SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Tracy Kidder's ninth book, "Strength in What Remains," tells the story of Deogratias — called Deo — a Burundian medical student who, after fleeing his country's civil war in 1994, makes his way to New York with $200 in his pocket and speaking only French. There he squats as a homeless person in Central Park; he delivers groceries for $15 a day.
This is before he's taken in by Charlie and Nancy Wolf, a charitable couple with a big heart and a Manhattan apartment with an extra room — one that happened to be full of books, one Kidder describes as "a room for the end of a journey of the body, but also for the continuation of a journey of the mind." They encourage Deo to pick up with his studies, and he eventually enrolls at Columbia University and, ultimately, Dartmouth Medical School.
What initially might seem like an intriguing, if conventional, tale of transformation turns out to have a remarkable coda, as Kidder divides the book between Deo's stateside story and his return to Burundi to open a free clinic in his home town.
Kidder spoke by phone from his home in Massachusetts.
Austin American-Statesman: You were introduced to Deo through Dr. Paul Farmer, his mentor and the subject of 'Mountains Beyond Mountains' (Kidder's 2003 book about a doctor who conducts medical missions to Haiti). Is this new book a kind of sequel to the Farmer book?
Tracy Kidder:Deo and Paul do have things in common — they are very close friends. When I first met Paul, he was already very well known in medical anthropology; he was a clinic hospital-builder par excellence. He's extraordinary. Deo had been through a crucible of war, been through a miraculous escape, come to America, learned English, but Deo is more of an ordinary person than Paul. So, in that sense, they are not sequels.
The first half of the book focuses on Deo's travails in New York, and it's not a part of the city people often see in books — homeless people living in Central Park, the service entrances to Fifth Avenue high-rises. Was that deliberate?
First and foremost I'm a storyteller, and that's an important part of Deo's story. But that part of New York is designed to be invisible. It's very tempting if you're privileged, particularly in a place like New York, to think that the world is properly ordered or that your job is representative of who you are. When you get into a taxi and the driver has a foreign accent, you should wonder, "Where did they come from? Why they are here?" At Columbia, one of Deo's favorite writers was W.E.B. DuBois, who said, and I'm paraphrasing: To be a poor man anywhere is hard, but to be a poor man in a country of dollars is the hardest of all.
You clearly admire Deo, and Paul Farmer for that matter, and many of your books seem to be about people pushing the limits of human potential.
The story I've told is about courage and endurance and idealism enacted. We have to remember that we all walk around with the most complex structure in the known universe on our shoulders. Deo is pretty extraordinary.
To what do you see this as a distinctly American story? The embodiment of the American dream?
I think it is distinctive insofar that he's now an American citizen; he rallied a collection of American and Burundians to something he had dreamed of as a child: to go back to Burundi to create a medical system to serve the poor of whatever ethnicity. He's done that and his aims are much larger. This is one small beginning.
Would you describe the clinic Deo started?
It's called Village Health Works and in its first year it saw 28,000 patients — from Burundi, but also from Tanzania and the Congo. A few who came weren't sick. When asked why they came, they said, "To see America." At first I thought this was a misconception, but it was true. This represents America at its best. In miniature, it's what President Obama was talking about in Ghana — African and American cooperation; it's a little instrument of peace.
It's also a different view of Africa than one usually gets from the news, for example.
We tend to look at Africa as a single dysfunctional country, which is nonsense. It is many dozens of countries with different problems. I am aware that Westerners only talk about the bad news from Africa, and I distrust that sentiment in Western mouths — either that or something that sounds like political correctness, and that is usually a sign that that group is really getting shafted. I wrote a book about a person who came from a place that hasn't produced a lot of good news in a century, but has a different story to tell. The real question is how to get people in the West and in the Western countries to help in an effective way.
Is that something you are trying to accomplish with your writing?
I think the trick for people attempting to write stories about Africa is to find a way to move people, to find that this suffering person is the same as you, just like you, and in another circumstance it could have been you.