Novel Shares Story of Rwandan Athlete
Running the Rift
By Naomi Benaron
Algonquin Books, $24.95
BY KATRINA DENZA
Special to The Pilot
One of the many benefits of reading fiction is that often it can bring to life in the imagination places we may never get a chance to see.
Another is that those writing fiction can give voice to the voiceless and speak the unspeakable so that we may hear.
In Naomi Benaron's prize-winning debut novel, "Running the Rift," the verdurous hills of Rwanda's Rift Valley come to life, as does the horror of what happened there.
The novel introduces its main protagonist, Jean Patrick Nkuba, in the mid-1980s, when he is a student, fighting hard to be the top of his class. His father has just died in an accident, and he and his family are taken in by his mother's brother.
Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a country where opportunities for Tutsis are rapidly disappearing. Citizens are expected to carry ethnicity cards with them at all times, and as the novel progresses into the 1990s, carrying a Tutsi card can get you beaten or killed.
An ambitious and duplicitous running coach spots Jean Patrick's natural talent and offers to train him to be an Olympian. Jean Patrick brings to his running the same dedication and fierce determination he does to his studies, and his dream of representing his beloved country in the Olympics appears to be attainable.
In front of a crowd, the president, Juvenal Habyarimana, proudly declares Jean Patrick to be the future of Rwanda, and Jean Patrick's ethnicity card changes according to the whims of those in power.
When things heat up beyond control and the country boils over into violence, Jean Patrick has to put aside his dream and fight for survival.
The author, though not Rwandan, has worked with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and is an Ironman triathlete, both of which lend authenticity to her writing and the story. She does an amazing job of illuminating the uniqueness of the culture, and the beauty and sorrow of Rwanda.
She also illustrates how insidious the seeds of genocide are and how relentless propaganda can turn neighbor against neighbor and ultimately tear a country apart.
"Running the Rift" is riveting, grace-filled and deeply affecting.
Katrina Denza's stories have been published in several literary journals, and recently, she was awarded a Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
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