On the night of World AIDS Day, 1,280 people gathered in the Jackson Hall of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts to listen to a talk by author Tracy Kidder.
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World was this year’s featured work for the Campus Community Book Project.
During the presentation Kidder explored his process of writing the book and shared issues he encountered. With his joking manner and friendly speech, the author had the audience erupting in soft laughter repeatedly throughout his presentation.
Kidder began with a background on Dr. Paul Farmer, the story’s main character. A Harvard medical student at the time, Farmer joined his friends in Cange, Haiti in 1983 to create a health system for the Haitian population suffering from AIDS and tuberculosis. In 1987, Farmer and his friends founded an organization called Zanmi Lasante, Haitian Kreyol for “Partners in Health.“
PIH now has nine hospitals and clinics serving a million people and works in nine different countries. The organization has 6,500 employees, fewer than a hundred of which are American, Kidder said.
“Mostly it has been an adventure in pubic health in medicine,” Kidder said.
He accompanied his anecdotes of his interactions with Farmer and his travels to Haiti with a slideshow of before-and-after pictures of patients and health care facilities in Haiti, depicting PIH’s work in the area.
One picture featured Alcante, an 11-year-old boy before he had any treatment for TB. Sitting on a bed, the picture showed Alcante’s skin clinging to the bones of his malnourished frame.
“The drugs to treat this disease had been around for a very long time,” Kidder said. “This form of TB, at this time it was thought to be relatively unimportant because it’s not contagious. These drugs still work, and this is the proof.“
The audience gasped at another image of the same boy, but this time healthy and smiling. Several stories like Alcante’s and many before-and-after pictures demonstrated the magnitude of PIH’s work in Haiti. There are thousands of before-and-after pictures like this, Kidder said.
“Enough photographs, they are unfair competition for writers,” Kidder said as he ended the slideshow.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author went on to describe his experience in writing Mountains Beyond Mountains.
Another problem Kidder encountered during his writing was the profile’s tone. Kidder tried to make his descriptions of places like the central prison, the mountainous Central Plateau of Cange, Haiti and the urban slums outside of Lima, Peru “not flashy, but vivid.” He wanted to make the reader see the same places of extreme suffering for which Farmer had a passion for alleviating.
“I wanted to make scenery as if the reader were following that square of light through darkness,” Kidder said.
Kidder traveled with Farmer, shared hotel rooms with him, visited sites of his childhood and interviewed his family, friends and even former girlfriends. Kidder said he had a difficult time finding a less than virtuous thing about Farmer, but he promised the audience he tried. He said he aimed to make a vision that was true and credible.
“I tried to do most obvious thing – the thing every writer tries to do – to depict Paul’s foible,” Kidder said. “I didn’t hope to achieve balance,” Kidder said. “I have views about objectivity and balance and [they are] not relevant here.“
To Kidder, the choice to write in the first person meant that he had to make himself a character on the page. He said he included his own thoughts and feelings to provide a foil for the reader.
“The narrator shifts the frame of reference,” Kidder said. “I remember searching for the right moments in story to make this acknowledgement.“
To reconcile the suffering he saw in Haiti, Kidder spoke to Farmer and eventually came to share Farmer’s view that “we have to admit that some of our privileges have been built through creating misery elsewhere.“
“This is something that everyone can do something about, even in smaller ways,” Kidder said. “[Farmer] was trying to say that we are all connected, all of us are in the human tribe. My travels showed me more reasons for despair than I had ever witnessed or imagined, but it was exhilaration – it illuminated the huge gap of what can be done and what is being done.“
Kidder ended the lecture with a message to students, who were hard to come by in the audience, as most attendees were locals.
“There is no skill you can acquire that can’t be used to improve the world,” he said. “Not one person, one person can’t do much – but one small group can improve the world. If you study organic chemistry only to learn material to pass tests it can be pretty hard, but if you take [chemistry] for later it can be easier. You do the work but for a larger purpose. If you improve the world, you don’t have to improve yourself. If you do the first you will do the second.“
After a few questions from the audience, Kidder ended the session by joking that he was getting inarticulate, which sent the audience into their final murmured laughter. The author and the audience members then made their way out to the Mondavi Center’s lobby for a book-signing session.
As if the story of Dr. Farmer and Kidder’s experience researching and writing the book were not inspiration enough, he left the audience with a final thought.
“If you really love what you do, it can propel you in all sorts of interesting ways,” he said.
Students who read the book and attended the talk had mixed feelings about the writing but agreed that the message was powerful.
“To be completely honest, I thought the book was boring, but the message was good – we are all human beings,” said first-year political science and Spanish double major Jamila Cambridge. “It’s our job to not be so self-centered. It’s about bridging out.“
First-year communication major Tiana Brawley said the book was “a little dry” but Kidder’s talk was very funny.
“The book was factual but at the end you can’t help but feel for the movement,” she said. “I liked [Kidder] because he was personable. He came as a human being saying we can all do our share.“
POOJA KUMAR can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org