Reporting as a foreignerBill Radtke hosts “The Record,” a daily in-depth interview program on KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate. This past February, before coronavirus upended everything we once considered the top issues of the day, he spoke with author Isabel Allende about her latest book, “A Long Petal of the Sea.”
I haven’t read the book, which is the expansive story of two people who flee the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s looking for refuge and a sense of home. I first heard the interview this week, on a long drive through the mountains from one place of isolation to another. Two things — an as-yet-unread book based in an event I know little about, and a months-old interview — might have made the conversation feel irrelevant in the crucible of COVID.
The opposite was true. Allende and Radtke spoke of the fragility of democracies in the face of determined fascism, of the rising refugee crisis around the world, and of the insecurity and disorientation that faces anyone displaced from what they know of as home.
The full interview is worth a listen, but what caught my attention most is how Allende talked about fiction vs. nonfiction, and how much her fiction depends on real life. One moment, especially, which comes with 5:13 left in the 22-minute interview, made me go back and listen again and again. She is talking about the difference between being an immigrant, a refugee and an exile. At age 77, she defines herself as all of the above at some point, but now as none. She is, she says, a “foreigner.” Her definition of that is a great statement on the role of a storyteller, whether, whether they work in the world of fiction or nonfiction:
“It’s good for a writer. Because it gives you perspective. When you belong in a place for too long, you take everything for granted. You don’t question anything. You know the rules. You know the codes. But when you’re a foreigner, you’re always observing and listening because you want to understand. You ask. And in the asking, you get the stories.”
I have long believed that all reporting needs to be foreign reporting. No matter whether we’re covering a story on the other side of the world or across the street, we are visitors in that world, and need to see it not through the prism of our own experiences and assumptions, but to observe and ask about the experience of those we are writing about.
Reporting the way to empathyOver a career immersed in stories, I realize I hear echoes. They show up everywhere — in conversations with friends, in history, in novels, in movies, and especially in journalism. They remind me how history is not always in the past, how someone else’s experience is also mine, and how the reporting we do is always about others — but that others are us.
An echo came this week in an end-of-year note from a member of a writing group I’m part of. The woman who posted it is a trained scientist who now writes about science — and hikes in the mountains and bakes with her children and sings in her church and plays music. She leads all of that with the challenging questions of a scientific mind — something that’s not always comfortable, for her or those she questions, but is a hallmark of good journalism.
The prelude to her note said it was “something that captured me … and will continue to guide my work as a truth seeker and storyteller.”
Then this, with a link to the Nieman Storyboard post where she first read it:
“Report your way to empathy. If you can’t see the world through your subject’s eyes, the answer is more reporting.” —Evan Ratliff