Peter Godwin knows how to tell a good story.
After serving as a war correspondent and reporting in 60 countries, he has plenty to tell, from reporting in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet Union to covering the final five years of Apartheid in South Africa.
But it’s the way he tells the stories — with humor and humanity — that connects readers with his subjects. Even if his subjects live halfway around the world, in countries rarely reported on by the international press.
That is the case with his home country of Zimbabwe.
“I love Zimbabwe and it has a kind of resonance for me — I grew up there. But I do also feel like I have a debt to the place, that … if I was able to amplify stuff then I had a duty to do so. And conversely not to do so was wrong.”
From 1983 to 1984 Godwin reported on President Mugabe’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killing more than 20,000 civilians in the southern province of Matabeleland.
“I just happened to be in a situation where … I was writing for newspapers and had the ability to amplify something that needed amplifying. And I had to do it.”
But these reports did little to stir the international community, and Godwin found himself banned from his home country for his coverage.
Over the years he managed to find ways to return, not only to bear witness to the atrocities occurring under President Mugabe, but to document his own personal history in two incredible memoirs, which he will read from Monday at Coe College as part of the school’s Marquis Series.
“One of the reasons I always write — (a memoir) — in first person is I don’t want to sound like I’m telling other people’s stories,” he says. “But the more of us who write about it from different angles — that’s how you triangulate the truth.”
Godwin writes with two specific readers in mind: “someone who barely knows where Zimbabwe is, and someone who has lived in Zimbabwe all his life.”
While these are very different perspectives, Godwin deftly strikes the narrow overlap.
“It can work. You can read something describing a place you know well, an emotional state you know well … and someone describes it in a way that just rings so true and is so well turned that you have the thrill of recognition … And at the heart of it is that thrill that you know that you’re not alone. Someone else has also felt like that, or been there.”
While Godwin has certainly lived an exciting life, perhaps one of his most surprising moments came during a quiet conversation with his aging father.
“I had started writing ‘When a Crocodile Eats the Sun’ (his second memoir) already and my father came forward with this revelation. And I had to change the book. I had to say: ‘How does this work? Do I write about it?’”
The revelation was that Godwin’s father, whom Godwin had always considered to the quintessential Episcopalian British man, was actually born Jewish and grew up in Poland, leaving in 1939.
“The Jewish thing was the final kind of flick of the tail of my own possibly complex mosaic of identity. It was such an extraordinary thing to happen in my middle age … My sister said it best: It felt a bit like talking to people who had been adopted who’d only discovered that they’d been adopted as grown-ups. Your lived life is the same, but you look at it all from a slightly different angle.”
After reading Godwin’s work, you may also consider the world around you from a slightly different perspective.
If you go
What: Coe College’s Marquis Series: Author Peter Godwin
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Coe College Sinclair Auditorium, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
Tickets: $15 for the general public, $10 for students and seniors.
More information: (319) 399-8600