Nieman Class of 2011
Thompkins started her journalism career as a reporter and editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and then moved into a 15-year run at NPR, first in Washington, D.C., and then in East Africa. She was the senior editor at “Weekend Edition Saturday” for a decade, ending in 2006, and during her time in news radio reported stories from nearly every continent. In 2009, she delivered the Nieman Foundation’s Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture, which honors the Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent who was killed in 1979 while covering the Iranian Revolution in Tehran. Her presentation wasn’t some stuffy affair, though. She referenced courage and horror but also Aretha Franklin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, a bearded lady, a black Bing Crosby, and whether certain encounters and observations belonged in her stories. She had decided they should. “Those silly little details are what make us real,” she told her audience. “So I think it should all go in. And sometimes it’s the best way to challenge the listener’s assumptions about how reporting should be done in the third world. The listeners love to write, ‘What about the suffering people?’ And they seem to want some kind of eulogy. They seem to want to sit there and cry, cry, cry about those poor Africans. And my reaction is to say, ‘Get off the cross lady. Somebody needs the wood.’” After her Nieman Fellowship, Thompkins returned to her native New Orleans, to teach and to begin the next phase of her storytelling life. Last year, she began hosting a new weekly WWNO radio show called Music Inside Out with Gwen Thompkins, which explores the music and musical culture of Louisiana, and which, she has said, is “me kissing the ground that my plane landed on.” In telling the stories of Louisiana’s musical heritage, Thompkins unearths insights that transcend storytelling genres. Her talk with the singer/songwriter/master guitarist Sonny Landreth, for instance, produced a moment of craft wisdom that might just as easily apply to the classics of longform narrative: “My songwriting heroes wrote songs that, to me, stood the test of time. I figured out it’s pretty easy to write a song. But can you write one that you’ll actually still want to listen to a week later, not to mention a year later or five or 10 years later?” With a background in both print and audio, Thompkins gets how a good story behaves, and what it can and should conjure, and she tells her own stories with evident awareness of what’s important in life. Her voice is so melodic and full she should record children’s bedtime stories as a sideline. Oh, and bonus: There’s always a playlist.
>A transcript of her Joe Alex Morris Jr. Lecture speech at the Nieman Foundation, Feb. 5, 2009. Excerpt:
There are the obvious dangers of the road … the stray bullets in Somalia or eastern Congo. And then there are the guns that are trained right on you in Sudan or in Kenya, when the last presidential election was called.
But there are other dangers. In Somalia, I’ve seen men whip women with saplings. In Ethiopia, I’ve seen a man hit a woman so hard with a wooden stick, I heard the sound of her head crack through the closed windows of the car. In Kenya, I saw a mob of guys with arrows and sticks moving toward a man who had no idea he was going to die that day.
Before going to Africa, I hadn’t been in a fight since Nigel Fields re-arranged my teeth in the fifth grade. In two years in Africa, I’ve been in two fights – one with a six-foot-four Dinka in southern Sudan and the other with the head of security at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi. Part of the reason, of course, is that I’m not very bright and both times, I should have walked away. Those guys could have beaten me like an old, dusty rug.
But truth is, I’m just not going to let some Joe push me around. Truth is I don’t want to kill anything in Africa, but sometimes I do want to brush back a few people here and there. A fighting spirit is probably what’s gotten me this far in the world. But I am, of course, well aware that the same fighting spirit will likely take me out of this world one day. So do what I say and not what I do. Walk away.
>“Giovanna Joseph and OperaCréole,” about Creole composers and singers and how they fit into the musical history in the city that built the continent’s first opera house — with a dash of James Brown, Lena Horne, Jacques Offenbach and Mary J. Blige:
>“Music Inside Out’s Greatest Hits,” some of Season 1’s best work: “We’ve got Irma Thomas. We’ve got Reggie Scanlan. We’ve got Allen Toussaint, Sonny Landreth, Deacon John, Don Vappie, Susan Cowsill, Givonna Joseph, John Boutté, and the fussin’ and fightin’ David Torkanowsky and Jeremy Davenport,” Thompkins writes. “Turns out, this first season could not have been cuter:”
>“Return to New Orleans: Ponchartrain Park,” NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” about going home after Hurricane Katrina, which materially cost her everything but “six plates, seven water glasses, four cups and saucers, a platter and a tureen with a broken handle.” Listen:
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.