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May 03 2012

13:35

May 03 2011

12:50

Eliza Griswold on religion, reporting and violence

We spoke last week with Eliza Griswold, winner of the 2011 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam.” In addition to winning the Lukas Prize, which is co-administered by Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation, Griswold has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and The New Republic. She was awarded a 2010 Rome Prize from The American Academy in Rome and has also published a book of poetry, “Wideawake Field.” In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about managing a stable of characters, what she hopes readers will get from the book, and what she would do differently if she were starting the book today.

For anyone in our audience who hasn’t read your book, how would you describe the origins of the title, “The Tenth Parallel”?

The 10th parallel is a line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. But as the title of the book, it really defines the space between the equator and that line of latitude that marks the encounter between Christianity and Islam in much of Africa and Asia. That’s a geographic encounter.

I started the book with the single statistic that 4 out of 5 of the world’s Muslims live outside of the Middle East. They’re not Arabs. So what we think of as Islam and what actually functions on the ground as Islam are two very different things, and the same is true of Christianity. And along the 10th parallel sit the borderlands of both Christianity and Islam. I wanted to travel to where those two borders overlapped, to see what happens in floods, in droughts, in political elections, in fights over everything, really, from water to chocolate – what happens when those two religions come into contact and conflict on the ground.

At what point did you know you wanted to tell this story?

I came to this story traveling in Sudan in 2003 with Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and head of a half-billion-dollar evangelical empire. And although he’s worked in the south, in southern Sudan, for more than 20 years now, Franklin was going for the first time in history to meet with President [Omar al] Bashir, who is still Sudan’s sitting president, even though he’s been indicted now for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Franklin was going to meet with this man whom he had called just as evil as Saddam Hussein, if not more so.

Franklin was very much in the news at the time because he had called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion” just after Sept. 11. So I wanted to go with him to see what happens when a conservative American evangelical leader with close ties to – at that time – the Bush administration, actually sat down with his sworn enemy face to face.

You have a tremendous cast of characters in the book. Reading it, I was thinking you must have spent a lot of time figuring out how to navigate that cast. How did you decide who belonged and who didn’t and what size each person’s role would be?

It was probably more intuitive than anything else. It took seven years to write it for a reason. It’s six countries and 9,000 miles and two continents. It just really was a much larger undertaking than I understood when I began. When I started the book, I thought I would essentially write a series of narrative travelogues and that this fault line was largely metaphoric. It wasn’t until I got on the ground and started traveling that I saw how real the demographics and geography of Christians and Muslims meeting on the ground really was.

I had to write the book in layers. I started with the narratives and then, with my editor’s help, came to understand that the travelogue was not going to be enough, that there were much larger forces at play: geography and history and weather and centuries of human migration; and that the book, to be what it needed to be, was going to have to take all those factors into account as well. So it was really a process of layering, of going through and writing and rewriting.

The narratives came first, and then came the issue of “what are the larger ideas here?” One of the things that I loved about doing the reporting this way was that I didn’t start with any conclusions. I didn’t start with trying to prove, or even disprove, the clash of civilizations. That was a great luxury. I could just travel along this line and see what was actually happening on the ground.

But at the end of the reporting, I needed to begin to draw some conclusions about what I had seen, so that was another layer of writing through it. And then I had to write it again to make sure it did follow through, to make sure it would make sense beginning to end. It is a lot of characters. I would not recommend to anyone else to have so many characters.

You also have a number of key points in time to address – stretching from antiquity though imperial colonization and missionaries into today’s world.

That was intuitive, too. I had to find my way through the story, geographically, historically and narratively. And essentially what I need to do, once I’d done that, was to trace how I did it, and then trace my thinking for the reader.

I’m super-compelled by some of the early stories that the book just touches on. For example, I didn’t know until I went to Ethiopia – or just before when I was researching – that before there was Islam, this collection of a dozen of Mohammed’s followers had gone to the court of a Christian in Ethiopia, which was then Abyssinia, and asked for safe haven. They told the king the story of the Virgin Mary from the Quran to prove that they were related to one another.

That kind of story become so important to my understanding of place, and what is important for us to understand how interlinked we are. But then that becomes an element that I had to bring to the reader. I didn’t set out saying,“Knowing what I know about Ethiopia, I’m going to report the story the following way.” It was a lot of bumping into things: ideas, people and events as they unfolded.

