From the Work­shop to War: An In­ter­view with Ja­nine di Gio­vanni

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Christo­pher Mer­rill

When I was re­port­ing on the war in Bos­nia, I al­ways read the dis­patches of John Burns, Roger Co­hen, and Ja­nine di Gio­vanni, who seemed to me to un­der­stand not only the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary di­men­sion of the unfolding tragedy, but also its hu­man con­se­quences. Each in their own way prac­ticed the work­ing meth­ods of a pho­tog­ra­pher friend who told me she liked to “get into peo­ple’s beer,” that is, to spend time with those she wished to por­tray. What re­sulted were in­ti­mate pho­tographs of peo­ple in ex­tremis show­ing their hu­man faces. This is what I prize about the writ­ings of Ja­nine di Gio­vanni, Newsweek’s Mid­dle East edi­tor and the au­thor of many books, in­clud­ing Against the Stranger: Lives in Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­tory; The Quick and the Dead: Un­der Siege in Sara­jevo; Mad­ness Vis­i­ble: A Mem­oir of War; Ghosts by Day­light; and, most re­cently, The Morn­ing They Came for Us: Dis­patches from Syria. She has writ­ten for the New York Times, Vogue, and Vanity Fair; she is a mem­ber of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions; and her TED Talk “What I Saw in the War” has been viewed nearly 870,000 times. For her work, she has re­ceived the Na­tional Magazine Award, the Amnesty In­ter­na­tional Award, the Hay Medal for Prose, and the Courage in Jour­nal­ism Award. Coura­geous she is. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, di Gio­vanni cov­ered the First In­tifada in Pales­tine, moved on to the Balkans, and then re­ported on the wars in Chech­nya (which, for jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the siege of Sara­jevo, was much more dan­ger­ous), Sierra Leone, East Ti­mor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria (which has proved to be ex­po­nen­tially worse than Chech­nya). At the time of this in­ter­view, the world’s at­ten­tion was fo­cused on the prospect of a lu­natic au­thor­i­tar­ian en­ter­ing the White House, while at our peril, we ig­nored the may­hem that for the last five years has de­fined daily life in Syria, for­merly the most cos­mopoli­tan coun­try in the re­gion. That week, for ex­am­ple, Rus­sian war­planes were us­ing bunker-bust­ing bombs to flat­ten Aleppo, which may be the old­est city on earth and which was cer­tainly one of the most beau­ti­ful be­fore Bashar al-as­sad be­gan to at­tack his own peo­ple, killing four hun­dred thou­sand and dis­plac­ing 6.6 mil­lion more. Di Gio­vanni chron­i­cles with un­usual pre­ci­sion and em­pa­thy the con­se­quences of civil war; the men, women, and chil­dren por­trayed in her pages know

all too well what can hap­pen when a dic­ta­tor uses his mil­i­tary might to crush his op­po­nents. I read The Morn­ing They Came for Us, then, not only as a chron­i­cle of bar­bar­ity, but also as a warn­ing to us all. What di Gio­vanni has learned on bat­tle­fields around the world is that how­ever much we may imag­ine our­selves to be ex­empt from dis­tant hor­rors, they nev­er­the­less im­print them­selves on our souls. What fol­lows is an in­ter­view with her dur­ing her visit to the Univer­sity of Iowa in the au­tumn of 2016 as an Ida Cordelia Beam Dis­tin­guished Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor.

Christo­pher Mer­rill: You were here at the Univer­sity of Iowa thirty years ago as a fic­tion writ­ing stu­dent, and you have gone on to have an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer as a non­fic­tion writer. I won­der what sorts of lessons you learned at the Writ­ers’ Work­shop that could be trans­lated into a fairly un­usual kind of profile for a grad­u­ate of a cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram?

