Notes from a Defeatist

by Joe Sacco

Published by Fantagraphics

216 pages, 2003




by Joe Sacco

Published by Fantagraphics

288 pages, 2002



Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95

by Joe Sacco

Published by Fantagraphics

229 pages, 2000










"... telling about some historical incident, who cares, ultimately? Maybe it's my pretense that that's interesting. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm interested, and I'm sort of writing for myself. And then there's the hope that other people read it. If I want to give you another answer I'll say: People read it and maybe they change their ideas or they get interested like I got interested."




Comics have outgrown their superhero underpants, and cartoonist Joe Sacco specializes in one of their most dynamic young subgenres: the political comic book. Maltese by birth, Sacco grew up in Australia and the US, and chose comics as the unusual medium for putting his University of Oregon journalism degree to use. In his award-winning books, he unleashed the bad tidings he'd fetched from some of the messier parts of the world: the Occupied Territories during the first intifada, in Palestine, and war-ravaged Eastern Bosnia, in Safe Area: Gorazde. At this point, what's most surprising about the endeavor is not the choice of genre, but how wallopingly powerful it turns out to be in Sacco's hands.

Like Art Spiegelman before him, Sacco uses comics to deliver familiar content in an unfamiliar form, disarming us of our numbness to images of war and privation. Visual novelty aside, Sacco's focus -- preferring the anecdotal to the panoramic -- excavates details that seldom make it to the news or the history books. In Palestine, for example, a squinting Palestinian boy hunches in the rain while Israeli soldiers, having made him take off his keffiyeh, interrogate him from the shelter of an awning. This is perhaps Sacco's most valuable service: to spotlight the overlooked minutiae of oppression -- the humiliation, the tedium, and the inconveniences of all shapes and sizes -- in addition to the statistics-friendly horrors. On his trips, he talks -- or really, listens -- to dozens of locals, and their testimony appears alongside his crisp narration. For the uninformed, these books offer a solid, palatable introduction to the issues. For the well-informed, they humanize the stories in a way that a Times article never could.

And the more you read, the clearer it becomes that comics are exquisitely well-qualified for the task. Drawings have the potential to be more faithful to reality than even photographs, since everything is included -- or emphasized, or excluded -- for a reason. For example, Sacco told me that drawings for his next book, set in Gaza, will include elements that can be hard to unite on camera, such as the swirling dust and airborne trash and swarming kids, which were crucial to the atmosphere of the place. A remarkable visual economy results, distilling the essence of a place or scene. And this efficiency by no means equals stinginess with detail. A glance will tell you enough, but a dwelling eye will find much more -- a dense richness of detail in which every gesture and facial expression has been scrupulously rendered. Sacco reproduces the extraordinarily subtle nuances of facial expressions, and pulls off, again, something like a distillation: he seizes on the essence of a given expression, and slathers it onto a face.

Imbuing every page is Sacco's respect for his subjects, obvious in the way he draws them and the way he lets them speak. This respect does not mean he's shy of ugliness, nor does it rule out some gentle fun-poking. A spoonful of humor helps the history go down, saving it from self-righteousness and sentimentality on the way. And if he gently pokes fun at his subjects, he mercilessly jabs it at himself. He's a hilarious, self-mocking character in the books, a balding, slouching little man with his hands in his pockets, bumbling and innocently lecherous, full of self-doubt and feelings of guilty privilege. Beneath all that, there's his unstated outrage and sorrow on behalf of, as Edward Said put it in his introduction to Palestine, "history's losers."

Sacco's most recent book, Notes from a Defeatist, is a collection of earlier material, some of which is equally political, some more autobiographical. He recently spent several months in Gaza, and is currently working on a book based on that trip. In person, he doesn't seem like he could come from even the same side of the family as the guy in his books. His calm, residually Australian-accented voice is a surprise after the crass vernacular that peppers his panels; and his confident composure outs his graceless character as just that -- a character. We met in mid-town Manhattan recently to talk.


Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow: Okay, I have a few questions for you. First one -- maybe this'll help me with the rest of the interview. I was curious about what you've learned about interviewing, because you've done a lot of it, and how you've changed or matured as an interviewer.

Joe Sacco: What I've learned is that people like to talk about themselves. And that's kind of the advantage you have when you're asking people questions. Unless they're really trying to hide something, they like the fact that someone's asking them questions, and if you can ask them things they haven't been asked before, or ask stories that they have never told, they kind of really welcome it, and some see it as a real release, is what I find. So as far as what I've learned, I mean, you know, I think just with anything, experience helps you. You just become a little more subtle, and you learn how to, I guess, not so much follow a script of questions, but, like if someone says something, you just sort of continue on that thought, and see where it goes.

