Recognizing Literacy as a Human Right
We at F(r)iction would like to draw attention to an oft-forgotten human rights issue near and dear to our hearts: literacy. While literacy has been accepted by organizations like UNESO as a fundamental human right, it has been challenged by others. For example, in 2018, a federal district judge in Detroit, MI ruled that literacy was not a human right. Fortunately, two years later, the US Sixth Circuit of Appeals remanded this ruling. However, the fact that such rulings even exist in this day and age proves there’s a larger issue at play—not just in the US where the trials took place, but across the globe.
Literacy is integral to engaging individuals in society, connecting them with others and allowing them to participate in significant sociocultural events, such as voting, in a global civilization that is increasingly text-mediated through the internet. As marked by numerous sources throughout the decades, learning how to read and write at a young age helps the brain develop and ensures that later in life, a person is able to consume key information during crises. According to sources like Concern USA, being literate also opens doors to a larger job market, and fosters better self-esteem and community health by empowering people and promoting interpersonal connection.
Despite the abundant evidence of literacy’s importance, millions of individuals worldwide remain illiterate due to lack of resources and education. A study by the International Literacy Organization found that inadequate access to books in homes is the second greatest barrier to equity in literacy education. Organizations like UNESCO, Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and local libraries work to address this issue by raising awareness and promoting action by providing literacy programs centered around accessibility. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, literacy programs that benefited students, young and old alike, are endangered. While several programs were able to switch online, many were canceled. One ProLiteracy survey found that 54 percent of literacy programs in the US severely lack additional funding and 50 percent said they did not have adequate digital material for instruction. Many students were not able to access the equipment needed to participate either.
While many sectors of society are facing challenges due to the pandemic, it is vital to keep literacy in mind on this global day of recognition. The contested right faced challenges even before the pandemic, and obstacles are now further exacerbated. Our parent organization Brink Literacy Project recognizes the power of literacy to impact lives, allowing individuals to voice their own stories and communities to connect. To learn more about Brink’s literacy mission, check out our website.
An Interview with Sari Wilson on Girl Through Glass: A Novel
I loved this book. I rarely interview writers anymore, but the moment this fell on my editor’s desk, I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. It’s so compelling.
Wow, thank you so much. That’s incredible. It’s what every writer dreams to hear.
It seems like you didn’t start out saying, “I want to be a writer.” You came from a different background. Talk to me about the transition into becoming a professional writer.
I always liked writing. I was good at it in school. I enjoyed it as a craft. But I was training as a dancer. I think that was my creative outlet and my identity for a long time. It really wasn’t until I left the dance world when I was about eighteen or nineteen that I became very serious about writing as a creative endeavor. So, I’ve had a really long apprenticeship. I think a lot of writers know from a very young age, on some level, that they want to be writers and so, in some way, are unconsciously training from a very young age. I think that I spent my twenties, and probably my thirties too, doing my apprenticeship. Luckily, I had some really great help along the way.
I got the Stegner Fellowship and then the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. So I had three years of writing fellowships. That time off from working—journalism in my twenties and educational publishing in my thirties—kept this apprenticeship going. I was very committed, always writing on the weekends, in the evenings, on my lunch breaks. And I published some stories along the way. What I’m trying to say is it has been a slow process for twenty-five years. I’m in my mid-forties now. And this book—I put everything into it. I wrote it in pieces through so many different parts of my life that it’s all sort of in there. Some people say to me now, “I can’t believe this is your debut novel.” But, in a way, it doesn’t feel like it because I wrote it and rewrote it so many times. I learned so much along the way.
I grew up on a dance background as well, and it was very strange to hear terms that I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager, like “pain is pride.” I think that a lot of young writers will get into writing and they’re happy to do the writing part, but when it comes to the revisions—the manifested pain of writing—they really shy away from that. Your prose is so sculpted, and it doesn’t read like a debut at all—you were definitely not afraid to get into the pain of writing. I wonder if that was influenced by your strong dance background because it was so perfect by the time it hit the page.