Ja­nine di Gio­vanni: I think that at the time that I was here, I was ac­tu­ally do­ing the Work­shop; I didn’t re­al­ize what I was learn­ing and what was be­ing em­bed­ded in me. Cer­tainly, the first thing was dis­ci­pline, be­cause when I ar­rived, as you know, we were just told that there was one work­shop a week—very lit­tle work. We could at­tend classes if we wanted to, and I wanted to do an Ital­ian class and a French class, but other than that, there was no real struc­ture. Very early on, I got into a rhythm, which I learned from other stu­dents, be­cause that, I think, was the real key. It was bru­tal; it was com­pet­i­tive. At times, I don’t ac­tu­ally think it was help­ful for cer­tain types of per­son­al­i­ties. I just sur­vived it, but you had to have a rou­tine and a sched­ule, as bor­ing as it is. The difference be­tween me and some of my col­leagues, who were prob­a­bly more gifted, is that I would ac­tu­ally sit down and do it. It is not a mat­ter of in­spi­ra­tion; it’s a mat­ter of hav­ing a very clear sched­ule when I’m writ­ing books. I have break­fast, then I go for a walk, then I write for three or four hours, and I have lunch, and I go back and write again. And that’s the way it works. Other peo­ple, their rhythms are dif­fer­ent. But it in­stilled in me, in my early twen­ties, a very spe­cific rhythm for a writer. The other thing the Work­shop gave me is that in those days it seemed so ro­man­tic to have a writer’s life. I used to read the Paris Re­view, par­tic­u­larly the in­ter­views. This year, some­one in­ter­viewed me for the Paris Re­view, so I had one of those pro­files of a writer’s life, a writer’s rhythm, how you work. The Work­shop set a pat­tern here for what I would be. And, sud­denly, I was no longer just some­one who wanted to write po­ems or short sto­ries: I was a writer. And I think in­still­ing even young writ­ers with that kind of con­fi­dence—that this is what you are, with­out pre­ten­sion, with­out

ar­ro­gance, just “this is what my life is go­ing to be,” that “this is the path of it, it’s go­ing to be hard, but I’m go­ing to do it.” The other thing that I got into the habit of—which I learned at the Work­shop, which was ex­traor­di­nar­ily help­ful, which serves me ba­si­cally ev­ery day of my life—was to ac­cept re­jec­tion. Lit­er­ally ev­ery week, I was around some very com­pet­i­tive writ­ers, and ev­ery­one’s goal was to get pub­lished, whether or not it was in Ploughshares or the New Yorker. Peo­ple were ob­sessed with getting pub­lished. And so, I learned from them ev­ery week I wrote a short story; whether it was good or bad, it was just to keep me nim­ble and keep me flex­i­ble. It was be­fore the days of the in­ter­net, so I would type it on my IBM with those pur­ple mimeo­graph pa­per pages, and I would send one copy, of­ten to the New Yorker, ev­ery sin­gle week. And ev­ery sin­gle week I would get a let­ter back—a re­jec­tion. Pretty soon, they weren’t just typed-out mimeo­graphed re­jec­tions; they were from a spe­cific edi­tor who would just say, “Keep try­ing.” And I kept do­ing it. I kept do­ing it. For that same rea­son, re­jec­tion to this day doesn’t sting me the way it stings some of my col­leagues. I never take it per­son­ally, and I never even think it’s be­cause of me or my work. I just think it’s the edi­tor’s mood, or that it doesn’t fit with the magazine, or it doesn’t fit the mix right now. That was a tremen­dous gift, be­cause I have seen friends of mine crushed by getting re­jected from mag­a­zines or books or pub­lish­ers or ed­i­tors. And I never had that. I mean, I get dis­ap­pointed, of course. But I don’t—i have an abil­ity to pick my­self up and say, “Okay, so the New Yorker doesn’t want it, I’ll move on to the New York Times Magazine; the New York Times Magazine doesn’t want it, I’ll move on to here.” It’s a real re­silience, and I am cer­tain that I got that from the Work­shop.

CM: Un­like other grad­u­ates of the Writ­ers’ Work­shop, you didn’t go out and get a teach­ing job. You be­came a jour­nal­ist. First, how did that hap­pen? And, sec­ond, you were prob­a­bly read­ing a great deal of fic­tion and po­etry when you were in the Work­shop, but when you set out to start writ­ing magazine pieces, and then even­tu­ally books, I’m guess­ing that you had other mod­els in mind. Can you talk about that?

