I had a chance to sit down last week with Anna Badkhen in Washington, D.C., to talk about her two books out this year, “Peace Meals” and “Waiting for the Taliban” (an e-book), both narrative nonfiction treatments of the effects of war on civilians. Badkhen grew up in Russia and did her first reporting for the English-language Moscow Times and St. Petersburg Times before moving to the U.S. in 2004. In the last decade, she has reported on conflict and disaster in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North America for the San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy, The New Republic and The Boston Globe. Here, she discusses the role of the war correspondent, the recipes she integrated into “Peace Meals” and storytelling in a second language.
So you have these two books, “Waiting for the Taliban” and “Peace Meals: Candy-Wrapped Kalashnikovs and Other War Stories.” Which book idea came first?
“Peace Meals.” I started working on it in 2008; it went through the full book cycle. I sent the final draft in December of 2009, and it came out October 2010, so that’s 10 months and a bit between me sending the first version and the finished product.
Whereas “Waiting for the Taliban” was basically me going to Afghanistan to write a series of dispatches for Foreign Policy magazine in April and May. I came back, and Susan Glasser, the editor of Foreign Policy said, “Hey, I’m looking at this, and it looks like a book to me. Let’s do an e-book.” That book came out in September. So that was completely different, much faster and unexpected. I did not go to Afghanistan thinking I would write an e-book.
You’ve got these distinct chapters in “Peace Meals,” basically one story, one place, one recipe.
Technically, more than one story for one place sometimes, and sometimes more than one recipe, too.
Can you say more about the structure?
The book is bookended, so to speak, with two chapters about people who are very important friends of mine. Two of them are very important friends of mine, and one of them was killed. But in the middle of the book, between those two chapters, the book is arranged chronologically, more or less.
So, chronologically following the way I covered conflicts and disasters over the last decade – the Bush decade– the book is a summary, a travelogue of the Bush decade in a way.
Were there particular works that inspired you? Was there a template in your head, something that would have the same feel or relate stories in the same way?
No, but there were definitely templates in the way I wanted to tell the stories. I wanted them to be very human, and I wanted to be not self-serving. It was very important to me that it not be the typical narcissistic “here are the conflicts I covered” and “look at me and how great I am” book that, sadly, journalists sometimes write. I wanted it to be very accessible to people who are not necessarily interested in global affairs and diplomacy, who may not be interested in convoluted geopolitical processes.
I wanted it to be very accessible to American readers, because I wanted to show the humanity that exists outside the borders of this country. I think we very often forget about it. I think we very often see conflicts or other people who live in countries where there are conflicts as these very two-dimensional, almost these cardboard cutouts stenciled against the battlefields that are so inaccessible to us. I wanted to show the people in say, Afghanistan and Iraq, as humans, with desires, hopes and disappointments that are very similar to ours.
So addressing the first part of your answer, where you mentioned not wanting it to have some of the more unpleasant aspects that war correspondents’ accounts can have, I thought you made really interesting use of humor and comic touches in the book. Was that a deliberate strategy of not wanting to come across as a blowhard?
I don’t know.
You hid a Prince lyric in the text.
There’s an Xzibit lyric in there, too! They’re topical. War is not all grief. Wars are horrible, but the main message that I wanted to the book to convey is that we remain human, and we retain our humanity in war zones. And part of our humanity is making light of things. Otherwise, how do you survive?
War reporters have this really dark sense of humor, and we can make jokes about some really devastating subjects, because that is our survival mechanism. I tried to avoid doing that in the book, because it can sometimes be disrespectful. I don’t think I go into the disrespectful with the book, but there are things that are funny, like the guy in Afghanistan. I hired him to help me with security, and he looked like Prince, talked like Prince, acted like Prince, and like a prince as well. So we nicknamed him “Prince.” I’m not sure he was ever introduced to us by name. He had this big Playboy bunny belt buckle, and immediately became “Prince.”
It felt like a strategy you turned more often on yourself to keep the reader from taking you too seriously, even though the actual stories ask to be taken seriously –
I want the stories to be taken seriously, but I definitely don’t deserve to be taken seriously myself. I’m an outsider. I come in and spend a month there, or six weeks, and then I leave, but there are people who live in extremity, who have to continue living there. They have no choice but to be there.
Our inadequacy as their storytellers always struck me. We do our best to tell the stories, but at the end of the day, we come in with our backpacks and our water bottles, and then we leave. And people stay without water bottles and without backpacks and without shelter or food, and yet we are somehow telling their stories. It’s humbling, how people persevere in extreme situations and how inadequate we are, these professional intruders. So yeah, you have to make fun of yourself. You can’t take yourself too seriously. You’re not the one who’s going to stay and try to raise children there. You’re going to take notes and file and get the hell out of there.
I’m trying to picture the pitch for this book proposal: “Hey, it’s a litany of death and conflict and tragedies that might have been avoided but weren’t. And there’s humor in it! And recipes!” Were publishers interested right away – did they get it?
I have a wonderful agent, and she sold this book in a month. This is the first [book] I’ve ever written – I don’t know if that’s too long or right away.
That seems pretty quick.
It is a travelogue about war and food and humanity, although that’s not how we pitched it. I must admit that in the proposal, my role was much more … what’s the word I’m looking for? Exaggerated?
Sensationalized, yes. And I did that for the sake of selling the book.
So, you were a female Rambo in the original proposal?
No, I was not a female Rambo!
Nothing so extreme?
No, God forbid. Professionals were telling me that people would want to know more about what it’s like to be me there, and I’m decidedly not interested in telling people what it’s like to be me there. Again, I go back to safety. I’m not important.
