Alexis Okeowo moved to Uganda in 2006 after being awarded a fellowship when she graduated from university. “It was kind of a fluke,” she says, but it ignited her interest for reporting on the continent. She’s now a staff writer at the New Yorker, and has been a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing 2017 and The Best American Travel Writing 2017, and she been awarded fellowships and grants from New America, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the International Reporting Project. Her book A Moonless, Starless Sky was released on October 3.
Foreign Policy Interrupted: Can you explain what A Moonless, Starless Sky is about for those that haven’t read your book?
Alexis Okeowo: A Moonless, Starless Sky is a book of four connecting narratives that aim to tell a story of modern Africa. One is about a young Ugandan couple who are both kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s LRA and another is a story about a Mauritanian who was waging a lonely fight on modern day slavery. There’s a story about women basketball players fighting to keep playing their sport despite threats from extremists who don’t want them to play sports or wear pants. The other is a dual portrait of a young Nigerian girl (who is kidnapped by Boko Haram for going to school but who fights by going back to school anyway) and a government auditor who decides to take up arms to protect his community. So the book is about ordinary people who find themselves in extreme situations and seeing what they do to preserve their ways of life -- how they fight against the extremists in their environments.
FPI: What was it like being Nigerian but growing up in Alabama and New York and reporting on the country your parents left?
AO: It was interesting, first moving in 2012, as I had only been there once on a family trip when I was 11 and I didn’t know what to expect. I felt a lot of warmth from other Nigerians, who even though they would tease me for having grown up in America and not knowing a lot of things that were local to the place, they still regarded me as being very Nigerian. They welcomed me in and so that atmosphere was really important. And I would look at the new friends I made and the people I encountered and I would see the same things I grew up with – not just in terms of music and food and culture – but also some of the things my parents or relatives would say. There was an unexpected familiarness that I felt when going there, but at the same time I felt a bit of an outsider. I think that helped me when it came to wanting to know about the country, traveling around and learning about this place that felt both familiar and foreign. I still feel that way about Nigeria but its something I’ve grown to be comfortable with: the insider-outside perspective. But as I say in the book, it is a place that has come to feel like a home.
FPI: How did you select the four people central to the book?
AO: I think looking back a lot of it was an emotional connection, like the Ugandan couple that was kidnapped by the LRA; I built a strong connection to the wife. Theirs was a story that really stuck in my head for years after. It was the same with a lot of the other stories too. The book also came about not long after the Chibok kidnapping in 2014 and I had very strong emotional connections to that story because I was in Nigeria at the time. All the stories just kind of stayed in my brain long after the reporting had ended, because the people at the center of them were just so fascinating and memorable that I wanted to revisit them.
FPI: What were the young girls like that you interviewed in Somalia, who just wanted to play basketball?
AO: On one hand, there's a fearless confidence that comes from being a teenager, which feels familiar to me. But then at the same time, these girls have gone through a lot. It’s a lot to be threatened on the phone by men who say they want to kill you because you play sports, or threatened in person at gunpoint. I was just struck by their love of the game and the fact they just want to live their lives and don’t want to make a big deal of the fact that they were brave, which to me is so quintessentially being a teenage girl. They just wanted to date boys and go out.
FPI: Can you talk about the fear of being in conflict zones as a female journalist?
AO: When I went to Somalia I thought ok, I’m very apprehensive, just in terms of going into a place that is an active war zone but there’s this strange thing that when you see people going about their daily business and living their lives, it kind of eases that anxiety. I’d be sitting in a restaurant in Mogadishu and there’d be trees and we’re having pizza. I would know that not long ago there had been a car bombing on the street not far away but everyone was chilling and eating and talking, so you relax and let go of some of that fear. I think that’s the only way people live is to push that fear to the side and just go about their daily lives. The same way that in northeastern Nigeria, where girls are being kidnapped, the power went out in my host's home and there was no electricity but people were having dinner on my host’s front yard, just in the dark, chatting and eating and it’s that strange but very real sense that people maintain their lives. It lets you let go of that fear and just be in the moment, which was helpful.
FPI: How do the people in your book view religion, especially when religious fanatics were ruining their lives?
AO: Even the couple in Uganda, they’re born again Christians, when they were talking about the so called LRA Christians, or the Nigerians were talking about Boko Haram, they say this is not Christianity or Islam this is something completely different that is ruining our religions. So it was very personal because it felt like these extremists were ruining the good name of their faiths. I thought that was interesting because for them the problem wasn’t the religion, it was the way it was being used by terrorists, and in Mauritania’s case by the imams and the government who are claiming Islam supports slavery.