JG: Well, you know, jour­nal­ism. It’s al­most laugh­able that I be­came a jour­nal­ist, and a po­lit­i­cally com­mit­ted jour­nal­ist, be­cause peo­ple who knew me when I was an un­der­grad­u­ate said, “You were the one that used to sleep through po­lit­i­cal sci­ence class.” I never read a news­pa­per. I never—through col­lege, through when I was at Iowa—i never went out and bought the New York Times. I lived in the world of Kather­ine Mans­field, Chekov’s short sto­ries, and Alice Munro. And Ann Beat­tie,

at that point, was a pop­u­lar writer. It didn’t oc­cur to me to read even the Des Moines Reg­is­ter. I had no clue. I mean, it must have been the time of the Nicaraguan and El Sal­vado­ran wars, the war in Beirut ... I knew that else­where things were hap­pen­ing, but it just didn’t in­ter­est me. My world was the Haunted Book­shop, Prairie Lights, the li­brary, go­ing to read­ings, go­ing to films. . . . That’s what I wanted—a writer’s life. Teach­ing, it’s funny, and now I re­mem­ber ev­ery­one was ob­sessed with—what’s it called?—the MLA, the Mod­ern Lan­guage As­so­ci­a­tion, so that they could get teach­ing jobs. And I went to London af­ter I fin­ished the Work­shop, be­cause I had spent a year in London be­fore, and I felt very strongly that I needed to be in the world, that there was some­thing as won­der­ful and as pre­cious as Iowa City was; there were things hap­pen­ing out there, and I knew that I was not a part of them. I also felt that I couldn’t write a novel ac­cu­rately at the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, with my ex­pe­ri­ence. And the things I wrote, which got re­ally ham­mered in the Work­shop, were about ex­pe­ri­ences I had, like meet­ing a Cuban woman on the Paris metro who was mourn­ing her coun­try, her lost coun­try—it was other peo­ple’s sto­ries. I didn’t yet have a voice or a direction. So I went to London. I did an­other de­gree in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, be­cause I felt academia was a safe place while I was work­ing out what to do. But I was very im­pa­tient, and ba­si­cally I be­came a jour­nal­ist be­cause I went to Is­rael. It was the be­gin­ning of the First In­tifada, and I met some­one, a Jewish lawyer who de­fended Pales­tini­ans, who took me to the West Bank. I had never been in a refugee camp be­fore. It was a long way from the Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and I was just so hor­ri­fied and so dis­turbed at what I saw. I was com­pletely naive and com­pletely green, but it was some­thing, like I was walk­ing through a door that I could never turn around and go back again. And that was it. I was ex­tremely lucky, and I was sure that if I wanted this to hap­pen, it wouldn’t have hap­pened. What did hap­pen was I wrote a story about this Jewish lawyer and her work. And it was called “The Em­bat­tled Case of Feli­cia Langer.” And she was such an ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ter—so strong, so com­mit­ted, and so be­liev­ing in jus­tice—that it kind of wrote it­self. But an agent saw it—and, you know, all the time I was at the Work­shop, all peo­ple did was talk about agents and pub­lish­ers and grants—and I was so baf­fled. I had no idea how you got an agent. I had no idea how you pub­lished a book. I was so far from that. But an agent, Cur­tis Brown in London, wrote to me and said, “Can you write a book the way you wrote this ar­ti­cle?” And I thought, “Oh my god.” And be­fore I knew it, I had a book deal to write a book about the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. I was twenty-six, and I had no idea how to do a

