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Book Review: Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron


Naomi Benaron, winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, wrote a book that needed to be written. The war in Rwanda in the 1990s and the resulting genocide was well documented in nightly news coverage, in shows like 60 Minutes, and in an award nominated movie, Hotel Rwanda. The cynical side of me, however, can’t help from feeling that much of what was shown on the news and even presented in the film, starring Don Cheadle, may have been spun in such a way to make us - viewers living in the western world - feel, perhaps, that the efforts of aid groups, the United Nations and various governments was good enough. I’m not an activist nor am I a political scientist and I haven’t spoken to any kind of expert on Rwanda before writing this review but Ms. Benaron’s novel offers a feeling that it was written by someone in the know; like she had seen the atrocities firsthand or lived with Rwandans who had survived them. Running The Rift is as much an historical account of the events of that time and place as it is literary entertainment. I’ll admit that I didn’t follow the news shows’ report for report and I didn’t read every newspaper article that dealt with Rwanda so, in many ways, Running The Rift became my introduction to Rwandan political and civil war history.

Told through the eyes of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi tribesman who is a standout 800-meter runner and Olympics hopeful, Ms. Benaron’s novel deals with issues of identity, honoring one’s family and dealing and coming through tragedy. It is the issues of identity and family that first brought me to Running The Rift. My own novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, deals with both issues so, naturally, I was drawn to the comparisons between the two books. I’m also a track coach and runner so reading about Jean Patrick’s training and competing was sure to be something I’d be into. These cosmetic attractions, however, soon became less important as I read on. I learnt about the RPF, the Interahamwe, the influence of the RTLM radio, the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the political structure of Rwanda at the time.

In spite of the tragedies that surround the story of Running The Rift, Ms. Benaron does a superb job of keeping her story that of a young man making his mark in the world, negotiating love and trying to fulfill a dream of achieving something that would honour him, his family and his country. It is a coming of age story that forces its protagonist to grow up very quickly and Ms. Benaron does this deftly with prose that isn’t heavy-handed, settings that truly pull the reader in and, like I said before, the sensitivity of someone who really knows her story and the place she has put it in and the people she has chosen to tell it. As I progressed from one chapter to the next, I felt like I was being taken on a tour of Rwanda. As a runner, I could see myself running alongside Jean Patrick Nkuba. (Well, probably behind him because I’m nowhere near as fast he is.) In fact, outside of the dangers of the war, I could see myself hanging out and enjoying the Rwandan cuisine with Jean Patrick, his coach, his girlfriend and his teammates.

Running The Rift, a story that is moving, illuminating and told honestly, is a book that will appeal not only to individuals who have a connection to Rwanda or an interest in Africa. In one part of the book, Jean Patrick’s track coach hands him an identity card that states he is Hutu and not Tutsi. Being Hutu would give Jean Patrick privileges and safety. However, even though the card says he’s Hutu, everyone knows he’s really Tutsi. This part of the book reminded me of the Koreans during the Japanese occupation; Koreans who had to give up all aspects of their native Korean culture, including their names, in order to survive in their Japanese controlled homeland. I was also reminded of the Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, born in the United States and who had no affiliation with Japan, that were relocated to internment camps - Americans locking up Americans - after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

Americans locking up Americans and Rwandans killing off Rwandans simply because they’re different kinds of Americans and Rwandans - sadly, this really happened. Let’s not forget, too, of the Bosnian Genocide and the ethnic cleansing campaign of the also (ironically) early 1990s conducted by the Bosnia Serb Army.

Whatever you’re into and whatever you read or watch, as Ms. Benaron’s Jean Patrick Nkuba shows us in Running The Rift, it is the strength of our humanity and recognizing that we are more similar than we are different that keeps us waking up every morning and it’s the power of the human spirit that keeps us going when things are at their bleakest. Read Running The Rift for education and entertainment. It is a fantastic book and a quick read. As you read it, though, take Ms. Benaron’s book as a treatise on and reminder of the dangers and the wrongfulness of bigotry, genocide, racism, sexism and every other inhumane thing that we, as human beings, do to one another everyday. 


 
 

Okay, so there isn’t one; at least not that I know of, anyway. Crossovers, though, are the subject of this blog post and wouldn't a Katniss and June meeting be really interesting?

Generally, I’m not a big fan of mixing things up in books and movies but when two comic book heroes or two TV shows join forces for an episode or two, or even a series of episodes, it can sometimes lead to entertaining and intelligent reading or viewing.

I remember in the late 1970s/early 1980s there were a Superman/Spiderman crossover and a couple of Marvel/DC crossovers. In the 1990s, shows of similar genre had characters jump from one show to another - and I’m not talking about characters who were on one show, are now the star of their own show and returns for a guest stint on the original show. I think there were a couple of Law & Order crossovers with The Practice. Personally, I wanted to see a Chicago Hope/ER crossover.

Literature, I don’t think, really lends itself to such things because the protagonist in a book is so deeply involved with everything that’s happening on and between the pages of his or her own book that to mix in another protagonist with his or her own depth can be a major challenge to reconcile. It’s harder still, I think if one character is written through a different POV (third vs. first person, for example) and voice (conversational vs. formal, for example) than the other.

However, as I read The Hunger Games, with its strong teenage female lead, and, having recently read and loved Legend, that also has a strong teenage female lead, I was hit with the following thought: what would happen if Katniss and June met? I don’t have an answer. I haven’t read Catching Fire or Mockingjay and I’ve done a good job of steering clear of spoilers and I don’t know what Marie Lu has in mind for June (or Day, the male protagonist in Legend) in books two and three of her dystopian series. Maybe Katniss and June both die and there’s no way for them to meet. Or, a la the Star Wars books, they could meet in a book that regales events that happen somewhere in between their own stories.

