Running the Riftby Naomi Benaron
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Running the Rift follows Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Rwandan boy, from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life, a ten-year span in which his country is undone by the Hutu-Tutsi tensions. Born a Tutsi, he is thrust into a world where it’s impossible to stay apolitical—where the man who used to sell you gifts for your family now spews hatred, where the girl who flirted with you in the lunchroom refuses to look at you, where your Hutu coach is secretly training the very soldiers who will hunt down your family. Yet in an environment increasingly restrictive for the Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medal contender in track, a feat he believes might deliver him and his people from this violence. When the killing begins, Jean Patrick is forced to flee, leaving behind the woman, the family, and the country he loves. Finding them again is the race of his life.
This is the third Bellwether Prize winner published by Algonquin. The Bellwether Prize is awarded biennially by Barbara Kingsolver for an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice and was previously awarded to The Girl Who Fell from the Sky and Mudbound.
The Washington Post
—Library Journal [starred review]
—Publishers Weekly [starred review]
—Christian Science Monitor
—Kirkus Reviews [starred review]
Seattle Times’ 25 Best Books of 2012 list
BookBrowse’s Favorite Books for 2012
"In Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift, a novel full of unspeakable strife but also joy, humor, and love, "hope always [chases] close on the heels of despair," thanks to a writer who knows when to keep a steady pace and when to explode into an all-out sprint." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Running the Rift encourages us to see the world as a whole, despite the simmering divisions that constantly threaten to erupt. The genocide scars Jean Patrick and scuttles his personal Olympic dream. But other seemingly impossible dreams are realized in this accomplished, comprehending and generous first novel." Kansas City Star
“Running the Rift does not spare readers the horrors of the violence in Rwanda, but never loses sight of the beautythe love and, yes, the hopethat persists even amid such a desperate situation." The Wichita Eagle
“This well written and well researched novel is an impressive debut.”The Seattle Times
"An auspicious debut . . . Having worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda, Benaron clearly acquired a very lucid sense of her characters' lives and of the horrors they endured. Her story tells, with compelling clarity, of Rwandan Tutsi youth, Jean Patrick Nkubawho dreams of becoming Rwanda's first Olympic medalist. It's a dream he must postpone for more than a decade as the internecine savagery, Hutu vs. Tutsi, slaughters millions and derails the lives of countless others. While it would be counterintuitive to pronounce this a winning, feel-good story, there is something to be said for hope restored. And Naomi Benaron's characters say it well."The Daily Beast
"This debut novel set against the backdrop of Rwanda's ethnic conflict is a powerful coming-of-age story that highlights the best and worst of human nature."Christian Science Monitor
"Benaron's focus on this one young man is part of the book's brilliance . . . Benaron writes beautifully about the pain and exhilaration of being an Olympic-level runner (she's a triathlete) . . . It's unbearable, Benaron's genius is that we read on despite it." BookPage
"This debut novel won the Bellwether Prize, created and funded by author Barbara Kingsolver to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice. A more fitting choice would be hard to find." Shelf Awareness
“In a finely crafted story of dreams, illusions, hard reality, and reaching the other side of fear, Benaron has bestowed upon the world a story that illuminates events on a national scale by showing their effects at the personal level.”ForeWord Reviews
"Benaron accomplishes the improbable feat of wringing genuine loveliness from unspeakable horror . . . It is a testament to Benaron's skill that a novel about genocide . . . conveys so profoundly the joys of family, friendship, and community." Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Awarded the prestigious Bellwether Prize for its treatment of compelling social issues, Benaron’s first novel is a gripping, frequently distressing portrait of destruction and ultimate redemption... Benaron sheds a crystalline beacon on an alarming episode in global history, and her charismatic protagonist leaves an indelible impression.”Booklist
"First novelist Benaron, who has actively worked with refugee groups, won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for this unflinching and beautifully crafted account of a people and their survival. In addition, she compellingly details the growth and rigorous training of a young athlete. . . Highly recommended; readers who loved Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner will appreciate."Library Journal, starred review
"The politics will be familiar to those who have followed Africa’s crises (or seen Hotel Rwanda), but where Benaron shines is in her tender descriptions of Rwandan’s natural beauty and in her creation of Jean Patrick, a hero whose noble innocence and genuine human warmth are impossible not to love." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Rich characterization and insights about Rwandan culture make this book a pleasure to read, and Jean Patrick impossible not to root for . . . Running the Rift is a profound display of imagination and empathy. Benaron writes like Jean Patrick runs, with the heart of a lion.”
