Telling Stories about Conflict

A Q&A with UBC Creative Writing Instructor and Award-Winning Nonfiction Writer Deborah Campbell

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, 2009

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, 2009

Deborah Campbell is an award-winning writer known for combining culturally immersive fieldwork with literary journalism in places such as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Gaza, Qatar, the UAE, Israel, Palestine, Cuba, Mexico and Russia. She has taught nonfiction writing in UBC’s Creative Writing Program for over ten years, encouraging students to seek out stories in their own backyards and to cultivate the patience needed to shape months of fieldwork into a compelling story.

Her work has appeared in Harper’s, the EconomistForeign Policy, the GuardianNew Scientistand The Walrus and has been published in 11 countries and 6 languages. Her latest book, A Disappearance in Damascus, won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, Canada’s largest literary award for nonfiction. The jury citation called it “a riveting tale of courage, loss, love, and friendship.”

We spoke to Deborah Campbell about how she established herself as a writer, the types of stories she is drawn to tell and her advice for aspiring writers. 

You’re an expert on the Middle East and have won several National Magazine Awards for your foreign correspondence. What kinds of stories are you drawn to and why?

Deborah Campbell teaches non-fiction writing in the UBC Creative Writing Program.

Deborah Campbell teaches nonfiction writing in the UBC Creative Writing Program.

I’m drawn to societies that are in the news yet poorly understood. We make plans for them, even make war on them, while knowing almost nothing about who they are and what our policies have accomplished. My research approach is to go and immerse myself in these societies and collect the small histories that tell a larger story of the world today.

I did that for ten years, mainly in the Middle East, writing for magazines from places like Iran, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Gulf. During my undergrad I’d taken Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. That’s where I developed a taste for taking off alone and spending time in local sub-cultures. I’d go to the West Bank, talking to Palestinians while we sat under an olive tree, hang out with Bedouins in the Negev, go to ultra-Orthodox areas in Jerusalem, spend time with the hippie-mystics in Safed. Just listening, asking questions. I discovered that being an outsider meant that people didn’t categorize me according to their own social divisions. I was the stranger to whom you confess things you hide from your loved ones, not to mention your enemies. Being a woman meant I had access to female worlds, and being a Western woman, to male worlds: the so-called “third sex.”

Can you tell us about the experience of writing your recent book, A Disappearance in Damascus, including how the story evolved over the years?  

When I went to Syria in 2007 and 2008—I was there over the course of a year—it was initially to write a piece for Harper’s magazine on the exodus of Iraqi refugees into Syria. Other journalists were embedding with the military in Iraq, and most of the coverage narrated battles or presented official views. It amazed me how little information there was on what has happening to the civilians whose lives—whose grandkids’ lives—would forever be shaped by the war. I wanted to bear witness to that before their voices were lost to time. It was too late for me to do that in Iraq. Iraq was the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, like Syria today. But there were a million and a half Iraqis in Syria, largely the professional class. Talking to them, it was immediately clear that the consequences of all this suffering and disruption were far from over.

What I couldn’t have predicted was that my fixer—my guide and translator—would turn out be this brilliant, funny Iraqi woman who became my friend. She had been the first girl in her village ever to go to high school, and the first person to graduate university. She’d fled from Baghdad to Syria, where she was a key fixer for foreign correspondents. When she was arrested by the secret police while I was with her, I had to stay and look for her. Through our story, and through the behind-the-scenes story of how journalism works, I was able to explore the dynamics of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

You’ve spoken about how you experienced “something of an existential crisis” during the process of writing the book and questioned the power of writing in the face of war and extreme human suffering. What insights about writing did you take away from the experience? Is there anything you hope to achieve through your storytelling?

Most writers start out thinking they can change the world. At least I did. But I’d begun to see how words and facts have lost their currency. We are bombarded with media that is increasingly unreliable and context-free. It cultivates this “eternal present” in which events appear to arise out of nowhere. ISIS is a good example. Where did they come from? Well, their leaders met in an American prison in Iraq called Camp Bucca. They had previously called themselves “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” a Sunni militia that emerged only after the invasion of 2003. Now they threaten world stability, yet we continue to treat them as a mysterious phenomenon, having no genesis in the incredible devastation suffered by the Sunni population after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. And to treat Syria as if it has nothing to do with Iraq.

We need people who have a foundation of knowledge and experience to interpret and understand what they report, but the mass layoffs of the past decade have left few journalists standing. Those who remain are scrambling to do the work of multitudes. Hardly anyone does in-depth reporting anymore. Who has time? Where are the foreign bureaus?

What gave me perspective was the advice of another nonfiction writer. I told him I was despairing over the impossibility of writing to change the terrible situations I had witnessed. He said the point of writing isn’t to change the world—it’s to keep the truth alive.