You grew up the child of an Episcopalian bishop?

Yes.

How useful or how much of an impediment was that background in doing this book?

I definitely wouldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t who I am, and I am who I am by virtue of how I grew up, largely. So the questions of faith and intellect and how those two coexist are questions I grew up asking myself and also seeing asked around me, and from my earliest memories sitting around the kitchen table with the crock pot stew, hearing discussions of the inter-linkages of how God and the mind do or don’t fit together. That definitely had a lot to do with it. My dad, beyond all, was a kind of a mystic, so I definitely I did not grow up with any kind of exclusive understanding of God, that anyone had the exclusive claim on truth or heaven or anything.

So I was writing about religion and human rights. I was writing about honor killings before Sept. 11 and how early Islamic law, when Muhammad set down the codes that he did that now look so oppressive to us and out-of-date, that actually those were the most progressive of their time in terms of giving women property rights and outlawing the right to kill your female baby.

I was intrigued with that stuff, but it’s definitely after we started to see Christianity and Islam as these opposed ideologies, these exclusive understandings, that I felt called to explore the question of whether exclusive faith leads to violence.

That’s how I came to it: what’s the relationship between religion and violence? That’s not what I grew up with, a faith that posits black and white, salvation and damnation, but I was interested to see how that grafted onto contemporary political and economic and resource struggles.

You said that you didn’t go into it with any conclusions, that a lot of it unfolded in front of you. There’s a sense coming out of the book as a reader that I know a lot more than I did going in. But at the end of the book, you don’t give any simple conclusions. Did you always know it would be that open at the end?

I wanted to see what was true and articulate, and so if I had thought there were clear conclusions, I would have drawn them. But there was no easy truth, so there were no final conclusions to draw. I would hope that readers take from the book the understanding that the most important religious fights are those taking place inside of religions not between them. It’s really those fights between Christian and Christian and Muslim and Muslim that shape each religion’s relationship with the other.

You do so many kinds of narrative: You’re a journalist and a poet. How do you think about storytelling? What are you looking for a story to do?

I’m looking for a story and a poem to do the same thing – to unfold on two levels at once. I want it to be successful on a very daily level of “here’s a satisfying beginning, middle and end.” But I’m looking for it to work on another level as well, to serve as an allegory of a larger truth. It’s better if I don’t have that truth defined, because if I’m driving that story to a certain calculated end, chances are I’m trying to control what I saw. But as a narrative writer, I can feel the heat around those stories, where they tell a larger truth, and that is what interests me.

As for the small stories, I realized pretty early on I wasn’t going to be able to explain anyone’s faith away. Although that had not been my intention, I had thought I’d be able to have a better sense of, “Oh, this one’s a true believer, and this one’s not.” Wrong. Pretty early on I realized that was going to be beyond my skill, because everything was so subjective. So the best I could do was to own my own subjectivity and bring these stories back whole cloth, and let the reader draw the conclusion of what they meant on those two levels.

A lot of great stories rise out of the open approach that you’re taking, but in reporting nowadays, there’s much more of a sense of editors wanting writers to go out and get a predefined particular story, which can make it tough. Do you have any advice for those who would like to do the kind of thing you’re doing?

It’s a fine line, right? And how did I pay for this?

I’m sure our readers would like to know.

I’m a freelance magazine writer who’s never been on staff anywhere – that’s partly due to the era in which I’ve come of age and the changing media model. My editors knew what I was doing. They knew I was working on this book while I was writing for them. I would go somewhere and do a story that might be related, but the best times they were unrelated stories. I would cover one issue and then be able to stay in that respective country and do what I needed to do for the book.

I deliberately assigned myself stories in the countries that I needed to go to for work, which always meant they were not A1 kind of stories. These are stories at the edges of places. So for journalists there’s a big trade-off: What matters most to you? Does it matter most to you to be with the pack, covering the story that’s moving in largest font in the day, in the boldest type? If that’s what matters most to you, which I totally understand and think is extraordinarily valuable to the world, then this is not something you would want to try.

If you’re curious about the edges of places, and you prefer to exist in marginal spaces a little bit off the grid, then that’s kind of the model that I came out of.