—The Dallas Morning News
“[Benaron] writes with an earnest clarity, bringing the boy to manhood and imparting to readers a culturally rich and unflinching story of resilience and resistance.”
—Chicago Tribune, editor’s choice
“A novel full of unspeakable strife but also joy, humor, and love.”
—O: The Oprah Magazine
“A powerful coming-of-age story that highlights the best and the worst of human nature.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“[An] unflinching and beautifully crafted account of a people and their survival. In addition, she compellingly details the growth and rigorous training of a young athlete . . . Highly recommended; readers who loved Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner will appreciate.”
—Library Journal, starred review
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Read an Excerpt
Running the RiftA NOVEL
By NAOMI BENARON
Algonquin Books of Chapel HillCopyright © 2012 Naomi Benaron
All right reserved.
Jean Patrick was already awake, listening to the storm, when Papa opened the door and stood by the side of the bed. Rain hissed at the windows and roared against the corrugated roof, and Jean Patrick huddled closer to his brother Roger for warmth. He remembered then that Papa was going to a conference in Kigali. He said it was a very important meeting; educators from all across Rwanda would be there.
"I'm leaving now," Papa whispered, his voice barely louder than the rain. "Uwimana will be here soon to pick me up." If even Headmaster was going, Jean Patrick thought, the conference must be top level.
The lantern flame glinted on Papa's glasses and on a triangle of white shirt; the storm must have knocked the power out, as usual. "You boys will have to check the pen carefully after you bring the cattle in. Make sure no earth has washed away in the rain." He tucked the blanket around their shoulders. "And Roger—you'll have to check Jean Patrick's lessons. I don't want any mistakes from either of you."
Turning his head from the light, Jean Patrick puckered his face. He didn't need Roger to check his homework; even Papa had to look hard to find an error.
"I'll be back tomorrow night," Papa said.
Jean Patrick leaned on his elbows and watched his father walk into the hallway on a beam of yellow light. His footsteps echoed on the concrete. "Be safe, Dadi," he said. "May Imana bless your journey." Gashogoro, the rainy season of November and December, often turned the roads leading from Cyangugu into muddy swamps. On the path, Jean Patrick sometimes sank in mud to his ankles.
All day the rain continued. Streams swelled and tumbled toward Lake Kivu. Rivers of red clay washed down from the hills, and by the time Jean Patrick came home from school, mud had stained his pant legs the color of rust. After he finished his homework, Jean Patrick brought out his toy truck and steered it back and forth in the front room. His father had made the imodoka from coat hangers, scraps of wood and metal, and brightly colored bits of plastic.
Roger had a new watch, a gift from a muzungu missionary. He kept setting and resetting the alarm, beeping it in Jean Patrick's ear. The bell for the end of classes rang at Gihundwe, their father's school, and the students' voices bounced between the buildings, a river of sound muffled by the rain. Jean Patrick imagined the day he would leave primary school behind and be one of them, adding his uproar to the rest. Sometimes the anticipation bordered on fever, a feeling that slowed the passage of time down to the very tick of the clock.
"We better get the cattle," Roger said. "If we wait for the storm to end, we will be here, waiting, when Dadi comes home."
They put on their raincoats and rubber boots and took their switches from the side of the house. "Let's race," Jean Patrick said, taking off before Roger had a chance to respond.
The competition between Jean Patrick and Roger began this year, when Roger started playing football on the weekends with a small club called Inzuki—the Bees. He ran whenever he could to keep in top shape, and often he took Jean Patrick with him. He had taught Jean Patrick how to run backward, how to pump his arms and have a good strong kick behind him.
Since they lived at the school, Papa kept the cattle with a cousin of Mama's who lived near. Jean Patrick ran, keeping to the side of the road where the mud was not so churned. Each day, he'd tried to make it a little farther before Roger caught him, but today was impossible. No matter what line he chose, the road swallowed his boots. Roger passed him before the red bricks of Gihundwe's walls were lost to the mist.
From a distance, Jean Patrick spotted the wide arc of horns on the inyambo steer, their father's favorite. In the blur of rain, the horns dipped and turned above the small herd like the arms of an Intore dancer. The steer looked up, blinking his liquid black eyes, as they approached. Jean Patrick placed a hand on the steer's back and felt the wet quiver of his hide. Led by the inyambo steer, the herd shuffled into motion toward the rickety collection of poles that marked the pen.
Roger made it to the gate at Gihundwe a good ten steps in front of Jean Patrick. He stopped and took off his watch. "Look—it took us twenty-seven minutes and thirty-five seconds there and back. I timed it."