Your perspective is so interesting. It’s a very particular kind of training you receive as a dancer. That pride you are trained to take in suffering and pain, for better or worse, is really something that I think is hard to unlearn, or maybe impossible to unlearn. For me, the prose is hard. Maybe that’s the part where I feel comfortable with the discipline of writing. I don’t feel like everything I write has to be perfect. In fact, if there’s one thing dance did not help me with, it’s this idea that things have to be perfect. I had to really unlearn that because writing is so much messier. And it took me a long time to allow myself to fail and really write a bad draft, to be able to see it as a process. Dance, I think, is more performative. You’re working toward this single moment of performance. That correlation is not really one to one with writing, which I find so much more process-based.
To be able to have that pure moment where you are perfection on the stage is amazing. You never really get that as an adult.
My editor really understood that that’s what the book was about. It’s a moment of youth in which there can be this moment of transcendence through art, through movement, through creativity. It’s a very special moment, and if I were to have danced in my adulthood, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain that. It is a moment of youthful passion. And it could be dance, it could be a sport, it could be a passionate love that you have when you’re young that you can never quite recapture that level of pure passion. The giving up of that moment is explored through Kate.
One of the things I find so interesting about this novel is the difficult sides of dance that no one really sees unless you’re a dancer. Was it difficult as a writer to be that honest?
Getting to the emotional truth was hard. That’s probably why I would say this took me a decade or more. I kept having to put it aside and figure out where I was going. I had to work through a lot of emotional stuff to get to a place where I could be really honest. It helps that this is fiction. When I first started with the material, I thought maybe I was writing a memoir. So I tried to write about my own experience. But it really never took off. There just wasn’t a lot of energy in it and I finally realized that my experience in dance was A) not that unique, and B) not that compelling, dramatically. Yet there was something there that I really wanted to get to. So I actually decided I was going to interview girls that I had danced with when we were children. Some of them became professional dancers for a time; others left earlier than I did. It was really all over the board. And basically, this character, Mira, started to emerge. She took me to places that were hard to go to, and I felt like I had to be really honest with myself. She went to places where I did not go, and she has experiences I did not have. And they’re difficult. She has a difficult home life, she has both amazing talent but also a great innocence that costs her a lot. So yes, it was very hard. But I felt that the book demanded that. If I were going to write this book, that was what I was called to do: be very honest about my own experience only so I could be honest about her experience.
I’m so interested in the dual narrative that you set up. What was it like to approach this one craft from so many different angles?
I wrote the narratives separately. I wrote the Mira story first, all the way through. Then I showed it to some people in publishing, and there was a question whether it was YA because of the age of the protagonist. Around the same time, I had my daughter. So I actually had to put the book aside for a few years. But in those moments that I was able to write, like ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I was getting this other voice. This first person voice which became Kate. I showed it to my writing partner at the time and he was really interested in it. At a certain point I decided, like with the Mira character, this voice was kind of taking me. The interesting thing about her is that she’s not very likeable. I had to make a conscious decision to go with her even though the initial reads I was getting on her was that this is a difficult woman, she’s not particularly likable, and that could hinder possible publishing interest.
That’s a really brave move as a writer.
In a way, I didn’t have a choice because I learned by then that for me, as a writer, I needed to give myself over to these characters and this seemed like another one of them. So I took a few years and I wrote her whole story. But along the way, I did try to interweave it with Mira’s story. I had to adjust that a lot after it was written, but that was when I got excited because I thought, this is a book. I don’t know if it’ll ever be published, I don’t know if people will like it, I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day. But it felt like an actual book having these two narratives working off each other.
This was a very long writing process. How many years between the conception of the idea and seeing it in print?
I’m going to be honest: fifteen years. But I didn’t work on it all that time. The first glimmer of it was when I was all the way back in graduate school at Stamford. I sat down in a free writing session and I wrote the first scene in the book where these ballet girls are getting ready for class and they’re pulling on their tights and their leotards and their hairpieces and their elastics and the sort of uniform of the dance world. It’s like they’re getting ready for battle. That came to me pretty much unbidden, and I wrote that in one burst. And then I just cried. I didn’t know what to do with it because it was so different from anything I was writing at the time. I was writing mostly about men, about ex-patriots. I was reading all these ex-patriot writers, from Hemingway to Jean Rhys to Henry James. So it just seemed like everything that I wasn’t interested in. It was about girlhood, it was about youth, it was about New York City. I put it aside for years and I wrote short stories. But I just kept coming back to it. And then I would commit to it in spurts. For a couple of years I would really, really, really write… and then I would back off.