FPI: The anti-slavery activist in Mauritania was very different from your other characters; can you explain why you decided to include him in the novel?
AO: I guess the story felt different because he is actually an activist. The other characters are not activists; they are just people who have found themselves in situations and decided to do something about it. They’re not activists who wanted to fight for a cause. He became impassioned about this issue at a very young age, when he saw slavery around him and was told by his father that his grandmother had been a slave. It became a primary preoccupation in his life, his intellectual life, his personal and his working life, the fact that in this modern era slavery still exists in this country. Even though it's been outlawed everywhere else in the world, it's even been outlawed in his own country and yet this injustice still prevails. It’s his main focus and he’s just a single minded, very passionate, very compassionate person, whose desire is to make his country eradicate slavery on a ground level. He’s been imprisoned several times; he’s committed radical acts like burning holy books of Islam that some imams used to support slavery, even though he leads a pious Muslim life. It’s admirable but also kind of unfathomable to see how someone can devote their life to a single cause.
FPI: You beautifully simplify the histories and politics of each country. How did you do this?
AO: I read historical books about each country but I knew I wanted to distill it in a way that was not like an academic book. I wanted the reader to get a sense of what each place was like so the trick was to do a summary/analysis of the country’s politics and history in a way that was not too overwhelming or confusing. As a reader, I hate getting bogged down with too much context but at the same time, in the case of somewhere like Mauritania, there’s so much history and even I didn’t know much about it before I reported there.
FPI: You also describe the atrocities people suffered with such poignant clarity.
AO: It’s part of my writing style to be straightforward but I also think when you are dealing with such harrowing experiences that are already brutal themselves, you don’t need to make it more dramatic. I felt like I needed to be clear but not linger on it too much because the point is not the fact that these people are victims of such brutal circumstances but what happened next, how the choices they made got them through it, their resistance and survival.
FPI: In the book you talk about a couple – Eunice and Bosco – whose son becomes more epileptic because of something he may have heard when you were interviewing his parents. As a journalist, how do you know when to back off or keep pushing for a story?
AO: On a later trip when I was interviewing the couple, they were telling me that their son was experiencing seizure-like spells that they thought might be related to him overhearing the experiences of his parents who were in captivity. That was very surprising and disheartening to hear because, of course, as a reporter you know you are putting your subjects through a lot when you ask them about difficult or traumatizing times, but the last thing you want is for them or their families to be negatively affected. They didn’t blame me, which is something I was very humbled by but that made me think even more about being careful. As reporters, we really have to be careful not to re-traumatize the victims anymore.
FPI: How did you find the right words to talk about the trauma experienced by your subjects?
AO: I was greatly helped by the fact that my interpreter had gone through a similar experience to my subjects and would correct me or make suggestions about how to approach a certain topic or a particular experience that they had, so as to not say something that was too blunt or insensitive. He was a Ugandan who had been abducted by the LRA at the same time so he was familiar with the experiences and the trauma and knew how to talk about it in a way that wasn’t insensitive.
In Pipe Dreams, Banco revisits events over the past two decades to uncover why the enormous wealth that was supposed to come from Iraq's and Kurdistan's oil never got into the right hands. Pipe Dreams details how vast corruption resulted in billions and billions of dollars.
Check out what Banco had to say.
FPI: How would you describe Iraq’s relationship with oil and natural gas to someone who has never researched the topic?
The oil and natural gas sector is pivotal to the country’s economy. Most people don’t know this, but the oil and natural gas reserves are controlled by two different governments: the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and the central government in Baghdad. The economy of Iraq is defined by the state of those reserves and how well the international oil companies are producing. Iraq is part of OPEC and the country depends on oil sales for about 95 percent of its public income. Tens of thousands of average Iraqis - whether they’re Kurdish or Arab –are on the government payroll. Their salaries are in many ways determined by how well that oil or natural gas sector is doing and when we saw a dip in oil prices not too long ago, a lot of these civil servants went without pay because the economy - the natural gas and oil sectors - were doing so poorly. Of course there were other factors at play. The government was also trying to manage a refugee crisis and pay for the war against ISIS.
FPI: When did you first become interested in the energy crisis in Iraq and why did you decide to write a book on it?
