My book club met on Sunday to discuss We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families* by Philip Gourevitch and I wanted to share some aspects of the discussion with you guys. By the way, if you do not know about my book club yet - everyone is invited to it and it's free to join! I host the book club on my Discord server and we discuss one book per month. People can always vote on the new book in my Instagram story and we meet to discuss it after reading it for ourselves on the first Sunday of the new month. The discussion questions are posted a little bit before the meeting, so that you can already read over them if you like.
This time, we discussed We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which deals with the Rwandan genocide. Gourevitch, a reporter, travelled to Rwanda after the genocide and he described the country after the genocide, interviews people there and abroad who were affected by the genocide or even perpetrators of it and overall, it is a quite personal account of such a mass atrocity since he tells the stories of a few individuals, which gives you more insight into the experience of the victims than you get from reading more factual history books that tend to focus more on numbers and statistics.
The discussion brought out some interesting aspects and I think these are good points to think about while reading the book. One thing that we discussed at length was whether it is even ethical to profit financially from publishing such a book. Nowhere in the book (nor anywhere online) does it say that the author donated (some of the) profits to charities helping the survivors, but his entire book is based on their stories. Is it right not to give back financially in such a situation? Or is the publishing of the book a way of giving back because it raises awareness? Gourevitch himself describes what a terrible job the media was doing when it came to covering the Rwandan genocide, because they did not differentiate between fleeing victims and perpetrators. So maybe his book was already giving back by helping to improve the press coverage about the situation. But is that really enough? On the other hand, if you could not earn money from doing such reporting, journalists (like Gourevitch) would be unable to do their work and then we would be quite uninformed. So some compensation may be necessary, but should there be an obligation to give some of your profits to charities helping the victims of the crimes you are reporting on, especially when telling stories through interviews containing quite personal stories like in the book? I am honestly not sure about what would be the right solution, but this discussion was a really interesting one and it definitely got me thinking.
This paragraph contains very mild spoiler, so skip ahead if you do not want to know it. Gourevitch describes the denial that some of the perpetrators seem to live in. He went to ask them about their crimes and one of them tried to tell him a story of how he wasn't a perpetrator at all - instead, he claimed to have been helping the victims. We discussed the potential reasons for such denial - perhaps not being able to accept that you did something so terrible, fear of public condemnation or also legal consequences and a few other aspects. Nonetheless, it is also odd to say the least to publicly deny your actions when being presented with evidence of them through a reporter. As a reader, I found the scene where the pastor, to whom the letter giving the book its title was addressed, spun his denial tale really puzzling. Given that he had accepted Gourevitch's interview invitation, I had expected him to be apologetic and regretful. Well, that was a very wrong assumption.
Another interesting aspect we discussed was the importance of translation in journalistic work. It is unclear how Gourevitch translated his interviews, if he translated them at all. The blogger Simon from Astrofella writes the following about the interviews: "The content of these stories [the interviews] is, of course, gripping and horrifying. But the style is uniformly flat. They all sound the same, they all speak very simply. […] maybe it’s because all the testimony has been first translated, and then put through Gourevitch’s own style machine. All the interviews are made up of suspiciously complete sentences. There are no hesitations or repetitions or stumblings. All Gourevitch’s interviewees speak in perfect and grammatically correct sentences.” In all honesty, I did not make this observation while reading the book. But this might be because English is not my first language and so it is more difficult for me to detect unnatural speech patterns. But regardless of whether Gourevitch had to translate the interviews (or had them translated via a translator) or was able to conduct them in English, the discussion surrounding translation in journalistic work is a more general one that doesn't just apply to his book. Translating often means interpreting - so should it have to be disclosed that a translator was used? Perhaps also their cultural connection to the language as it may affect their interpretation (since , for example, words tend to be used differently in different regions)? Someone also suggested putting the transcripts in the original language on the internet, so that people can check for themselves. This is a pretty cool suggestion in my opinion for more modern books - it's obviously not a realistic expectation for Gourevitch's book, which is over two decades old by now, but it is something that could be done for newer books.
This discussion also led to the question how much editing is permissible when it comes to interviews. The author does not just edit through the translation, but also through cutting a lot of the interview. This is a pretty normal process - a lot of the interviews we read in magazines were probably longer than what we read, but were then cut down to the key points. Most of the "hmm"s and "ugh"s are cut out as well. But when does taking these thought pauses take away from understanding how something was said? Which pauses should be recorded by the author when retelling the interview - e.g. when an interviewee pauses to cry while telling a story? I think it is a difficult line to draw, but I personally did not feel like the interviews in his book seemed "too edited" (but, like I said, I am not a native speaker, so that might affect my thoughts on this).
If you have read the book or have thoughts on these topics more generally, I would love to hear them! You can send a message to me here.
I hope to see you at the next meeting of my book club!
Lots of Love,
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