How did you go about publishing? You had written some short stories. Did you do the traditional querying an agent route? Or did someone find you?
At some point, I had 75 pages of the novel. I queried some agents and I got a good response. I felt encouraged enough by the response that I thought to myself, “I’m a slow writer, but I can invest in this project.” Then I published a story in AGNI and some agents approached me. But I didn’t have enough of the book. When I finally had a complete draft that I felt good about, I used all of my publishing and writer contacts. I got together a list of fifteen agents. I researched in Poets & Writers. I looked in the acknowledgments of all the books I had loved, and I made a chart. I made lists. I was very businesslike about it. I attached the first ten pages with my query letter, and I got a lot of interest. My agent is PJ Mark of Janklow & Nesbit who has helped the book immeasurably. I actually queried him blind. A wonderful woman in his office named Marya Spence first read the letter and loved the manuscript and she got it into his hands and then it happened very quickly. He pitched my book to me and I knew that he understood the book, he had a vision for the book, and it was very exciting. I feel very fortunate to have found somebody that I connect creatively with and in terms of an aesthetic vision. I worked with him for a year on editing and then he submitted. And again, I was lucky enough to have a good amount of interest and the book sold at auction to Terry. I met with Terry, met with a few editors, and I felt, again, as with PJ, very strongly that she really understood this book in a way that maybe even I, for all the years I had spent on it, didn’t. She had a vision for it. And I was honest with myself in the sense that I still needed more, the book still needed yet another round. It needed another hand. She had me mostly work on the Kate narrative. I rewrote that storyline. Even though it was an extraordinary amount of work, it felt necessary and I feel like the book is in its right, final form. I feel so fortunate that these two people were able to help the book find that final form.
After these fifteen years and so many drafts and visions, what does it feel like to hold this finished book in your hand?
At first it felt surreal. I never really thought that it would happen, even though I hoped and dreamed it would. But now that it’s been out about two months, I feel really gratified. I feel fortunate and very grateful that so many people are interested and seem to be compelled by the characters and the narrative and that it’s opening up a lot of windows for conversations about all sorts of things: parenthood, girlhood, art, the 1970s, New York City, identity. I’m just really enjoying getting to talk to people about the process and about the book because, for me, it was such a private experience for so long that was mostly an internal process. To be able to have it be externalized is a dream come true. It is very special and very moving.
We talk about what it was like to feel those moments of perfection as a dancer. How does writing this book compare to that kind of joy?
It’s very different, actually. When I performed as a dancer, it was truly an effervescent moment. When it all comes together and you’re being led by the movements and you’re connecting with the audience, it’s exhilarating. But it’s a moment in time that then is over. I think that’s why it’s so hard to capture dance on film. Because it’s really a performative art and to be in the audience is a cathartic thing. You’re experiencing with the bodies in space and time. But writing and literature seem to happen in a different space. It’s more complicated and these spaces can overlap and conversation can keep going over time and deepen. So it’s a different kind of culture. And it’s a different kind of performance. I guess I don’t quite know yet because it’s still early in this process for me. But it feels different and maybe even more gratifying. Because it’s not lost to time in that same way. I mean, that’s the beauty of a book, right? The book continues to exist even after writers pass on. And some of the books I’m sure you love and loved as a child, they were written a hundred years ago. Yet they continue to be new. That’s pretty special.
Undercurrents: An Interview with Justin Hocking
The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a multifarious work. From memoir to cultural analysis, history book to literary theory, and spiritual pilgrimage to political exposé, this book balances an extraordinary number of genres, subjects, themes, and narrative styles. Yet, at its heart, Wonderworld is about a young man finding his place in the world.
Why, as a writer, did you decide that it was necessary to tell “your story” through all these different lenses? Do you think you could have told the same story without these elements?