And do you feel like it's helped you become a better listener? Do you ever apply it to normal conversations?

I think I'm generally a good listener anyway. I mean, that's maybe a preposterous thing for someone to say. I like listening to people, it's not even out of … I'm not like a professional listener or anything like that, but I enjoy people's stories.

You obviously travel a lot, so presumably you like to travel. I was curious about how your profession affects that, and whether it ever either enhances or interferes with your experience of traveling, whether you always sort of feel like it's a means to an end, because you're going to turn it into something later on.

It's not always a means to an end. I'm not a good tourist, I don't like tourism. I don't often go to a place just to check out all the cultural sites of a city. So normally I like to go places where I know people, or where I'm going to work. And, in some ways I like traveling, in other ways I'm sort of fed up by the whole notion. I don't think it necessarily enhances your work, just traveling, just being in new places, because you always have to sort of change gears, learn a new place, and that takes time. I'm just restless by nature, it doesn't mean I like traveling. And I think I find, I know a lot of people around, in different cities, and so it's not -- it might sound strange -- but it's not that hard to say good-bye, because I know there's other people where I'm going. I can sort of fit in in a lot of places. I don't know if I'm answering your question.

Well, I mean, I was wondering, more about since, because of the nature of the work you do, about these different places, travel is an inherent part of that…

Oh, it's essential. I mean, you have to -- if I'm writing about the Middle East, I have to go there, and if possible, stay long enough to get a real feeling for what's going on. I don't like just traveling in for a short time. I've done that before, because sometimes you work for magazines and they have a budget, and if you're working for them, they want something by a certain time. I'd rather go to a place and spend a couple of months, get to know it, get to know the people.

Do you feel drawn to certain parts of the world more than others?

Yeah, sure. I mean, I'm drawn to the Middle East for whatever reasons and I'm drawn to the Balkans.

And, what are your theories for the reasons behind that? Just because those are tumultuous parts of the world?

It's not about that, because you can find other tumultuous parts of the world. It's the fact that, for whatever reasons, when I was younger I became interested, say, in the Middle East, and sort of sucked into it. I went once and I did the book Palestine, and I wasn't really going to go back, I didn't really have any intention to go back, but when the second Intifada broke out, my interest was rekindled, and it's back to that same feeling that I had, I used to feel, which is that I feel compelled to go and do something there. I'll only go to a place I feel sort of compelled to go to. You know, that just pulls me in. I mean there are other places that interest me, and I wouldn't mind going if a magazine sort of made it easy for me to do it. The places I'm really sucked into, that I'm going to go out of my way to go to, there aren't that many of them, to tell you the truth.

You recently spent some more time in the Middle East? In the Occupied Territories?

Yeah, in particular Gaza. I was there in November for a couple of weeks, and then I was there February and March, a couple months, and I just got back less than a week ago.

And how did it compare with the first time you went there?

Very different, I felt that I was much more on the inside this time. And I actually rented a place in a refugee camp. So I stayed in the camp. And I got to know people that way, where I actually had someone with me the whole time, because I don't speak Arabic, and it's a place where you don't want to be just a random foreigner walking around because they'll be suspicious of you. For good reason. So, I think I was a bit more on the inside this time around, and I hope the book'll reflect it.

And so was that sort of more like your experience in the other book, Safe Area: Gorazde?

Yeah, maybe a little more like that. I mean, Safe Area: Gorazde had some elements that won't be in this book; I was staying with a family. But in Rafah that was very difficult to organize, because people are so poor and because of the situation with women, where you can't really be in the same place that the women are in the household. It's very difficult for you to stay at someone's house for an extended period of time. You know, for a couple days OK, but, ultimately, it's just a situation where it's very hard to be in the same -- you know, you're not even really supposed to see the women in a lot of these households. So that wouldn't really have been practical for any extended period of time.

And how did the situation there compare to the last time you were there?

It was just a lot harder, a lot more violent. You know, life's pretty bad, pretty rough in certain parts. It's very different in different parts of the Occupied Territories. Where I was was a refugee camp called Rafah, which is on the southern border of Gaza, with Egypt. And there were a lot of house demolitions going on there, and there are just some sort of spooky parts of the town because they're basically under fire, or in zones where there's a lot of bullets flying around at different times, so it was just a different sort of feeling from where I was before, where I could just sort of travel, get in a taxi and go anywhere. Getting down to Rafah was hard. You know, there are checkpoints, and you can get trapped there. There's only one road out, basically. And if it's closed for three days or four days, you're stuck there. In the first intifada I was kind of going from one place to another, sort of doing a little tour. In this case I just wanted to be in one place, much like the Gorazde book, I feel it was a better way of doing it, get to know some people well.

