This week on Intersection, we’re talking about a book called Words Matter: Writing to Make a Difference, which is published by the University of Missouri press. It’s an anthology of journalism and essays written by Mizzou grads, mostly from the journalism school. There are also a bunch of presentations going on this week, where students and members of the public can talk with writers about – what else – writing. There’s information about those sessions at the Words Matter website.
Today on our show we’ll talk with magazine journalist, professor emerita and an editor of this book Mary Kay Blakely about how and why she took on this monumental task. We’ll also talk with Lois Raimondo and Shane Epping, two extraordinary journalists who contributed their writing, and with student Ginger Hervey, who has been working on this collection since her freshman year.
Listen to the full show:
Shane Epping on working with parents suffering a terrible loss.
Lois Raimondo on the humanity that keeps her reporting
A selected transcription from our interview with Lois Raimondo.
So Lois, I wanted to start out just by asking you about this amazing friendship that you describe in your essay. You're a photojournalist, you're working in Afghanistan and you start working with essentially a fixer- a person who helps orient you and who interprets for you, named Massoud. How did you first meet him and how did your friendship begin?
Right, so when you first land in Afghanistan, or when at that point in time, I choppered in from the north of the country from Tajikistan because that was the only way to get into Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled all of the borders and you land literally in the middle of a deserted, rough mountain patch and a series of people on horseback and donkeys come out to meet you. And people were then ferried to a base camp where journalists were gathering which was really the Northern Alliance headquarters. Nothing was happening yet in terms of movement on the field, the battlefield. So the Americans had not yet started dropping bombs and so people were just in a waiting position. There was very little work in Afghanistan for people who, you know everyone was fighting the Taliban, so there were a number of people who had college educations who spoke some English who were finding their way to this base camp to try and look for temporary work so they would be paid by the day. So I actually went through a series of translators before I worked with Massoud. Another journalist, Margaret Ward from Irish TV and Radio had been working with him first. The first person I worked with was an Afghan doctor whose English was very good, but he was also extremely elitist, and if we went to interview a farmer or a woman he would say 'We're not going to talk to these people because they don't have anything to say.' So it was impossible of course to use him as a translator. Massoud, who had graduated from Kabul University with a degree in English, but had been, as he let me know, forced into being a soldier because there were no other options, always wanted to study literature and he loved learning languages and so he was planning just to take a couple of weeks and make a little money. But more than that, he really just wanted to keep learning and so Margaret and I became friends and we started working together in the field and we shared Massed and we could split the cost of the translator. Then when her money ran out and she left, I worked for the next two and a half months with Massoud on my own.
It's interesting that you say that experience almost, in these situations, can be not an advantage because you start to become, I suppose, comfortable in these really extremely dangerous situations, in a way.
Right. There are risks and then there are calculated risks. I know that for myself by the time I left Afghanistan. I mean we were in Talikan and a journalist had been killed in the middle of the night and so everybody evacuated, and my editors were telling me, 'Alright they sent a chopper in to evacuate.' There was one person from CBS News, the Washington Post correspondent was there at that point and everybody evacuated, but I wouldn't leave. You know, at that point, I was so into the story that, and when I say into the story what I mean by that is that, you know, you meet all of these people along the way who have been through such horrendous things. You know they've seen their families have been killed, or they've lost everything that they had materially, they've just had decades of injustice and they still are incredibly compassionate and kind and I think for me just absorbing sort of that reality, their reality, and seeing how brave they still were, for me, it was no sense of 'I'm the journalist and I'm here to tell a story,' but rather it was that I felt like it was the least I could do. My piece of this was to tell that story for them, right? Because if it were me, I don't imagine that if I had gone through what they do, I would have been as good a person. So I just felt that why would I leave now when they were in their most dire straits? It's sort of like I was witness to this extraordinary humanity and I felt like I had to stay. It wasn't a choice. So in that situation, you know, is that a case of somebody who's too experienced and got too comfortable? I think it's a little bit different in that I was certainly aware that we all were in imminent danger, but I felt like for me at that point in time, I was willing to risk everything to tell their story.
Do you stay in touch with Massoud now?
I do. It's funny, because I actually, I was in the hospital for, and it was all stress related, but I was in the hospital for a heart catheterization not too long ago and as I was waiting to go into the procedure and he called me from Afghanistan. So he always seems to, somehow he does it, but we do stay in touch. I mean it used to be more frequent but now at important moments, even if we just give a message to each other. But he now is a three star general and he's very high ranking in the Afghan government. And when I met him he thought all Americans were evil and he thought I was a prostitute because I was a woman traveling on my own and I was an American, and he did not think that there was anything about me that was worthy, probably. But he was always a man of peace and also a man of intense intellectual curiosity and compassion. So those things won out over all of the lessons he had learned in Medrassas in Pakistan and all of the retoric, and you know his compassion just blew a hole through all of that. So even when I was there, he risked his life many times to try and go in and negotiate with the Taliban so the women and children would be spared. Or when the Taliban went through the hospital in Talikan and tore it all up and they left and they took all of the blood and the wounded Taliban were brought back to that hospital the next day he went in to give them his blood. So throughout all of it he demonstrated that he was just a very kind person. So he's doing the same thing now today as a three star general. He's still trying to negotiate for peace, trying to solve conflict. It's a civil war, to some extent, although now of course there are outside forces coming into Afghanistan and it's much more splintered. But, you know, I think whether he's a three star general or translating for some rogue American reporter in the desert somewhere, he's the same exact person.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.