I first started covering the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 and at that time, everyone was trying to figure out how this extremist group was making all of its money and they were able to pay its recruits. It quickly became clear that they were using the oil and the black market to sell these reserves, so I started covering the illicit oil sales that were happening in the northern part of the country from ISIS; tracking their internal economy led me to look at Iraq’s oil and natural gas reserves in general. I started uncovering nefarious behavior in the ministries there and ended up, by chance, meeting several people there who became whistle-blower type people, who were financial regulatory enforcement officers in the UK and US who had seen the corruption in Iraq in the oil sector from the war to today. I was given around 1,000 pages of documents chronicling this issues, so I had all of this content and I had to do something, which is when I decided to write a book.
FPI: You report on armed conflict in the region, especially the ongoing battle with ISIS. What is the role of energy the state of this conflict? Do you feel optimistic about the prospects of peace for the region?
I can only really speak to Iraq, but what I think we need to be paying more attention is what is going to happen to some of the disputed areas in Iraq post-war and post-referendum. It’s going to be interesting to see, once the dust settles, who will maintain control of the disputed territories. This has been an ongoing issue in Iraq for decades. Many of these disputed territories have reserves of oil and during the war with ISIS, the question of control once again came to the forefront of the conversation. When ISIS began taking over swaths of land in the summer of 2014, the Iraqi military moved back from some of these areas and the Kurdish military moved in. The question is: will Bagdad control these disputed areas or will the Kurds control some of these areas? How are they going to split them up? It will be interesting to see the fallout from this.
FPI: What is your take on the referendum vote for Kurdistan’s independence and how do you feel this will change the power dynamics of the region?
I think that the referendum vote is particularly interesting, given what is going on in the disputed territories. The idea of the referendum going through was a scary one for some people in the government in Baghdad considering a lot of the oil reserves lie in the Northern region and particularly in the disputed territories. And the Kurdish military now occupies land there. It will be interesting to see if Baghdad and Erbil can work out some sort of deal regarding control of land and exports of oil to the international market.
FPI: Can you describe your background of reporting on the Middle East and how you first became interested in the region?
I have been reporting since 2011 and I first started my career as a freelance journalist in Cairo about nine months after the Egyptian Revolution; I started covering the transition to a new government. I covered Egypt all the way through the election of President Morsi. I was studying Arabic intensively at the time in Cairo and I had gone to Egypt with the intent of learning Arabic and then to start reporting, but everything that was happening all at once in that part of the world - it seemed like a good opportunity to get my foot in the door. At the time, a lot of publications were short on staff in the region and were relying on freelance journalists to fill that gap. I ended up starting to write for Newsweek, Daily Beast, the Atlantic, so I wrote at these publications sporadically during my time in Egypt.
The Syrian Civil War started and I was really interested in starting to cover the refugees issues in Lebanon and Jordan. It seemed like the best way to start covering the war without actually being inside the country. Eventually, I did end up making my way into Syria and that became my beat. The Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, was really what took my interest as a reporter and what I reported on for a couple of years.
I ended up coming back and going to graduate school before becoming a Middle East correspondent for International Business Times. My reporting experience has been mostly focused on the Middle East, predominantly in conflict zones, reporting on frontlines. Over the years, I have become an investigative reporter, doing deep dives. Now I am pivoting to domestic political and financial reporting.
FPI: Any book/film recommendations for people hoping to learn more?
For general reading on Iraq, I recommend Emma Sky’s new book The Unravelling [Check out FPI's Q&A with Sky] which put a lot of things in context for me. Also, Seymour Hersh wrote a book called Chain of Command, which is also a worthwhile read. For a more detailed history there is a book called Turks, Kurds and Arabs by CJ Edmunds. For more reading on the natural resource curse phenomenon I really like the book Escaping the Resource Curse by Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs as well as several other oil exports. For more detailed information about the Kurdish energy sector, there are trade publications out there that are useful.
FPI: What advice do you have for fellow and upcoming interrupters?
I have often been challenged by men - either my own age or by men who have been in this field a little longer - about whether I have the intellect or resources to write this book. I have often been called out on social media for things like this.
I think the one piece of advice I have for women trying to break through the noise and want to do their work the way they want to do their work, is to find a group of people who support you and rely on them for encouragement and to drown out as best you can - that noise coming from men who might be intimidated by you or men who think they have the only right to report on, for example, the oil sector in Iraq or think that they have claimed that territory.