book, be­cause I wasn’t re­ally a jour­nal­ist ei­ther. But I was a writer. And I went, and I ba­si­cally sat on the floor, lis­tened to peo­ple’s sto­ries on both sides—israeli and Pales­tinian—and I wrote what they told me. I read a lot. I was read­ing a lot of es­says at that point. I shifted from read­ing short sto­ries and po­etry to read­ing es­says—joan Did­ion, great es­says. One per­son, when I was an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Maine, told me, “Al­ways read peo­ple who are sim­i­lar to what you write, who have your style.” I was read­ing a lot of fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture dur­ing those days—a lot of Doris Less­ing, Na­dine Gordimer. . . women who had a cause. And I sud­denly found that I too had a cause. My cause was to write about—it sounds too grand to say about the down­trod­den, but cer­tainly vic­tims—vic­tims of state ter­ror. And that’s what I’ve con­tin­ued to do till this day. Es­pe­cially, I want to em­pha­size this for young writ­ers, and not even young writ­ers, writ­ers who are look­ing for direction: I think that one thing leads to an­other. And not just for lucky peo­ple, be­cause when I was at the Work­shop, and I’m sure this is the ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one, there were one or two peo­ple that were picked out by teach­ers as their pets. They were en­cour­aged; they were made the golden girl, the golden boy; and the rest were just kind of sec­ond- or third-rate, sit­ting on the bench, des­per­ately try­ing to get the at­ten­tion of our teach­ers and fail­ing. So, to say I was not the star of my class—ab­so­lutely not. I won­dered if any­one could even re­mem­ber me, be­cause I was quite shy and in­tim­i­dated, just try­ing to take a seat where no one would no­tice me. And then, I think one thing led to an­other. My book was pub­lished dur­ing the Bos­nian War. By then I was free­lanc­ing in London, writ­ing for the Sun­day Times and The Spec­ta­tor, and I con­vinced the edi­tor to send me to Bos­nia. I went, and it was Sara­jevo, it was 1992, the siege was just start­ing, and I just stayed. And that’s what hap­pened. In a way that you could stay when you’re that young: I didn’t have a child, I wasn’t mar­ried. I did it that way. It wasn’t the tra­di­tional way of go­ing to the New York Times, be­ing an in­tern, work­ing at the metro desk, and then work­ing my way up to the for­eign desk. In fact, I did start in the AP in Bos­ton. I told them I wanted to be a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, and that I was in­ter­ested in lan­guages and for­eign cul­tures. They said to me, “Okay, stay here, and we’ll send you to Rhode Is­land for about two years, and we’ll send you maybe to New York, maybe to Wash­ing­ton, maybe to Seat­tle, maybe to Ok­la­homa, and even­tu­ally you’ll get to like, Zim­babwe.” I just didn’t have that time. I was re­ally im­pa­tient, and that im­pa­tience was a tra­jec­tory for me, be­cause it pro­pelled me to go to London, to be­come a free­lancer, to then find my­self spec­tac­u­larly in the mid­dle of the world chang­ing be­cause

it was when the Ber­lin Wall came down, 1989. And then the for­mer Soviet Union col­lapsed, the for­mer Yu­goslavia col­lapsed, Africa was in the midst of ter­ri­ble civil wars. I very quickly shifted my hat from be­ing a writer to a jour­nal­ist. But hav­ing said that, I think most peo­ple, in­clud­ing my ed­i­tors, never thought of me as a re­porter. I think I was called a fea­ture writer. I wrote long-for­mat stuff. And I still wrote in the same way that I’d learned at Iowa: a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle, and end. So my ca­reer was very un­usual. It wasn’t the straight route: it was go­ing through the back door, go­ing around the gar­den, around the path, go­ing up two flights of stairs, down one flight, up an­other end, and even­tu­ally I’ve come to this place now in my life, which is a won­der­ful place, be­cause it is a place where I’ve honed the craft, if it is a craft. I feel there are won­der­ful things to write about still. I’ve been able to pub­lish books, I’ve been very for­tu­nate to have won­der­ful ed­i­tors, and I think I’m a writer who needs ed­i­tors. Some peo­ple hand things in, and it’s spot­less. My gram­mar is all over the place some­times, and my spell­ing isn’t great, and I make lots of ty­pos. I need an edi­tor to tighten my stuff. Yes­ter­day, some­one came to pick me up at the air­port, a grad­u­ate stu­dent, and I felt em­bar­rassed, be­cause my phone rang, and it was an edi­tor at a pub­lish­ing house in London call­ing to ask if I would write a book for her. A short book about Syria that she wants to put out quickly. I was ne­go­ti­at­ing with her on the phone and re­al­iz­ing I must sound like the big­gest pride in the world to this guy, be­cause we were talking about ad­vances, agents, pub­lish­ing, trans­la­tions rights, and for­eign rights. . . . Then I said to him, “I am re­ally sorry, I have to call my agent.” I called her, we talked about the deal, and I was like, “Okay, we’ll seal it up in the next week or two, and I can get started.” I hung up and thought, what a jerk I must have been, be­cause I must sound like those peo­ple that in­tim­i­dated me when I was at the Work­shop. But the won­der­ful thing is getting to the place where you do have those things in place— your ed­i­tors, your agent. But I worked re­ally hard to get that.

CM: And there is a cer­tain tra­jec­tory from the In­tifada to Bos­nia. You didn’t turn your back on war but went to Chech­nya, which was much more dan­ger­ous, and Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq. You’ve con­tin­ued to bear witness. Can you talk about what drives you?

