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Tracy Kidder Visits CHC and UO
World-famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder gave the second annual Presidential Lecture before about 2,000 people at Matthew Knight Arena on the evening of March 1, the result of two years of planning that began with a CHC student's idea.
Tracy Kidder at the Matthew Knight Arena. Photo by Jack Liu.
Two years ago, CHC senior Alex Goodell read Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, the tale of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who is tireless in his treatment of patients in Haiti, Siberia and Peru, and who was one of the co-founders of the international non-profit health care organization Partners in Health. Goodell brought the book to the attention of CHC dean David Frank and associate dean Louise Bishop. With their help, Goodell launched the CHC Summer Reading Program. The following fall's freshmen were all assigned the book. The next summer, all University of Oregon freshmen read the book. Then, Goodell, with the help of other students, such as CHC senior Drew Serres, worked to bring Kidder to the UO. While at the UO, Kidder had a working lunch with students, participated in a Q&A with students in the CHC library, and gave the Presidential Lecture.
“People asked a lot more about (Kidder's) writing and what makes a good writer and his journey as an author,” said Serres of the luncheon and Q&A with Kidder. “I think it was really important for them to hear what Tracy Kidder said about that process and what it takes to be a good author: he said part of it is luck. You have to have the skill and you also have to be a little lucky. It's not just him. He's had a lot of different eyes look at his work and help him improve, and I feel like that's kind of the process we used with the Tracy Kidder Outreach Team (the team that planned Kidder's visit). It wasn't just one person doing everything. We all learned from each other.”
"During the Q&A in the library, (Kidder) responded enthusiastically to the questions students posed," said CHC sophomore Michael Sugar. "He fielded questions about his own racial bias, his writing strengths and weaknesses, Farmer's quirks, as well as his and Farmer's views of the American and Haitian medical systems. He also told stories about Paul Farmer, Ophelia Dahl, and himself that were left out of the book."
The Presidential Lecture was co-sponsored by the Clark Honors College, ASUO, University Housing, Oregon Humanities Center, College of Arts and Sciences, Cultural Forum, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, Division of Student Affairs, Division of Undergraduate Studies, and School of Journalism & Communication.
Tracy Kidder with students in the CHC library. Photo by Jack Liu.
Goodell and former UO president Richard Lariviere introduced Kidder, who gave a brief account of Farmer's childhood and life before he met him, followed by recollections from his days researching the book, which was published in 2003. "At last count, Partners in Health now works for the poor in about a dozen countries where they have either built or refurbished sixty hospitals and clinics and scores of schools and community centers," said Kidder. "These are projects designed to impart a better future."
Kidder showed photographs of some young patients, before and after they received treatment from Farmer. He also showed some of the homes Partners in Health have helped to rebuild in Haiti by adding tin roofs and concrete floors. Partners in Health also cleans up water systems in rural Haiti.
Kidder also addressed the "problem of goodness" in the character of Farmer. No person is believably as altruistic as Farmer, which was a problem for Kidder's editor. This is one of the reasons Kidder made himself a character in the book and told the story in the first-person. Like his readers, Kidder goes through the process of trying to find chinks in Farmer's armor, something negative about him. In the end, he finds very little.
"My editor and I tried to make my story credible and to make Paul Farmer as powerful to readers as I found him to be," explained Kidder. "I tried to make the writing vivid; not flashy, but vivid. I tried to bring the reader along with me on my travels ... I felt like I had to make those places of extreme hunger and illness vivid because it was in those settings of extreme suffering that Paul Farmer's passion for alleviating the suffering made perfect sense to me, a kind of sense it wouldn't have made in a seminar room at Harvard. I tried to depict his foibles. I promise you I used every less-than-fully-virtuous thing I could think of in the service of making my story credible." He noted his own discomfort in the presence of such a virtuous person: "My narrator would shift the reader's frame of reference and remind the reader that we all tend to push away evidence of a virtuousness that exceeds our own. (This perspective would) acknowledge the psychological discomfort that many people are likely to feel in the presence of someone so gifted, so self-sacrificing and so passionate about a cause."
Tracy Kidder with UO students. Photo by Jack Liu.
Farmer encouraged all to donate to Partners in Health, and to change the world for the better however they could. "We don't have to accept the idea that (the suffering of the poor) is inevitable," Kidder said. "Everyone can do something about this. We're all connected, all of us, the human tribe. I do feel very lucky to have run across Paul Farmer and Partners in Health and it was ... an amazing experience to see what one small group of people can do to begin to alleviate some of the world's most dreadful problems ... what it illuminates very clearly is the chasm between what can be done and what is being done."