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Samantha Power: Telling the difficult stories

Author Samantha Power tripped the third rail in storytelling with her  epic on genocide, "A Problem from Hell." Now she is telling the story of U.N. diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

Mark Twain said his favorite character in all of history was Joan of Arc, a girl who could weave such a spell around soldiers that they imagined her as a warrior like them. If Joan of Arc were alive today, she’d be Samantha Power, 37, who is winning recognition for the long-ignored problem of human genocide. Power has succeeded by telling impossibly thrilling stories of the people who have fought and mostly failed at stopping mass murders. Her mission is not only to end this destruction, but also to alter the DNA of a citizenry who permits this brutality by turning away from it. The more committed we are to stopping genocide, she says, the more we learn to prize our own human dignity. It’s the beauty question again: Can we look happily in the mirror knowing we have turned away from the slaughter of people just because they are Jews or Vietnamese or Ugandan children?

"A Problem From Hell," Power’s first book, her epic on genocide, was rejected by its original publisher as “too dark” to sell. It became an international bestseller and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. It moved 75,000 people to march on Washington to protest White House policy in Darfur. Author Power tripped the third rail in storytelling: She has become a romantic heroine standing up for an historically bleak tale. Her appearances around the country and documentaries about her work are being shown on HBO and are packing lecture halls. If you ask what effect Joan of Arc had on the world, the answer is zero. Her fight eventually failed, and she was burned at the stake. But as a story, her role as a heroine moves people to take on “impossible” fights. Mark Twain called Joan the most important character in all of history because she moved the needle on courage.

Power’s new call to action, "Chasing the Flame," to be published in February, takes even greater storytelling risks. At 640 pages, it challenges people’s attention span and their interest in a biography of a Brazilian-born United Nations bureaucrat about whom few people know. Sergio Vieira de Mello was an idealist who learned to hone his ideals to ruthlessly pragmatic action. He was a smooth-talking, womanizing, bon vivant with a mothlike love for places that burned white hot — Cambodia, Bosnia, and Iraq, where he died at age 55 in a bomb blast at the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.

Power is using her storytelling skills to create a new mythic hero. “My mother who read the early drafts kept asking about Vieira de Mello, ‘But, Samantha, what’s he done?’” Her new breed of hero is one this too-hot world needs: not a guy with Churchillian ambitions but a prickly diplomat who could walk into a tough situation and restore a sense of dignity to the people on edge.

Power breaks the frame on what a hero is. In itself, that is a heroic undertaking for a storyteller. “Vieira de Mello never accomplished anything we’d call heroic,” she says, “but he lived his life on the premise that giving people dignity is more important than giving them democracy.” Powers’ public policy classes at Harvard overflow with students from everywhere: their names — Judnefera, Kareem, Katya, Jessica, Maria, Serif — suggest her international audience. Power, founding executive director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, deconstructs with them what it means to be a humanitarian. In place of theory, she analyzes the stories that diplomats, leaders, and citizens tell themselves about the necessity to do good versus the cost of doing good. There is always a cost of doing good, she wants them to know; the challenge is to balance that against the price of doing nothing. An Iraqi student tells the class a story of his own myth of America: “We wanted the Americans to bomb the murderous Sadaam out of office. We thought the Americans would solve our problems. We believed that Americans could do anything. When the looting began...and the chaos intensified, we began to question whether America really had put a man on the moon.” Power tells her students: “How do you make American words mean something again? How do we prevent our stories from sounding like fairy tales?”

She had been a sports reporter at Yale, covering the women’s volleyball team. “I was sickened by what was happening in Bosnia and decided to go,” she says. Everything that’s happened in her life since, Power says, dates back to those two-and-a-half years: she left Bosnia and went to law school. She began a paper about her experience in the Balkans. The paper started to grow. “If someone had said to me in 1996 that the book wouldn’t be out until 2002, I would not have had the stamina to finish it,” Power says. “But the Trojan Horse that contains the story had to look like a perfect horse.”

Power says she never set out to be a journalist. “I didn’t say, let me come up with a topic for a book,” she remembers. “These stories had to be told” — if for no other reason than to invigorate American passions. “I’ve discovered that the gatekeepers are always underestimating the minds of the American people.” But the existence of a movement against genocide, she says, “confirms that there is this latent, unharnessed American conviction about integrating human consequences into decision-making.” For her thesis to hold—that people are not apathetic when the story is sufficient and vivid—there had to be a response.

Writing A Problem From Hell brought her to the end of one quest—figuring out why people have turned away from the stories of mass murder, she says. Then Vieira de Mello died; he was her friend. Power says she saw him “as a good man, not a great one.” But she has since changed her mind on that: what she would have never known unless she set out to tell his story, she says, is the effort he made to turn strangers into friends. “That was one way he disaggregated the ‘human’ in human rights in order to make everyone around him feel human and experience their dignity,” she says. “You can actually take the lessons in his life and apply them to American foreign policy: his idealism, his humility, and his fallibility.” This was Vieira de Mello’s “fight to save the world,” as her subtitle reads. She calls Vieira de Mello not a bystander but an “upstander” who speaks for life as it should be. “He’s a different archetype of leader, a Cassandra who draws our attention to what is wrong with our policies. He’s closer to us in character and in desire to change the world than are the statesmen.”

Harriet Rubin writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, (Doubleday, 1997), and Dante in Love (Simon & Schuster, 2005), among other books.