I met the war reporter Janine di Giovanni more than a decade ago, when I was a new expatriate in Paris. Her bohemian apartment, half a block from the Tuilerie Gardens, was filled with journalists, writers, newspaper editors, and members of NGOs from places I had only read about. On the table were large bowls of pasta drenched in butter and truffles—she’s from a large Italian American family from New Jersey—and an inviting assortment of open bottles of red wine. Our children, both a year old, became best friends in the way only children can, and remain so to this day. Janine remains the only person I know who’s canceled a playdate with the excuse that she had “to go to Syria on Thursday.”
Known for her wrenching and immediate dispatches from Sarajevo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Syria for the London Times, Janine took an unusual road to war reporting. She went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction and completed a master’s degrees in comparative literature at the University of London. Her conversion to war reporting came, she says, when she saw a photograph of an Israeli soldier burying a Palestinian teen alive with a bulldozer full of sand. “It disturbed me horribly—so I went. I met a human-rights lawyer who took me to the refugee camps and said, If you have the ability to write about people who have no voice, then you have an obligation. And that was that.”
Giovanni is currently the Middle East editor of Newsweek. Her books include Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love; The Place at the End of the World: Essays from the Edge; Against the Stranger, about the effect of occupations during the first intifada on both Palestinians and Israelis; and The Quick and The Dead, about the siege of Sarajevo. Her latest, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, is out this week. I spoke with her reporter-style by Skype—I reached her in Paris, where she still lives.
The stories you tell are steeped in tragedy—the death of a child, the violent torture of a prisoner of war. How do you conceive of your reader, who is, after all, not a war reporter and isn’t used to this?
My attitude is, I hope readers are upset by this. That’s what I want to do, shock them out of their complacency. But I’m not doing it deliberately. Some reviews of my latest book would say, There’s no holds barred, she tells these bitter stories incredibly graphically. But I just told my readers what my reporting had told me. I didn’t exaggerate, I didn’t add to anything. I didn’t have to.
So you feel you’re just reporting?
No, I don’t feel like I’m reporting, I feel like I’m a vessel. Of course a lot goes into that—having to find these specific people and gain their trust, which takes an awfully long time. It might look like I just showed up to the torture center and found this guy, but no, there were layers and layers and layers of searching for people and finding them and then gaining their trust and making sure that while you’re telling their story they’re not going to have a nervous breakdown.
Do you feel the enormous burden of doing right by them?
Sometimes the people I’m writing about are too weak, too frightened, too vulnerable, or too traumatized to stand up to their aggressors—their bullies, essentially. So this is my chance to be David against Goliath. But there’s a price to pay. In 1999, in Kosovo, I was doing a very long, in-depth story about systematic rape. I needed a translator who could go with me and talk to these women, who were denying that they had been raped. I needed to spend a month with them, get them to open up. The translator they offered was this young, beautiful woman. She was about twenty-four at the time, and we spent the next month together. She had been in a terrible attack in Pristina the day the war started. She was sitting in a café with her best friend and the Serb paramilitaries came and blasted the whole place with machine guns. She was the only survivor. She came to me essentially covered in shrapnel. So I said to her, Are you okay to do this? When you write about torture or rape, you need the detail, unfortunately, the minute detail. She said, Yes, I’m fine. A month passes and she’s getting stranger and stranger, and one night she has a total psychotic break. I get her to the doctor and it turns out that when she crossed to border to Albania, she was picked up by a truckload of farmers and gang-raped, she kept this all to herself. I worked for the Times of London at the time, and we got her to a psychiatric hospital in London, but she never recovered. To this day I’m in touch with her, and she’s still totally blacked out. When you do push people to their limit by asking them to tell their stories, is it good for them? Are we meant to strip away the layers of people’s vulnerability to get to the really raw bleeding part of it? Is that what’s most important? If someone doesn’t want to talk, I never push it. That’s why when you say I report, I don’t report. I’ve never been able to go up to a mother who lost her kid and ask, How does it feel? I wait for them to come to me when they’re ready to talk. It’s almost like being a shrink, in a way, because I don’t say a lot, I just listen.