I think it is important for young women, especially, to break through that and show that you have something to offer, that you know what you’re talking about, and nothing can stop you.
Suzy Hansen moved to Istanbul in 2007 after being awarded a fellowship, and is still living in Istanbul a decade later. Hansen is a contributing writer for the New York Times and has had stories published by The Nation, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and Foreign Policy, among other publications.
Last month, Hansen released her first book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. The book details her experiences living in Turkey and reporting across as the Middle East as she grapples with her homeland and its place in the world. Publishers Weekly calls it a “searing critique of the ugly depths of American ignorance, made more dangerous because the declining U.S. imperial system coincides with decay at home.”
Can you summarize what Notes on a Foreign Country is about?
The book is about how the rest of the world views the United States, how Americans relate to their country’s foreign policy, and how that relationship forms their own worldview, prejudices, and perceptions. To tell this story, I use my own experience of moving to Istanbul, traveling around the region and working as a journalist, as well as a tremendous amount of reading and research. The book ends up breaking down into a number of narratives – one in which I struggle to understand Turkey, one in which I begin to understand the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, and one in which I examine what it ultimately means to be American. So there are elements of reportage, history, and memoir in the book. Ultimately, I argue that as an American it is very difficult to see the world clearly, as well as it is to see ourselves; that in fact much of our identity is dependent on the fact that we do not. The book ends with Trump’s election which seemed appropriate.
Why is that important for people to know about and understand?
I am from a conservative, somewhat insular place – your standard small American town – and yet went to a good college and spent my 20s in New York media amongst very well-educated people. I guess you could loosely call these two worlds the Trump voters and the so-called liberal elite. But from abroad, in certain ways, both groups look the same to me – I think all Americans suffer from a lot of the same problems, which is namely that we have this deep faith and dependence on our own American exceptionalism, which essentially tells us, perhaps unconsciously, that no matter what wrongs we commit around the world, we are still good people with good intentions – the best there is, at least. There are a whole slew of pathologies and prejudices that come with that worldview. I tried hard to unearth and examine my own.
In 2007, you won a grant to live in Istanbul, Turkey. It was your first experience living in a Muslim-majority country. You write about the perceptions you had before going. Could you talk about those perceptions and how they changed after living in Istanbul?
A lot of what I talk about in my book are reflexes – these sort of automatic emotions or thoughts that we have no control over. Many of us will fight those reflexes with education, empathy, self-awareness, but I do think it’s in the reflexes that you find the truth (and how you can understand the deeper American character.) I moved to Istanbul some years after Sept. 11th and I explain that even though I was horrified by the Islamophobia of the time, there was some part of me that was infected by it – in the way of so-called well-meaning liberals, those who looked at the Islamic world as if it were a problem that needed to be solved. This is always dangerous.
Notes on a Foreign Country isn't just one story. You write about Turkish politics, your visits to Greece, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. You also write about how your view and understanding about the US shifted. How did that happen? What did you learn?
I should say that by the time I moved to Istanbul I was left-leaning and very critical of the US government. My point is that politics doesn’t really matter when it comes to his phenomenon of American identity and ignorance. There was still so much I didn’t know about America’s history in the region, and I still had really problematic assumptions and, again, reflexes. As I explain, there was some part of me that still saw the American system as one that most of the rest of the world was aspiring to, and I judged those places accordingly. I came to believe that the American mind was simply shaped according to this assumption – that it is very hard for them to think differently without a lot of work. I also came to believe that Americans lack a certain kind of empathy that may take decades for them to make up for. We are much too comfortable with violence and the deaths of others. It’s a moral crisis.
You write about the rise of Erdogan in Turkey and how you saw that as positive. Over the past decade, Erdogan has become much more authoritarian in nature. Could you explain that shift?
I was caught up in a certain mood at the time – the secularists and others were protesting Abdullah Gul’s ascendance to the presidency, the military had threatened to intervene, and I saw it as a kind of prejudice on the part of citizens and anti-democratic on the part of the military. It’s easy to forget now, but a lot of people were accepting of the AK Party then, even if just quietly – they were making reforms, they were making peace with the Kurds, and they very cleverly (much assisted by the Gulenists) used the rhetoric of human rights and democracy. Much of the other side made sympathy for them (or at the very least an openness to them) easy by looking down on women who wore headscarves, and having been authoritarian themselves for many decades. There was a briefly positive period and then very quickly it became clear – by 2009, 2010, 2011 – that things were taking a dark turn. I think the internal dispute between the Gulenists and the AK Party then blew the whole thing apart, and the country suffered and is suffering for it.