Thinking about this, however, made me wonder of other possible crossover pairings. Perhaps, Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s frustrated east coast teen, could meet up with one of Matt de la Peña’s many soul-searching Mexican-Americans on the west coast. Or, Don Lee’s cast of characters from Wrack & Ruin could run into Miles and Jack from Sideways. Or, Once A Runner protagonist, Quenton Cassidy, could (literally) run into Jean Patrick Nkuba from Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift. Now that I’m on a roll, perhaps, it can be done. The ideas and shenanigans that these characters could get into and the morality tales they could present are spinning tornado-like in my head.

But, these were what I came up with. Do you have any of your own? Do share and, even though it’s early, Happy Easter, Passover and whatever else is being celebrated this time of year.
 
 
Social media. That’s what sites like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are called. However, while professionals do market their talents and products on Facebook and people do make actual friends via Twitter and LinkedIn, I dare say that Facebook is probably the one that is the most social. Social, to me, connotes a sense of personal and not professional. However, and this is going to sound contradictory, it is often through those personal connections that professional ones develop.

A week ago, I was in my local bookstore on a Saturday with my wife and son and I was hoping to catch the person who I think is the owner. I’d e-mailed him earlier in the week, announcing the upcoming release of my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, and I asked if carrying my book is something he’d been interested in doing. I explained that I reside locally, that I teach in the middle school down the block and that my book is set in New Jersey. He replied with interest in carrying my book and that, perhaps, we could arrange a reading.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there but, being a lover of books, we browsed and checked out what was new. My son sat in the children’s section and flicked through some picture books. My wife checked out the new YA books, which she’s completely into after reading the Twilight series twice and devouring The Hunger Games series in a matter of days. I checked out the fiction sections.

As I perused the shelves and displays, I noticed a poster advertising that Naomi Benaron was going to do a reading from her new book, Running The Rift, this coming Saturday. I picked up the book, about a Rwandan boy who takes up running during the height of ethnic tensions in the 1990s and how his running helps him come to terms with his own identity. I’m also a runner so I was instantly interested in Naomi’s book. My own novel deals with identity issues so I was drawn to Running The Rift for that reason as well. In 1996, I wrote a science fiction screenplay, that got some agent interest, called Aliens Among Us, Part I: Discovery. The central theme of the script is racial tolerance and ethnic cleansing. With that as its theme and having written it in the 1990s, Naomi’s novel really seemed to be calling to me on a very personal level.

My wife bought me the book and I began it immediately. It’s a wonderfully written book with exciting running segments, a main character I wish I could meet in real life and revelations of what was going on in Rwanda during the 1990s. I’m still speeding through it but I was extra motivated to finish it in time for the reading. I also found Naomi on Facebook and sent her a message letting her know that I’m enjoying her book and that I was looking forward to the reading. She replied and, unfortunately, she’s had to cancel the reading due to illness. There is another reading on Monday, February 13, in Brooklyn but I don’t think I’ll be able to get there.

We exchanged a couple of messages. She told me to introduce myself if I am able to attend and she also wished me luck with my novel and my running. About my novel, she also asked for its title so that she could pick it up. That just made my day and, in a way, my entire writing career so far. I've had Twitter chats, albeit brief ones, with Lisa See and Marie Lu and Cindy Pon, all established writers. I also know Matt de la Peña, who I regard as a writing mentor, and he endorsed my novel. As a writer, part of me feels that I should take her request in stride but Naomi’s an award winning author and her book’s gotten all sorts of praise so, for someone of that stature to ask for the title of my book so she can go pick it up, I can’t help from feeling excited. It’s like Kobe Bryant asking someone who plays pick-up basketball on the weekends to play with him and share a thing or two about the game. It’s the equivalent of Chuck Norris asking me to go to his school and teach his martial arts classes.

I guess, what I’m saying is that there is definite value in connecting through social media. Most of you reading this already know that, owning your own Twitter and Facebook accounts in addition to websites dedicated to your novels and such. I’ve never met Naomi Benaron and I can’t profess to being able to call her a friend but we are fellow writers doing something we both love while trying to earn a living - or part of a living - doing it. I feel that through the simple and personal message I sent her, as a new fan of her work, I’ve also managed to make a professional connection of some kind.

So, for those of you who are unsure about getting into Twitter and Facebook and whatever else is out there, don’t be. Yes, idiots and hackers can send you all sorts of stupid - usually pornography - links and they can get into your accounts. Just be vigilant about changing your password and login settings and don’t put anything up that you don’t want anyone to see. Really, if a hacker wants to get in they will. They’re merely the dark side to the light of those people who write the security programs to block them. Most people I know - myself included - have been victims or know someone who’s been a victim but, in the end, things are restored and fixed.

The benefits, though, are worth it. I’ve made a professional contact with a well-regarded author through Facebook. On Twitter, I’m now a part of a large community of writers, indie and traditionally published, who support each other’s endeavours. With my novel about to come out, that’s particularly important. Beyond that, I get some love and validation and support for what I’m trying to do and for those times when it becomes overwhelming to do it. You’ve got nothing to lose. Give it a shot and if you don’t like it, just like at the party whose lights have flicked ‘last call’ and the kegs are drying up, you can always leave.

For me, I’m sticking around for a while. And, who knows? Some of my online friends and connections may even become real ones.