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Cynthia Gorney on embracing complexity “while maintaining a sense of justified outrage”

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Our latest Editors’ Roundtable looks at Cynthia Gorney’s story Too Young To Wed,” from the June issue of National Geographic. In addition to her work for National Geographic, Gorney is a professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Before joining the Berkeley faculty, she worked as the South American bureau chief for The Washington Post. She is the author of “Articles of Faith: A History of the Abortion Wars” and has written for many magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, Sports Illustrated, O: The Oprah Magazine, and the American Journalism Review. I talked with Gorney by phone this month about her story. In these excerpts from our conversation, she discusses being an “anti-investigative reporter,” finding a 5-year-old child bride, and using structure to balance hope and despair.

Did you pitch this story, or did National Geographic approach you about it?

I’ve been at the Geographic a little over five years. I do one piece a year for them. In my experience, one of the things that makes the magazine interesting is that the stories are more typically pitched by photographers, because figuring out what will make a good photographic narrative is trickier than figuring out what will make a good print narrative, due to issues of access and things like that.

So I’ve tossed ideas at them, but everything I have done for them to date has initially been cleared by the editors and the photographers, and then they have come to me and said, “We’d like you to do this.” And when they do that, typically what happens is that they will come to me with a humongously vague project idea, like this one: “Child marriage – go!”

This story was the passion of the photographer, Stephanie Sinclair, whose images are so amazing. She had been collecting images of child brides for almost a decade, I think, because she had become caught up in the issue in the course of an earlier assignment, which I believe was on violence against Afghan woman. I’m now forgetting what the original assignment was, but she had encountered young girls married off to older men and had documented this matter in a number of different countries over the years and finally had persuaded the Geographic to go for it.

My text editor, Barbara Paulsen, had been very strong on this story from the beginning, but the Geographic had worried that is was so depressing and difficult to document that they had apparently taken some persuading. And then finally we got the assignment in late 2008. Geographic has the longest lead time of any place I’ve ever heard of.

How did you walk that ethnographer’s line: remaining nonjudgmental enough to try to understand differences between child bride customs in different parts of the world, yet willing to describe one tradition involving men “who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward”? How do you find that vantage point between the two communities?

That’s a fabulously well-put question, because we had, in retrospect, an amusing exchange on this issue that was unlike any I’ve had in previous assignments. I come from a background as a reporter of loving to take on things that are complicated because they’re complicated. My biggest work has been in abortion reporting, and the thing I’ve always done is take it on as a complex prism issue and trying to write with equal interest and accuracy and passion from the perspective of people on all sides.

So my working model for lots of kinds of reporting is, “Life is complicated. Things are really complicated.” Our job is to explain that in a way that at least in theory people will understand. That’s part of the reason I’m kind of the anti-investigative reporter. My deal is not to go “this bad thing, this bad thing,” but rather to say “this complicated thing, this complicated thing.” They know that about me, and they like that about me, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in my previous pieces at the Geographic.

So my editor, Barbara, calls me and says, “We want you to do a piece on child marriage.” The first thing out of my mouth is, “This is not complicated, this is really simple. These people should all be shot.” And she started laughing, and said, “No, I think you’re going to get out there and find that it’s actually kind of complicated.” I said, “No! It’s not complicated.” Later, of course, we both laughed about this, because it took me about 15 minutes of climbing into the subject matter to realize how extraordinarily complicated it is.

How did you handle that complexity as a storyteller?

Just as you put your finger on it, my challenge was trying to find this balance between making clear how complicated it is, while maintaining a sense of justified outrage. Outrage is not an emotion that I almost ever get into in the kind of reporting that I do. I don’t find it useful for my general life mission of trying to write about complicated things. This, on the other hand is pretty frigging outrageous, right?

I have quite a bit of experience reporting overseas. I’ve been a foreign bureau chief in South America, I’ve done a fair amount of reporting in other countries and other languages, but I am also lucky enough that I have typically been able to do my overseas reporting in a language in which I’m fluent, which is Spanish. It’s not that I necessarily have cultural roots in all the places I’ve been in, but part of my family is Mexican, so I feel some kind of familiarity in a lot of cultures I’m working in.