How do you navigate the risks of going undercover as a journalist and immersing yourself in conflict zones?

In places where journalists are mistrusted or viewed as spies I generally go undercover. I don’t want to be followed and have my sources followed or be told I can only spend ten days and only go here but not there. Plus, these days, it’s easy to track someone’s phone and computer. I have developed many strategies over the years, which I describe in the book, but I find that in developing countries professors are still considered honourable people worthy of respect. Imagine! And also, perhaps unfairly, seen as rather innocuous. So I went as a professor. The risks I took were calculated, based on experience, though big trouble ensued when my fixer was taken. But the decision to go undercover proved wise.

What do you consider to be the biggest breakthrough in your writing career? Or your proudest moment?

Ten years ago I wrote a long feature called “Iran’s Quiet Revolution.” It was an astoundingly complex task—to distill six months of fieldwork from all over that vast and contradictory country into an entertaining read that explained Iran’s culture and history and political context. The piece went viral. I had a half-hour TV interview on RAI Italy. The host, a well-known Italian investigative journalist, ended by thanking me for being “a bridge between cultures.” I’ll never forget those words. That piece won a couple of awards but his acknowledgement meant the most to me.

Winning the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for this book was also a wonderful and unforeseen surprise, not just because it’s the largest nonfiction prize in Canada. It’s hard for books to break through all the noise, and the award brought many new readers to the book. So I am deeply grateful.

How did you develop parallel skills in literary storytelling and reporting? What came first or did the two practices evolve together? 

I see reporting and story-telling as the two pillars of literary journalism. Without the fieldwork and reporting I have nothing to say. And without good story-telling, even fascinating material can be boring. Being boring means nobody reads you. So if you want an audience, in these days of limited attention spans, you have to make it compelling by how you tell the story. I want my work to read like a novel, like a thriller in this case, and I learned to do that through many, many drafts. 

You’ve taught Creative Writing at UBC for 10 years. Can you tell us why you first joined the program as a lecturer and what keeps you there today?

I did my MFA at UBC. Whole worlds opened to me when my instructors introduced me to writers like Ryszard Kapuscinski, whom I still see as the master of literary journalism. “Literature by foot,” he called it. I began publishing the writing I had done in my courses at UBC, and went on to write for magazines, making my living that way. Later, I was hired to teach undergraduate creative nonfiction. Now I teach a graduate course in research-based creative nonfiction as well as an advanced class for undergrads.

What I love most about teaching here is watching students discover their own capabilities. I encourage them to follow their interests out into the world, daring them to be brave and actually talk to people (that part gets easier, though the writing never does). There are millions of stories in our backyard, especially in a city as diverse as Vancouver. They just have to go out and pay attention. Maybe even throw themselves into situations, Gonzo style, and write about what happens. Then I encourage them to have the patience to work through multiple drafts that reveal the structure in their chunk of marble. It’s one thing to have great material and quite another to shape into a compelling read. We all know it takes time and perseverance to master the cello or become a world-class athlete; it’s the same with writing.

The program is known for offering more genres of study than any other creative writing program in the world and encouraging students to train across at least three separate genres. What do you think is the value of literary cross-training for young writers?

It’s invaluable. You learn narrative arc from writing fiction, screen, theatre; poetry is often nonfiction, and nonfiction can be prose poetry; and structure, the hardest and most important aspect of good writing, is integral to all genres. It’s important for emerging writers to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones. I’ve seen many writers come into the program certain they are one kind of writer and then have an epiphany when they encounter the possibilities of another form. It changes the course of their lives.

What advice would you give to writers who want to cover and embed themselves in conflict zones, like yourself? What advice do you give to writers about undertaking immersive journalism (at home or abroad)?

I would never tell a young writer to venture into a rolling conflict zone. There are no “front lines” anymore and it’s easy to get kidnapped or killed. I’m glad many news agencies have stopped taking stories from freelancers in Syria, for example, because naïve and ambitious journalists lose their lives that way. Unfortunately, that’s another reason most news stories on Syria are now so poorly sourced as to be unverifiable. It’s a bit of a hall of mirrors, subject to propaganda on all sides.

What I would say is to go somewhere that is on the periphery of the conversation—discussed but poorly understood. Go and live there. Spend time studying the history and politics and absorbing the culture by becoming part of it. Learn a language. Don’t try to write anything immediately. Allow yourself to be confused, to hone your questions. Be a humble student to the place and the people. This is equally true for stories in your own backyard. Put in the time to learn what needs to be said rather than coming with preconceived ideas. Then you’ll have something to say that the world needs to hear.

Related: Arts on Air podcast: Episode 1: Talking Storytelling with award-winning journalist Deborah Campbell, October 3, 2016