Jean Patrick gasped for air. Mud clung to his clothes, his boots, his hands. "You lie. No watch can time us. Let me have it." He took the watch, and there was the time in bold numbers, just as Roger had claimed.
The smells of stewing meat, peppery and rich, came from the charcoal stove in the cookhouse. Jean Patrick and Roger stripped off their boots and raincoats and went inside. In the kitchen, a snappy soukous tune by Pepe Kalle played on the radio. Jean Patrick's little sister did some kwassa kwassa steps with Zachary in her arms. His legs dangled to her knees.
"Eh-eh, Jacqueline. You dance sweet," Jean Patrick teased.
Jacqueline spun around. "Aye! What happened to you? Did you drown?" She pointed to the dirty water that pooled by Jean Patrick and Roger's feet.
Roger took Zachary from Jacqueline, and the three of them danced. Jean Patrick swung his hips the way he had seen on the videos. He was still swinging them when he heard the knock at the door, quiet at first and then louder, and still when he opened the door to two policemen. Mama ran into the room, Baby Clemence bundled at her back.
"We're so sorry to bring you this news," they said.
Mama Brought them tea, her back straight and tall. Clemence began to whimper, and Mama picked her up to comfort her. Zachary played with the truck on the floor as if the only difference between this afternoon and any other was that men had come to visit.
There were six of them traveling together, the policemen said, all headmasters and préfets. The urubaho was out of control—they always were—going too fast down the mountain with a load far too heavy for such a flimsy truck. It swerved around the corner on the wrong side and crashed head-on into the car. Two people dead from Gihundwe—Jean Patrick's father and the préfet de discipline. Two others dead and two badly injured. It was a miracle anyone survived, and the urubaho driver with barely a scratch, obviously drunk. He hit a boy on a bicycle, too; the sack of potatoes he carried on the handlebars scattered across the road. The bicycle was found, but not the boy, the cliffs too steep and dangerous to search in the rain.
The policemen clucked their tongues. It was always the best of the country—Rwanda's future—that died like this. The body was in the hospital at Gitarama. With their permission, the headmaster from Gihundwe would bring him home.
Mama stopped her gentle rocking. "Uwimana wasn't in the car?"
It was one of those strange occurrences, the policemen said, that revealed Ikiganza cy'Imana, the Hand of God. At the last possible minute, there had been an emergency at school, and Headmaster had stayed behind. "Uwimana asked us to fetch his wife from the Centre de Santé as soon as she finishes with her patients."
"Angelique," Mama said. The name came out as a long, trembled sigh. "Yes—I will be glad to see her."
The policemen rose. "We knew your husband—a good, good man. Thank you for the tea."
After they left, Mama stared so hard out the window that Jean Patrick looked to see if someone stood there in the storm. He half believed that if he closed his eyes hard enough, he could blink the afternoon away, look up, and find Dadi there, returned from his trip, pockets full of cookies as they always were.
Mama knelt by him. "Don't worry. Uncle Emmanuel will be a father to you now."
"I hate Uncle Emmanuel," Jean Patrick said. "He's stupid, and he always stinks of fish."
The sting of Mama's slap made his eyes water. "Be respectful of my brother. He's your elder."
Jean Patrick couldn't hold it back any longer. He wailed.
Mama drew him close. "We have to be strong," she said. "Think of your namesake, Nkuba. You must be as brave as the God of Thunder."
The door opened, and Angelique came in, still in her white doctor's coat. Mama collapsed into her arms.
By midnight, the rain had stopped, the moon a blurred eye behind the clouds. Neighbors and family had been arriving since early evening with food and drink. Students and teachers from Gihundwe crowded into the tiny house. The night watchman drank tea inside the door.
The table was set up in the front room, covered with the tablecloth reserved for holidays. There were plates of ugali and stews with bits of meat and fish to dip it in, bowls of isombe, green bananas and red beans, fried plantains, boiled sweet potatoes and cassava. There were peas and haricots verts sautéed with tomatoes, bottles of Primus beer and Uncle Emmanuel's home-brewed urwagwa. Angelique had not stopped cooking, bringing Mama tea, wiping everyone's eyes. The power was off. Candles flickered; lanterns tossed shadows at the walls. Jean Patrick and Roger sat on the floor with Jacqueline, feeding Clemence bits of stew wrapped in sticky balls of ugali.
