Telling Stories About the Stories We Tell

Gourevitch_37.5_selfCécile Alduy interviews Philip Gourevitch, in Boston Review:

Cécile Alduy: In your writing, you always find a balance between bringing in the long history to understand the way things develop over time and the very detailed hour-to-hour reporting on how it happened. How is your job different from that of an historian?

Philip Gourevitch: Above all, I suppose, to be a good historian you don’t necessarily have to be a good storyteller. You can be a good historian by virtue of making a contribution to the field without making a direct contribution to literature or public understanding. What historians, or anthropologists, or political scientists are interested in can overlap considerably with my interests, but the methodology, discipline, and long-term purpose are really different. I mean, I’m first and last a writer. If I weren’t writing about Rwanda right now, I’d be writing about something else entirely; and if I weren’t writing reportage, I would be writing fiction or plays. That’s not true of most historians who are going to write about Rwanda. They’re going to be coming at it as Rwandanologists. They’re going to be Africanists. They’re going to be Genocide Studies people. They’re going to be legal scholars or professors of postcolonial studies. And their frame of reference will be largely prescribed by that academic discipline—which is, I guess, as it should be.

Another big difference is that as a writer-reporter I’m not so concerned with making explicit reference to the existing literature, the way academic writers are. I’m much more interested in what I see and what I hear directly; I work in a documentary vein. For instance in recent conversations about current affairs with senior government officials in Rwanda I started to notice that a number of them, completely unprompted, began making references to late-nineteenth century events in Rwanda. That’s the time when Rwanda, which had been a proudly isolated country, was colonized, and lost its self-determination as a state. So I started mentioning this to the people I was interviewing, “You know, it’s funny that you are all bringing up that same period.” And they all expressed complete surprise. “Really, who else?” Then I would maybe mention someone, and they’d all say, “Really? He was talking about this?” So, I thought, that’s interesting, there’s this common reference that each person thinks is his own, and which each uses to make different points. And then I thought, well, is this history they are talking about reliable? Are these stories they’re telling me correct?