Interviews

A World Made of War: On Oriana Fallaci's Fearless Journalism

Cristina de Stefano’s discusses her perceptive insight into the fascinating Italian journalist with Oriana Fallaci, a book delivered in a riveting and engaging narrative style that’s evocative of Fallaci herself.


Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend

Publisher: Other
Length: 464 pages
Author: Cristina de Stefano
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-10
Amazon
A key component of Fallaci's interviews... was her tendency to treat them as theatre, with herself playing a leading role.
The name Oriana Fallaci may not be familiar to younger readers. But for decades it was a household word around the globe; a name that evoked fear and respect among the world’s most powerful leaders, and frequent controversy in her home country.

The first official biography of this pioneering Italian woman journalist (who was also a successful novelist) is about to emerge in English translation. Its author, Cristina de Stefano, says Fallaci still has a lot to teach us about journalism today.

“I became a journalist because of Oriana,” recalls de Stefano. She read Fallaci’s collection of political interviews -- Interview With History as a teenager, and it inspired her to pursue journalism.

When she died in 2007, de Stefano recalls wondering who would write the journalist’s biography.

“I said to myself, Not you! It’s impossible because you are not in touch with the family and the friends so forget it, there will be another person already working on it.”

But it wasn’t impossible. Two years after her death, de Stefano was contacted by Fallaci’s nephew Eduardo, her designated heir. Eduardo had read de Stefano’s work and been impressed by her style. She was the journalist he felt most capable of giving Fallaci’s biography the effort it deserved.

All in all, the project took about four years. De Stefano’s first task was to review and catalogue all of Fallaci’s papers, to which she had full access -- notes, manuscripts, even love letters. She hired research assistants, and collectively they contacted Fallaci’s many friends and colleagues, traveling throughout Europe and the US to interview them, racing to find them before they too died. Fact-checking all the information they compiled also took time.

“To be honest, I was worried because Oriana was very open to exaggerating things,” recalls de Stefano, laughing. “So I was expecting to find some untrue facts in her life, but in fact, it was not the case. Sometimes she exaggerated a little bit -- she tended to be very epic in her personal narration -- but in the end, I was surprised to find that everything she had told was true to real life. It was just put in an epic way.”

Fallaci’s career was as diverse as it was precipitous. Best known for her reportage and complex, in-depth interviews with public figures, her early reporting days saw her covering arts, culture and entertainment beats, first in Italy and then Hollywood. Tiring of this, she set her sights on the space program, becoming a fixture at NASA and close friends with many of the American astronauts (one of whom even smuggled a photo of her to the moon, at her behest).

Then her career took an unexpected turn -- she leveraged her fame as an arts and entertainment reporter to demand to be sent abroad to cover the Vietnam War, and thus began a career as one of the world’s preeminent war correspondents. Whether hitching a ride on a US fighter jet in Vietnam or traveling with Palestinian guerrillas in the Middle East, her war reporting provided a conduit for her to enact the personal courage and bravery which she considered to be the most important quality in a person.

The Art of the Political Interview

She was perhaps most well known for her political interviews. She pursued interviews with key public figures from around the world and across the political spectrum: from Princess Soraya of Iran (wife of the Shah), to Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping, to Polish rebel and trade union activist Lech Walesa. Her interview with Henry Kissinger is widely considered to have been a key factor in his political demise; she succeeded in drawing out his conceited arrogance in a manner no American journalist had managed.

A key component of her interviews, says de Stefano, was her tendency to treat them as theatre, with herself playing a leading role.

“She did an interview as a writer. She saw an interview like a piece of theatre... she was part of the interview. She was not just asking questions to a person, but this person was interacting with Oriana Fallaci as a character. And she had a good sense of timing.”

When she interviewed Iranian Islamic leader (and future dictator) Ayatollah Khomeini, she had been told to wear a chador (headscarf), which she did. During the interview, however, she confronted Khomeini on the matter of women’s rights and tore off the chador to make a point. Khomeini, incensed, stormed out of the interview. Fallaci refused to leave, insisting she’d been promised an interview and that she would stay until he returned. After a standoff of several hours, Khomeini’s son conceded her point, and the next day the future Iranian Supreme Leader obediently returned to complete the interview. Rather than be diplomatic, Fallaci continued the interview on the very same contentious point they had left it at the previous day (forcing the notoriously stern-faced imam to crack a rare grin).

In preparing for an interview, Fallaci did a tremendous amount of background research. She developed extensive files on all of her subjects, with elaborate lists of questions. The interviews themselves were sometimes full-day affairs, lasting at least several hours. Her goal was not just to ask a few questions, but to develop a more personal understanding of her subject. After hours of interviewing a subject, she would often request a follow-up interview, sometimes the next day. The follow-ups allowed her to test or confirm hypotheses she developed about the interview subject and their behaviour.

"Then she sat in front of all this big material from the interview, and that’s the moment when she was [like] a novelist," explained de Stefano. "Or a theatre writer. She created a piece of theatre. Sometimes she was extreme. I don’t deny it. For example, sometimes she went to an interview and she wanted the person to say something. And the person didn’t say it. So she suggested it, with the body language, with the observations. She had a kind of idea in her mind when she was creating an interview.”

"She’s a writer. She’s not just a journalist. She put a certain degree of creativity in. She doesn’t invent, but she’s very creative in the way she put all the pieces together. We [fact-]checked a lot of the interviews and she never invented a word or statement. But the way that you put the words of a person together, and the way you put the description of the person, [lets] you change the reality, in effect.”

"There are people who like her as an interviewer and people who don’t like her at all. You like it or you don’t like it... she liked to knead the person, to try to find the weak point. It was a real confrontation between her and the person... She always felt in the position to ask the questions, because she said ‘I am a journalist, I am here representing the reader, so I can ask you this question. It’s your problem, if you don’t want to answer.’”

Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.

Thank you.

The interviews she didn’t manage to do were almost as interesting as the ones she did. De Stefano’s work enabled her to gain access to Fallaci’s extensive preparatory interview notes, including files on people she never succeeded in interviewing. The vast majority of subjects she approached succumbed to the lure of being featured in a Fallaci interview; among those with the strength of will to resist the temptation were Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II. It’s a pity Fallaci never managed to interview the Pope; her questions would have been revealing, de Stefano says.

“She was going to ask him questions about his sexual life, about the fact that he was a very handsome man, and big, you know -- she was asking questions that you would never think of asking a Pope! She was also preparing to ask the Pope very hard political questions; Why are you fighting against South American priests who do politics, while you are helping the Polish priests who do politics against the Russians? Which was a good political question to ask the Pope. He was a very political Pope, but he had his own agenda, which was to fight the USSR, and not to fight in South America.”

Toward a More Creative Journalism

Journalism has changed considerably since Fallaci’s heyday, but de Stefano says the Italian journalist’s work offers important lessons for journalists today.

“I think that the most interesting thing in Oriana as a journalist was her way of dealing with power. Political power. I think that this is still very important. She was against power. She was a kind of anarchist, she couldn’t stand power -- the power of politicians but also the power of the stage, the actors.”

“When you go to interview a politician, you have to be careful. Because today we live in a society that is based on image and politicians are showmen. Because of their image, because of their speech, they tend to charm people in a sense, to draw people to them. Oriana was always repeating that you have to try to see behind all this screen of fame. That’s something that I think is still important today, when you are informed of a person who has power -- not to forget this is just a person. The way she wrote about big names, she was always trying to show the reader that they were a normal person, [who happened to be] just at the right place at the right moment. So I think this is good [advice] still now, and maybe more even now than before.”

Next Page

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image