A wedge of light beckoned Jean Patrick from Papa's study, and he went inside. The lantern on the desk turned the oiled wood into a pliable skin. Papa's books surrounded him and comforted him. Books on physics, mathematics, the philosophies of teaching. Papa must have been writing in his journal; his pen lay across the leather-bound book. The cap rested beside a half-full cup of tea as if at any moment he would enter the room, pull out his chair, and pick up the pen once more. Jean Patrick put the cup to his lips and drank. The sudden sweetness made him shiver. Flecks of tea leaf remained on his lip, and he licked them, tasting the last thing his father had tasted. The house groaned and settled in the night.
Mama joined him. She held a tray of urwagwa, and the banana beer's sweet, yeasty tang tickled his nostrils. "Are you tired? You can go to bed if you want."
He shook his head. He thought of his father sitting in his chair on Friday evenings, drinking urwagwa and eating peanuts. He could almost reach out and touch the glitter of salt on Papa's lips.
"He must have been writing his talk for the meeting," Mama said, stroking the journal's skin.
Jean Patrick read. Everything in the universe has a mathematical expression: the balance of a chemical reaction, the Fibonacci sequence of a leaf, an encounter between two human beings. It is important—the sentence ended there. Jean Patrick envisioned a noise in the bush, his father putting down the pen and peering through the window. It seemed at that moment as if not only his father's words but the whole world had stopped just like that: midsentence.
The men were still drinking, some sharing bottles of urwagwa through a common straw, the women still replenishing empty bowls, when Uwimana came with the coffin. A procession of Papa's family from Ruhengeri followed. Dawn, ash colored, came through the door behind them.
"Chère Jurida," Uwimana said. He held Mama's hand. "Whatever you need, you can ask me. You know François was my closest friend."
A line of people formed to say good-bye. Mama sat by the coffin, her family and Papa's family beside her. The women keened.
"Are you going up?" Roger pressed close to Jean Patrick.
"Are you?" Neither of them moved. "We can go together," Jean Patrick said.
Papa was dressed in an unfamiliar suit. Dark bruises discolored his face, and the angles his body made seemed wrong. Jean Patrick could not reach out to touch him.
"That's not your dadi anymore. Your dadi's in heaven," a small voice said. Jean Patrick looked down to see Mathilde, Uncle's daughter, beside him. She wedged her hand in his. "When my sister died, Mama told me that. I was scared before she said it. I came for Christmas—do you remember? You read me a book."
Of course Jean Patrick remembered. Since she was small, Mathilde had had a hunger for books and loved to listen to stories. When Uncle's family came to visit, she would rush to Papa's study, dragging Jean Patrick by the hand. She would point to a tall book of folk stories on the bookshelf. "Nkuba, read me the one about your son, Mirabyo, when he finds Miseke, the Dawn Girl." It was always this same one.
Even before Jean Patrick could read the complicated text, he knew the story well enough to recite it. "Some day, like Miseke," he would say, "you will laugh, and pearls will spill from your mouth. Then your umukunzi, your sweetheart, will know he has found his one love." Each time he said this, Mathilde released a peal of laughter. "You see?" Jean Patrick would say, pointing to her lips. "Pearls! Just like your Rwandan name, Kamabera." And Mathilde would laugh again.
"You have to tell your papa you love him," she whispered now, "so he'll be happy in heaven." She stood on tiptoes and peered inside the coffin.
Jean Patrick looked at Roger, and together they approached the coffin. They knelt down to recite Papa's favorite words from Ecclesiastes.
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom—"
Jean Patrick stopped. If he spoke the word grave, tears would stain his Sunday shirt.
Uwimana canceled classes on the day of the funeral, and all the teachers and students from Gihundwe escorted the coffin to the church. Cars packed with people wound through the streets, followed by crowds on foot. Children ran on the paths in a cold, drizzling rain. Mud splattered their legs and shorts.
A brown kite swooped from a branch; its sharp cry hung in the mist. Jean Patrick wondered if Papa's soul had wings, too, like the paintings of angels in church. Mist rose from Lake Kivu. Fishermen emerged and disappeared in a gray space that belonged to neither water nor sky. Long-horned cattle grazed in the green hills. As the procession passed, farmers watched from their fields. Some signed the cross; others stretched out a hand in farewell.
Instead of the chapel at Gihundwe, where Jean Patrick's family worshipped every Sunday, they went to Nkaka Church. The harmonies of the choir and the steady beat of drums poured through the open doors. All the pews and chairs were filled. Behind them, people stood shoulder to shoulder. Above the coffin, the Virgin Mary wept tears of blood onto her open robe. The whiteness of the Virgin's skin, her wounded heart, the reverberating drums and clapping, combined to fill Jean Patrick with terror. He shut his eyes and tumbled back in time until he arrived at the moment when he had lain warm inside his bed and wished his father a safe journey. He undid the wish and told his father instead not to go.
