How does author Tracy Kidder work his narrative magic? The Pulitzer-prizewinning author has a gift for making complex people and places come alive in his classic nonfiction books. The title of his talk at Seattle Arts & Lectures on Wednesday (March 2), about his books and his writing process, is "Another Set of Eyes."
Kidder has written about architecture, energy, railroads, war, elementary-school education in a depressed Massachusetts neighborhood, and the messianic labors of a physician bringing first-class health care to the world's poorest countries. The author has been praised for his compassionate intelligence and his deeply informed grasp of each subject, yet also for what reviewer Ron Suskind, writing for the New York Times, calls his "readiness to be surprised."
Kidder stays open to surprise by not letting preconceptions, no matter how intelligent, come between him and the reality unfolding before him. He doesn't master reality; he meets it. The structure of his most recent book, Strength in What Remains, is a superb case in point.
In the first half of the narrative readers make intimate acquaintance with a young medical student named Deogratias (Latin for "thanks be to God"), who is caught in a bloody civil war in his homeland of Burundi. Ghastly violence sends him fleeing the carnage and terrible danger on foot through the countryside alone. After agonizing months and dozens of narrow escapes he manages to find a way to a refugee camp and eventually to New York, where employers treat him badly and rents are unaffordable. He ends up homeless. Harrowing memories of blood and slaughter never quite leave him in peace.
Kidder's way is to plunge readers directly into Deo's sensations and thoughts from the start, without insulating their impact on us with his own governing gaze or his own explicit presence in the narrative. Gradually we come to feel how Deo's life felt to Deo instead of being introduced to his experiences through authorial explanation. Kidder lets us walk (and fearfully run) beside the young man until we think we know him.
Only then, with the reader's sense of Deo firmly established, does the author enter the narrative to tell how his friendship with Deo developed. At that point Kidder can also bring in the backstory of the astonishingly generous New York couple who gave a traumatized, emaciated, non-English-speaking African stranger a room in their apartment and who eventually came to call him "the best thing that ever happened to them."
Kidder also provides fascinating historical background on the ethnic rivalries in Burundi and Rwanda that led to war, and discusses the "structural violence" of poverty that prompts interpersonal violence. He describes accompanying Deo to Africa, where the young man not only learns what has happened to his home but also tries, as he told Kidder, "to understand what had happened to me."
Despite witnessing firsthand the horrific brutality that people can inflict on one another, Deo is remarkable, Kidder shows us, in how he used his studies, his talents, and his spiritual strength to "find a way around self-poisoning hatred." Deo put it this way: "I really have been successful in finding my own peaceful corners."
Eventually he helped establish a peaceful corner in Burundi for his people. With the help of funders Deo started a medical clinic, where the villagers involved in its construction paid his extraordinary egalitarian leadership this tribute: "When we are working, he does not cross his arms. He works with us."
When the people Kidder writes about are working, he does not cross his arms. He works with them. He lives their life.