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Book Club Kits: Strength in What Remains

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Book Summary

Deo was a young medical student in 1994 when ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi elevated to the level of massacres. He spent six months on the run from the Hutu militia, saved by a Hutu woman who claimed he was her son, and later he made his way to New York, saved by a former nun who helped him find housing and other assistance. In the first half of the book, Kidder recalls Deo's struggles as an illegal immigrant, working for poverty wages and sleeping in abandoned buildings, crack houses, and Central Park, all the while recovering from severe trauma and longing for a university setting. Through benefactors, Deo goes on to graduate from Columbia University and to attend medical school at Dartmouth. Eventually working with a nonprofit organization that provides health care in impoverished nations, Deo returned to Burundi to build a clinic. The second half of the book is Kidder's recollections of accompanying Deo on his return trip home, a frightening journey of remembrances. Kidder uses Deo's experiences to deliver a very personal and harrowing account of the ethnic genocide in East Central Africa.—by Vanessa Bush in Booklist.

Read an excerpt.

Discussion Questions

1. The first section of the book entitled "Flights" describes two kinds of flights: those in Africa, which are obvious flights for physical survival; and those in New York City. What kind of "flights" does the New York part of the book refer to?

2. How does Deo derive his name? What is the irony in his name...or is there irony? What are the meanings of some of the other names of those he meets along his journey?

3. How does Deo think about his experiences in New York City as compared to his growing-up years in Burundi? Does he change his views over time?

4. The manager of the food store where Deo works humiliates him. Why does this treatment sting more than the other humiliations he has received before?

5. What does Deo feel about Sharon McKenna and her personal quest for his redemption? How do you feel about her McKenna's? Why is McKenna so insistent?

6. Talk about the meaning of this observation from Chapter 7 regarding history: "...history, even more than memory, distorts the present of the past by focusing on big events and making one forget that most people living in the present are otherwise preoccupied, that for them omens often don't exist."

7. Also consider this passage in Chapter 8 from the W.E.B. Dubois poem, "The Souls of Black Folk": "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." How does this reflect Deo's life in New York?

8. Kidder conducts numerous interviews about Deo— Drs. Joia Mukherjee and Paul Farmer, Sharon McKenna, Charlie and Nancy Wolff. What are their various interpretations of Deo? Do you agree or not with any (or all?) of their assessments?

9. How does Deo's involvement in Partners in Health open up a new world for him?

10. What is Deo's reason for refusing psychiatric treatment? Do you agree with his decision and reasoning? Could he benefit from therapy?

11. Upon hearing Deo's account of his life, Kidder admits that he himself would not have survived. What qualities does Deo possess that enabled his survival? How do you think you might have fared under the same circumstances?

12. How and why does Kidder's relationship with Deo change during his trip with Deo to Burundi?

13. Describe Deo's reaction upon visiting the Muhato hospital. What is the significance of the left open door? How does the hospital visit compare to Deo's visit to the Murambi memorial?

14. Talk about Deo's belief that the primary cause of genocide is misery. Do you agree with his observation?

15. Deo laughs while recounting the suicide of a Belgian colonial. He also laughed earlier, in Chapter 9, while hiding among the corpses. Talk about this strange reaction and what it suggests about Deo's state of mind, personality or the culture in which he grew up.

16. In the epilogue, Deo talks about the Burundian volunteers who are building a road to his clinic. Talk about why they are so committed to bringing Deo's dream to fruition.

16. In what way, if at all, has this book changed your understanding of genocide? What other books or films have you seen that have focused on this problem, not just in Africa but in other parts of the world? Do you see genocide as a localized problem or a global issue?

17. If you've read Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, discuss the two men at the heart of both books: in what ways are they similar? Did Mountains affect your reading of this work?

Author Interview

While working on Strength in What Remains, the excruciating and ultimately uplifting story of a survivor of the genocidal conflict in Burundi and Rwanda, Tracy Kidder violated one of his cardinal writing principles. He wrote on airplanes.

“I really can’t have someone looking over my shoulder when I’m working,” Kidder says during a call to the summer home in Maine that he and his wife, a painter, bought in the 1980s, around the time when The Soul of a New Machine earned him a Pulitzer Prize. “Privacy is a big thing for me.”