Have you found that most of the people that you talk to have been very receptive to you? They want to get their stories out to you or through you?

In general that's true. See, I was researching an incident that took place in 1956. I'm going to be writing about what's going on now. But so it doesn't read like my last book, just like Palestine updated, it's sort of centered around something that happened in 1956, and I just tried to find some old men to find out what happened on that day, that time. And so the story's about finding that story, and meeting these old men. And a lot of these old men were more than happy to talk .… Some of them, you begin to find that they have problems with their memory, which is also part of the story. But they were more than happy to talk. On the other hand, you'd come across people who'd say: Why are you writing about something that happened in 1956, why don't you write about what's going on now? So some people just didn't understand what I was doing, or didn't see why they should be talking to me.

Do you ever encounter distrust of you just as a foreigner?

Sure. I mean, it's to be expected. But I made sure I was with someone who was trusted by the people, and he made sure that I was kind of introduced to the guys, the local guys who were sort of running that part of the camp. And so, once people see me walking around with those people, and they know that they're visiting me in my flat all the time, then people felt comfortable with me. I knew I had to be there for a couple of months just to get to that point where people really knew me by sight. In fact when I went back, people were, you know, waving -- people I didn't recognize at all obviously sort of knew who I was. It gets around, there are so few foreigners there.

There was a woman in, I think Palestine, who said: I've told other journalists, other foreigners, my story, and nothing happened as a result of that. What's the point of talking to you?

It's a good question, it's one I've never been able to give a satisfactory answer. So I don't know how to answer that question even now. I mean, telling about some historical incident, who cares, ultimately? Maybe it's my pretense that that's interesting. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that I'm interested, and I'm sort of writing for myself. And then there's the hope that other people read it. If I want to give you another answer I'll say: People read it and maybe they change their ideas or they get interested like I got interested. That can happen too. But it's on a small scale, I mean, what's my audience? It's a few thousand people, probably.

Who do you think your audience is? How would you describe what you think your audience is?

In some cases I think it's people who don't know anything about the topic, but sort of want to know a little bit, and they're just kind of intrigued by the medium as a way of telling it, or a way of getting inside some topic: Oh, it's a comic book about that, OK, I'll read that. They don't want to read Edward Said or Noam Chomsky. That's part of it. But the other group is people who actually know the region quite well, other journalists or UN people or whatever. A lot of those people contact me.

Do you think your audience is primarily American?

It's primarily American. Well, the book's been translated into some other languages, so it's not just American, but it's sort of meant for an American audience, in a way. My goal is to make those topics interesting. I want people to be interested like I'm interested, and I think comics by their nature are entertaining, or they can be, or they should be, really. So, that's kind of the idea: I don't want to be boring, I want people to get that same thrill that I had.

The woman I mentioned who asked: What's the point of talking to you? I think it's interesting that you include her and other characters like her, and your reaction to that is an example of the ambivalence that you feel about the worthwhileness, or lack thereof, of your work, and the self-reflexiveness that appears in your work. Can you just talk a little bit about your motivation for including that? Is it sort of like a caveat?

I don't think it's up to me to tell people what to do about it. I don't have grand illusions about what people should do, or how I can affect their lives on that level. My feeling is, all I want to do is be a medium of other people's stories. Just present them in a way the audience can digest. Not in a way that's going to turn them off. And it's up to those people what they do with that information. Just pay a little more attention to the news, or just understand a little more from reading the book what's going on, or get involved in activism, or get involved in reading, you know, really get involved in the subject itself. I've had all those reactions from people. So I don't really feel like I have this goal of what I want to get. You know, it's sort of written for me too. I'm the one who's curious. And it was just, in some ways, going myself to see, because I want to see what's going on in the world, and then not feeling like I'm just a tourist. So I have to produce something. I have to have a reason for being there, in a way. And that reason is the book. Or I tell people I'm writing a book. Why should people in Gorazde talk to me? In the end I have to say: Well, I'm going to do something about your lives. And they don't really understand what I'm talking about: OK, you want to do a book about us, that's fine. But that's ultimately, you know, I'm obligated to do it. You want to get something out of it.

So you feel like the book is just sort of a byproduct, incidentally, of your curiosity?

