The Elephant in the Room: Rick Bass' 'In My Home There Is No More Sorrow'

For the past twenty years, Rick Bass has proved that a writer’s loyalty to landscape will provide all the material one needs for a lifetime of work. Bass’ home in Montana’s troubled Yakk Valley—one of the last unbroken wildlife highways leading into Canada—has benefited from both his fictionalized dreaming and non-fiction advocacy. He’s as much an environmental activist and naturalist as he is a devoted writer of short stories, with full-bore activism playing a larger role in his writing in recent years. And, as a writer of direct political engagement, he makes a qualified candidate to travel beyond the Yakk and report on another deeply troubled region, Rwanda.

In My Home There is No More Sorrow is more personal essay than straight journalism. On the opening page Bass confesses that he doesn’t want the book to be, “a travelogue, an irresponsible saunter through great beauty. If I do not begin with the bones—if they are not at least here on the first page—it feels wrong.” The bones are makeshift memorials to the victims of Rwanda’s infamous 1994 genocide, when rampaging Hutus nearly exterminated the neighboring tribe of Tutsis. Many of these memorials are set up in churches, where Tutsis retreated with the understanding that Hutus would not attack them in a place of sanctuary. After they piled inside, however, the local militia destroyed the churches with hand grenades; or worse, forced their way in and killed with machetes.  Bass writes:

“Blood is all over the ceiling here. {Our guide} Elizabeth explains that the machetes sent fountains spurting up that high…body parts were found stuck to the ceiling…hanging there in gruesome disassembly until some days later, when the blood dried enough that its adhesive qualities subsided and the parts fell back to earth.”

Bass doesn’t brandish metaphors to present this evidence; he simply records the clear, yet unthinkable details. Racks of yellowed skulls. Piles of the deceased’s unwashed and blood stained clothes. A darkened wall where babies’ heads were smashed. “You might have heard these stories before,” Bass writes, “…but to witness the evidence of these things and then obscure or bury it from sight would be to serve exactly the wishes of the killers.”  A hard truth. And just as pertinent to modern day Rwanda is the question he posits next: “Where did that evil go?”

The answer to that question lies in the bright young men and women who Bass and fellow writer Terry Tempest Williams lead in a writing workshop at the National University of Rwanda. These forty students—babies during the genocide and now in their early 20s—represent both tribes; Hutus and Tutsis sitting at the same table while the memory of genocide lingers like a million dollar elephant in the room. Bass writes that “demographics dictate…roughly three-quarters of the students will be Hutu and the remainder—roughly—Tutsi.” He reasons the group is far too young for there to be any killers among them, “but still, there’s got to be a tension, if not a full on distrust.”

However, the class is united in their desire to write, and their ambitions are as varied as any workshop. Some want to be poets. Others, playwrights. One young man “speaks candidly of the most lofty ambitions—to influence public policy…and still another wants the commercial success of a J.K. Rowling.”  Bass and Williams take all this into account as they began the workshop in traditional fashion—assigning exercises, parsing sentences—but bubbling just under the surface is the subject of the genocide. The teachers are not sure how far to  emotionally push their pupils towards these volatile memories, and given that they only have two days to do so, the urgency proves even greater. A visit by Professor Francois, the students’ mentor, injects even more drama. “Look,” he says, “it’s easy to come here as Americans and get my students all riled up and excited—but I want to know, are you going to abandon them? Or are you committed to them? What will happen to them when you go away?”

These are legitimate Third World questions for a pair of First World authors. Bass and Williams promise the professor they will not abandon his students, and there is talk of establishing a literary review and other venues for publication. In the meantime, as a supplement, Bass has included a few of the raw pieces the workshop produced. A poem entitled, “I Am Killed Alive,” by Amini Ngabonziza, confesses that, “I am seeing death wherever I am. I am listening to death/whenever I dream.”

This brutal honesty stands side by side with a wonderfully non-literal take on the world. When asked to write on the subject of home, they don’t define it geographically, but emotionally. A poem on this subject by Anne-Marie Nyiransanga, (simply called, “My Home,”) gives the book its title: “My home is not/Like this world/Where I cry and cry/So much of the time/Where I miss peace/Where I miss joy…In my home/there is no more sorrow.”

How the students finally arrive at a safe place to produce this work is the drama of Bass’ narrative. And perhaps unlike most classrooms, the teachers are transformed as much as the students.  The two-day session give Bass plenty of time to muse on his role as a Westerner and his future commitment to these young people, and although he considers it “embarrassing and overwhelming” to receive praise from his students, he’s honest enough to realize that “it’s important not to deflect or self-deprecate” in the face of their gratitude.

Still, the brevity of the essay dictates that we hardly get to know these Rwanda writers, and once class adjourns you might even find yourself missing them (a lovely color photo section helps with this), but its clear this is only just the start of great things and that we’ll hear from them again. In the last quarter of the book, Bass travels beyond the classroom to Virunga National Park where he views the endangered mountain gorilla—a sequence that allows him to muse on our shared human ancestry—but it feels slightly disconnected from the emotional suspense of the first half. In the end, the author’s ten days in Rwanda is hardly enough time to tell the country’s story—and he fully acknowledges this—but his observational prowess and concise prose allow him to pack a lot of passion into a humble, memorable volume.

 

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