Usually Kidder has found privacy in what he describes as his uninsulated, “beautifully built little cottage down by a salt water cove” on the couple’s property in Maine. Or in the quiet office “with plenty of room for pacing” in their house—an old, converted creamery not far from Northampton, Massachusetts. But over the last five or six years, while he was researching and writing Strength in What Remains, Kidder traveled frequently to college campuses all over the country, where his marvelous account of Dr. Paul Farmer’s effort to heal the world, Mountains Beyond Mountains, has inspired enough interest that, as Kidder puts it, “hundreds of schools have inflicted it on their incoming students.”

So out of necessity, Kidder learned to write “a little bit” on airplanes.

“Writing is for me, and I suspect for many other people, a way of thinking,” Kidder says. “It is the only way that I can begin to make sense of things for myself. So I don’t write in a very efficient way. I have to concentrate. The whole idea is to lose myself somewhat, to lose self-consciousness. And when I do that, I feel very vulnerable.”

If Kidder feels vulnerable writing under normal circumstances, imagine how he must have felt writing Strength in What Remains, a stunning account of the harrowing journey of a young medical student, Deogratias (Deo), when the horrific civil war between Hutus and Tutsis broke out in Burundi in 1993. It is an amazing journey. Deo witnessed some of the most unimaginable acts of cruelty human beings can commit against one another. He barely escaped death himself. Through luck and the kindness of a schoolmate, he arrived in New York City with $200 in his pocket, not knowing a soul and not speaking English.

Haunted by his nightmarish memories, Deo slept in Central Park and worked for about a dollar an hour delivering groceries while trying to learn English by reading dictionaries in libraries and bookstores. Helped, eventually, by a number of unlikely New Yorkers, Deo entered Columbia University, studied philosophy, went back to medical school and then began working with Dr. Paul Farmer. Eventually he found a healing path for his return to Burundi.

“My wife heard an outline ofhis story and told me about it. The memory of someone else’s memory stuck with me,” Kidder remembers when asked about the origins of Strength in What Remains. “For me the only hard thing about being a writer is deciding what to do next. My wife said, why don’t you go see Deo? I did. And once I heard the story for myself, I thought I had to tell it. Deo is an enormously charming person. Captivating. One feels that even before one knows his story, but the story only enhances that— that a guy could be so good-hearted and so strong that he could return to Burundi and open a clinic, which is really such an instrument of peace. There’s a radiance about him.”

Kidder spent hours with Deo, dredging up often painful memories, “just talking and talking and talking, and listening really carefully. I’m not a good listener in my regular life, but I’m pretty good when I’m working,” Kidder says. Deo was at first a reluctant subject, Kidder says. “I don’t blame him. I would never let anybody do what I do to other people. And Deo is, of course, completely publicity shy. There were times when I thought I should stop, and I felt like a real creep for doing this to someone. But once he decided to do it, he did it.” In the dramatic finale to the book, Kidder accompanies Deo on a return visit to Burundi and Rwanda.

Kidder lets Deo’s story unfold in an unusually affecting double narrative—first as a sort of page-turner, which Kidder says is meant to present “as accurate an account of Deo’s memories as I can,” and then from a bit of a distance, “to show Deo in the throes of memory.” A postscript adds historical context for the chaos and violence unleashed between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi and Rwanda. But nothing can answer the question Deo seeks to answer when he enrolls in a philosophy course at Columbia: what kind of human being can take up a machete and slaughter his neighbor?

Ultimately, Kidder says, Strength in What Remains is about memory—and forgetting, and taking action. Visiting a genocide memorial site with Deo in Rwanda, he writes that of course we need such memorials. But “too much remembering can be suffocating.”

Afflicted by “ungovernable, tormenting memories, Deo first sought solace by studying philosophy at Columbia. But it didn’t work.”

“I think Deo’s solution is not to dwell on memories and not to extinguish them either,” Kidder says, “but, rather, to act. The best solution is for him to go back and try to bring public health and medicine to one village. The phrase ‘never again’ has clearly become an empty platitude, because genocide keeps happening everywhere. The real answer is remembering, being guided by those memories, and acting.”

Growing more reflective Kidder says, “Over the last nine years I’ve spent the better part of my time with Paul Farmer and Deogratias. They lead you beyond conventional wisdom. A lot of conventional wisdom represents an attempt to ignore the fact that most of humanity is impoverished and in deep misery. These guys and their colleagues are confronting that misery. Through that, I believe another way of looking at the world is bound to arise.”

Kidder’s Strength in What Remains offers a glimpse of that new world arising.