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World Without Genocide book clubs: Tackling tough questions

On a recent Tuesday evening, members of a World Without Genocide book club gathered in a Guthrie Theater classroom to discuss Robert Skloot’s one-act play, “If the Whole Body Dies.”

World Without Genocide — a local nonprofit dedicated to global advocacy for human rights and genocide education, awareness and prevention — launched book clubs in January.

Subject-driven book clubs are on the rise, with themes ranging from yoga to Christian marriage to organic farming to lesbianism. Book clubs with themes as weighty and painful as genocide are unusual.

Members of this book club have found reading genocide literature and participating in community dialogue about human rights to be valuable learning experiences.

With five groups in the Twin Cities and one in St. Cloud, the program seems to be going strong.

'If the Whole Body Dies'
Led by Ellen Kennedy, founder and executive director of World Without Genocide, book club members reviewed and reacted to April’s reading.

Skloot’s play details an imagined meeting between three key figures in genocide prevention during the second half of the 20th century: Raphael Lemkin, Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire and Anne Frank.

Lemkin, a Polish Jew who lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust, coined the word “genocide” in 1943 and wrote the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

Proxmire, another indefatigable activist, gave 3,211 speeches on the Senate floor — a speech a day for 19 years — until the Senate ratified the Treaty Against Genocide in 1986, almost 40 years after its passage in the United Nations.

Working its way through a dense list of discussion questions, book club members address the significance of the word “genocide.”

Theorizing about reluctance
Referencing well-documented debates over the use of the term “genocide” to describe atrocities Rwanda and Darfur, members theorized why political leaders and institutions resist the descriptor in favor of “land conflicts,” “ethnic cleansing” and “insurgency and counterinsurgency.”

Several members suggested that officials shy away from labeling campaigns of terror as “genocide” because the designation necessitates responsibility to stop the killing and punish the perpetrators — a responsibility that may diverge from immediate self-interests.

Attendee Heather Schommer questioned this logic. “I think people assumed the classification of the conflict in Darfur as genocide would spur international efforts to intervene in Sudan, but I don’t think it did. Congress classified the ethnic violence in Darfur ‘genocide’ in 2004, but there was no political will, no commitment behind it; the genocide continues.”

Members surmised that perhaps political controversy over the label ‘genocide’ overshadowed the more vital concern: mobilizing an effective response.

By the very of the nature of the book club, conversation among members tends to veer toward larger ideological issues and the relevance of the reading to current events rather than focus on authorial intent, technique, or style.

Kennedy asked the group what Lemkin and Proxmire might think about the current state of world affairs, about the United Nations' action (or rather, inaction) in Darfur, about the impact of their work on the course of history.

Dismayed, outraged, and horrified, concluded members.

It seemed clear to the group that Lemkin’s battle to abolish genocide is far from over.

Looking backward, moving forward
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to read about and discuss humanity’s most heinous, ghastly crimes.

“The subjects we read about are interesting and horrifying at the same time,” said member Maggie Catambay, “but the devastation of genocide needs to be examined, the trauma needs to be dealt with.”

Readers also gain inspiration from the material, which serves as a warning against moral complacency and a call to meaningful action.

Members are motivated by Skloot’s play, by Lemkin and Proxmire’s commitment and perseverance. The stories spur readers to continue Lemkin’s unfinished mission to end genocide, to forge ahead in the struggle for human rights.

After the meeting, I talked briefly with Kennedy, who was still wearing a corsage from an awards ceremony earlier in the evening, where World Without Genocide received the University of Minnesota’s 2010 Outstanding Community Service Award.

 “I discuss this topic all the time,” said Kennedy, "but hearing people’s insights always amazes me. Readers’ responses are often really quite profound and moving.”

To join a World Without Genocide book club, email info[at]worldwithoutgenocide[dot]org. Include your name, ZIP code, and preferred location. The book selection for May is “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” by Philip Gourevitch, who reported from Rwanda for the New Yorker.

Sarah T. Williams, regular writer of Book Club Diary, is taking some time off to deal with family matters. We look forward to her return and thank BCC blogger Audra Otto for keeping the Diary going.

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