Tuesday, June 27, 2006

True fiction

On my way out the door this morning, I grabbed a copy of the New Yorker that was sitting on the coffee table, this summer’s fiction issue. I read through “Talk of the Town” and a couple of the short memoir pieces during my commute. They were all interesting stories, memories from war time, but none really engaged me.

On the way home I turned to one of the short stories, Uwem Akpan’s “My Parents’ Bedroom.” I was immediately drawn in by the voice of the narrator, a young girl in Rwanda. In the first column of the story, I learned that her mother was Tutsi and her father Hutu. Maybe that should have been enough warning. Maybe I should have stopped reading there.

I didn’t.

Standing on a crowded train somewhere between Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn, I finished the story, fighting back tears, willing myself not to sob on a crowded train. I concentrated on the little diamond at the end of the story, watching the words on the page blur in and out through my wet eyes. The Rwandan genocide, which I had paid only vague attention to when it was in the news in the 1990s and which had been touched on in the commentary on Darfur that I’d read on my morning commute, was suddenly gruesomely real to me. It’s fiction, I tried to tell myself. But it’s not. These things happened.

Are happening.

Brian was a little traumatized by my arrival at home. I went upstairs and cried, sobbing for the family in the story, for the real people who lived through genocide (or didn’t), for the people in Darfur. I tried to tell him about what I had read (he’s not so much for the fiction issue), and as I attempted to explain how this story had somehow made real for me the stories I had read in the newspaper, something different occurred to me: what if this story hadn’t been about Rwanda, or about any real place? What if this had been some sort of science fiction story, about tragedies in a made-up world? Would the story have had the same impact on me?

I don’t think it would have. Even if an author had written such a story as a metaphor for Rwanda, it wouldn’t have been as powerful. Akpan’s narrative, written in the first person and set in a real place, made the story and the history live. The narrator’s story became truth and the history became personal.

1 comment:

Mary Tsao said...

Wow. Moving post.

Have you heard of Bloggers for Darfur? You might want to join forces with them.

Crazy stuff. I've heard of the Rwandan genocide on Oprah. Sometimes she really does have great, informative shows. When I find myself sobbing making dinner, I realize when I'm watching one of them.