Well, the memoir was inspired largely by my preoccupation with the life of Herman Melville and the novel Moby-Dick, which is itself densely packed with multiple genres and varied modes of storytelling. It was a kind of postmodern book, before the term “postmodern” even existed—most mid-19th Century readers didn’t know what the hell to make of it, and it wasn’t until seventy or so years later that a wider audience recognized its brilliance. So I didn’t want to just imitate Melville, but I did allow myself to be inspired by his multivalent, digressive, collaged way of spinning a story. Technically, I suppose I could’ve just told my own story, without the other elements. But I think I’ve found my own voice in this braided form of narrative; I’m not sure there’s any going back to traditional, linear storytelling. Not for me.
Given your choice to include all these components, how did you ensure that they didn’t overshadow or distract from the central story? There are many fascinating plot threads—like the adventures of your aunt and uncle—that could have easily been shortened to mere sentences are expanded to dominate a good section of the book.
How did you decide how much of these elements to include?
What I love most about this braided, digressive storytelling style is the way it allows us to dive deeply into our own personal stories, while also weaving in news from the wider world. The story I tell in Wonderworld is deeply personal; I consciously braided in other elements as a way to give the reader some room to breath. I needed to get the reader (and myself) out of my head quite a bit, to avoid this sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes plague a memoir or any first person narrative. But to be honest, when I completed the first draft of the memoir, back in 2011 or 2012, it was over 460 pages. My agent was like, “Yeah, great, you’re on the right path, but there’s no way I can sell a book this long and rambling.” The problem was exactly as you put it: all the digressions and experimentation were overshadowing the central, personal narrative. I’m fortunate to have a great agent and editor, and over the course of a couple years, they helped me tunnel in and chip away at all the extraneous stuff. I excised a good 200 pages or more—anything that felt like it would distract the reader too much from the central emotional trajectory.
Early on in the memoir, you address your obsession with motion, this insurmountable desire—nay, need—to stay in constant motion, either on your skateboard or your surfboard, perhaps in your entire life plan. How does a man so infatuated with speed and adrenaline fall in love with Moby-Dick, one of the densest works of classic literature?
In my estimation, Moby-Dick is one of the most action-packed, page-turning novels ever written, especially in the beginning. There’s a palpable sense of confronting nature in its most raw, dynamic and dangerous manifestation—the ocean—that is just thrilling. I can still pick up the book, flip to a random page, and feel completely transported. On a bit deeper level, Moby-Dick can be read as a monumental confrontation between action and contemplation. Ahab is all action and no contemplation; the First Mate, Starbuck, is the opposite. Ahab’s ceaseless, unthinking action is what brings down the ship. A balanced life requires both action and contemplation. A perfect day for me would be to spend the morning reading and writing, followed by intense physical activity—surfing or skating or swimming with friends—in the afternoon. I also have to admit that I really don’t love surfing or skating for the adrenalin, per se. The practices of surfing and skating are, for me, a way to mitigate the adrenalin and fear. On the best days, you reach a sense of timelessness and flow that have nothing to do with thrill-seeking. It’s more akin to art-making or writing.
Throughout the book, you visit various historical sites tied to Herman Melville’s life—his birthplace, his family estate, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New York itself. These pilgrimages form narrative markers throughout the book, guiding your own story toward an Ahab-worthy descent or the possibility of salvation on the Rachel.
The visits are beautifully spaced, pulling the reader back into the frame of Moby-Dick at pinnacle intervals, as if each trip were meticulously scheduled at just the precise moment so that—when you did eventually write this memoir—your narrative roadmap would have all the right markers.
How intentional was this? Did you see the makings of this memoir (guided by Melville’s memory) before you began writing it and thus paid extra attention to these foray into the author’s past?
By the time I moved to New York, I’d already done a little writing about my pre-occupation for Moby-Dick. It was in a thinly veiled fiction story entitled “Whaling,” which eventually appeared in the anthology Life and Limb. But I honestly had no plans or intentions about writing a memoir on this subject, not at all. Almost the entire three years in New York, I was working on an entirely unrelated novel. Mostly I was just visiting all the Melville sites out of pure curiosity, and because I felt a little haunted by Melville’s struggles as a writer in New York, but also inspired by the fact that he never gave up, not even decades after the complete commercial failure of Moby-Dick. This period was also the height of the Iraq War, and I felt Moby-Dick had so much to teach us about the abuse of power, revenge, and the lengths America will go to secure our oil interest (whaling was, quite literally, the original “Big Oil” industry.)
