Book Club Series, No. 12: Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle

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It’s not every day that one of our favorite foreign policy interruptors is played in a film by Tina Fey. But Kim Barker is just that cool.

Kim was the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009, based in New Delhi and Islamabad. Her book, a dark comedic take on those years, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” inspired a movie version, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” starring Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Margot Robbie and Billy Bob Thornton.

Kim is now a metro reporter at The New York Times, specializing in investigative reporting and narrative writing. Before joining The Times in mid-2014, she was an investigative reporter at ProPublica, writing mainly about campaign finance and the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Our student-fellow Jennie Spector talked to Kim about why she wrote her book, how Hollywood got it right, and how American foreign policy is getting it wrong.

Fun Fact: Kim was an early fan of absurdist writing; she read her way through Kurt Vonnegut’s books at the age of eight. 

 

FPI: Why did you write the book?

I came back from Afghanistan and Pakistan very frustrated with the direction of the countries and frustrated with what was happening with journalism and being a foreign correspondent, so I was trying to find a way to write a book people might actually want to read. I also liked the challenge of doing it as a dark comedy – anyone who’s lived over there for any amount of time tends to see it as an absurdist situation, and I wanted to see if I could somehow channel that.

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FPI: How was the experience of writing the book different from your work reporting? Do you think you learned anything new about writing and storytelling?

It was an opportunity to include things that I didn’t necessarily include in news stories. But you realize very quickly that it’s a long medium, so you actually have to make sure that everything you’re writing suits a particular narrative arc, that you’re hanging things off a particular frame, and that you’re moving toward a conclusion. You’re asking people to take at least seven hours to look at what you’ve done. You ask them to pay the money and spend all this time with what you’ve done. It’s a different kind of art – you pay a certain amount of money to go into an art gallery, you can look at a piece of art for 30 seconds and say you don’t like it, but there’s a lot of other art there that you can look at. You can buy a movie ticket and you’re done in two hours, but asking people to read a book – it means pruning it, I had to be really diligent in cutting things out, “killing your babies” so to speak, that didn’t further the story. Also going over it over and over again, highlighting the characters in the book, making sure that they didn’t just disappear, that there was a resolution for everybody who was in the book.

 

FPI: When I was reading the book, it made so much sense to me that it would be a Tina Fey movie — that voice just clicked. What were your first thoughts when the movie was pitched to you?

I mean, great, right? I was thrilled by the idea that she was interested in making a movie. Michiko Kakutani initially wrote the review, and she mentioned that it was a Tina Fey character and that got the whole ball rolling. I am so grateful to her and grateful that she brought attention to the book, which didn’t get as much attention as I had wanted in the very beginning.

 

FPI: A lot of the movie was fictionalized, there was the main romance, she played a television journalist instead of a writer, and Pakistan wasn’t in it at all – do you feel the movie stayed true to what you hoped audiences would get out of the book?

I feel like they did a pretty good job. A movie, by definition, is not going to be the same experience as reading the book – it’s going to be shorter, and there are certain storytelling conventions in a movie that you don’t have in books. I didn’t run toward explosions. I was bound by fact in the book, whereas in movies, they can sort of do what they want. They gotta make it a little more dramatic, they gotta Hollywood it up, they gotta have romance…I would again be very arrogant and ungrateful to complain about anything they did. I think they did a good job, and although a lot of stuff is made up, there is some sort of truth in every scene. They twist descriptions that I had in the book into dialogue, and people who watched it who have been in Afghanistan, say they really get the look and the feel of Afghanistan. I like to say that I feel like it was “truthy,” if not completely accurate.

 

FPI: One of the biggest differences was that Tina Fey’s character was a broadcast journalist, but your book really highlights the struggle that many print journalists are facing – newspapers are losing money and news is being delivered in these bite sized packages more and more frequently, and mostly online. How do you see this new news culture impacting the world of foreign correspondence?

Obviously I completely love print journalism, right? I feel like I’m really lucky to work at a place now, at the New York Times, which still has wonderful foreign correspondents and is very committed to telling those stories and even expanding what we do overseas. But it’s frustrating that some of these mid-tier newspapers, such as Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe, don’t have the kind of foreign coverage that they used to have. I think with all those voices over there, you have a variety of stories — you have a lot of enterprise stories and investigative stories that you’re just not seeing now. And for those sort of correspondents, the gap is being filled by freelancers. There’s nothing wrong with that, more power to people wanting to go overseas and tells stories, but it’s the nature of freelance business that you’re going to want to do it on the cheap, because you don’t get paid much for telling these stories, and you don’t have a bigger organization behind you in case something goes wrong.

Industry structure is such that you can get more payout and more reward if you get a “get,” something that someone else hasn’t necessarily covered, which means more dangerous stories. You have folks pursuing more dangerous stories that don’t necessarily have institutional backing, or somebody that comes saying “that’s way too dangerous,” and it leads to predictably horrible results. I think we’re seeing that now. Journalists who are reporting on what’s happening are now part of the story, like it or not, and you see what’s happening. We’re targets now.

 

FPI: Do you find yourself still keeping up with Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Sure I read all the news, and my Facebook feed is pretty much constant onslaught of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

 

FPI: What do you think have been the biggest changes since you’ve been a reporter there?

In Afghanistan certainly there are many fewer correspondents there. You don’t hear about it anymore on the news and even though we declared combat over in December 2014, it’s not like the war has stopped raging. Civilian casualties are at a high, you have desertion in the Afghan security forces, you have dithering from American foreign policy regarding what we’re actually trying to achieve there. We tend to be reactionary instead of being proactive. That’s not the way to do foreign policy, especially when you don’t know what’s going on on the ground. You have to pay attention to what’s going on and determine what you actually want to achieve before you’re just reacting to whatever is happening. I think that’s essentially been our foreign policy in Afghanistan. It’s not like we fought one thirteen year war there, we essentially fought thirteen one year wars, and we essentially let the military drive our foreign policy as opposed to being proactive.

 

FPI: It’s that element still of the forgotten war, we wait to react to it until something happens that we have to react to.

Exactly, I mean, do you hear about it?

 

FPI: Very rarely.

Yeah.

 

FPIDoes your work now with the NYTimes satisfy you in the same way that your work as a foreign correspondent did?

Differently. I think there are stages of life, and I’ve always been very interested in being immersed in the story. I was able to do that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, always talking to other people who are immersed in the same story, so you get into the same language, going to all these parties or whatever, you’re always talking about foreign policy, tribal rivalries, you have context in a way you don’t have here. But I’m still able to be fully immersed in the stories – it’s just that I don’t talk about them. Not everybody is immersed in the same story, everyone is there working on really exciting stories. And it’s great working with editors who actually make your stuff much better. When you’re in a foreign situation, you’re often doing daily news, you’re not necessarily working on the craft and improving your investigative reporting or writing through these huge long stories, and that’s what I get to focus on now.

 

FPIDo you have any advice for upcoming and fellow interruptors?

It sounds super trite, but just do it. Someone came to me and said, “Kim we really think you should write this funny book about being in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” It’s a genre that didn’t really exist, writing a dark comic about war, but I had this idea and I pushed it through and then another woman picked it up and made it into a movie, based on a review by another woman, so just keep pushing. If you have an idea follow it through, and always help other women, as much as you possibly can. I know I’ve always tried to do that.

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