How do you cope with the stress? I mean—are you broken?
Yes. How could I not be? Whenever I have to go give talks, people say to me, How do you stay sane? I tell them, Well, I’m a writer—that makes it so much easier than being a photographer or a cameraman, and we know it’s tougher for them because they don’t have the ability to kind of vomit it out afterward. I feel that sometimes it makes a big difference, the writing. It has influence on policy makers, it has power, it gives a voice to people who don’t often have one. It gives some justice to people who are utterly deprived of any kind of justice. I think that’s why people like Hassan, who had his intestines removed, want to talk to me. What happened to them is so horrendous that no one could believe it.
When you’re writing about such atrocities, how do you find the right words?
I sit down and it just pours out. It was always like that, even when I was back at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, writing fiction. I was just very disciplined about sitting down at the typewriter. Once I have an opening line, the words themselves flow out almost like I’m in a trance. For me, structure is more of a problem.
What do you mean by structure?
There’s so much to say. That’s why I’ve never been a good reporter, a newspaper reporter—putting all you have to say in two thousand words is bloody difficult. News people hate me for this, but I do think my best stuff has been in Granta because they give you eight thousand words. The best story I wrote, I think, is called “The Book of the Dead.” It was about a guy I knew during the war in Sarajevo, who was in the morgue and kept the list and the book of the dead. I went back to find him and he told me his story of the war, down to the fact that he discovered his own son on the slab.
Do you suffer from some sort of PTSD? What are the things that come up in your everyday life? I know you said you always want to have toilet paper …
For the longest time I didn’t feel safe. I just came back from Egypt, and I spent the whole week paranoid. It’s the kind of paranoia I’m totally used to, and I assume everyone else lives like this, but you don’t. You don’t think the secret police are going to come and bang down your door and drag you to jail.
But evil things happen everywhere. People are abused, emotionally abused, women are beaten up by successful wealthy husbands—a friend of mine had her nose broken by her husband—or people lose their jobs, people are gay and they’re trapped in marriages. All kind of shit happens to people and it’s not necessarily nice. I think there are all kinds of war zones, that’s what I mean. Do I feel safe right now, sitting in my flat? This is why I create nests. Wherever I am in the world, I make a nest. Even in my shitty little tent in Kosovo. I spread out my sleeping bag, I lay my little things neatly around. I bring something that’s not pretty, but it smells good, or something I can keep in my hand. I’ve always done that. As a result, my “real life” in my Paris flat feels safe.
Have you ever had a situation that’s too awful to describe?
No. I’ve heard stories of mothers forced to watch their daughters being raped and brothers forced to watch their sisters being raped. The way I tell it, in terms of technique, is just to tell it. Stories like that are so awful, sometimes it’s like a drumroll, the way I tell it. Because I think the words and the story itself are so powerful that they don’t need any kind of technique from me.
Once in Sierra Leone, during the fall of Freetown, child soldiers were cutting off people’s hands and arms and they would ask you, Short sleeves or long sleeves? If you said short sleeves, they would cut off your hand. If you said long sleeves they would cut off your arm at your elbow. I met a girl—they all had noms de guerre, the child soldiers—and she was called Queen Cut Hands, because she had cut more people than anyone. She’d amputated six-month-old babies, innocent teachers. It was all civilians they amputated, it was a way of saying, You will be a grotesque symbol of what we can do. It’s all about installing fear, which is what rape is, too, by the way. When you rape entire villages, it’s a way of making the rest of the population terrified. When I was sitting talking to her, the hair at the back of my neck was standing up because I knew I was in the presence of evil. I met her in a camp that these Jesuit priests had set up to rehabilitate kids, child soldiers. They said to me before, I don’t think we can get through to her, ever. And when she was telling me how she did it, in detail, she was full of glee. It’s like she was getting excited by it. I just sat there and I thought, I hate her, but at this moment I’m going to reserve any kind of judgment and I’m going to write exactly what she’s telling me. I don’t have to pass judgment on her while I’m writing because what she’s saying is so evil and so graphic and so grotesque that readers themselves will get that.