JG: I re­ally hate bul­lies—from the time when I was a kid in Catholic school. And I wasn’t the worst kid bul­lied in the class, but I got my share, ev­ery­one did. It’s what hap­pened in those days. But I think it in­stilled in me this sense of in­dig­na­tion at those who were big­ger

and stronger and more pow­er­ful and richer, and what they could get away with be­cause peo­ple were weaker and pow­er­less. When I went to Pales­tine for the first time, what I saw were peo­ple who were ut­terly pow­er­less and hu­mil­i­ated and de­prived be­cause some­one was big­ger and stronger and richer than them, and backed by richer allies. In the twenty-five years that I’ve re­ported from Is­rael and Pales­tine, it’s be­come much more com­plex than my first im­pres­sion, but I’ll never for­get peo­ple try­ing to tell me their sto­ries and say­ing, “Go and tell peo­ple what is hap­pen­ing to us.” And Feli­cia Langer, the lawyer who in­spired me, said, “Those of you who have the abil­ity to go some­where and tell the story and bring it to the world—do that.” If you have that abil­ity, then you have the obli­ga­tion. It sounds very right­eous, but it’s true. And I don’t think I have any more abil­ity than you or any­one else, it’s just that at that point I learned how to do it. I know how to go to places that are in the midst of war, civil war, and who to find—to go to the hos­pi­tals, what doc­tors to talk to, how to get peo­ple to re­spond to you. I never, ever force peo­ple to talk to me. That’s why I don’t con­sider my­self a re­porter, be­cause a good re­porter would hang on some­one’s doorstep, or a grave­yard, or go to the fu­neral and make peo­ple tell them what they want to hear. I can’t do that.

CM: But you have this gift of getting peo­ple to open up, some­times in un­usual cir­cum­stances. How does that work?

JG: It takes a re­ally long time. For some­one that’s been so im­pa­tient, and was im­pa­tient to get into the world, I had to re­ally fun­da­men­tally grasp the most im­por­tant les­son in re­portage and lit­er­ary non­fic­tion, which is pa­tience. Let’s say you’re talking to rape vic­tims. You need a lot of time to sit with them and not talk about what you want to know ini­tially, but to talk about their lives, their dreams, their hopes, what they ate that morn­ing, what their fam­ily pet was like. . . . It is a re­ally slow and some­times te­dious process, and I don’t mean te­dious in a bad way; it’s just some­times you have to sit with them with­out say­ing any­thing for a long time.

CM: Tak­ing notes, or not?

JG: Some­times tak­ing notes. I never record, I mean I prob­a­bly should, but I find that fright­ens peo­ple. I take re­ally good notes, ac­tu­ally. But when peo­ple are telling me some­thing very painful, I don’t take notes, be­cause I’m not go­ing to write that. I’m just go­ing to keep it in my mind as a way of build­ing the plot—a nar­ra­tive to move it from one place to

chil­dren and had no idea why this was hap­pen­ing to me be­cause I am not po­lit­i­cally as­tute? How would I feel if my el­dest son was killed in bat­tle? You have to put your­self in that position, and that was what I felt from the first moment I went to the refugee camp out­side of Beth­le­hem called Dheisheh. From the very first moment, it was al­most as though the scales were lifted from my eyes: I saw the world as a com­pletely dif­fer­ent place. I got up early this morn­ing, and I went for a walk all over town to try to find my old haunts. I was In­sta­gram­ming stuff; I took a picture of the river, and I said, “Many years ago an ide­al­is­tic young writer came here to this ex­tra­or­di­nary place, this haven of writ­ers and cul­ture, and had great ex­pec­ta­tions about what be­ing a writer was.” Now I’m back as the Ida Beam Pro­fes­sor, and it’s made me re­ally mar­vel about the quick pas­sage of life. When I was twenty-three walk­ing down Mar­ket Street, I never thought about mor­tal­ity. It’s not that I’m one of these, like Philip Roth, ob­sessed about death and what’s com­ing next. But it’s just gone by so quickly; ev­ery step has added to my abil­ity to write. So, I was cor­rect all those years ago, when I thought, “I can’t write a novel. I’m not ready to write a novel. I need to go out into the world. I need to see things. I need to talk to peo­ple. I need to ob­serve. I need to learn.” And it’s a process. It’s still on­go­ing. It’s cu­rios­ity.

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