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April 04 2013


March 03 2011


Mac McClelland on scenes, narrative and sexual assault in post-quake Haiti

Earlier today, we posted our second Editors’ Roundtable, in which our group of veterans examined a piece of narrative nonfiction. The story for the second outing is Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell,” written by Mac McClelland of Mother Jones. Despite being warned that having a group of editors look at her work is a little like getting an ice cream sundae while being beaten with a stick, McClelland was still willing to talk with us. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, in which McClelland discusses the toll her reporting took on her, the editing process for the piece, and the decision to make her own experiences part of the finished story.

You’ve reported on the humanitarian crisis in Burma. You’ve done the Gulf Oil spill. You went to Haiti to look at reconstruction there. What is it that you’re hoping to do by covering humanitarian and environmental crises?

I think awareness is one of the big reasons for doing stories like that. In the case of Burma, especially, because I was with this minority that no one’s ever heard of who is on the business end of this genocide that no one’s ever heard of. In that particular case, it was just a matter of getting a story out that nobody had any idea was going on.

That could be true in a way for the Gulf stuff as well. Obviously, there were a lot of reporters in the Gulf, but certainly the government wasn’t covering the story. Any of the reliable information, any of the important questions that were being asked, all of that stuff was coming from the reporters. Awareness of what was unfolding down there as well was totally reliant – any accurate information about it – was totally reliant on the reporters who were there, which is why my editors left me there for four f—— months.

When they sent me to Haiti, that was a straight-up assignment. I cannot take credit for it at all. They were just like, “You are going to Haiti. See what you come up with.” When I got there, I was only there for one day before I was in the car with this girl who had very recently been raped and seriously maimed. Everywhere I went and everyone I talked to were like, “Oh, yeah, this is the thing. This happens all the time. We get all these calls about this. We see it happening all the time.”

There were some very sensational headlines about it right after the quake – two weeks after the quake people were reporting that. And then that story died. When I got there, I realized the rape crisis has gotten worse than it was after the quake. So it’s even more of a story now, even though it’s not a story anyone is hearing.

How long after the car ride with the maimed girl did you know which direction your reporting would head?

That’s a good question. I mean certainly I knew that was going to be a big part of the story when that was happening. Then two days later, I had a driver that –

I can’t drive around Haiti. It takes a very long time to get used to the layout, because there’s no road signs, and there’s rubble everywhere. So I had to have a driver and a translator. Two days after my first day, I had a driver who threatened to assault me.

Then I ended up talking to some of the groups that work with the rape victims. And then even when I was talking with groups who don’t work with rape victims, they were still all saying the same thing. Then the MINUSTAH soldiers, the UN peacekeepers, totally unprompted all bring it up. It was everywhere. The more time that I spent there, the more material I had about it. It was always happening, and people were always talking about it.

I remember when I got back, and I was sitting here with my editors, and they were like, “What have you got? You were gone for two weeks.” That was what was the most compelling thing and what came together out of it. It was the common thread in a lot of that information. As it turns out, in my opinion, also an incredibly important story for itself. But also it speaks to the level of disorder and chaos and unpreparedness that still exists so strongly in that country, even eight months after the quake.

When you saw this common thread, how did you go about putting the piece together? How did you approach structure?

I had been in the Gulf for four months, and I was back in San Francisco for a day before I left for Haiti. I was very tired when I got there. And in addition to having watched – for reasons of the victim, I won’t go into exactly what I saw when I was with her. But in watching her go through that, and in my own being threatened with assault, I was only back in San Francisco for a couple days before I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was incredibly extreme – I was completely nonfunctional for a while. But the story was due. So I had 10 days, something like that, to write it.

I didn’t go through my normal process, because honestly, I was not well. It’s not like I sat down and made the perfect outline. I just pulled all the pieces together and looked at it afterward to see how it went and then started shaping it with my editors. As Clara was saying, the way she described it, was that it feels sort of like “postcards from.”

The narrative is chronological. It follows my time, basically. Partly the reason I put it together like that – in addition to it just happening to work out that those scenes flowed pretty well together – was that I was a complete wreck when I was putting it together. And that was the easiest way for me to deal with the material on paper while I was still trying to deal with it mentally, going through all this trauma counseling and things like that.

Did you cut much from the piece? It sounds like you left out the experience of some of what you saw.

