At this year's Southern Festival of Books, I had the privilege of interviewing Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift, a lyrical novel about a young Tutsi man who wants to run in the Olympics. Benaron's book bravely confronts the reality of the Rwandan genocide, giving readers an intimate view of a painful part of history. Running the Rift won the Bellwether Prize, the award founded by Barbara Kingsolver to promote "socially responsible literature."

The novel is now available in paperback and would be an excellent pick for reading groups, in part because it makes us ask: Can art promote positive social change? In a guest blog post, Benaron answers that question and recommends two novels that are both socially responsible and engrossing reads. I love this reminder of why reading fiction is so important.

Writing witness as fiction
By Naomi Benaron

A topic that often comes up for me during the Q&A following a reading is, “Why Fiction?” For me, the choice was obvious because I am by nature a spinner of tales, but the answer goes deeper than that. In fiction, the reader fully enters the world of the characters, and so the witness becomes both personal and visceral. In a sense, the reader becomes the characters because she experiences their lives with them, down to the smallest details of sight, sound and smell. I recently read two novels of witness—both about the Cambodian genocide—that pulled me exquisitely into the lives of the characters to the point that I could barely breathe as I read, travelling down into the depths of both the terrors and the moments of joy.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYON

Vaddey Ratner is a survivor of Pol Pot’s reign of terror, and yet she chose to write about her experiences not as memoir but as a work of fiction. With lyrical prose that often seems mythical in depth and breadth, Ratner spins the life of seven-year-old Raami as she and her family are driven from their home and life of privilege in Phnom Penh. As part of the forced relocation of the Cambodian population into the countryside, Raami and her family endure starvation, brutalization and slave labor. They watch helplessly as members of their family die from starvation and disease or are led away by the Khmer Rouge never to return again. And yet, in the middle of so much terror and despair, Ratner never fails to give the reader moments of hope and beauty. It was the most powerful resistance she could offer against the unspeakable evils of the regime.

NEVER FALL DOWN

This novel, written by Patricia McCormick, is based on the true-life story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a musician and human rights activist who survived the Cambodian Genocide. In a courageous and risky move, McCormick uses first person, the voice honoring Chorn-Pond’s “distinct and beautiful voice,” as she puts it. The novel is fast-paced and engaging, entirely believable. I read it in a day because I could not put it down. Neither McCormick nor Chorn-Pond, who shared his story with her, shy away from the brutal truth of what it took to survive the years of terror and what happens to the body, mind and spirit under such unimaginable conditions. She shares, in her words, “the heroic and the horrific.” Here, too, McCormick and Chorn-Pond look beyond the horror to the strength of the human spirit to rebuild, and beyond that, to a world in which genocide will not happen again.

Naomi, thank you for your words and recommendations. Readers: What books have allowed you to bear witness to history?

For more information on Naomi Benaron, visit her website. (And if you're local, come see her at Parnassus Books in Nashville on November 29!) For more information on the novels mentioned in this post, read reviews in BookPage of Running the Rift, In the Shadow of the Banyan and Never Fall Down.

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