After 30 pages of first-person narrative, your reader is shocked to turn to the chapter entitled, “The L Train.” Suddenly, our friendly narrator is replaced by the voice of an inanimate locomotive, speaking to a fictional passenger. Written in traditional theatrical format, the L Train opens a dialogue with the female passenger about a young man who rides on the train—you—and how terrible your fear of traveling under the East River has become.
This is not the only surprising narrative you employ. The entire book is sprinkled with sudden shifts in voice, including the frame of a third-person mental diagnosis and an entire flashback told in second person.
Where did the idea for this unconventional storytelling originate? How did you decided on these narratives specifically? Were there once more like these?
I love the way Walt Whitman, Melville and others incorporated into their narratives all the noise and manifold voices and ceaseless activity of New York City. The “L Train” chapter was my attempt to do the same. While writing this book, I was also thinking very consciously about the issue of narrative distance. This particular chapter chronicles something that’s difficult for me to talk about directly: my struggles with acute anxiety. So I wanted to give the reader, and myself as the writer, a little more distance from the narrator and his problems here. I was also inspired by a 90’s era film, called Naked in New York, in which Eric Stoltz plays a struggling writer who converses periodically with inanimate objects. I like the way it adds an element of the surreal to the narrative.
Writing a memoir is one of the most intrusive, petrifying—perhaps liberating—experiences any artist can undergo, especially if they are exploring a period of their lives when they were struggling. Most of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld follows you through the most difficult moments of your life. You have mental breakdowns, suffer from an addiction to relationships, make choices that, frankly, made me want to throttle you. Yet, it is this bravery that makes the book so poignant, that makes the hope of your triumph so dearly desired.
How did you overcome the impulse to “fictionalize,” to use your power of the pen to sugar coat your own downfalls?
I’m glad that you wanted to throttle the narrator at times—I feel the same way! So much of the book was about interrogating my own flaws and shortcomings and poor decisions, especially in relationships. I really wanted to avoid the kind of memoir in which the narrator is continually victimized, but never really examines his/her own small contributions to the world’s misfortunes. This book was, in some ways, a way for me to take personal responsibility. But the process—especially now that it’s out in the world for everyone to read—has been really difficult at times. As David Shields writes, memoir is a genre in which the writer gets their teeth bashed in, so to speak. I think I just tried to tell the truth, on every page. I didn’t worry too much about appearing as a conventional “hero,” but at the same time I tried to consciously avoid hurting the feelings of anyone involved.
No matter how close your life flirts with catastrophe in the memoir, your reader never believes your white whale will drag you under. Certainly, if you are now narrating your story, you must have survived the eminent shipwreck and made it to shore safely. If we are ever truly worried, all we need to do is flip to the book back and read your bio, clearly telling us the results of many of the largest trials in the book.
Did you ever consider revising your bio or acknowledgements to hide the “end of the story” from your readers? Is that one of the reasons that your bio is so brief?
This is an interesting point, and one that I’ve never really thought about, to be honest. The bio is pretty brief, but I guess I could’ve further camouflaged the fact that I ended up in Portland. Hopefully the narrative is compelling enough to still hold the reader’s attention, despite the fact that they know some general details about my current life.
As many of our readers are also writers, I’m always keen to ask our featured writers about their craft. Tell me about your writing process. In Wonderworld you describe mornings hulled up in coffee shops, working on your novel, before an afternoon of surfing. Is this how you wrote your memoir?