How does your reporting from war zones translate into your book-length projects?
As I said, I was always a writer, never a reporter. I came out of Iowa thinking I was going to write fiction for the rest of my life. At twenty-four, I wanted to write like Flannery O’Connor, about these freakish, grotesque sides of life. I used newspapers as a way of getting there, but that was never my thing. Whenever I would go, I would have a commission from Granta and I’d have a book deal. So I would gather the notebooks. In Bosnia it took four years, in this case it took five years. I write down everything, and when I can’t write down stuff—I never record—because it’s too delicate or it would break down the rapport that we have together, I go home at night and I lie in my bed and I write pretty extended notes. I do my best writing in bed. Writing a book is a bit like being pregnant—it’s a long process and you don’t get to deliver until the very end. A newspaper piece of six or seven hundred words is actually harder for me. Luckily my newspaper experience was with the British press, which had a very different take on writing. They were at the forefront of narrative nonfiction.
Which war reporters have influenced you?
I’d say Martha Gellhorn, as much as I wouldn’t like to admit it, because she wasn’t a really nice person. But she had this amazing eye for detail, and she focused on the human side of war, but she managed to pull in the whole big picture. She very much wrote like a novelist. James Fenton wrote a piece called “The Fall of Saigon,” which had a huge influence on me. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, definitely. It’s very dated now—it’s that late sixties-style writing. But you get a great sense that he’s there on the ground with these guys, going with them, alongside them. You also have a sense of the writer’s voice, the writer’s presence. I always get annoyed when people write about themselves endlessly, because I’m like, it’s not about you, it’s about them! But I like knowing that the writer’s there with me. The greatest war stories in a sense come from Homer—The Iliad and The Odyssey, the yearning to get home, the separation, the nostalgia for peacetime, the bloodiness of war. And the classics, like Euripides’s The Trojan Women, Herodotus’s The History—in a sense I think that’s what great reportage is. You have to tell the whole story. Rebecca West wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon during peacetime, and it’s a journey through Yugoslavia between two wars. It wasn’t war reporting but it had a huge influence on me. She had a great brain. She pulled in so many aspects of sociology, ethnology, culture, anthropology, literature, language, and put it together in an enormous, beautifully written package. More recently, I read The Sorrow of War by the Vietnamese writer Bảo Ninh. It’s actually a novel, but it’s about his experience as part of a child brigade on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War. They were called the glorious twelve, and it ends with almost all of them dead. When I went to Hanoi I met him, years later, and he was such a broken man. I met him in his apartment at ten in the morning and he was already drunk, talking about the war as if it were in the present. He was unable to escape the past. I think if you were a child soldier you wouldn’t be able to—that kind of yearning for the dead, the phantoms and the ghosts that haunted him.
What’s the main distinction between war reporting and other kinds of reporting?
There’s freedom in it, in being able to go to all these places. I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a police officer, I don’t work for the UN, I’m not an official, so I can talk to people. I can do whatever I want. No one is going to say to me, You can’t go there, you can’t do that, you can’t do this. But all that freedom means a lot of insecurity. But what I like the most, as corny as it sounds, is the ability to give people a voice. Their loneliness and isolation during wartime is so huge, they think the world has forgotten them. I’m saying, You’re not forgotten, I’m here. The other day I was talking online to these guys inside Darra, a besieged city in Syria, and they were writing to me, The power is going down. Or, Right now they’re shelling. And I wrote, Courage, you are not alone. I think these four words, you are not alone, are the most powerful in the human language. I think they basically transcend everything. That’s what I write most about, is being able to say, You are not alone.
Susannah Hunnewell is publisher of The Paris Review.