What were you hoping the book might accomplish?

I hope it helps people understand their own religion a little bit better. I know that, especially in this country, given the understanding that Islam is more explicitly linked with violence than Christianity is worldwide, I certainly hope it dispels some of that stereotyping.

What it has done that never occurred to me is that some of the Somali doctors in the book got to meet Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago. The book brought some attention to them and has made a difference in their ability to do their own work in Somalia. I never would have imagined that.

Has anything about the reception of “The Tenth Parallel” surprised you?

It never occurred to me that it would be so widely read. It never occurred to me that it would be a New York Times bestseller. I thought I was writing a well-written narrative travelogue that would go its own quiet way. The interest in it has surprised me a lot – the hunger for information, people’s questions when I go places. Those have really surprised me.

I think there are flaws in the book. My editor always says, “You learn how to write a book by writing a book,” and that’s certainly true. I think you also learn how to report a book by reporting a book. I know that there are narrative devices I used at the time that I would change.

Such as?

One thing I did – this is advice for fellow reporters. Because I like sitting down and talking to people, a lot of the reported scenes of the book is my sitting down and talking to people as opposed to watching them live their own lives. I think there’s a great capacity for just simply watching people live their own lives. That’s something that maybe I didn’t do enough of.

Any other tips about what you’d do differently if you were starting today?

I think I would push myself harder to reconstruct more narrative, as opposed to using the interviews as their own narrative forms. I don’t know how I would have done that in some cases…

Sometimes that’s a question of what material is actually available.

Exactly. And I was going for these very specific stories, most of which were cast in the past.

Another thing: sometimes I get readers who say, “You should be in there more.” I did not do that, because it makes my skin crawl, the “bearing witness” aspect of American journalists where they’re actually heroicizing themselves when they pretend to be telling a story. There are a lot of things that happened, a couple of super-dangerous things that I thought were so distracting from other people’s lives that I couldn’t write about them without fearing that it would come across like derring-do.

But I think there’s another way to be in the story as a first-person character, which is to come in more with observation, and even if those observations prove to be wrong in the long term, or inaccurate, then you have something to push back against. In that way, I think there is a huge capacity for being present in a book in an interesting way.

Bringing the reader in through your eyes as opposed to having them watch you do something.

Exactly. Also, I was very cautious with this material, because a lot of it is so sensational. It is religion and violence. I wanted to be super, super careful that in talking about this stuff that I wasn’t in fact reigniting problems. You can see what happens when someone threatens to burn the Quran and people die in another country. I was very aware that if this book were to reverberate in the wrong way, it could lead to trouble along those lines. Thank God it hasn’t, but if I could err on the side of telling a dramatic story in a little more complicated way, with more context, which was sometimes a little more boring, in order to get a more complicated truth out there, I definitely tried to do that.

We often talk about how, as long as we tell the truth, to tell the most exciting, dynamic story possible. But you wanted to pull back from that.

I never saw a conflict that didn’t have some kind of secular or worldly trigger. One thing about our colleagues, especially in the secular press: we tend to discount religious ideas or faith as something that can be explained away, as something that is a factor of poverty or disenfranchisement. “Of course, people in the developing world think about God in that way,” we say. “They don’t have anything.”

All over the middle belt in Nigeria, where Muslims and Christians are killing each other right now, there is a propensity on the part of reporters to say, “Well, this isn’t about religion, this is about ethnicity.” Maybe somebody in a wire report position has to say Christians and Muslims. And then somebody who has a little more time, coming from a human rights angle, is going to say, “This is all about ethnicity and has nothing to do with religion.” But what if the truth is somewhere between the two? What if those who are there, they say that it is about religion? They say they are killing each other because of rival faiths. Where does their voice go?

That’s true, too. Both are true at the same time. The situation I frequently faced was that “OK, this has to do with being an indigenous citizen, ethnicity, money, lack of access to clean water and good roads” – getting all of that down in an accurate way without discounting the role of religion. Because [discounting religion] is super easy to do, too. That’s as much of a position as anything else.

Wouldn’t it be easy to say, “This has nothing to do with religion”? That would be easy, and people would like to hear it. And it’s not true. So I’m constantly trying to keep one foot in both of those worlds.

Photo of Eliza Griswold by Antonin Kratochvil.

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