I did spend thousands of hours in coffee shops, working on this book. There’s a particular cafe in my Portland neighborhood that has high countertops, where I can work while standing up. Writing is such challenging work; I find that utilizing different processes at different stages is extremely helpful. When drafting early material, I write in short, hour-long bursts, usually first thing in the morning. I also carry a small notebook around to jot down notes. I can work for longer periods of time once I transpose my handwritten first drafts onto the computer. During this phase, I need a lot of silence and solitude, because you never know what kinds of creative gifts you might receive if you’re paying close attention. Oddly, the gifts often arrive when you take a short break from the work, to make a sandwich or take a shower or go for a long walk. The moments when you have to drop what you’re doing and rush back to your computer to get a new idea or bit of dialogue down—those are what I live for as a writer. During the more advanced drafting and editing phases, I can write for hours and hours at a time. I was fortunate to spend a two-week writing residency at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, where I worked ten or more hours a day to finish a first complete draft. It was arduous but exhilarating work.
Also, specific to this genre, how did you ensure that you were accurately depicting the events in your life? Did you keep journals of your time in New York? Did you spend countless hours on the phone with your old flat mates, taking notes as they recalled memories of your melancholy years?
I was certainly concerned with presenting an accurate portrayal. I spent hours and hours on the phone with my uncle, making sure I’d gotten down correctly the details of his exploits at sea, and his falling out with the Scientologists. I also write copiously and obsessively in journals; I mined those for quite a lot of material. I’m still close with my old flat mates from New York, but I didn’t really consult with them. As memoirists, we need to have fidelity to the truth and accuracy of details; I think it’s immoral and stupid to grossly fabricate the details of your life, as writers like James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces. On the other hand, we’re writing creative nonfiction, not journalism, and we’re drawing on memories, which are invariably fallible, so I do think there’s room for a certain amount of embellishment, especially when recreating dialogue that took place a decade ago. To me, this is all in service of striving toward the emotional truth of what happened.
Now that you’ve successfully published two books, what advice do you have for new writers trying to break into the industry?
I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it’s very difficult to break into the commercial publishing industry. However, in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. What I encourage my writing students to do is this: make the best work you can, and then play the publishing field at every level possible. Self-publishing does not have the stigma it used to—especially when you’re talking about zines, chapbooks, e-books, etc. Long before I got a book deal, I actually self-published an excerpt of Wonderworld, in a small chapbook with a letterpress cover. It was nice to have a physical chunk of the book out in the world, to begin the process of connecting with readers. Learning the traditional art of letterpress printing was fun and empowering. I think it’s increasingly important that writers learn some basic graphic design and layout skills, such as Adobe InDesign and Illustrator. I’m also intrigued by the possibilities for new modes of storytelling via social media, digital publications, as well as the possibilities for crowd funding via sites like Kickstarter.
While writing my memoir, I also sent individual chapters out for publication at literary journals. Of course, I got a ton of rejections. Fortunately, a great California-based journal named the The Normal School published a chapter called “All I Need is This Thermos.” In a stroke of amazing luck, a literary agent read this particular issue of The Normal School, and contacted me about developing it into a book. So you just have to put yourself out there; if you’re not getting consistently rejected, you’re not submitting enough.
Last but not least—yes, I promise I’ll stop after this one—what is the next step for you? Are you planning to finish the novel you were working on while you were in New York? Are you going to toss your pen away and spend the rest of your life on your surfboard? Will you start constructing the museum for the oil industry you so brilliantly hypothesized in your book (because I will definitely want to visit…perhaps just for the regal paintings of Dick Cheney hanging over a miniature oil rig)?
After running a small arts nonprofit for eight years, I’m transitioning out of the Executive Director role to make more time for my writing and teaching. I’m excited to work on some short articles and essays, but I also have a few more major projects on deck. I’m drafting a new, long-form nonfiction piece—possibly another memoir or essay collection—that goes further back into my childhood and early adult years. A short story collection is also in the works, plus a possible novel idea (although it’s completely different from the novel I was working on in New York). I’m also excited to continue teaching in two programs I helped launch: The Certificate Program in Creative Writing and Independent Publishing via the IPRC, and a new Wilderness Writing concentration in the Low Residency MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.
The History of Pressure and Heat: An Interview with Naomi Benaron
Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.
In Naomi Benaron’s debut novel, Running the Rift, Jean Patrick sees the world through a lens of science. He understands the anatomical effects his Olympic training has on his muscles, the instantaneous velocity of rage that erupts when his heritage is insulted, and the pressure and heat that threaten to break his country in half. Yet, surrounded by his single-minded coach and his humorous university friends, these tensions seem to him only a distraction from his training, from the bright future he is working toward.