This, I knew, would be completely different for me. I was a total outsider. I wanted to try as best I could to remain completely conscious of that all the way through, while at the same time trying to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. That’s a very tricky balance to try to negotiate for any foreign correspondent. And it’s not just for foreign correspondents – it’s for anybody working outside their own cultural and linguistic comfort zones. There are certainly parts of the United States where I would have had the same issues.

I’m in my late 50s, and one of the things I’ve learned about being a reporter over the years is that the older I get, the more conscious I am of my own ignorance and my own beginner status at any kind of new subject matter that I walk into. When I was young, like a lot of reporters, I was all full of myself and thinking, “I can learn anything really fast, because that’s what reporters do.”

We all know that, we’re all really familiar with it, either as editors and writers. It’s where most of the screw-ups come from. The arrogance is really good in some ways, but it’s really problematic in others. I think if you’re lucky enough to grow up as a reporter and gain some a little bit of experience and wisdom, one of the main things you learn is what a beginner you are, over and over again, and how much other people understand things a lot better than you, and how your job is to get them to explain it to you.

This was a kind of super-exaggeration of that phenomenon. I literally did not speak the language. I’m not accustomed to working with an interpreter. I got really good interpreters – I was lucky in that way. When you work with an interpreter, the interpreter’s job is a lot more than language. You know you’re not getting nuances of what people are saying. You’re only scratching the surface, and all that just somehow has to be incorporated into your understanding of what you’re getting, and then what you write as you write it, so that you can try to be as transparent as possible for the people who are reading you.

You mentioned in an email that you felt like you hadn’t gotten as much narrative in this story as you normally like to. Can you talk about the challenges of weaving narrative into a story with such a large scope?

Anybody who’s been a writer or an editor can see reading that story what the challenges are. You’ve been given this worldwide phenomenon. When you’re sitting there tearing your hair out in clumps, what you’re doing is thinking, “OK, I have to explain Islam. Oh, no – I don’t have to do that, but I feel like I have to. And the entire history of India. And when they banned child marriage. And the fact that Gandhi had a child bride, except that he later grew up to be against child marriage.” You’re going nuts with fact, and the feeling that there’s all this encyclopedic stuff that you have to try to learn to do this.

In this case, it felt more daunting to me than ever, because each young woman or girl’s story was so astonishing to me to learn, and my job was to get multiple stories, not a single one. And my job was also to explain nuance and complication and counter the very impulse that I’d had at the beginning of the assignment, which was to say that there is nothing complicated about this: “These people should all be shot.” Trying to do all of those things in one not-very-long chunk – initially 6,000 words and then under 5,000 – was really difficult.

In order to understand what’s going on in Yemen now, you have to tell the Nujood Ali story, a story which has already been told at some length, but that National Geographic readers probably won’t be familiar with. You want to start with something that will pull them in and be real. You’re trying in each case not to make it simple, to make clear that much of what seems so antiquated, so repressive and so dreadful comes from a sense of loyalty to tradition and also parental love and protection. And also, to my mind, an irrational and destructive obsession with purity and virginity for women. So trying to separate all of that out and string it together in a narrative that makes sense and is not just confusing to the reader is a hellacious challenge.

The opening graf introduces readers to an unbelievably young bride on her wedding night, while the closing graf brings in another young bride who died after her wedding night. In between you give us two stories of hope. Is that the way you thought of framing it?  How did you come to that structure?

Initially, we talked about structuring the story around people who are working in the communities to try to prevent this practice, partly because we thought that would be less incredibly depressing, and partly because it would give us easier access, frankly.

I doubt very much I would have gotten to that opening wedding in the story if it hadn’t been for Stephanie’s obsessive need to photograph an Indian wedding involving an extremely young girl. She knew that those take place, and we also knew that they were extremely difficult to get to, because they’re very secretive and always take place at night. As we said in the piece, they’re usually sneaked into what are portrayed as weddings of slightly older girls.