Excerpted from Running the Rift by NAOMI BENARON Copyright © 2012 by Naomi Benaron. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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—Barbara Kingsolver, founder of the Bellwether Prize, author of The Poisonwood Bible
Meet the Author
Naomi Benaron earned an MFA from Antioch University and an MS in earth sciences from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. She teaches at Pima Community College and online through the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. An advocate for African refugees in her community, she has worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda. She has won the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. She is also an Ironman triathlete.
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Beautifully written and a wonderful journey to follow. Worth getting through the first half of the book to enjoy the second half :)
Naomi Benaron's <i>Running the Rift</i> is an excellent, but at times, difficult read: difficult in content not in execution. It is the story of Jean Patrick, a Rwandan Tutsi who is a runner and of his family and friends. We first meet Jean Patrick when he is a boy when he learns of his father's death. His father had always tried to believe that the peace between Hutu and Tutsi would last, but that belief is not shared by his wife, his brother in law, or Jean Patrick's older brother Roger. We follow the progress of Jean Patrick's life - from his waiting by the radio after taking national tests to see if he is top in his class so he can go to secondary school on scholarship (government quota's limited how many Tutsi's could continue schooling) to his days as a runner training at university for the olympics. Throughout the novel the reader sees Jean Patrick's stubborn determination - to be the best runner, and to ignore the politics and the building tension around him. We see how he is popular and how people make concessions because although he is Tutsi, he is a world-class runner. We also see the embedded hate simply because he is not the favored class of Rwandan - he tolerates being threatened, beaten, insulted and worse because he, and others like him, cannot fight back. Through Jean Patrick and his experiences we learn of the cultural and history of Rwanda and we see the ever present bias that pits one group of people against another — people who have been taught that despite their common language and culture — that they are different, and one is superior and the other is a threat. Jean Patrick sees his running as something that can represent all of Rwanda and he is encouraged by family and his coach to use that to his advantage, and to do whatever is necessary, even if it means denying his heritage. It is his girlfriend Bea, however, that pushes him to see more that is going on around him. She is Hutu, but her father is a journalist and willing to defy those in power to let the world know of what is happening in Rwanda. What Jean Patrick tries to ignore, the audience sees and the story pushes us to what we know will be the genocide. A history we, especially American's, have often only have a vague sense of. The novel's impact is that it is small story - one boy from one family in one province of Rwanda - yet manages to show how the true horror of the Rwandan genocide was not that it was perpetrated by a government that sent troops to round up and kill or by an invading force, but by a minority of hardliners who convinced neighbors to turn on neighbors. Over the course of a few weeks, an estimated million Tutsi and Hutu's who aided them or were seen as sympathizers were murdered by fellow Rwandan's who used machete's, clubs and knives far more than guns and grenades or camps. Benaron doesn't dwell on the violence, but paints enough detail to leave the reader with a sense of horror at what happened, and what the West didn't do. While 'fictional' violence doesn't tend to impact me on a personal level, knowing that what Benaron shows the audience is only a sliver of the real violence of those months, it is enough to leave me with bad dreams. At the end however, the audience is left knowing that while so few survived and lost everything, they yet somehow retain hope, even if that hope is slow in rising. The title of Benaron's novel refers to the geological feature of the area (the tectonic rift formed by the violent upheaval of the earth's crust), but also calls to mind the attempt of Jean Patrick to live and navigate between worlds that have a history of violent collision. Science - physics and geological feature in the story and act as metaphors, as does the sport of running. In the notes, the author says that she was a serious runner, and it shows in the descriptions of runners, and racing. I'll note here that, as a book written about such a complex situation by someone from outside of the culture, there has been some accusations of cultural appropriation. I think those are unfounded in this case (and perhaps leveled by individuals who haven't read it) because Benaron has done her homework - both learning the history of a nation and developing an understanding of a cultural that has seen tremendous upheaval and loss. He characters are never stereotypes and are complex individuals. I listened to parts of this on audiobook and it moves lyrically - she has spent extended time in Rwanda living with Rwandans and her love of them and the country shows in her writing. The audiobook gave me a sense of the language - its metaphors and rhythms, while her details gave me an sense of a culture I didn't know, and made me cheer for characters I knew in my heart were doomed. This book is likely to stick with me for a long time - both negatively and positively. Benaron didn't write an unbelievable against the odds ending, and I am thankful for that, having read many articles and accounts of the Genocide, but it also wasn't a bleak ending. A powerful story that should be read by those who like their fiction with a social consciousness.