What do we in the West get wrong about Turkey?
As with any country, we tend to see the various identities in Turkey as much less complex than they are. The idea of the Islamist vs. the secularist was seductive to me in the beginning, and is still seductive to many – editors and journalists are working under tighter and tighter conditions with fewer and fewer word counts and they’re under pressure to break things down into simple terms. Even in a 6000 word magazine piece I find I can’t explain Turkey’s history quite the way I want to. But that Islamist vs. secularist dichotomy has always been in many ways false. The real shame of it is that the history of political identity in Turkey is so fascinating – especially the way the left and right splintered into many smaller groups during the Cold War. You can’t really understand Turkey now without knowing that history which really only books can tell you.
What advice do you have for those who want to have a globally-informed view of the US and the world, but don't have the means to travel?
Seek out books, articles, essays, academic texts, and novels by people who are from the countries you want to learn about. Don’t just rely on foreign correspondents or Western writers. The thing I most enjoyed about writing this book was the chance to read all this incredible writing.
This week, we're diving into Brazil. We talked to Juliana Barbassa, managing editor at Americas Quarterly, and policy director of Americas Society. Her book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink is one of the best primers we've found on an increasingly complicated and important country.
Why did you write this book on Brazil? Why now?
When I went back to Brazil as a journalist in 2010, I found a booming economy, 30 million people moving into the middle class, newfound economic stability, a working class president representing Brazilians who had historically been excluded from power. All of this was very exciting, and part of what drew me back. I wanted to see this, understand it. But as a Brazilian, I knew the problems – the country’s inequalities – ran very deep. Racism, class divisions and lack of education and access to healthcare – you can’t change all of that in five years, or ten. I wanted to explore this moment. How much of the change was real? How much was hype?
I wanted all of those great things to be true – that having a new political party in power, that brought a different vision to the country, and having an oil discovery off Rio’s coast, would mean money and political will to really tackle these longstanding issues. I also had my doubts. The book was a way to investigate this transformation in greater depth. And indeed, over time, I started to identify the cracks and gaps in this narrative.
What was most startling or surprising to you?
I came to Brazil, and to the book, with a lot of my own hopes and expectations. What I learned in my years there unraveled these hopes in a way that was often painful. For example -- the sense of safety in the street of Rio had really improved. A new security program in favelas raised expectations for a better quality of life there, if the policing were followed by social programs and investment. This was huge. There was skepticism, but there were also expectations, in many quarters.
But years into it, if you looked closely at the interaction between the police and the policed in places like the Alemao complex of favelas, you could see the relationship remained antagonistic. The lives of some people were still valued less than that of others -- police violence, and killings by the police, remained a fact of life for many communities. That this didn’t change wasn’t surprising so much as deeply disappointing.
Were you surprised about Dilma’s impeachment?
No. By the time she was impeached, she had lost her political base, but long before then, she lost the support of much of the public -- even many who had voted for her. I was there when she won her second presidential election. She won by a very narrow margin. A lot of people voted for her because she had promised not to tackle the economic crisis through the economic retrenching that her opponent was running on. When she took office and began to pursue austerity measures, many of those people felt betrayed.
Her impeachment was due not so much to the administrative charges levied against her, though that was the official reason. She was removed because she lost control of the economy, and lost popular support. That’s a sin Brazilians aren’t willing to forgive. Many members of Brazil’s Congress, and much of its political class, are venal and opportunistic. They turned against her once she was weak.
There’s another element, too, that surfaced once the impeachment was a possibility. Sexism still runs deep in Brazilian society. The fact she was a woman wasn’t a big issue when she was campaigning, in part because she was hand-picked by Lula, her predecessor, who remained the country’s most popular politician. But once she began to lose that power base – you saw it as congress voted to move her impeachment forward -- the language they used was sexist, patronizing and at times demeaning.
What does her impeachment imply?
It was the end of an era -- a sad, wrenching end to a period of great expectations and real promise. This political-economic arc we’ve been talking about in Brazil, from the moment of growth in the mid-2000s, to a few years of bonanza, to the souring of the economy that became apparent in 2013, 2014 -- this arc took a lot of Brazilians along for the ride. A lot of people really bought into the idea that the country was booming, headed for bright future, and that this would also be true for them, for their families.
