The Light that Remains is a collection of short stories set in Turkey, Ukraine, China, France, Cambodia and Rwanda. Delving into the lives of six families before History closes in on them. Snapping pictures before the film runs out.
This website is a behind-the-scene look at the elements that went into the building of these stories. You will find an extensive bibliography as well as photographs, videos, maps, and background information on each story. You can also read short excerpts from the book.
Genesis of the story
Books typically have a long gestation period, some longer than others. When asked how many years it took them to write a book, authors have been known to reply: a whole life.
The idea for The Light that Remains came to me in July 1994 as I stared at photographs of Rwandan refugees in The Globe and Mail. The genocide was in its fourth month and the refugees were in Goma, a border town in Zaire (renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo and now in the grip of its own bloody conflict). In one photograph, two sisters were sitting together, one cradling the other. According to the caption, the one in front was dying of cholera. She looked healthy. Puzzled rather than stunned. Like she couldn’t believe she was in another country, without her baby or her husband. That it could’ve happened so quickly. Hanging her laundry one minute, running for her life the next.
But who was I to imagine her life? Safe in my own country, thousands of kilometres away. Without a photographer to expose me to the world, to deny me the privacy sorrow requires.
That photo stayed with me. What if I wrote about a Rwandan woman like this one, explored her life before History closed in on her? What if I wrote about others who shared a similar fate in another time, another place? I dismissed the idea immediately. Too heartbreaking. Too difficult to write. Not my stories to tell.
A year later I was in Nanjing to adopt my daughter. I had read about the massacre that had taken place there in 1937. With the Rwandan genocide still fresh in my mind, I asked the guide if there was somewhere I could pay my respects. She was evasive and encouraged me to visit the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum instead. One of the stories could be set in Nanjing, I thought, before dismissing the idea once again.
In 2004, almost a decade after I first looked at that photograph, the idea resurfaced. The anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was in the news as was Darfur. The idea more insistent this time. Disrupting the novel I was writing. Interfering with my research. So I decided to write one story, set in Rwanda, which I wouldn’t even publish, which would prove the project was an impossible one. But things didn't turn out that way.
Once the story was finished, I started to read about Nanjing and when that story was done, I immersed myself in the Armenian one and so on. It took six years to complete the collection and another two to write it in French.
The book is finished but the tragedy is ongoing. Our newspapers and screens filled with so many heartbreaking stories and photographs of refugees.