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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

A Great Skype Talk With an Author

Last night our men’s nonfiction reading group stuck again: another author whose book we had read agreed to join us by Skype. This time our guest was Peter Godwin, as we had all read, and greatly enjoyed his memoir Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa ( Peter was born in Rhodesia, and the books tracks his coming of age as white rule faded and the country became Zimbabwe — and then on into the early years of the Mugabe rule. It is not giving away too much to say that Godwin has been a key voice in recording and describing to the world the details of the terror, torture, and mass murder that Mugabe has inflicted on his nation since the 80s. Over and over again he has taken great risks — as, of course, have the victims who came to talk to him — knowing that if they could in any way be identified they and their families would suffer horrible retribution. Why has Godwin taken on that role, we asked. His response was very human and very powerful — he said that he did not set out to be a hero, to do the impossible. He did feel a sense of obligation, perhaps guilt, having grown up in white Rhodesia. That may have been the wind at his back, but the key is that he made “a series of small binary decisions.” That is, he face a set of small choices — do this, or do that. Take down one story, or not. Go after that story, or not. Risk going to the killing ground, or not. Trace where the bodies are buried, or not. Each small step led to a next step — and then at a point he bore the responsibility for what only he knew and had the contacts with the outside world to share.

I wonder if in the books we write for kids we too often emphasize great moments of decision and change, rather than the series of small choices heroes make that eventually add up to major risks and transforming moments. You don’t have to leave home being willing to risk everything. You can simply decide not to avoid a first step, which then leads to a second choice and a second step, and on from there. We tell that story in reverse — as the way back from addiction or bulemia or trauma. But it is equally true as the path from normal life to heroism — the path of small steps.

We also spoke with Godwin about his craft as a writer — the way in which he is a nonjudgmental reporter of his own experience, and yet one feels the undertow of judgement and observation. Once again he said something really interesting — which directly relates to this blog. In reviewing fiction, he said, critics often notice and praise or damn the author’s style, voice, literary skill. But in reviewing nonfiction critics focus on the story, the history, the experience s/he writes about. The craft is treated as a kind of invisible medium to the real matter at hand, the subject. But of course nonfiction is every bit as consciously crafted as is fiction — there are just as many decisions and choices — whether in big matters like structure or the smallest choice of words, syntax, and flow. Especially now as Language Arts teachers are being required to teach literary nonfiction, we need to sharpen critics’ eyes to the literary craft of good nonfiction. Right now the only critical term that they have easily at hand is, “great book, it reads like a novel.” Aside from the insult to nonfiction that implies, it is the broadest of brush, and it would be really useful to develop a full vocabulary of nonfiction criticsm, the way we have voice, point of view, characterization, pace, drama, foreshadowing, unreliable narrator, etc. for fiction.

Godwin said he’d happily join us again should we read another of his books, and I hope we do — and you should, too.


  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Julie Jensen wrote an intriguing piece on the craft of nonfiction writing entitled “The Quality of Prose in Orbis Pictus Award Books.” It appeared in THE BEST IN CHILDREN’S NONFICTION (Zarnowski, Kerper, & Jensen, 2001, NCTE). Members of the Orbis Pictus Award Committee have been thinking about style for many years. Julie’s essay would be a good place to start thinking (once again) about this issue.