by David Varno | Oct-16-2009
Last week’s two-day symposium at NYU, After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage, cosponsored by the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, the National Book Critics Circle, the New York Institute for Humanities at NYU, and the Literary Reportage concentration of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, in association with the Overseas Press Club and Worlds Without Borders, produced a remarkable discussion on the subject of narrative nonfiction. Questions that persist through the chain of literary movements in shifting standards for journalism, such as the function of the “I,” where to find the narrative, verisimilitude in fiction vs. nonfiction, what constitutes plagiarism, an institution’s responsibility to its writers, and the privilege earned by journalists forced to take new risks in the present day were given urgent, lucid consideration.
Along with the following discussion of Part I, and the forthcoming companion on Part II, we are featuring an audio podcast, courtesy of NYIH (see below). And stay tuned for video from Part III, “Kapuściński’s Legacy in the 21st Century.”
As moderator Jane Ciabattari noted in her introduction to the first panel, The Art of Reportage: On the Ground and On the Page, Ryszard Kapuściński has “inspired the work of journalists and narrative nonfiction writers and memoirists around the world.” As many English readers, she first discovered him in the journal Granta, which featured essays and interviews. His most well known works are perhaps Travels with Herodotus and The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, and he passed away in 2007.
The symposium was enriched by participants Pawel Smoleñski , Wojciech Jagielski, and Wiktor Osiatynski from Poland, each of whom detailed their remembrances and the ways in which they were inspired, but the discussion was really about Kapuściński’s international impact. Monica Fabijańska, director of the Polish Cultural Institute, stressed the need in a global world for translators of culture to provide exchange where governments fall short. “I’m particularly happy that this discussion will be international,” she said, and one had a sense that the global journalism community was tuned in. Jane Ciabattari read a brief letter from a member of the Overseas Press Club who wished she could be in attendance:
“Wish I could be there! - I’m hardly alone in this, but when I discovered Another Day of Life while I was in Luanda covering the Angolan war in the late 1980s, I was so shaken to the core I could barely do any interviews—after reading that, what was the point? Every piece of journalism seemed rather pathetic. He’s been an inspiration ever since - there’s a special section of my bookshelf where I have all his books. Bravo for
Signed. Vivienne Walt, with Time magazine in Paris
Jane went on to suggest what today’s readers are looking for in nonfiction: “We live in a time of paradox, when news of a bombing in Mumbai filters out in 140-character Twitter bursts, yet readers yearn for long-form narratives that provide context, meaning, and sublime imaginative leaps.”
Participating here were Pawel Smolenski, Joshua Clark, Eliza Griswold, Arif Jamal, and Elizabeth Rubin, and the first question called upon them to discuss how they came to their subjects, their experience “on the ground,” and as individuals, how they put themselves into the landscape of their stories.
Pawel Smolenski, author of Hell in Paradise, a series of articles on post-Saddam Iraq, was first to ask the question of how the panelists came to their subjects “on the ground,” how as individuals they put themselves into the landscape of their stories. For him, it started in finding out from his translator in Baghdad “what is mutual that he and I have”, and concluded that “even though our lives are so different, we both spent them in an authoritarian country.”
Joshua Clark, author of Heart Like Water, a memoir of Katrina that was a finalist for the NBCC award in autobiography, stated that he learned from Kapuściński the value of the truth found in the devices of fiction.
Eliza Griswald, author of the forthcoming The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From The Fault Line Between Christianity And Islam, found her expectations to do a typical travelogue thwarted over the course of the project, as she found herself forced to contend with 2,000 years of history.
And while Arif Jamal, author of The Shadow War: The Untold Story Of Jihad In Kashmir, struggled with the inability to tell the whole story, New York Times journalist Elizabeth Rubin, who was embedded with an infantry unit in Afghanistan, found herself searching for meaning in the senselessness, as the soldiers she was with engaged in a battle they didn’t understand why they were fighting.
Asked how she found the narrative for a recent New York Times Magazine piece “Karzai in his Labyrinth,” Rubin explained how she discovered during the interview process Karzai’s ability to tell a great story; she became fascinated by the Afghan president as a character, by his ability to cry, his little-boy emotional state, and his desire to get out of power amidst unpopularity. She took the story further to ask what the U.S.’s keeping him in power says about us.
Smolenski, who devised a method of writing out memories to get at the essence of particular events, claimed to prefer conversations to interviews in the reporting process, and Clark, who as a resident of New Orleans, became increasingly involved in the story he was writing, while developing an oral history with an analogue tape recorder he took through the streets of the city.
In what Rubin said about her experience in Iraq, I though of Orwell’s description of World War I literature, which he drew in contrast to the narrow ideology of novels of the Spanish Civil War: “The books about the Great War were written by common soldiers or junior officers who did not even pretend to understand what the whole thing was about….They are saying in effect, ‘What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.’” As David Wykes noted in a 1983 essay for Virginina Quarterly Review, available in their archive, the myth that those books created for the successive generation caused a reactionary sense of heroism in those who wished they could have been there. It is frightening yet exciting to be in an age when authors and reporters who immerse themselves in their subjects, such as those who spoke on this panel, are unafraid to ask what it’s about.
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