Jill McGivering knows how to tell a story. When she writes, not only does her writing flow with mellifluous dignity, but also paints a vivid picture of a harsh reality and its impact on people who are involved in it, in some way or the other. The author of two bestselling works, The Last Kestrel and Far From my Father’s House, Jill sets her stories in the war-torn world of Afghanistan, and talks to her readers through Ellen Thomas, the protagonist. A Correspondent with BBC, Jill talks to DeltaWomen about her experience as a war correspondent and as an author.
1. Could you tell us something about your time in Afghanistan?
I was living in Delhi as the BBC’s South Asia Correspondent when the Taliban government fell in late 2001 and played a key part in the coverage of events. Since then, I’ve reported from Afghanistan many times, speaking to civilians and officials about their hopes for life after the Taliban and the challenges which they and their country face. I was embedded with British troops in Helmand on two occasions and drew on that experience when I wrote my first novel, The Last Kestrel. It features a female war correspondent, Ellen Thomas, who is also embedded with troops in Helmand.
2. There is so much to war which goes unnoticed. Why is that?
There is certainly a focus in the coverage of war on traditional aspects: politics, diplomacy and military strategy. But nowadays there is also a great deal of attention paid to other aspects too, including personal stories from all sides, the human experience of combatants and the impact of conflict on civil society, including on women and children. That shift has been made possible partly because of greater awareness of the rights of civilians but also because of the voracious appetite of 24 hour news/online sites, which means there is room for wide-ranging, in-depth coverage. In the debate about conflict, all those involved have the right to be heard, including society’s most vulnerable.
3. Some people say wars have the worst impact on women – do you agree?
War can be devastating for all kinds of people, regardless of gender, age, background and so on. In Afghanistan, I’ve met women who have suffered terribly as the result of the continuing conflict. If the man on whom they depend, perhaps a husband or father, is killed, the women often become extremely vulnerable. They are left without protection and without a way of feeding themselves or their children. A common consequence is that a young son – even if only 12 or 13 years old himself - is forced to work to provide for the family. I remember visiting a development project in Helmand which was trying to teach bereaved women some basic skills, including literacy and sewing, so they could take in work at home. The women faced death threats and the project was targeted by local gunmen who disapproved.
4. Is there a possibility for Afghanistan to rise above this turmoil? What would be the remedy for the trauma the country has been put through?
I’ve met many exceptional civilians in Afghanistan who are courageous, hard-working and resilient. They are determined to re-build their country and create better opportunities for their children. Many of them have known nothing but conflict in their lives and long for peace and stability. They are Afghanistan’s greatest resource and a great source of hope for the future. I’m a journalist and author so it is not my role to make political decisions about Afghanistan’s future but I do feel engaged with Afghanistan and hope to continue to report on events as they unfold, including beyond the planned withdrawal of NATO-led troops in 2014.
5. As the outspoken writer of The Last Kestrel does anything threaten you? What worries you most about your works?
I don’t think of the novel as “outspoken.” I hoped to reflect a subtle and people-centred vision of the Afghan conflict in which there are no moral absolutes or certainties. The characters, English and Afghan, are imperfect people, as we all are in real life. Several of them commit terrible deeds but they are motivated by a desire to protect others and I hope that makes them sympathetic. It worries me when some readers seem confused about the difference between fact and fiction and, as a result, are uncertain how to relate to the novel. I have reported from Afghanistan for the BBC and I draw on that first-hand experience to inform the novel’s sense of place and culture but the actual characters and of course the plot are very much fiction and should be read as such.
6. Could you tell us the most memorable anecdote from your time on war fronts?
Some of my most intense experiences have been dangerous ones. A few years ago, for example, when I was on assignment in Pakistan for the BBC, I found myself plunged into the middle of what developed into a volatile eight hour conflict between militants and the security forces. I spent most of that time crouched behind a low and rather flimsy brick wall, filing live reports on the attack which was taking place all around me and trying to think through logistical challenges, like how to re-charge the equipment as the batteries ran low. By coincidence, when I got back to my hotel that evening, very glad to be alive, I was greeted by the news that my first novel, The Last Kestrel, had just been sold. It was a day of very intense emotions.
7. As a woman who reports on war fronts, what have your greatest challenges been?
It’s always frustrating if people make assumptions based on gender stereotypes. War zones tend to be very masculine environments and that can make them particularly sexist. The fictional male journalist, John, who appears in my first two novels, The Last Kestrel and Far From my Father’s House, and who patronises and under-estimates Ellen, personifies some of the worst attitudes in the field. But on the other hand, in cultures in which men and women are very segregated, female journalists can have advantages. I can, for example, relate with local women and hear their thoughts and feelings in a way in which my male colleagues never could and that is very precious to me.
8. Wasn’t it painful to witness war up close? What keeps you motivated?
It is extremely painful to see innocent people suffering. I would be worried about my humanity if that didn’t distress me. But it is also important to be able to put those feelings aside in order to function as a professional. The motivation is to play my part by doing what I can as a journalist: to tell a global audience about what is really happening, as honestly, fairly and vividly as possible.
9. You might have encountered a lot of unanswered questions and unspeakable truths…what can you tell us about them?
In extreme circumstances, like war, human beings are capable of extreme, sometimes extraordinary, cruelty. For those of us who live in peace and plenty, that is perhaps not a truth we find easy to confront. It begs some unanswerable questions: how can people in the modern world be capable of such brutality and savagery? How would we behave if we were thrust into similar circumstances – and if law and order were suspended? What acts would we be prepared to commit if we thought it might protect people we love? Those deeper questions about the human condition are perhaps addressed better in fiction than in journalism.
10. Did normal life seem superficial after war?
There is an intensity and adrenalin rush in conflict zones which can make peaceful “normal” lives seem grey by comparison. It can take time to adjust from one world to the other. Abundance can be hard to accept as well, when people elsewhere are struggling to get enough to eat. I can vividly remember returning from one trip and standing in a dazzling supermarket, feeling utterly overwhelmed by the brightness and the sheer quantity of goods on display.
11. How much of you is in the correspondent character, Ellen? Was it cathartic to write through Ellen’s voice?
In writing Ellen, to some extent, I drew on my own experiences of operating in the field but she is a very different person from me. For the purposes of the plots, she takes risks with her personal safety in ways which I would never do in real life. Also a key aspect of her character is that she is very alone in her life, in contrast to the South Asian characters, whereas I am not. I’m not sure if fiction writing is cathartic. To the extent that it is, I think that would actually relate more to writing from the point of view of the Pashtun women in the novels (Hasina in The Last Kestrel; Layla and Jamila in Far from My Father’s House). Taking on their voices was, a way of “more fully inhabiting their worlds” and, I hope, of making them more immediate and emotionally real to Western readers.
12. Do you think it is a matter of natural progression for war correspondents to move on to novel writing, in order to write about facts which their newspaper companies refuse to print?
I’ve never found myself in that position. I’ve never had editors refuse to let me broadcast facts which were important. So, no - that is not my reason for writing fiction. I think the use of the phrase “natural progression” implies that reporting in some way leads on to fiction writing and that one discipline is somehow more mature than the other. I don’t think that’s the case. Reporting belongs to the external world of known facts and rational truth. Fiction writing is about the sympathetic imagination and emotional truth. Those are simply very different territories.
By Kirthi Gita Jayakumar
Part I of the Pen is Mightier than the Sword Series is an interview with Jean Sasson.