Discussion Questions for "Strength in What Remains"
1. We are introduced to Deogratias as he and Tracy Kidder tour Burundi in 2006. We are only gradually told the story of Deo’s boyhood and his harrowing flight from the genocide that ravaged Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990’s. How does the book’s narrative order shape the reader’s experience? Would you have preferred a straight chronological telling?
2. As a grade school child, Deo was unaware of his ethnic identity as a Tutsi. How did this early ignorance help or hinder him in facing challenges later in life? (p. 36-37)
3. During his early months living in New York, Deo came to consider this place as “A different planet.” Why did he feel this way? (p. 32) Discuss Deogratias’ experiences and impressions as a newcomer to America.
4. Talk about Deo’s experience of homelessness in New York City. What new insights did you, the reader, gain?
5. Deo’s illiterate mother told him “If my child went [to school], I am educated, because I have an educated child.” What did education mean to Deo’s family and to Burundian society? (p. 83)
6. What was the status of women in the Burundi of Deo’s childhood, and did this contribute to the violence and unrest in the country? (p. 127)
7. An unshakeable memory for Deo was his encounter in the wilderness with a living infant clinging to its dead mother. He passed the child by without assisting. How did this incident affect Deo and what does it say about our responsibility to other people? (p. 150)
8. Deo lost many of his Burundian family and friends to the war. What characteristics in Deo and his benefactors enabled them to create new family-like relationships in the United States? Tracy Kidder allows us to see both Deo’s assessment of his benefactors and their reaction to Deo. How does this enrich the story? How does Deo change the people who help him?
9. Deo complains that his friend Sharon “was inflicting the Talking Head on him. And she was trying to borrow salt all over town.” Discuss. What constraints do we, as Midwesterners, place upon our behavior?
10. In the author’s introduction to his book, he introduces us to the Burundian concept of gusimbura. Reflect on the concept of gusimbura: not speaking the names of the dead to avoid painful memories. Deo tells Kidder that while in America people try to remember, in Burundi, they try to forget. Is it dangerous for the Burundians to remember too much? Do you think Deo is accurate in his depiction of Americans as willing to remember both the bad and the good times? Talk about the ways guismbura can both help and inhibit healing.
11. It was a long and challenging process for Deo to obtain his green card even though he had been a medical intern at the time of his escape from Burundi. How did his life change after he acquired this card?
12. Deo’s life was changed by his relationship with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. What was Farmer’s concept of “prevention” to cure the world’s ills? (p.154)
13. Deo attempts to create a “neutral ground” or place of reconciliation at his clinic in Kigatu. Why did he choose that site and do you believe that peace will last in that small corner of a troubled land?
14. Kidder ends Strength in What Remains with Deo telling a Kayanza villager “Let’s work on the clinic. Let’s put this tragedy behind us, because remembering is not going to benefit anyone.” Do you think this is wise advice? Why or why not? Do you think this is a fitting ending to this powerful book? Why or why not?
15. Tracy Kidder’s work takes its title from a Wordsworth poem reprinted in the book’s opening pages. Read the excerpt provided. Talk about its significance in regard to Deo’s story. Discuss whether or not Wordsworth’s words reflect your own life experience.
16. Although Strength in What Remains is a work of non-fiction, the All Iowa Reads Committee felt that it “reads like a novel.” Do you agree? How did Kidder accomplish this?