Rick Bass visited Rwanda in 2011 with his wife and teenage daughter, accompanied by Terry Tempest Williams. The group put together a writing workshop at Rwanda’s only remaining national university in Butare, and they briefly toured various parts of the country as well. In My Home There is no More Sorrow was released as a result of the trip in 2012 by McSweeney’s Books. Though the work largely consists of a travel narrative, detailing Bass’ experiences and a linear trip through a beautiful landscape, the prose is rich with significant pathos. Through seemingly anxious reflection, Bass confronts personal histories and humanity; a dialogue and language are then created, not only for an American audience reading his words, but for the voices of those who have suffered more than we can imagine. This work of non-fiction was made to finely tune your empathy, and should haunt your memory for all the right reasons in which a good book can.
Bass appears split by what he wants to remember, what he wishes to first convey – the image that will set the overall “tone” of his book. This catches the psyche that remains present throughout the text. At every turn, the land displays an inherent beauty, but anyone with even a rough knowledge of history knows Rwanda’s past does not always reflect the images of its lush jungles and rolling hills. For the traveling writer, this presents a paradox, and so Bass begins by writing:
“Every word I spend here without getting to the bones feels like I am shirking or betraying the obligation of witness. And yet, seventeen years after the fact, the thousand hills are greener than ever.”
The seventeen years indicates the time between his visit and the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi people. Shrines – memorials of bones – dot the countryside, mostly in churches where many people were massacred. The bombed out and blood-stained shells of these buildings are all that remain; life continues in peace now, but this dark history weighs heavily on the consciences of those who remember, whether they were a victim or survivor, a killer, or someone who had only grown up listening to the horrific stories, knowing this is a part of who they are. Bass details how difficult this is to write from an outsider’s perspective, and he brings this nervous evasion of the past to the writing workshop in Butare.
That being said, the most successful parts of this book take place during the writer’s workshop, in which the local students and their own teacher challenge Bass and Williams’ approach.
“Terry told him that we are being cautious; that we are visitors.”
“ ‘No,’ he said. ‘You are writers.’ ”
From here, Bass goes beyond the conventions of a blundering traveler in a strange land. Doing away with the alienation we often see in travel narratives, he offers useful perspectives regarding not only the workshop and the students, but the notions by which we typically regard a once war-ravaged country like Rwanda. Instead of urging the reader to forget, to move on, Bass confronts these issues by indulging the students’ need to construct a language for their past. Largely, this book seeks to validate art, a fresh kind of writing, through this recycled pain. In order to produce any work of value, Bass suggests that we expose ourselves, reopening old wounds and shaping them into ideas, stanzas, paragraphs – he admits to actively avoiding this approach, and considers how we are wrong to do so.
At first, the latter half of the book might seem to flag in its emotionally-charged progression, returning the reader to a trip’s itinerary as the group heads off to see the Gorillas living on a tri-country preserve in the highland forests. However, this provides a balance to the prose, so that you are not constantly beleaguered by that feeling of dread; Bass does not riddle his text with guilt or sorrow. He writes what he believes is necessary, which also means he cannot simply focus on the negative because there are parts of this place, history aside, that maintain a significant natural beauty, which is delivered succinctly throughout the text. Without this part, the dichotomy Bass hopes to deliver would fail.
Because this section of the book lacks the powerful connection between cultures, one might wish it excised in favor of the deeply personal interactions with the students at the national school. Perhaps for this reason, Bass includes some of the work produced by those who attended the workshop. This is wonderful – it offers an insight not even Bass himself could give the reader. Instead of hearing the detailed history of these survivors, this new hopeful generation, from a third party, one can admire the raw severity with which these poems and narratives are written. To know that anyone can survive such a thing and transform their experiences into writing, that useful art by which we express ourselves, means that we too can take on this cultural interconnectivity, and fill the gaps where we find our empathy with honest and meaningful language.
If you come across this book, you should read it, and allow it to calibrate your vision into a world where qualitative writing is being born from tragedy, where it is new. Just as Bass invites the reader into this striking experience of humanity, so should you invite someone you know to read this book as well.
Review by Ryan Gannon