However, as racial tensions escalate, the political pressure in Rwanda proves too great. Like the springs he studies in physics, his country is suddenly stretched too far, and the volatile relationship between the Hutu and Tutsi finally explodes. Torn now between his father’s dreams of peace of the reality of war surrounding him, Jean Patrick races against the destruction, realizing that his livelong Olympic training might be the only thing that can save him.
With quotes taken from both the Hutu power newspaper and radio station, Running the Rift creates a riveting plot centered around the historical events that took place in Rwanda. Brimming with vibrant characters that inspire both laughter and tears, Benaron’s novel delves into one of the most horrifying moments in human history and, with incredible courage, unearths the beauty beneath the rubble.
It is with great conviction that Tethered by Letters recommends Running the Rift. Following the scientific laws that Jean Patrick so loves, this novel in motion stays in motion until the very end. Without a single lull, the momentum of the plot continuously gains power until the reader cannot turn the pages fast enough. And when the book is closed for the last time, the reader is left reeling: struck by both the horror of genocide and the unbelievable courage of those who survived it.
Benaron on Running the Rift
When I asked Benaron what motivated her to write about a runner in Rwanda, she told me about watching the 2000 Olympics. During the wild card swimming heat—“for people who would never in a thousand years qualify for the Olympics”—one young African stood out: “He practically drowned for the first 100 meters, but he just kept going,” she explained, “I was so impressed with his heart and it just stayed with me.”
This idea initially took the form of a short story set in Burundi. Then, in 2002, when Benaron made her first trip to Rwanda, new inspiration began to take root at the moment that she fell in love with the country’s rolling hills from the airplane window. With awe lacing her words, she spoke of the wide-open smiles of the people and the way they opened their homes to her, sharing their food and their stories. The pivotal experience that propelled her to write about the genocide was not listening to the people’s stories, but instead dipping her feet into Lake Kivu. While walking along the shore at daybreak, she felt something beneath her bare foot. Bending down to investigate, she realized that she had stepped on a bone, a human bone. Soon on her hands and knees, she found there were bones everywhere in the sand. She realized instantly that they were the remains of the victims of the genocide: “I held these bones in my hands and I thought these aren’t just bones; these are stories, and they are stories that will never be told unless someone else gives them voice.”
This moment launched Benaron onto an eight-year journey writing Running the Rift. Originally, she had planned to finish her short story about the Burundian swimmer and then embark on the harrowing task of writing about the Rwandan genocide. But once she had visited Rwanda, she struggled to imagine Burundi, a country she had never visited. After she started her MFA, it finally dawned on her: “You’re an idiot!” she declared, “You’ve been to Rwanda. Why don’t you just change the story to Rwanda? Take out the swimmer, make him a runner.” The change from swimming to running was also incredibly apt, for Benaron herself is an avid runner. “In order to represent a character, I really need to live, breath, and inhabit their souls and their hearts,” she explained, “So running was easier for me.”
Now with a stronger understanding of her characters, she began the historical research into the genocide. When I asked how she dealt with such dark material, Benaron shook her head softly, confessing that it was exceptionally difficult. “Sometimes I would be writing and I would need to take a break. It wasn’t just that I would get stuck as a writer; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore…there would be days where I just walked around shell-shocked. I couldn’t take in what I was reading or seeing.”
Benaron went on to tell me more about the history she uncovered, both of us struggling to conceptualize the horrors. I sat speechless as she spoke of attending the genocide conference in Rwanda: “They have a week where pretty much everything in the country stops and you go to services where people bear witness and give testimony and remember their families who were killed…That for me was such an emotional experience. I mean, I felt traumatized just from that.” She went on to explain that people there would suffer what is known as traumatisé, “where you slip through the cracks of the present and go back.” Throughout the conference, Benaron watched as people fell to the ground screaming and covering their heads. A friend translated for her, explaining that “they thought they were back there and they were saying ‘don’t kill me, don’t kill me. Don’t kill my family!’” While these horrors certainly stayed with Benaron, she was even more moved by the people she encountered there: “How people survive that is beyond me.”
