This is what genocide felt like to a young child. She may not have focused on the politics behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror. People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result. At some level the politics really didn’t matter.
Growing up Asian American – Stories of Childhood, Adolescence and Coming of Age in America from the 1800s to the 1990s, edited and with an introduction by Maria Hong, is a collection of 33 pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Asian American immigrant experience in America. The stories share many themes — concerns about parents’ expectations, awareness that parents don’t quite fit in or don’t quite get what is going on. and then the writers’ own concerns about how to get along. A number of the writers feel considerable stress between their families’ insular worlds and their own experiences in American schools and communities. There are also cringing moments when the writers and their families face discrimination, both blatant and (hopefully) unintended. These stories don’t have many happy, cohesive families. Instead, most of the writers come across as loners who have been thrust into an alien environment without the proper tools for survival.
This book is highly recommended. The sheer volume (33) of the pieces underscores the fact that, regardless of immigration status or economic circumstances, it can be really tough to move to this country and that it can be uniquely traumatic for children.