Not incidental, but I want to produce something, and I plan to do something. The major factor is that I'm just interested, I want to see. And then -- yeah -- I want to do something. What can I do? I'm a cartoonist. So I'll just do that. I'm not the kind who goes to demonstrations or anything like that. I'm just doing my bit, my very limited bit.

And can you talk about why you decided to include your doubts in your work?

Part of that has to do with where I came out of. There were a lot of autobiographical comics that started out in the late 1980s, and in some ways, because it's almost the easiest thing for a cartoonist to do is write about his own life. So a lot of my early, early comics -- some are in Defeatist -- were autobiographical. And so, when I started to do my journalism, it was journalism, but that autobiographical thing got carried over with it. I just thought I'd do a comic about my experiences in Palestine. The journalism came because that's what I was trained to do. It just seemed to make sense to have myself in there. That's basically what you're asking, right? I mean, what was your original question, maybe I'm totally off the track now.

It was about -- you know, especially in Palestine -- there's a lot about your guilty privilege, being someone who can leave at any time, and your doubt about whether it's worth it to be doing what you're doing.

That's because those are real feelings, and…

And I was wondering whether part of the intention was to give American readers someone to identify with?

It wasn't really the intention, although that makes sense. I mean, that would be a fair reading of it. In a way it's because I don't really believe the idea of objective journalism as it's portrayed. I find, a lot of the journalism that's written as if you're a fly on the wall is really sort of phony. And it has this pretense of being very fair-minded and removed, and that's not true at all. I mean, an American reporter has all the framework of an American person inside him or her. And it shows in the work whether they think they're being objective or not. I'd rather just get rid of that completely and say: It's me, these are my prejudices, these are my doubts, and I'm writing about this, and you're seeing it through my eyes. And maybe you identify with it because I'm a character like someone you know, but that's not the intention. The intention is more to demonstrate that this is me, and it's my opinion. And I have my prejudices, and I have my preconceived notions. Like anyone does, like any reporter does, but I'm just sort of 'fessing up to it.

I'm just much more taken with the journalism of someone like Hunter S. Thompson or George Orwell, who's my ultimate hero. I'm much more taken with their work, which was personal. It drives me crazy sometimes to read American newspapers, the New York Times and "this reporter" -- it's just so phony. You know, tell me who you are, and then I'll know how to evaluate what your take is on it.

The British press is much more interesting, because you get a feeling for the personality of the author, and it never gets in the way of the story, really. You know … you could even argue that my personality gets in the way of the story in Palestine, I retreat a little more in Gorazde, because I had strong characters then, who could be the ones who were telling the story. And I don't know exactly how I'll do it for the next book, where I'll be, as far as the character goes.

I was wondering whether you identify as an American, since you were born in Malta and grew up partly in Australia.

I guess that wouldn't really be accurate. I think I've got a lot of Americanness inside me, there's no doubt about it, I'm more American than other things, but there's a fair amount of European in me. So I'm not quite sure. I'd say I'm probably more transatlantic than anything else.

And do you, just out of curiosity, as separate from how you identify with yourself as American or not, do you feel like you have to downplay that when you are in these situations, to avoid incurring anti-American sentiment?

Oh, I probably did more this time around. I mean, the war with Iraq broke out when I was there, and I always basically said that I was a Maltese, but I've lived in the United States, and I know the United States well. And when people asked me, I'd say: Yeah, I feel more American in some ways than Maltese. They'd ask me: Where are you most comfortable? And I'd say, I'm most comfortable in the States, probably. So they knew that -- I didn't feel like I was misrepresenting myself.

I was curious about the culture of war reporters that you refer to a little obliquely, especially in Safe Area: Gorazde? Do you feel like one of them, or do you feel like you're a little bit apart from that?

I don't really think of myself as a war reporter, to tell you the truth.

What do you think of yourself as?

Just a cartoonist, I mean, doing journalism in comics form. To me a war reporter is really anxious to get onto the war, and I'm not quite that way. I'm more interested in the effects. There doesn't have to be shooting around for me to get my story, I think. Like anyone who gets used to a place, you get drawn to gunfire, you want to see what's going on, but that's just more curiosity than being a war reporter. And some of those incidents will get told, but I don't really consider myself a war reporter. Not that I'm against it. Not that I feel like it's some sort of a derogatory term. I know a lot of people who probably you could say they're war reporters and they're really interesting people, fun to hang out with…

But those are the exceptions, or…


Or what is the scene like? Do all the war reporters congregate?

You kind of do...

Is there a war reporter personality?

