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March 18, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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In My Home There Is No More Sorrow – Rick Bass

“Every word I spend here without getting to the bones feels like I am shirking or betraying the obligation of witness.”

In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, between 500,000 and one million people were massacred, and yet it’s still rare for stories from the genocide to reach Western audiences. Published by McSweeney’s last year, In My Home There Is No More Sorrow is an ambitious and considered piece of long-form non-fiction writing. This is the result of the ten days Rick Bass spent travelling through Rwanda with his wife, their 16-year-old daughter, and his writing colleague Terry.

The ostensible reason for their trip was to teach a two-day writing course at the National University of Rwanda, and this forms the organising consciousness of the book, as well as the bulk of the narrative. Also chronicled are their experiences visiting memorial sites across the country; by far the strongest point of the book. Bass’s depictions of bodies piled up in churches—simply left there after the genocide ended—are harrowing. He forces himself—and, by proxy, his reader—to fully realise the extent of the genocide, and the horror contained therein. It’s awful, unavoidable, and beautifully written.

There is a preoccupation with being a Westerner pervading In My Home There Is No More Sorrow. Every one of Bass’s thoughts is mediated through a layer of discomfort, which is not exactly guilt or shame—because he is overwhelmingly aware that it is a luxury to feel this from an outsider’s perspective—but is close to being characterised as such. His discomfort is mostly from his being a white American in a country devastated by genocide, with the full knowledge that UN intervention could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

He skirts around the edges of cliché at times, just avoiding falling into the trap of the Westerner captivated by and envious of ‘native’ beauty. In fact, he avoids this trap by openly falling into it, then negating this by pulling himself out. At times it’s as if he forgets the significance of Rwanda, and is openly envious of its people and beauty, before he remembers and berates himself; envy is astoundingly misplaced here.

Although this is relevant, and perhaps even necessary, these pontifications can become a bit tedious. This is especially relevant towards the end of the book, when they go to see gorillas in the mountains. Surrounded by jungle, watching a family of gorillas, Bass continues to ruminate on the nature of guilt, evil, and terror. Away from scenes of genocide, this feels less relevant, and has less impact than in other areas of the book. I was inclined to read this as verging on self-indulgence, until his final passage: a consideration on the nature of bearing witness. The philosophising, when taken in this light, becomes both an admirable act and the only option available. This, I think, is his final point: that some things are so terrible that we cannot escape them, and nor should we.

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