We did leave out one very emotionally violent scene for reasons that I won’t go into, but that was pretty much it. I don’t know if this is always her philosophy, but Clara’s philosophy with me is “write long, and we’ll take what we want.” So it’s sort of my practice with her – and on big stories like this, she’s generally my editor – that I write everything. I don’t have a standard word count, where it’s going to be 3,000 words long, and so do that. They’re like, “If you turn in 9,000 words, that’s fine, and we’ll decide what we want to do with it and what we like best.”

So I put in pretty much everything. I struggled a little bit with whether or not I should add in my personally being threatened, because I didn’t want to be like, “I went to Haiti, but this is about me now. We’re going to talk about what happened to me and my experience.”

But I decided, and we decided also, that it’s important to show how pervasive the rape culture is in that country. Which it is, and it has been for a very, very long time. It gets you away from that sense that, “Oh, yeah, of course, very poor uneducated black girls are threatened.”

You might have this sense that there was some sort of safety for rich white people walking around. But that’s not the case. It’s one of the great equalizers, for sure. Nothing can protect you from that, in a lot of societies and certainly in that culture. So we decided to keep that stuff in, and make a little bit of a thread of that as well, because not only did it happen with one of my drivers, but it also happened at my hotel and on multiple occasions, so we decided to keep that theme.

Do you see yourself as somebody who is not just doing reporting and getting information, but thinking of the piece as a story? Do you think of what you do as narratives?

Yeah, absolutely, I do. I do think of things as narratives. I think my brain works in a very narrative way. I’m a big baby. I have a lot of feelings. So people become very real and intense and close, even in short periods of time. When you have feelings like that, it’s hard to envision those people as part of just “a piece.” Because it’s their story, and that story is part of a larger story, it all does feel very narrative to me.

We talked a little about how you put this piece together. But normally, when you’re approaching these kinds of pieces – not just this Haiti piece – do you outline a lot? Do you think in scenes? How do you approach the writing?

I do think in scenes. You mean while it’s happening?

While it’s happening, or after the fact.

I do often think in scenes, even sometimes when I’m not on assignment, just when I’m walking around and things are happening, I think of them in scenes. I break them down in scene prose in my head.

I’m out, and I’m talking to people and then I’m walking away – or while I’m trying to fall asleep. I do break things down into scenes, which I think is why the stories that I write end up having so many scenes – maybe too many scenes. That is definitely the way that I construct things.

When I was putting this story together, I was telling someone, “I have to figure out how to string all these scenes together.” I knew I had a bunch of scenes, so I knew that the issue was working out the transitions between them so they could tell one whole story.


March Editors’ Roundtable: Mother Jones looks at rape in Haiti

The narrative for discussion in the second installment of our Editors’  Roundtable is “Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell” by Mac McClelland. Appearing in Mother Jones earlier this year, the story was written after a visit in 2010 to survey the island’s post-quake recovery efforts. Clara Jeffery, one of two editors-in-chief at Mother Jones, edited the piece.

The narrative for the prior Roundtable was one in which several reporters fed material to the writer, who had to synthesize it at a distance. This time, we thought it would be interesting to give our editors a piece in which the writer doing her own reporting was an intergral part of the story.

We’ve also done a Q-and-A with McClelland about how the article came together, but here, we offer our editors’ responses to the story. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. We asked judges to note what they thought did and didn’t work in the piece, and to explain why. At the end are some of their suggestions for additional reading. (For full bios on the editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.)

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

What works for me:

The descriptions – of rapes, of tent cities, of snatches of conversation. The details inspire a visceral reaction. At times, it’s hard to keep reading, and yet, it should be, given the subject matter. I can conjure up sights and sounds and smells. It feels foreign, like much of the Third World, but also familiar, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina. What a horrible combination.

The writer’s voice – I’m not always a fan of a writer becoming a character in her own story, but here, it’s quite effective. I can relate better to her personal experiences than to what’s happening in Port-au-Prince. She is the outsider looking in, feeling fear and revulsion, as most Americans would. As a woman, too, she is particularly vulnerable, and that draws you closer to what life is like for Haitian girls.

