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

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, 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 fourteen 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 as a warning to us all. What Janine 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 the Workshop, which was extraordinarily helpful, which serves me basically every day of my life—is to accept rejection. Literally every week, I was around some very competitive writers, and everyone’s goal is to get published, whether or not it is 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.

Janine di Giovanni

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 Kathrine 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, I think—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 naïve 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 25 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.

Janine di Giovanni

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 the next. For instance, I’ve just come from the UN General Assembly, and the week before I had been in Kurdistan with the Yazidi people, with a lot of women who had been released from captivity from ISIS, had been gang-raped, and sold to ISIS in an auction. Horrible stories. I went to New York, and this woman, Nadia Murad, was being paraded around the General Assembly. She is the face of the Yazidis. So my editor—I was writing a piece for Vogue about the Yazidis—she wanted me to go meet her because she’s been represented by Amal Clooney, and it fits the kind of Vogue genre.

I met her at the Carlyle Hotel, which seemed slightly incongruous with what she’d gone through. She just sat there, so exhausted and so in shock from being taken from Sinjar Mountain to New York City, to the UN General Assembly, to the Carlyle Hotel. She just looked at me. I realized that I wasn’t going to get any story from her: it wasn’t the right place, it wasn’t the right setting, it wasn’t the right moment. If I had been with her in Northern Iraq, in her home, in her village, with her people, we would have sat and drunk tea and talked. But sitting and drinking a thirty-dollar green tea in the Carlyle restaurant with her just staring at me, it made me feel like a vulture. And that is something that as a writer of narrative nonfiction reportage I always try to avoid, because it makes you feel ashamed to be human.

I’ll never forget one situation in Iraq: There was a little boy who had been hit by a smart bomb. He was really burnt, and he was in the hospital. There was this Australian TV crew—I am not here labeling any nationality, but they were just at the bedside saying, “How do you feel?” and “How did this happen?” You’re never going to get the truth that way, or you would never get what really happened, the complexity of truth. So I really freeze in those situations. The same with interviewing heads of states or celebrities: it’s just not my thing. I could sit with a head of state for hours and hours and get absolutely nothing out of them, because I don’t know the right questions to ask. They would lie to my anyway.

But if I’m in a refugee camp, or if I’m in the field, it’s more truthful. I know that Margaret Mead was not an honest person—as we now know—and her research was flawed, but I often feel, without sounding too grand, that what I do is much more akin to anthropological work except that I am not observing a species. I want to become a part of their world for a short period of time so that I can be empathetic. The real attribute of being a war reporter—and whatever I am, I don’t call myself a war reporter—isn’t courage: it’s empathy, the ability to just feel. How would I feel if my children were sold in auction? How would I feel if my village was bombed, and I was an illiterate woman with five 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.