21 Aug / Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Even before Naomi Benaron‘s debut novel hit shelves last year, it earned a substantial literary gold sticker as the winner of the biennial 2010 Bellwether Prize – the largest monetary award for unpublished fiction in North America, which was rebranded in 2011 as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. But before you begin Running, might I suggest you read Benaron’s “Fiction and Social Responsibility: Where Do They Intersect?” (her mother’s story of ripping off the Nazi flag from a German ambassador’s car in Switzerland is especially memorable); her careful, thoughtful essay provides enriching context as to why and how Benaron writes what she does.
Through fiction, Benaron humanizes the inconceivable numbers of the Rwandan genocide into individual lives. Using carefully researched historical, cultural, political details, she introduces a young Tutsi, Jean Patrick Nkuba, and follows him from his Rwandan boyhood when he loses his father and goes with his mother and brother to live with his uncle, to his adulthood on the other side of the world as he tries to make sense of all that he has managed to miraculously survive.
Jean Patrick is a gifted runner with Olympic potential. His nationally-lauded talent temporarily protects him when tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups begin to escalate. But by 1994 when the Tutsi slaughter by their Hutu neighbors erupts and an estimated half-million to a million Rwandans are massacred over 100 days, Jean Patrick will have to run for his life … and keep running. In one of the world’s most horrific man-made tragedies, Jean Patrick’s beliefs of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘truth’ and ‘lies,’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’ no longer apply; all that he knows of his compassionate father, his courageous brother, the local bully, his beloved sweetheart, his devoted coach, and so many others, will be tested again and again and again.
A self-described social activist and fiction writer, Benaron is also a marathoner and Ironman triathlete: “My best lines come to me when I am in motion,” her website bio reveals. How fitting, then, that I took Running with me on multiple runs (it’s 14+ hours stuck in the ears), with inspiring pacing provided by narrator Marcel Davis. While I’m not quite sure about Davis’ Rwandan accent – which he seems to use or not use at his own will, as opposed to remaining constant according to the characters – Benaron’s story will keep you listening, even long after your legs have been thoroughly exhausted.