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“It has happened. So it can happen again." Philip Gourevitch on genocide

Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Description of show: 

We live in an era of genocides. Author Philip Gourevitch is one of its experts, probing how genocide happens, how the murderers rationalize their participation, and how they live with themselves later.  With his new research, he reports the on the survivors, who now continue their lives alongside those who have murdered their friends and families.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda was named by The Guardian as one of the top 100 non-fiction books of all time. He is now working on a sequel ,  You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know, describing the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, in which Hutus slaughtered 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in a hundred days.  The new book considers how people continue their lives under impossible conditions, and the nature of evil. 

Gourevitch has been staff writer at The New Yorker for over two decades, and prior to that editor of The Paris Review.

In his 2016 Entitled Opinions conversation, Gourevitch discusses not only the history of Rwanda, but the complexity of truth, how justice can be a backward-looking concept that rationalizes the thirst for revenge, and how self-comforting notions of “never again” lead us to believe that we are immunized from the repeated cycles of the past. Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, a Dante scholar, notes how the Inferno's damned are often frozen in one moment of their past that forecloses the future – however, in Rwanda, reconciliation was a national necessity.  “How on earth do you live with this – both in the local sense, and in the broader sense of all the stories we tell ourselves about our common humanity?” Gourevitch asks.

He also discusses the new genre of his work, creating “books that are based on reporting, that are fact-checkable, that are drawn from intensely close observation and a lot of interviews.” He tries to write in a way that captures not only the facts, but the human pathos he faces as he returns again and again to the land that was the site of what has been one of the greatest genocides since World War II. 

Quotes

“We were telling ourselves that we stand against these things and it would never happen. But we had done nothing much to stop it.  In fact, we got out of the way, even as we were telling ourselves that would never put up with such a thing again.”

“It has happened. So it can happen again. It can happen anywhere. I think that is the truer dark lesson: this is a human potential in humankind, a permanent potential in our condition.”

“There 's no full justice possible in a situation like this, there simply isn't.”

“Memory and grudge are so close, especially with these historical score-settlings.”

“The problem with justice is that it's not terribly satisfying, because it is backward-looking.”

About Guest: 

Philip Gourevitch has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1995, and a staff writer since 1997. He has travelled extensively for the magazine, reporting from Africa, Asia, Europe, and across the United States. He has written about the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia, about the dictatorships of Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, about the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, about Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and about the American soldiers who served at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq. Closer to home, he has written about solving a cold-case double homicide in Manhattan, about arranged marriages in Queens, about a debt collector in Tulsa, and about the late musician James Brown, in Augusta, Georgia. He also wrote extensively about the early years of the war in Iraq, and in 2004 he served as the magazine’s Washington correspondent, covering the Presidential election campaigns. His articles for The New Yorker have on three occasions been finalists for the National Magazine Award, and have twice received citations for excellence from the Overseas Press Club.

In 2005, Gourevitch was named the editor of The Paris Review, succeeding the late George Plimpton. He is the author of three books: Standard Operating Procedure (2008), A Cold Case (2001), and We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (1998), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the George K. Polk Book Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award and, in England, the Guardian First Book Award. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

In addition to The New Yorker, Gourevitch has written for Granta, Harper's, and The New York Review of Books—and served first as New York bureau chief, then as cultural editor of The Forward. His short stories have also appeared in a number of journals.