In his own words: Philip Gourevitch on tough interviews, divisionist media and covering stories after Rwanda

Philip Gourevitch delivers a guest lecture to an international studies seminar on October 24, 2017 during a visit to the UW-Madison campus. (Photo by Kyra Fox / UW-Madison)

This interview with Philip Gourevitch, staff writer at The New Yorker, was conducted and condensed by Kyra Fox.

When Philip Gourevitch first traveled to Rwanda in 1995, he was not sure what to expect.

The young writer had been freelancing in the United States when news reports on the genocide caught his attention. In light of the international community’s promises of “never again,” the genocide did not add up.

Fast forward more than two decades, and Gourevitch has become one of the most well-known popular writers on Rwanda. His first book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, was published in 1998 after nine visits to Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide. The New York Times called the book “a burden on world conscience” that “closes the habitual avenue of escape – anonymity – for collective atrocities.”

Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, Gourevitch has covered a range of other topics, including the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo, the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, and the music of James Brown. More recently, he has written on the Trump administration’s response to Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria.

Gourevitch visited the UW-Madison campus last week as a guest of the Institute for Regional and International Studies. He gave a public lecture entitled “Trump’s America in the World,” in which he used his experience as a foreign correspondent to give “contours and context” to the discussion of current U.S. foreign policy. He also guest lectured for Thierry Cruvellier‘s International Studies 601 course, International Criminal Justice: Models and Practice.

The African Studies Program chatted with Gourevitch on how his time in Rwanda shapes the way he views today’s political landscape:

African Studies Program: What originally brought you to Rwanda?

Philip Gourevitch: In the early ‘90s, there were a couple of big visible events – the Holocaust Museum being opened in Washington, D.C. and the movie Schindler’s list [coming] out. People talked about how [these things] were going to “immunize” Americans against recurrence – that this would be a kind of great “never again” moment.

And then Rwanda happened in the spring of ’94. The scale of it, the sense that it couldn’t possibly be over, that just dealing with it had to be enormous – it bewildered me. I thought, I don’t understand this. I would like to try to go and understand what happened… amidst all of our promises of “never again-ism.”

In many ways, I think I first went to Rwanda to examine many of the claims that we [Westerners] made about the international order. And I very quickly shifted my interest to the Rwandans themselves.

ASP: As a journalist, how do you grapple with the tension between asking people to retell these difficult stories and the necessity that they be retold?

PG: I never ask somebody to tell something they don’t want to tell me. I often asked people [in Rwanda], just tell me your story from birth. I said, I’m not just here for your horror story. I want to know where your life and this history intersect and how.

And many people wanted to tell these stories because they wanted to be heard, they wanted a record. The best interviews of that kind – when you go to transcribe them, your bits are smaller and smaller as you go along, and they’re just talking. I felt that people were glad to have somebody to talk to.

ASP: What does journalism offer on these sorts of subjects that academic writing can’t necessarily capture?

PG: A lot. It’s much more immediate. It doesn’t necessarily set out to demonstrate or examine a point that may have been brought in from the academic field of study to that subject. The idea is to create a record, as best you can, of what you observe and what you’re told.

You can go over there thinking you’re interested in one thing, and realizing right away that you had the wrong idea. I often don’t know the right questions until I’ve been interviewing someone for days. And it could be the slightest wording difference that gives me different results. So I want to keep changing my questions. I want to be guided by [my respondents].

ASP: Since you published your first book, you’ve covered a variety topics – Abu Ghraib, a New York double homicide, James Brown. What was it like to move onto other subjects after covering Rwanda?

PG: Excellent. I’m not an Africanist. I did not set out to become an Africa correspondent. I went to Rwanda because I was interested in what had happened there. Before I did that, I had been writing about American politics and American culture. It was very nice to write about James Brown afterwards.

A challenge [in Rwanda] was writing where everything’s in translation. When you start writing about [something like] a New York double homicide, the richness of the actual language and writing without translating, with just the voices – it becomes part of what as a writer you get to work with. There’s a real difficulty when you’re always working with foreign languages. There are ways to make it rich, but it’s a challenge.

ASP: How does the time you spent in Rwanda frame the way you look at our current political landscape?

PG: I’ve sometimes been asked, having covered Rwanda and the way that Radio Rwanda worked and the way that the speech and the divisionism worked in the run-up to [the genocide], do you see any parallels to the more extremist aspects of Trumpism and Bannonism and Breitbartism and all of this?

Yeah, but.

And the “but” is a big one. The really defining thing about Rwandan divisionist media was its monolithic nature. [In the United States], if people are hearing this crap on the radio, they can turn the channel. In Rwanda, there was no other channel. That’s a big difference.

That said, there is some alarmingly divisionist rhetoric out there now that you are more sensitive to if you’ve seen it go all the way. On the one hand, you sort of defend free speech in its extremes, and on the other hand, you really see the risks and how fragile things are and how much leadership matters.

I’ve become more open to [the rhetoric of forgiveness]. The world constantly demands of one accepting the unacceptable. Bad things happen. Extreme people arise. Terrible forces are loosed. Now, how do you get past that?

Gourevitch’s next book, “You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know: Living with It in Rwanda” will be released prior to the 25th commemoration of the 1994 genocide.


This interview has been edited and condensed.