Many did benefit from this improvement, these opportunities. As a country, we saw families move from poverty to middle class, we created spots in universities for poor students and students of color – this was powerful. But much about this broader promise was unsustainable. The bigger and deeper reforms that would have been necessary to prime the country for steady, long-term growth were not undertaken. Brazil continued to depend on oil, on the export of commodities. And when their prices tanked, the country was left exposed.
What do you think the legacy of those protests were in 2013?
On the more positive end of the spectrum, those protests captured and put forth a broader debate about governance – about the tenor of Brazil’s democracy, about distribution of resources – that Brazil has to grapple with as its democracy matures.
It was important to see that these issues had the capacity to mobilize people, and that people in turn put pressure on elected officials. I think everyone was surprised. The protesters hadn’t anticipated the size of the movement. Politicians didn’t know how to handle it. It was very new to them.
With that said, there was no unifying philosophy and no unified demands. It captured the zeitgeist, it captured a feeling and a set of expectations about where Brazil is, the path it should take. But it didn’t turn into anything concrete – a specific set of demands – much less a political intervention. That’s where we stand now unfortunately. There was a broad rejection of the political class, but no one has stepped in to fill that role. There’s a significant power vacuum. It would be wonderful if that energy and those conversations could be channeled into a platform, a concrete plan. I don’t see that happening.
You say that Brazil is more unequal now than before the Olympics. Why is that?
For me, the preparation for the Olympics served as a window into what was going on in Brazil generally. The Olympic Games and the World Cup were pitched to the population as urban renewal tools, essentially. They were sold as a way of catalyzing change that would benefit all residents; at some expense, yes, but everyone would gain from it.
What happened instead was that the Olympics and the World Cup exacerbated a cycle of political patronage and corruption that was already in place. You had the same powerful actors -- local, state and federal politicians, alongside the owners of the big construction companies that got contracts to build sporting venues and infrastructure -- working together to funnel public resources into their private hands. They won; Brazilians lost.
In Rio, you did have a lot of physical transformation of the city, but when you look at what was put into place and who was best served by that change, it fits into the same old logic.
For example: Rio just invested in a very costly expansion of the metro from one of the wealthiest parts of the city to another wealthy part of the city. Is it nice to have? Sure. The city desperately needs new transportation options. Does that meet the greatest need of the residents? Not at all. This is the case all over the city. We now have empty venues, and infrastructure that does not meet the city’s most urgent needs.
And more: If you look at where the investments were made and who benefited it, generally, it was the people who were already well off: wealthy residents and the owners of the companies that build the infrastructure. That’s why I say that the Olympics made the city more unequal than before.
In the coverage of Brazil, what are some of the stereotypes and problematic narratives that you see? Narratives that need to be dismantled? What issues are not being covered?
Anything outside of the Rio and São Paulo, occasionally Brasília, is largely ignored aside from the rainforest deforestation, which is usually covered by parachuting in and spending a few days there. The country is hugely diverse: culturally, geographically, and economically. There is little recognition of that, and not just by the international media outlets, but also by the biggest media outlets within Brazil.
There’s also a problem of perspective. Journalists often look at everything from very close up, so in terms of the economy, what gets left out is the long term improvement, as measured by general welfare, health statistics, life expectancy. Even now, despite the very grim situation we are in, with political turmoil and economic downturn, Brazil is still a far better place to live for many Brazilians than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Literacy, deaths by easily preventable diseases, infant mortality, all of these things have been improving significantly and continue to, and haven’t been wholly undone by the recent downturn. It’s important to remember that.
One thing I’m really tired of seeing is the story of the violent favela. My least favorite variation of that is the intrepid reporter going into the violent favela and describing being there with these traffickers..it just makes me roll my eyes. I wanted to write stories that included favela residents but were not focused only on violence or the drug trade, or bodies sprawled on the streets, but were about working families, kids who go off to school in the morning, mothers who rush home at the end of the day to make dinner, fathers who work two jobs to make ends meet. They are neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, in city that has tremendous inequality. It’s unsexy compared to the story where you’re faced with the trafficker or the automatic weapon, but it’s the reality.
It’s not a denial of the violence, but a shift in focus. People there have hopes, aspirations, lives, and worries that are beyond the violence. They plan birthday parties. They worry about the economy.
Do you have any recommendations for novels, documentaries, non fiction work, or even websites you like going to for information on Brazil?
