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.

A Political Cookbook

"For [Oriana], the world is made of war -- political war, personal war…"
“She wasn’t impressed by power. She distrusted politicians. And so she can teach you to be wary, to listen to every word, for a journalist not just to listen to what they are telling you and record it, but to try to interact with the person… In the political interviews, I think she was very real, because she put herself at the same level as the person she was interviewing, and that was very new at that time. She was very brave, very personal in her way of dealing with them. She was not at all impressed by them.”

Indeed, Fallaci’s journalism was very impressionistic and highly stylized. She didn’t hesitate to insert her own impressions and feelings into her journalism. In many ways, she challenged the notion that journalism should be purely objective and suggested perhaps that journalism’s other qualities were what really mattered.

“This is an old discussion, about objectivity and your own experience. Oriana was very sincere,” says de Stefano. “She was never pretending to tell you the truth. She was always telling you her own truth. I'm always worried when a journalist says to me ‘Okay, I went to Syria and now I will tell you what’s going on in Syria,’ for instance. Are you sure you saw the truth? So first of all, I think it’s very sincere to say to her readers: ‘This is what I saw, this is how I felt, this is the product of my interaction with my work in the field.’”

“Second, I think that especially today we live in a kind of globalized media situation. Everything happens everywhere and at the same time, everything reaches us. The problem is we have too much information, and we have to sort them out -- fake news and all that… we have all the information about what’s going on in a country or what’s going on in a region, so a very personal look at a situation could add something.”

“In our times, when the media is everywhere and everyone can be a reporter -- people with mobile phones can take images of everything around the world -- we have a lot of information. So we need two kinds of journalists. One is the old-style journalist which checks this stuff, to be sure that it’s true. And for me, that means going to a big newspaper. When I see something on the Internet I go to The Guardian, or I go to Le Monde, I go to the two or three main journals that I trust to see if it’s true. That’s the first point.

"Now the second point -- and this is where Oriana can still be useful -- is that in all this… big mass of information, to have someone who is going there and is just telling me her own story, her own experience. It’s a kind of impressionistic journalism. You are going there as a writer and telling a story. I think that you still need this.”

“Oriana, of course, didn’t believe in objectivity, but she believed in writing, in the art of writing. When I read something written in the Oriana style, I enjoy the literary experience. If I need the factual journalism I go to Le Monde and just check the facts.”

“I think there is still a place to be very personal and literary in journalism,” says de Stefano, adding that the important thing is to make clear to the reader that that’s what you’re doing.

“And Oriana always did. She never said ‘This is the truth.’ [She said] ‘This is my truth! This is what I saw. This is the result of my experience, and as a painter, I give you my painting.’”

That type of journalism is perhaps more important now than ever, says de Stefano. “If we’re looking for simple facts, we have facts everywhere. On our mobile phone, or our Twitter. So if you are able, like Oriana, to be a real writer in the field, you can add something very personal. You can be different from the people with the mobile phone just watching and witnessing the Charlottesville riots. That [the riots are happening] is a fact. But if you have someone there who can really write and can tell the story on this, you have something new.”

A Feminist Fighter

To many, Fallaci seemed a woman of contradictions, and this was perhaps nowhere more evident than in her contentious relationship with feminism. She was a feminist before the word was in vogue. Yet she also did not hesitate to call out or challenge feminists -- long before that, too, became vogue.

“Oriana was very good at infuriating people. I would say she was a specialist in this. She managed to fight every kind of movement and political party. This was her own speciality,” de Stefano explains, laughing. “In fact, she was a real feminist in her life. She never married. In her personal life, she was very feminist, in that she considered having a child without being married which was a big scandal in Italy at the time. She was a feminist in her professional life because she wanted to be a journalist in a period when women did not do journalism -- and she wanted to be a political journalist! So she was absolutely a feminist.”

“But at the same time, I think she did not like the movement. You know, feminism -- everything that is an ‘ism’ -- she had a kind of problem with every political movement. Because she was a kind of anarchist. She had a problem with power. So when she was in America, she got involved with the American feminists, but she didn’t like the way it was going to be a real political movement. She always said that she didn’t like the way that American feminism was against men, and that she thought that you had to be able to be yourself as a woman without being in conflict with men. But I think that in reality, it was just that Oriana didn’t like political movements, didn’t like the gathering of people. She was a very individualistic person. And she was convinced that she could do her own feminism by herself without being part of a movement.”

To further complicate her perception among feminists, in 1975 she published Letter to a Child Never Born, in which she spoke to her unborn child. Fallaci never had a child, although she wanted to be a mother and did become pregnant and miscarry on multiple occasions. In the book, she shares her conflicts, dilemmas, and doubts with her unborn child -- her desire to pursue her career without being burdened by obligations, versus her joy at the thought of having a child. In the end, she miscarries. Published at a time when abortion was under intense public debate in Europe, the book generated a firestorm of controversy, infuriating both sides of the abortion debate.

“[She was] very strongly in support of abortion,” emphasized de Stefano. “And that’s the amazing thing, that in this book she managed to infuriate the pro-abortion camp and the anti-abortion camp with just one book, the same book. Because that’s the way she was… I think that she was able to describe the complexity of the position of a woman on this subject and she was very very fierce, very clear in her position. She published the book in Italy when the Italian people were discussing a law on abortion and there was a big fight in Italy over this, and she went on the TV and she said ‘Without any doubt, I will never abort my own baby. But I will fight for the right of other women to abort their baby if they want, because this is only a woman’s choice.’

"On this she was completely clear. She said that personally, she would never do it, but she was absolutely in favour of the right to abort for a woman. And she was very, very strong in her support. She was on the TV stage with some politicians from Italy, and she said ‘This is the problem of a woman. You men can’t talk about it. You let the woman decide because it is just the woman who has to have the burden of having the baby or not having the baby, because it can be a burden and you can’t judge a woman for this.’ She said in an interview, this was a book on doubt. Not a book on being sure of something.”

Fallaci’s apparent contradictions, however, and her ‘anarchist’ side, make more coherent sense when one considers the impact her childhood growing up during the Second World War must have had on her. Her family were staunch socialists and anti-fascists, and as a girl, she fought with the Italian resistance. As a 14-year- old, she smuggled hand grenades (hidden in heads of lettuce in the basket of her bicycle) to anti-fascist resistance fighters. Her family hid escaped Allied POWs in her bedroom. She transported secret messages hidden in her braids. When Nazis captured Allied soldiers, whom she was trying to help rescue, she witnessed first-hand their brutal treatment. The imperative to fight fascism, and the domineering and oppressive principle it represents, had an indelible impact on the worldview she was to develop.

“I think that her childhood during the war and in particular the year she spent fighting in the Resistance from '43 to '44 was really the beginning of everything,” says de Stefano. “It shaped her idea of life.”

De Stefano says the war crystallized three key ideas for Oriana, to which she clung throughout the rest of her life. First was her epic view of the world, and the way she saw events around her and her own role in them in an epic and dramatic fashion. Second, it shaped her passion for bravery; the idea that being brave was the single most important quality in a person. Third, says de Stefano, it shaped her notion of “life as fighting”.

“Oriana was a person who was always fighting -- in her personal life, in her professional life. For her, the world is made of war -- political war, personal war… She used to say ‘If I write a cooking book, it will be a very political book.’ Because for her everything was political.”

The war may have given her a view of life as a battle, but it also shaped her views on love, says de Stefano.

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