We had already been to the wedding of an older girl, who was like 12 or 13. And Stephanie was absolutely determined that she was going to get to an infant or a little girl wedding. I had said, “This is not going to happen. We are not going to be able to do it.” And she said, “It is going to happen. It is going to happen.” And just by tenaciousness and sticking around and asking over and over again and getting to a waiter who knew someone who knew someone out in this village, eventually we got there. She was right. We got to it, and it happened.

As a writer, sometimes you walk into a situation, and you’re like, “Oh, this is the lede.” I know something is the lede when I realize it’s the most powerful way that I can pull people into my subject matter. Had we not gotten to that wedding, the lede probably would have been something comparable, but it would have been something less shocking to an outside reader, because it would have been a 12-year-old. That’s still not something you want to be looking at, but it’s not quite as “AAGH!” as a 5-year-old.

You knew right away that would be the lede, then?

That was pretty clear. I knew before then that it would be something like that, but it didn’t happen until quite late. I didn’t know about the Yemeni girl who died until later either. I didn’t want to end it fully on a note of hope, because that felt false to me. But I also didn’t want to end it fully on a note of this is sooo horrible and these girls are being smashed into oblivion around the world. I did want to convey the idea that it’s a huge problem, that it’s not going away, but there are very considerable and sometimes effective measures underway to try to deal with it. That’s the ultimate message that I wanted to leave people with.

In order to do that, you enter the story. When did you know that you would make use of the first person?

Whether you use first person or not is partly a function of what the typical practice of your outlet is. The typical practice at National Geographic and my other main outlet, the New York Times Magazine, are what I refer to as the “narrative I.” You are not really an individual in this story, with characteristics and a personality. You almost serve a grammatical function. You place the reader: “How and where was this said?” “He told me.” It’s a very New Yorker-y kind of function, too. Most magazines are comfortable with that or welcome it, or in some cases prefer it.

I have heard through a mutual friend, although I don’t know her well, that Katherine Boo, the great poverty writer for the New Yorker, gets into a little bit of a head-butt sometimes with her editors because she likes to completely write herself out of the stories, and they want her more in. This is secondhand, but we do share a mutual very good friend.

She wrote that fantastic magazine piece for which she won the National Magazine Award about seven years ago – “The Marriage Cure” – a piece that made every writer I know want to hang up their tools and go do something else for a living because it was so gorgeous. She does not appear anywhere in that piece, despite the fact that she’s clearly more or less living with these people for many weeks on end. I gather that was Kate just insisting that she did not want to be in the piece.

For my purposes, I find it more transparent and more comfortable to the reader, especially when you’re doing something like hanging out at an illegal wedding, to be in the story a little. To me the reader is going “Where are you? What are you doing? How can I trust you?” In addition, my feeling was that with a subject matter like child marriage, the reader wants to ask, “Wait a minute. Why aren’t you punching everybody out and taking her away?”

It’s a little bit like the giant ethical controversy over the L.A. Times story – I forget whether it was child neglect or drug use, but there was a big ethical to-do in journalism with the reporters having been present without intervening in any sense. I think there are times when you have to explain yourself in that way. And I think it’s useful here to explain your Western orientation. There are ways in which you have to get over that if you’re going to understand what’s going on in these cultures and how trying to intervene in any way can just be seen as imperialist oppression.

When it comes to first person, usually my routine goes like this: I’m doing a “narrative I,” and I put a little bit too much of myself in there. And I end up paring myself away, or sometimes my editor does, unless I’m writing a personal essay. But it’s always very tricky, trying to figure out to what extent you’re going to try to be a breathing human in your story.




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  1. [...] Skip to content AboutNieman FoundationContact UsNarrative DigestNotable NarrativesEssays on CraftSubscribeTwitter « “Why’s this so good?” No. 8: Katherine Boo takes on the ties that bind Cynthia Gorney on embracing complexity “while maintaining a sense of justified outrage” » [...]

  2. [...] of my reviewers, as we went through the review process at University of Chicago press, was Cynthia Gorney, a great narrative writer. She teaches at Cal Berkeley now. Folks who deal with students always [...]

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