What I would have approached differently:

Story needs a stronger narrative thread. Essentially, the author is the central character, and we follow her from place to place. She introduces us to individuals along the way who are surviving in hell. But the story feels patched together, not woven. A scene here, an anecdote there, some personal moments. It should have felt more like a journey, obviously to underscore the despair in Haiti, but also to build toward a call to action. The story should compel the reader to want to keep that 10-year-old from being raped.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

What worked for me:

The power of McClelland’s piece lies in the detailed, ground-level interactions she has with people in Haiti. We come face to face with the hell of reconstruction not through abstract policy arguments, but through action and dialogue. McClelland describes this scene: One woman “gets frustrated at some point while I’m asking questions and says, ‘We meet white people, and white people, and white people.’ She starts raising her voice, and two of the other four put their hands out to calm her, literally holding her back, but smiling knowingly. White people make promises but nothing ever ever happens, she says.”

As I read this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, and the ensuing media coverage. It takes courage to venture into dangerous territory and write from first-hand experience. So I admire McClelland for that. And I admire her instinct to put herself in the story – to show not only her vulnerability and fear, but her realization that while she can escape the chaos, many of the women she writes about cannot.

What I would have approached differently:

I agree with Maria that the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I think what would help in this area is a stronger set-up – a stronger first section. I’m led to believe that the story is going to be focused on rape in the Haiti camps – and I want to learn more about that. But the story begins to lose its focus, moving away from the rapes, toward other reconstruction problems.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Three strengths to learn from:

Effective use of first-person. McClelland didn’t make the story about her but used herself to force me – the safe American who can’t really grasp the enormity of horror in Haiti – to experience a sliver of it by sharing her own: puking in her mouth, spitting out the taste and smell of shit, getting blind drunk at night, being too afraid to open her hotel window despite the heat. First-person can be incredibly powerful when it doesn’t turn the light on the reporter, but uses the reporter as a brighter light with which to see.

End-of-section gut-punch lines after long, dense passages. How people sleep standing up so they won’t “wake up drowning.” That “there are no trees” in Cesselesse and “when it rains, the gravel floods.” That the 10-year-old would not be the youngest rape victim – by eight years.

Authority that allows compression and depth. McClelland’s knowledge is obvious and lets her dense-pack backstory and context so readers get an immersion into the issue rather than just into description and emotion.

Editor’s tweak:

Even stronger and more varied pacing. The overall style of long, dense, multi-clause sentences made for a harder-than-necessary read. More important, it allowed some essential information to get lost in the thicket.

A less-abrupt ending. It was powerful as hell as a metaphor, but came on too suddenly.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

The best thing about this piece: the raw, shocking, powerful honesty of this phrase in the opening: “they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on.” Note that it is made up of 32 words, 26 of which are one syllable, five of two syllables and just one of three syllables. That such horror can come from such simplicity just about says it all.

(The lead isn’t perfect. The gang rape is prompted because she “tried to intervene” in another attack, but the writer fails to give any detail about what had to be a very dramatic moment that revealed an enormous amount – the nature of the attempted intervention itself.)

Unfortunately, the spare power and drive of the narrative begins to waver, and then the writer falls into a trap that has snared many a young foreign correspondent: getting caught up in the drama of her own reportage. There are multiple instances of this, but the most egregious is when she says of a man she meets, “he’s not the kind of rich Haitian man who … tells me at the bar I should have sex with him because he’s the nice sort of guy who loses an erection when a woman starts to fight him off.”

She means it as a reference to general attitudes about rape, but I doubt the writer’s encounters in hotel bars have much to do with the barbarism of rape in the refugee camps.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation


1. McClelland reveals a problem I didn’t even know existed on such a horrific scale.

2. Reporting the reality of desensitization adds an important contextual layer: “…I really can’t imagine someone not getting raped under those circumstances, no.”

3. Lovely nuggets (“The tarps are being torn from their tethers by the gusts” and the entire graf that begins “But ‘tent’ isn’t accurate either.”) plus smart authorial restraint. “At 10, she wouldn’t be the youngest reported rape victim from the camps. Not by eight years.” is powerful for the way she backed into the information, for the inclusion of the word “reported,” and for punctuation after “camps.” The “Not by eight years” made me shut my eyes in sickness.


1. Technically, this piece isn’t a narrative; it’s a news feature. I’d be interested to know whether the writer envisioned a narrative. Because to write narrative one must report for narrative. A bit of planning, even mid-reporting, could have generated the focus the piece needed.

2. Closer line editing could’ve moved the language closer to precision. “It only rains for 10 minutes” should be “It rains for only 10 minutes.” Cliché radar could’ve helped too. I flinch at a “sea of” anything (in this case tarps) but also “reduced to rubble,” etc. Small edits can charge even the simplest sentence, such as the one ending the amputees section:

As written: “Yeah, that’s a problem,” he says.