Drawing on the strength of the survivors she met, Running the Rift is driven by characters brave enough to dream of something greater: of happiness and triumph. It was through these characters that Benaron distanced the narrative from the horrors that culminated in Rwanda. Setting the characters’ journeys against the genocide lends their ambitions a greater validity, the power of dreams salvaged from the waste of so many lives.
Benaron on Writing and Publishing
In 2008, after years of writing, Benaron finally finished Running the Rift and submitted it for the prestigious Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a literary award specifically directed at works that address important issues of social justice. Admitting that her earlier version wasn’t “nearly as good,” Benaron was very thankful that she didn’t win in 2008, and she got to go back to Rwanda one more time, inspiring two more rounds of serious revisions before she submitted again. In 2010, her hard work paid off and she was honored by winning the Bellwether and the publication with Algonquin Books.
Even though Running the Rift has been in the bookstore for less than two months, she is already immersed in her next novel—a story of a Jewish holocaust survivor coming to grips with her traumatic past through her relationship with her granddaughter. I asked Benaron why she chose to write again about such a horrifying time in human history. “I think it’s just who I am,” she explained. Her mother had lived through the Holocaust, and trying to understand what she had gone through was a “formative experience” for Benaron. “In a lot of ways, my writing is trying to come to terms with my mother’s legacy.” Furthermore, Benaron believes in literature’s ability to unveil important truths about the human condition. She talked at length about how grateful she is to Barbara Kingsolver, the founder of the Bellwether, for her dedication to promoting fiction that addresses important social issues and to her publisher, Algonquin Books, for choosing manuscripts of “substance.”
Curious as always about how different authors approach their craft, as the interview drew to a close I asked Benaron about her process as a writer. She summed up her process in one word: “schizophrenic.” Having both an “obsessive compulsive” and a rather impulsive side, her “process is always trying to combine these two parts.” In her new book, she told me that she is trying to be less meticulous, reminding herself that very likely the paragraphs she continuously rewrites won’t make it into the final copy. To break this cycle, she’s planning on writing the first draft all the way through so she knows exactly what research needs to be done and she can give a complete version of her novel to her agent—who is constantly chanting “new book please, next book please” whenever they speak.
Along with her vow to overcome her perfectionism, Benaron also advocates the importance of running as a writing tool. “I have some of my best ideas when I’m on a run,” she explained, adding that taking long jogs away from the bustle of the city always helps her clear her head and battle writer’s block. For those who aren’t keen to pound out their thoughts in running shoes, she offered the following two writing tips: “never lose faith and write from the heart.” These ideas, she says, were instrumental throughout her experience with Running the Rift, confessing how much self-doubt she struggled with about tackling both an entire culture and exploring such an important historical time. “But for every time I said ‘I can’t do it,’” she concluded, “I said ‘I have to do it’ one more time.”
Excerpt from Running the Rift
Mama picked up Papa’s journal and held it out to Jean Patrick. Since Papa’s death, it had remained open, as he had left it. “Take it.” She removed the pen and closed the book.
Jean Patrick took the journal and pen and went outside. Opening to a random page, he tried to read what was written, but it was too dark. What he needed from his father was a clue, something to help him fit the fractured pieces of the afternoon together.
Before his first day in primary school, Jean Patrick had not known what Tutsi meant. When the teacher said, “All Tutsi stand,” Jean Patrick did not know that he was to rise from his seat and be counted and say his name. Roger had to pull him up and explain. That night, Jean Patrick said to his father, “Dadi, I am Tutsi.” His father regarded him strangely and then laughed. From that day forward, Jean Patrick carried the word inside him, but it was only now, after the windows and the rocks, after the insults, that this memory rose to the surface.
The first stars blinked sleepily from the sky’s dark face. The generator at Gihundwe intoned its malarial lament. If Jean Patrick had powers like his namesake, Nkuba, he could have breathed life into the inert pages, sensed the leather skin stretch and grow into a man’s shape, felt once more his father’s strong, beating heart. Instead he dug the pen into his flesh until blood marked his palm.