There are some new media efforts in Brazil, such as Agência Pública, that is doing impressive work. There is one English-language website I usually recommend -- Rio On Watch. I love what they’ve done with young, non-professional journalists and their focus on issues and communities that are not represented in the mainstream media.
There are great movies that make for a good introduction, like City of God, Elite Squad, Pixote, Bus 174, and Central Station.
There is a dearth of books about Brazil, but I would definitely recommend Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires, Alex Bellos’ Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life and Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia.
What advice do you have for other women in the field who work in foreign policy and the media?
Do it. Most writers are men; most reviewers are men; most policy experts are men. The only way we are going to upend this trend is if women just do it, and then keep doing it, keep raising their hand, and keep proposing books and talks and op-eds. And when you’re in a position to hire women, promote women, engage with their perspectives, do that too.
Russia remains one of the toughest challenges on the current U.S. administration’s agenda. Media coverage of the country focuses relentlessly on election hacking, politics and Putin. But a quarter-century after the fall of the USSR, what’s really happening in Russia? How do Russians live? What do they talk about, think about, believe in?
Lisa Dickey traveled across Russia three times in the past 20 years in (1995, 2005 and 2015), and each time she went back, she interviewed the same people in 11 different cities to find out how everyday life there has changed.
Our student fellow Connie E sat down with Dickey for an on-the-ground view of Russia today and its post-Soviet evolution.
Fun fact: When Lisa was 22, she worked as a lounge singer at a French restaurant in Japan.
FPI: Your book Bears in the Streets is a fascinating read. Could you explain what the title means in Russia, and why did Russians frequently bring this up during your last trip?
The title Bears in the Streets comes from something that happened during my third trip, in 2015. On my second day there, somebody remarked that Americans all think there are bears wandering the streets in Russia. I’d spent a lot of time there over the previous 25 years, and I didn’t remember anybody putting it quite that way. So, I just kind of filed that away—but then a few days later, in the next city, somebody else said the exact same thing to me. And then, in the next city, another person said it! I spent some time pondering this, and I realized that what the Russians were saying was that we Americans don’t respect them—that we think they’re not as rich, important or sophisticated as we are.
So, the title of the book has two meanings: First, it’s a reference to that anecdote. Second, the bear has long been a symbol of Russia, so Bears in the Streets also can refer to the people of Russia, which is what this book is about. It’s not about politics, the Kremlin, or Vladimir Putin; it’s just about the Russian people. But of course, by understanding more about the people, we can gain a better understanding of their government and leadership.
FPI: What are some of the notable changes you saw in Russia over the course of 20 years? Did any of them come as a surprise?
The changes were just enormous. The first trip was in 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia had been under Soviet rule for 70-plus years, and suddenly they were switching from a state-controlled economy to a capitalist one, so you can imagine how chaotic that whole transition was for everyone. There was a lot of fear and trepidation, because the ruble had collapsed, and people didn’t know what the future held. Boris Yeltsin was president, and although he’d started off strong, by the mid-90s he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a pillar of stability.
When I came back in 2005, after a ten-year absence, everything felt very different. Putin had been in power for five years, and most people I talked to were better off financially: they had credit cards, they’d traveled abroad, they could afford to buy imported goods. The Russian economy had rebounded, primarily because the price of oil tripled between 1995 and 2005. And just in general, people seemed to feel more confident about the state of their country, and about Putin as their leader.
When I went back in 2015, Putin had been in power for 15 years—but the ruble has collapsed again. Between January 2014 and September 2015, when I launched the third trip, the ruble lost half its value, which was just devastating for Russians. I was really curious whether they would blame Putin for their economic woes. But instead, they blamed us, for the sanctions we had imposed, and for the falling price of oil. This was really eye-opening for me: It showed me that the Russians’ love of Putin goes very deep. It’s easy to maintain support when the economy is good, but even when the economy was tanking, Russians still believed Putin wasn’t at fault.
Russians love Putin in part because they’re better off under him than they ever were under Yeltsin. But it’s crucial to remember that Putin has systematically shut down independent journalism over the years, so many Russians aren’t aware of—or don’t believe—the bad things he’s done.
FPI: To what extent do you see Russian people’s attitudes and perceptions towards the US reflected in US-Russia relations? Is it as hostile as the media portrays?
Well, U.S.-Russia relations are what they are because of who our respective leaders are. The truth is, Americans don’t really know what Russians think of anything. Over there, they watch a lot of American television; The Big Bang Theory and Friends are particularly popular. They also get a lot of American movies and music. But how many Americans have seen a Russian movie, let alone a Russian TV show? So the simple truth is, we know very little about the Russian people themselves.
