Interview with author Naomi Benaron: Running the Rift

Rwandan boy struggles to achieve Olympian dreams during genocide.

Posted Jan 03, 2012

Running the Rift is an ambitious and inspiring debut novel about a young Rwandan boy who dreams of becoming an Olympic runner despite seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Naomi Benaron uses her first-hand experiences traveling in Rwanda and real stories of genocide survivors to create a fearless and heart-warming story. Here's more from Naomi:

Jennifer Haupt: Where did you find the character of Jean Patrick Nkuba, and how difficult was it to write the story of a young boy from Rwanda escaping the genocide?

Naomi Benaron: Jean Patrick is an amalgamation of friends, imagination, and-yes-myself. My friend Patrick Nduwimana ran the 800 m in the Olympics for Burundi, so much of the racing detail, physical and mental, was inspired by him. I actually watched him on television and cheered him on. Then, the second time I went to Rwanda, I met a young man, Mark Bizimana, who could have walked out of the pages of my novel-in-progress. I gleaned much of Jean Patrick's daily life experience from him as well as a part of his spirit and soul. I consider the act of constructing fiction as a form of grazing, so when friends recounted little stories, I would think, "Oh! That has to go in my novel!" As for my part in Jean Patrick -- I am a runner and a scientist, so that was my bridge to this young boy-then-man who came from such a different culture.

What I found most difficult was writing about Jean Patrick as a young boy. That voice did not come easily to me. And the cultural differences, trying to get them right was quite difficult. It was one of my biggest struggles because I didn't want someone from Rwanda to read the novel and wince at my missteps. But the older Jean Patrick got, the easier the writing became. Actually, in some ways, writing about him in the midst of the genocide was the easiest part.

JH: Tell me more about your love affair with Rwanda.

NB: I fell in love with Rwanda the moment I saw those verdant, rolling hills rise up beneath the wings of the plane as we descended toward Kigali airport. Everything about the country was so bright and colorful: the landscape, the way people dressed, even the intense variation of clouds and sky. I loved the constant cacophony, the motion, the dance of life that was going on around me. Perhaps this is romanticized, but life in Rwanda seems so much more connected to the earth. It's a connection I think many of us in the U.S. have lost. When I come back from Rwanda, I feel almost a physical tearing, as if I am losing a limb.

And then there is the way Rwandese people smile! I was immediately struck by the open beauty of the people and by the fact that here they had literally climbed from the valley of death, and yet they were smiling and greeting me. I am in awe of their resilience and their hospitality. Wherever I went, people were happy to take me into their homes and to share whatever they had with me, no matter how little it was.

JH: Why did you felt compelled to write about the genocide?

NB: I was brought up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My mother lost most of her family, and I didn't realize how much the guilt of survivorship weighed on her until I was an adult. She never discussed her personal relationship to the Holocaust with me except in the broadest of terms, and as a child, I never thought to question her. I also never thought about the consequences of her being a refugee; she had to leave everything behind-including her studies in medical school-and start over from scratch. I never got to talk to her about those incredibly important and difficult aspects of her life, so I think, in some ways I am trying to find her through my writing. Honestly, I have a hard time looking inward, so writing about another episode of genocide first was a way to get my toe in the water. Both my parents cared very deeply about issues of social justice; we were always having pro civil rights and anti Viet Nam war meetings in our house. I have never questioned the fact that my writing would be the literary extension of that upbringing.

JH: How long did it take you to write this book?

NB: I began writing the novel in January 2005. It was my second semester in the Antioch MFA program, and I decided to write the story as my senior project. I was terrified, and I had to start out by telling myself I was writing a novella. That novella turned into 600 pages in the initial draft, which I finished in 2007. I can't tell you how many drafts I have written since then except that it is far less than the 32 plus that Ha Jin wrote for Nanjing Requiem (It blew my mind to hear him say this in a recent NPR interview!) I submitted Running the Rift for the Bellwether in 2009 and was working on another revision when I found out I had won. I went through two intense rounds of editing with Kathy Pories, my editor at Algonquin. Kathy is a genius, and I learned so much from working with her. I hit the "send" button for the final time (except for copyediting and galley proofs) on December 31 2010.

JH: What was the biggest challenge for you in developing this story?

NB: I would have to say that the biggest hurdle was trying to be true to a culture so different from my own and one that I started out knowing nothing about. And then there was the whole issue of colonialism. I have never been comfortable claiming that mantle for myself, but if I wanted to appropriate the identity of someone from Rwanda, it was a role I had to come to terms with. I needed to approach the task with honesty, humility, and, above all, respect.

JH: Which of your characters came the easiest to you, and why?

NB: Strangely enough, it was Rutembeza, Jean Patrick's Hutu running coach. I have thought and thought about this, but I have no idea why he came so easily to me. Perhaps it has to do with his feelings for Jean Patrick, which were by necessity very complex, and perhaps it has to do with his being in essence a very political animal, which transcends culture, I think. I will say that he came to me fully formed in all his complexity and conflict the moment he first walked into the novel.

JH: What is the message you want readers to take away from your story? What do you hope they'll think about or see differently?

NB: I have two wishes. The first is this: I want people to understand that genocide can happen anywhere. In Rwanda, it was not some "tribal" warfare that erupted without warning or reason. The Hutu and the Tutsi are essentially the same people; they have the same language, the same mythology and religions, the same culture. The genocide was meticulously orchestrated and took years of careful planning. I want readers to experience this through the eyes of Jean Patrick, to understand in a visceral sense what those years of preparation felt like to someone who was on the wrong end of all that planning.

The second wish has to do with resilience and transformation. When readers close the covers on Running the Rift, I want them to understand that it is not a genocide novel but rather a story of hope and rebirth. Getting to know my friends in Rwanda, I came to marvel at the strength of the human spirit, and this is what I want to stir in the reader's heart.

What I hope readers will see differently is genocide itself. It is not some ethereal thing that happened in Eastern Europe or Bosnia or that you buy a wristband to arrest in Darfur. The victims are human beings, and they are not so different from any one of us. Maybe, with a little self-awareness, genocide will be something we can act to prevent before it happens. That, above all, is what I want readers to think about.

JH: What's the one true thing you learned from writing this novel?

NB: Love truly does have the power to transcend evil. It can get us through the most unspeakable of events and give us the strength to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

JH: What's next for you?

NB: I am writing a novel about three generations of Holocaust survivors. The grandmother is a survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz. It's a novel about the transformation from silence to witness and about the power of art as a vehicle of both resistance and healing. Big surprise.

Naomi Benaron's debut novel Running the Rift was the winner of the 2010 Bellwether Prize, an award that Barbara Kingsolver founded in 2000 that is given biennially for a novel "that addresses issues of social justice." Naomi received her MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles. She currently lives in Tucson Arizona where she teaches writing online through UCLA Extension and to Afghan Women writers through the Afghan Women's Writing Project.