The Power and Urgency of the Story
In his introduction to The Granta Book of Reportage, editor Ian Jack draws a line between “reporting” (“which suggests a too well-lunched man or woman with a notebook taking down the more relevant points of what he or she is hearing a public meeting”) and “reportage,” which he calls “a collection of eyewitness accounts and investigations.” Although the division seems fuzzy at first, as one reads through the 13 substantial pieces collected in the anthology, Jack’s intent becomes clear. In an era of media overload and addiction to the immediate, he’s demarcating a space for the measured, thoughtful, and in-depth narratives that can only be put together by the man (or woman) on the ground.
Throughout the anthology, the reader finds writers making the same claims, demarcating that same territory. In a devastating piece about the Soviet-Afghan war, the Byelorussian journalist Svetlana Alexiyevich declares, “I was trying to present a history of feelings, not the history of the war itself.” Her short piece goes on to allow unnamed narrators (“A Wife,” “A Private Soldier,” “A Mother”) tell their stories of the war. They range from the boredom and violence of the front lines to the quiet dread of those waiting at home who suffer the eventual crushing grief of not knowing “whose fault this was.” At the heart of the piece, though, there is a negation of two contemporary ideas of reporting: Alexiyevich neither blasts away with facts and figures (how many killed, how many injured, how much money) nor sentimentalizes the stories of her subjects. Her gaze is less judgmental, more contemplative. It’s almost a travel piece, simply presenting the stories of the people she’s met to her readers.
Not all the pieces in the anthology take such a dispassionate view, however. Marilynne Robinson (made famous after the publication of her luminous Housekeeping and the equally compelling Gilead) wrote fervently in 1985 about the British government’s refusal to crack down on a “nuclear reprocessing plant” that had been dumping up to a million gallons a day of radioactive waste directly into the Irish Sea. Robinson draws upon accounts published in the British press and stories reported by British television and finds herself again and again amazed at the apathy of the British public in the face of the fact that “a quarter ton of plutonium has passed into the sea through this pipeline—enough, in theory, according to The Times, to kill 250 million people.” In her alternately bemused and vitriolic piece, she attempts to carve out a space for what she calls “the facts” in the midst of a world run entirely on the fumes of public relations spin, ignorance, and indifference. “The Waste Land” was published more than 20 years ago and though part of the nuclear reprocessing facility is being decommissioned, the controversy over its environmental practices and their effects on the health of the nation is still raging.
Granta (in its current incarnation as a literary magazine) has been around since 1979 and the narratives in this collection span its more than quarter century of publishing. Many of the writers whose pieces are featured in The Granta Book of Reportage are not reporters. The poet James Fenton writes an elliptical, hallucinatory, and mesmerizing piece about the fall of Saigon, while the eminent feminist Germaine Greer takes a look at the role of women in Cuba’s revolution. One of the 20th century’s most celebrated war correspondents, Martha Gellhorn, contributes a literary piece on the U.S. invasion of Panama.
Alongside the classics, however, are newer pieces, like “Osama’s War” by Wendell Steavenson, which tells the story of a young insurgent in Iraq in the weeks and months after the U.S. invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein. Steavenson travels with the passionate, dedicated, but sometimes naive Osama as he builds improvised explosive devices, shoots at American tanks with an RPG, and confesses to a love of Michael Jackson. She also meets Osama’s brother Duraid, who makes a living selling Pepsi and translating for the American army. It’s a confusing world in Baghdad, full of death, disappearance, and choas; no one really knows what’s going on or why. Even the soldiers (on both sides) don’t always understand what they’re fighting for.
In this the feeling is similar to the first piece in the book, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s famous account of “The Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras, in which a soccer match ignites tensions between the two countries and results in one of the world’s shortest and strangest wars. Throughout the narrative, the Polish journalist is wandering around the country and taking rides from people who say they’ll bring him to the front lines only to be turned around by taciturn colonels and teenage privates with machine guns. The electricity goes out, he gets lost, he tries to file a story. He describes it all in exacting detail, down to the flutter of the grass as he breathes while lying flat on his stomach avoiding machine gunfire.
The feeling conveyed is not something you can get over the phone or online. And that’s the lesson of this well-edited anthology of journalism—You have to be there. In the end, it’s the immediate narrative, what Granta calls “the power and urgency of the story” that turns reporting into reportage.