To many Americans, Russians are a cold, unhappy people. But that’s really not the case at all. It may seem that way because culturally, Russians are not overly friendly to people they don’t know. But once you have any kind of connection, they’re unbelievably generous and welcoming. In 1995, when I first traveled to Chita, in far eastern Siberia, I had been given the number of someone who was a friend of a friend of someone I knew in St. Petersburg. This person didn’t know me from Adam, but when I arrived at the Chita train station at 3 a.m., she was waiting at the train station waving an American flag. It was unbelievable to me how generous people were as I crossed the country dropping in on them over 20 years.
FPI: What continues to draw your interest in Russia? Is it the people, culture, language, or the politics? Do you foresee a fourth trip 10 years later?
I totally want to go back in 2025; I just love seeing how people’s lives have evolved over time. And there’s also the whole other layer of what’s happening in the country itself: Russia is a vital country in the geopolitical world order, so it pays to understand what’s going on there. In that sense, my trips are both personal and political.
I also enjoy these long trips because the Russian countryside is so beautiful and varied. I had the opportunity to go on a research expedition with scientists on Lake Baikal—a once-in-a-lifetime thing I got to do three times. And I visited a tiny village in Buryatia, which is close to Mongolia and has these rolling low hills and big skies, very different from what we typically think of Russia. Most U.S. media coverage of Russia is very Moscow-centric, and making these trips enables me to see what’s going on in the rest of the country.
FPI: As a traveler and writer, have you ever felt your being a woman was a challenge?
The first two trips, I traveled with male photographers, so I wasn’t too worried about safety. But on the third trip, I went alone. I was definitely nervous, particularly about the long train journeys, where I’d be sharing four-bed coupés with strangers.
There was one time when I boarded the train at night, and there was only one other person in the coupé: a very red-faced young guy who seemed kind of drunk. The train pulled out of the station, and suddenly he pulled his pants off. He was wearing boxers, but yikes! I was debating what to do when he took a call, and for the next 20 minutes he talked to his girlfriend, calling her every pet name you can imagine—my sweet, my love, my little sun! I realized he was harmless, just a little drunk, and soon after the call he was asleep. But that was one of the few moments where I felt concerned about my safety.
FPI: Do you have any tips for emerging and fellow interruptors?
Remember that “no” isn’t necessarily a final answer. Meaning, if there’s something you want to do, either professionally or as a personal goal, keep pushing until you get that thing. If someone tells you no, your next question should be: How can I get this to a yes? If you can train yourself to do that, you’re going to get a lot further.
FPI: Who are some of the mentors or people who have influenced you?
Gary Matoso, the photographer who actually came up with the idea of the first trip in 1995, was a tremendous influence on me. He was just so ambitious on the project: Imagine, in 1995, deciding you’re going to create a real-time web travelogue across Russia! At the time, only 14% of American households were even online. This was insane—but we did it. No matter how many roadblocks we bumped into, Gary worked like crazy to overcome them. Because he wanted more than anything to make this trip happen.
I’ll tell you a story about one of the transformational moments for me—and I don’t know if Gary even remembers it. During the last stop of our 1995 trip, in St. Petersburg, we were planning to photograph five generations of one Russian family, from a 98-year-old woman all the way down to her 6-year-old great-great-grandson. This was the last task we had, to get this photo for our final story, which was about seeing the Soviet century through the eyes of one family.
We were scheduled to shoot the photos on our last day in Russia, but the night before, the mother of the Vanya, the 6-year-old boy, told us they couldn’t bring him because there was an ice storm in the forecast. I got off the phone, turned to Gary and said “Wow, that stinks. Looks like it’s not going to work out.” And he said: “Call them back. Tell them we’ll do whatever it takes. Get them to a yes.” Since Gary didn’t speak Russian, I had to make the call. I was uncomfortable with the idea of pushing them, but Gary was insistent. So I pleaded and wheedled until they finally agreed to bring Vanya the next morning.
And you know what? Twenty years later, when I interviewed now-26-year-old Vanya, he told me something amazing. His great-great-grandmother died a few months after we did that photo shoot… and those photos Gary took are the only ones that exist of them together. The whole family is incredibly grateful to have those pictures—and they only exist because Gary refused to let “no” be the final answer.