Arguably more powerful, for the beat it contains: “Yeah,” he says, “that’s a problem.”

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

I agree with the comments about the story’s many powerful scenes – the gang rape, the squalor of the camps, the skinny guy frantically searching for a cop to help him fend off thugs – and about the courage of the author in going to Haiti to report under such trying and dangerous circumstances. Much of the piece is vivid and shocking and will stay with me for a long time.

I also agree that the story needs a stronger narrative structure. I was never quite sure where the author was leading me; the article has an unfocused, anecdotal quality. Beyond that, I felt that the author’s intrusions in the narrative sometimes undercut its strength. Speculating about Alina’s motives for trying to stop the rape (“Maybe it was because she has three daughters of her own; maybe it was some altruistic instinct”) interrupts a scene of harrowing power; the comment “easy as pie” is jarring after “gangs of rapists slice through the sides of tents all over the city to steal a woman”; and the joke about “My Heart Will Go On” undermines the paragraph on water-related health problems.

In general, I think the first person should be used sparingly in journalism. There are compelling reasons to use it in this story, but some of the author’s experiences are digressive – the opening to the cocktails scene with Mike (“He likes me because … I like him because …”) serves no discernible purpose – and occasionally they give the impression that the article is less about conditions in Haiti than about the author’s reactions to them and about her adventures in the country. I think a stronger hand in editing could have helped her avoid that.

The ending is very effective: the mud oozing between the tiles, the distressing “not by eight years,” people shaking like the earth during the earthquake. Strong stuff.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

I like:  The way she writes with great confidence and authority. Her almost novelistic approach to the lede, especially the way she gets inside Alina’s head. (“Too many to count.” “Until she felt something tear.”) Her lovely way of tucking facts into sentences, deftly, and explaining acronyms without bogging things down. First person and present tense, which make the story unfold for me in real time; I feel like I’m learning things at the same time the writer is. I love some of her tidy, wise sentences. (“Tension is the only thing being built.”)

I’m going to disagree with those who say the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I thought it worked well, leading me, confused, increasingly more and more horrified, from place to place, seeing Haiti through McClelland’s eyes, smelling it and tasting it. The story was about what is going on in Haiti, but it also has the secondary theme of the cluelessness of America, even the do-gooders (like Sean Penn) who send money and think they’re helping. And so McClelland’s reactions stood, for me, as the reaction of America.

I also love the tight passion that fills this story. (“And if you, white girl, think you’re going to be useful…”)

Tweaks: I admit to getting a little lost in the Mike section, not clearly understanding who he was, exactly, and I think the ending could have been stitched in more deftly. It has a great closing quote, and I was glad to bring the story back to Alina and the rapes, but it felt tacked on in haste. With massaging, she would have gotten there.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

The strength of this piece lies in the scenes. In its strongest moments, there is a precision to the placement of elements, a logic to the order of things. The opening draws power as it follows one character along a clear simple line, chronologically, never crossing into hyperbole.

As a whole, the story loses that precision. There is a narrative thread – the writer’s journey – but that thread feels circumstantial. In a narrative, keeping the reader focused takes planning. The reporting here led to multiple cities, multiple characters, and multiple issues. The writer has to think hard about how to introduce those elements, how to move smoothly from one to the next, and which to leave out.

In a grueling grad school narrative class, Jon Franklin drilled us on the 5 orienting threads that keep readers from getting lost. I failed the class, but I remember the threads, sometimes in the panic of a flashback. Time. Place. Character. Subject. Mood. The more frequently you shift these elements, and the more of them you shift at one time, the more confusion you create. This story loses its way when it jumps from character to character, place to place, acronym to acronym too abruptly or without reason. It becomes particularly jarring when it loops through time, instead of sticking to the simple chronology that tells us where we came from and where we are going.

Like many long narratives, this one does it right in the tight spaces, but loses control as the frame expands.

Additional reading suggestions from the group:

Tom Huang recommends Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” as well as Kelly McBride’s Poynter column about the Logan story and the media’s coverage of sexual assault.

Tom Shroder recommends David Finkel’s “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice.”

Stay tuned for the next installment in early April. In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. The story has to be already published, available online and strong enough to stand up to tough love.

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