My son, Marc, and I are in the courtyard of his home in Butare, Rwanda, squatting over the iziko, the small charcoal stove over which most cooking in this country is done. Pascaline, my new daughter-in-law, has tasked us with making an omelet. Marc is not my flesh and blood son. He is a young Tutsi man, a survivor of the genocide that claimed his parents and left him as the sole support of his remaining family: three younger brothers and a younger sister. Over the years that I have known him, our relationship has become more and more like mother and son. Now I am here to dance, sing, and feast at his wedding. After so much suffering in his life, it is finally a time of joy and celebration.
Marc has never cooked an omelet, and, although I have cooked many in my time, I have never experienced the thigh-burning pleasure of culinary exercise over a stove like this. It is the day after the wedding. Last night, after the ceremony, after the cake and before the hours of speeches on the front lawn, we formed a long line and stockpiled the larder with wedding gifts, passing them hand to hand: heavy sacks of beans, rice, and maize flour, piles of freshly harvested vegetables, beautiful woven baskets brimming with potatoes, onions, and cabbages. Two live roosters, legs bound with rope, in a cardboard box. Now we are sautéing a few of those onions, peppers, and tomatoes in maize oil, releasing their sharp, earthy scent into the morning air. The aromas blend with the curling charcoal smoke, and I am getting very hungry. From my perch, I can see the larder, the gifts carefully arranged into a work of art.
When the vegetables are soft, Marc cracks fresh eggs into a bowl. They have yolks the color of the rising sun; they look the way eggs are supposed to look when hens run free, feasting on greenery and bugs. We pour the mixed eggs into the pan, and immediately they pop and sizzle with the high, uncontrolled heat. I am terrified the omelet will turn out tough and burned, but to my surprise, as we rotate the pan, pushing and prodding with a wooden spoon, the eggs puff up and acquire a delicate crust. Maybe it’s the altitude. Maybe it’s the magic of being here, of joy finally clearing a path to what is right and good. Sliding the finished dish onto a plate, we proceed to the front porch and present our effort to Pascaline, the judge. It, too, looks like a work of art with its slivers of bright green pepper and red tomato. Pascaline approves. It seems a shame to slice it, but we do. We dig in, complimenting omelet with fresh baked bread and Rwandan coffee that is rich, strong, and sweet.
This memory bubbled up very vividly yesterday out of nowhere, the way such memories do. I was walking my dogs in the bosque, the Tucson heat already searing at 7:00 a.m. I thought about Marc’s story and how he managed to wrest a life filled with so many moments of pleasure out of the horrors of his early childhood, and how in some way, our shared creation of this omelet stood as both metaphor and affirmation of the process. I know this metaphor risks cliché—breaking eggs to make an omelet and all that—but for me it goes beyond the easy meaning of the words. It goes to the very heart of why I write. “Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful,” writes Anne Michaels in her Holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces. Over the years, I find myself returning to this quote again and again. Whether giving voice to the unspeakable or simply describing an ordinary daily act, I want my words to stand as a work that is both necessary and beautiful. Finding beauty in the ordinary and also making some small scrap of beauty necessary in even moments of extreme horror—isn’t this what we as writers do?
I thought of this exhortation, too, while reading In the Shadow of the Banyan, a novel about Pol Pot’s reign of terror in Cambodia written by Vaddey Ratner, a child survivor of the genocide. What struck me most about the book was Ratner’s ability to tell the story unflinchingly and yet crafted in the most delicate, lyrical prose. In a recent NPR interview, she told Lynn Neary, “I wanted to tell a larger story about hope and survival, the unbreakable bonds of family. And I actually want to tell a story about the power of storytelling to transcend suffering. Because it was the stories that saved me, the stories, the poetry that my father left behind.”
On turning the last page of the novel, it was the images of hope and survival and the prosody of Ratner’s words that stayed with me. Out of the terror she lived, she created a monument of grace and conviction, and as such, her work stands as an act of resistance. I think this is another meaning that resonates in Anne Michael’s words. Under such circumstances, what could be more necessary than resistance? You will find this same resistance in the artistic creations that survived Terezín concentration camp: drawings, a secret magazine of art and writing called Vedem, the opera Brundibár performed by the child inmates, and performances of Verdi’s Requiem, now memorialized in a production called Defiant Requiem.
Ratner’s father, a storyteller at heart whom she turns into a poet in the novel, did not survive the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. The majority of the artists from Terezín perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. My son Marc’s father, whose last words to him were, “You can kill my body but not my spirit,” was the first person murdered by the Interahamwe in the church where the Tutsi of his village sought refuge. When Marc told me his father’s last words, I wanted the world to remember them, and so I put them in the mouth of a schoolteacher in my novel. And so these words, these spirits, and these creations live on. They become beautiful. They become necessary.
Naomi Benaron earned an MFA from Antioch University and an MS in earth sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She teaches for UCLA Writers’ Program and is a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. An advocate for African refugees in her community, she has worked extensively with genocide survivors. Her novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for a work addressing issues of social justice. She is also an Ironman triathlete.