Aditi Sriram teaches at the State University of New York at Purchase and lives in New York City. She is writing a biography of Pondicherry, a South Indian city that was colonized by the French.
In “Bad News,” Anjan Sundaram writes that a story’s first paragraph should “contain the essential information and grab the reader, yet be brief.” His own first sentence does just that: “I felt swallowed by the wide road, the odd car hurtling uphill, the people hissing on the sidewalk bathed in sodium-vapor orange — a tick-tock had gone off in my mind since the bomb.”
Its succinct eloquence shows more than it tells. Writing of his experience running a journalists’ training program in Kigali, Rwanda, Sundaram captures the quiet menace of his surroundings: The wide roads indicate progress but are in fact devoid of any life. The people scurry out of the perfectly sculpted streetlights’ sodium-vapor glare, afraid of attracting attention. And the bombs are immediately hushed up by the government, too quickly for anyone to notice, let alone write about in a newspaper.
Sundaram, an award-winning reporter focused on Africa, is ideally placed to refute a narrative of harmony in the years since Rwanda’s genocide. He begins his book by following the journalists in his classroom who are, in turn, following various stories in Rwanda: genocide memorials, presidential campaigns. About halfway through the book, the sequence eerily reverses; the stories are now following the journalists — and silencing them. The effect is haunting. As one journalist, named Gibson, laments, “You need to look differently in a dictatorship, you need to think about how to listen to people who live in fear.”
Gibson’s journey demonstrates the tragic arc of free speech in a country where expression is stifled. In a span of 180 pages, the talented journalist starts a magazine, irritates the government, loses his home, is betrayed by his best friend, goes into hiding and, by the final pages of the book, is a destroyed man. “The government had not needed to kill him,” Sundaram writes. “They had just made him useless, ruined his mind, with the paranoia, by turning on him those he loved and trusted most, so that he had become a victim of that double world he had showed me, in the lights.”
Sundaram is no longer the naive Yale graduate who landed in Congo nearly a decade ago to give a voice to the voiceless. His first book, “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo” (2014), was visceral, emotional reportage; “Bad News” feels measured, even mildly resigned, in comparison, the work of a journalist more inured to life under a corrupt regime. The title sets the tone, and the last line of the book, “It was the end of freedom,” is its echo.
Sundaram’s exposé is courageous and heartfelt. When he stumbles upon a village where all the grass roofs have been torn off the huts, he looks for signs of violence but finds none. It turns out that the people destroyed their own homes because of a presidential order to modernize. Many elderly Rwandans and children have since contracted malaria, but the villagers are so filled with fear that they praise the government nonetheless — “the president was a visionary for destroying these roofs,” one woman says. “It must have required a humiliation of some sort to say those words,” Sundaram observes sympathetically.
Sundaram is thorough, even when the news is bad, and includes a 13-page appendix documenting “journalists who have faced difficulties after criticizing the government of Rwanda.” But he leaves little space for self-reflection, and readers may wonder if Sundaram himself fears for his life, as his students stop attending his class, go into hiding or are arrested. In writing this book Sundaram surely put himself at risk, and it is a testament to his bravery that he did so without drawing undue attention to its personal cost.
By Anjan Sundaram
192 pp. $25.95