My biggest worry about us here is that we look at other places to look at ourselves, to validate ourselves. We look at other places for validation. So we look at the conflict in Afghanistan, the conflict in Iraq, most of the stories we get from there are stories about us. Here’s what we’re doing, here’s how we’re suffering. Or, “this is what life is like for American Marines.”
Some of these stories are amazing, and all of these stories are very important. But between four and five thousand American troops were killed in Iraq, and up to 1 million Iraqi civilians, in the last seven years,* and we are just looking at ourselves in the looking glass of Iraq, rather than looking through the looking glass and seeing all these lives that were destroyed because of this war that we started.
So making the book about myself would have been just contributing to this litany of literature about “here’s us there.” It’s sort of like those postcards: Here’s me in front of the Eiffel Tower; here’s me in front of the pyramids; here’s me in front of the Tower of Babel. To be very frank with you, I am fed up with that. We’ve had enough. We’ve had some really good literature that came out of these wars that covers what it was like to be Americans in these wars, but I think that it’s disturbing how disproportionate our attention is. The focus on ourselves is very, very depressing, but we just keep looking at ourselves.
You’re hoping to get people through the mirror to see what else is going on there?
Precisely. Which is why food is so important, because it is the one common denominator everyone can relate to. Everybody eats, if they’re lucky. If they don’t eat, they die. Everybody wants to eat. Everybody gets hungry. Everybody can be interested in food. “What do they eat there? How do they eat there?”
The idea of putting recipes into the book allows an American high school math teacher, or a housewife, or a taxi driver, or a construction worker or a divorce lawyer to cook that meal and say, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to be eating in Afghanistan, to be eating in Kenya, to be eating in Gaza” – except that you’re also safe at home, and bullets aren’t whizzing past you while you eat.
Did you worry about being typecast as the woman who writes a recipe book, or was it so direct a route to what you wanted to do that you didn’t think twice about it?
Well, I know I used to flinch a little when people said “the cookbook.” And I stopped, because, God bless them, let them buy this as a cookbook, as long as they read it. If that’s how it gets through to you, please go ahead and buy this as a cookbook. Give it to your mother, and share it as a cookbook. It is! The recipes are real. It doesn’t disturb me.
You’ve been reporting for almost 15 years, and you’ve been a war correspondent for a decade of that. Do you see yourself as primarily a war correspondent? As a writer?
I think of myself as someonewho tells stories of people who rarely get heard, be that from Afghanistan or New Orleans the day after Hurricane Katrina flooded it, or northeastern Kenya where people don’t get enough food because of climate change – people whose voices aren’t heard, for one reason or another, those who live on the edges of the world as far as we are concerned here in America. That’s what’s important to me, to be able to tell these stories. I’m a writer who tells these stories. As you can hear, I’m not a public speaker…
So you’re primarily a storyteller. How have you changed as a storyteller in these last 10 or 15 years? Do you feel your style is different, or your outlook has changed in any fundamental way?
I’d like to think that I change every day. As soon as we become static, it means that our hearts are closed, and we can’t experience things. We need to be vulnerable to everything we see; otherwise, we’re useless as storytellers, because then we don’t feel the story. As a writer, I went from being 20 to being 35, so hopefully I have matured as a writer and probably grown more attentive to language – I mean this is my entire adult life we’re talking about.
Russian was your first language?
Though I never wrote for a newspaper in Russian.
But as a child, you spoke Russian?
So what is that like to do your primary writing in your second language? You write very fluidly.
It has stopped being my second language. I’m more fluent in English, and it’s horrifying, because my English has got a ways to go. But I’m more comfortable in English speaking and talking, because I’ve been thinking and speaking in English for so many years. I definitely had, maybe about 10 years ago, I had some struggles with grammar that I had to work very hard to overcome.
I think that being a foreigner and having learned the language rather than growing up with it makes me very attentive to it. So maybe I’m a little bit more careful. It’s like you’ve been given something to hold that’s precious, because language is precious, but you know you’re sort of borrowing it, and it’s not quite yours, so you handle it with extra care. That’s how I feel about the English language.
Is there anything we should know about “Peace Meals” that we haven’t talked about today or that isn’t already out in the ether for people to read or find?
I don’t know. People ask me why I go to these places. I go to these places because I think I feel life more fully there. Here, we’re surrounded with all this stuff, with all these walls we build around ourselves: digital walls, physical walls, whereas when you go to a place where people can’t afford to have walls, the generosity, the love, fills every space that isn’t filled by grief and conflict. I know that we have it here, too, but we just don’t express it because we’re busy. We need to find a parking spot, we need to pick our kids up from karate, we’re just too busy doing our daily things, doctor’s appointments. Seeing it in Afghanistan, seeing it in Chechnya gives me hope not just for these places but for all of us.
I know that everybody in this room, everybody on this street has it as well, but we’re just hiding it, because it’s not expedient, but we all have it. That is a very good feeling, to know that we all have these qualities of generosity and love we can share. New Orleans is a great example, because when it became a place in extremity, people opened up. When there were no walls, when the walls were washed away and neighbors were rescuing neighbors, people did things that I saw people do on a daily basis in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, because they had nothing to hide behind. It’s good, it’s good. As a race, we’ll live.
[For more on how Foreign Policy Editor-in-Chief Susan Glasser turned Badkhen's series of dispatches into the magazine's first ebook, check out Laura McGann's September post over at Nieman Lab, or see Glasser's piece on revamping Foreign Policy's website in the latest issue of Nieman Reports.]
*For more information on casualty estimates among U.S. troops and all Iraqis, see this NPR graphic, which continues through 2009 for U.S. fatalities and offers end dates between 2005 and 2009 in estimates of Iraqi deaths.