Well, I don't know if there's a war reporter personality. They're all interesting, they're all sort of eccentric, it seems, on some level. They do congregate, they do hang out with each other, but that's important, you know, for safety reasons, you need to know the other people around, you have to help other people out if they're in trouble. No one goes out of their way for a war reporter like another war reporter. So it's good to know them, and they want to know you, they want to know what's going on. They help each other out a lot. And in some ways it's a pretty tight group of people. You know, when they lose someone, everyone sort of knows the person, everyone knows the risks. You can sort of separate also the war photographers, who to me are out of their minds, from the war reporters, who don't just write about war but the consequences, the economics. So, war photographers really push themselves, they're trying to really get up there, whereas a war reporter can sort of stay back and do his or her work.

I read Notes from a Defeatist, and a lot of that is very different. How did you move from what you were doing there to the more political stuff?

There is some political stuff in there. If you had read the comics as they came out, you'd definitely get the feeling that my work was shifting. That doesn't really show it so much. But when I started doing comics, my main goal was to sort of just be funny and do social satire, political satire. I like making people laugh but it's hard for me to make people laugh just for the hell of it. Even though I've got nothing against that either. So I was doing social satire, and slowly but surely my work became sort of more political, if you read How I Loved the War, the book about the first Gulf War, did you read that one? Where I'm breaking up with my girlfriend, I'm living in Berlin…

Right, yeah.

That shows sort of a shift in my work, and also the stuff about bombing of civilians. I mean I've always been pretty political anyway, so it didn't seem like such a hop, skip and a jump for my work to move into that sphere where autobiography and politics -- you can write about yourself and politics at the same time. I like that mix, I like the fact that you're not so much a participant in world events, but you're dragged along by them, and that's a valid topic for writing about, or as a subject for art, it's a great thing. So by the time I did the book about Iraq -- the first Gulf War -- as soon as I finished that I went to Palestine. So you could sort of see this shift, and also the fact that it was autobiographical and then Palestine is sort of autobiographical, so the transition isn't that hard, in a way. The book about Gorazde becomes much more journalistic, where I'm actually trying to tell the story of one place very methodically. I think Palestine is more organic, and Gorazde's a bit more methodical.

Do you see that as an evolution in your work that will continue in that direction, to be more methodical?

Probably, yeah. I think this book is going be pretty methodical, for all it's good points and bad points that's probably how it's going to end up. I think at some point I'll go back to just doing funny stuff, get away from that for awhile, just creatively to go some other place.

Your work is different from just straight journalism in many ways, but one is that it's more in-depth and there's more of a narrative, at least than newspaper journalism, and I was wondering to what extent you consciously create characters almost in a literary way of yourself and of other people?

Of other people I don't.

But of yourself?

Of myself -- it's not that I create a character, it's that I take out parts of my character. It's not a full character. I think my character in Gorazde is more like me. The character in Palestine is more apparent, more there, sort of part of the story, but I've cut out certain aspects of my personality. The aspects that are in there are accurate, but I leave out -- you know, if I'm emotional about something, I leave that out. It just doesn't serve the story. I'd rather talk about the sarcasm or the cynicism, or the self-reflection that you were talking about before that has to do with cynicism.

It tends to be a very humorous, self-deprecating kind of characterization.

Yeah, maybe, but I mean, I feel that way, it's not -- you know especially when I was doing Palestine, I was very unsure of myself, I wasn't sure if what I was doing had any -- not that it didn't have any value, but I didn't know how seriously people were going to take it, so in some ways I tried not to take it that seriously on some level. That was almost subconscious, I think. So, in Gorazde I decided: OK. I really didn't feel that sense of uncertainty about myself, or about my work. I'd sort of proved to myself that I could do it.

Because of the reception that Palestine had gotten, or just because you were pleased with it?

Not so much the reception, but I felt like it worked. Yeah, I was pleased enough with it. So I didn't feel like that was a necessary, or even a legitimate part of my personality in Gorazde. And that's going to be fairly absent, I bet, in this next work. I'm sure I'll be in it in some way -- you can't help but be in it when you're dealing with people, they're your friends, you want to show the friendships.

But in terms of other people, you just try to portray them as accurately and straightforwardly as you can?

Accurately and straightforwardly as possible. Honestly. I keep a pretty rigorous journal, so I would reconstruct everything that had happened that day that was worth reconstructing, and so a lot of the stories that aren't interviews are based on that. Sometimes I would just take a little note here and there, just so when I write in my journal I'd just remind myself of a certain situation or of what someone said. I try to be as accurate as possible with that sort of thing.

Is it ideal for you to be able to depict something visually if possible? Is that sort of more succinct?

I'd rather do it that way. Yeah, I'm walking around in Rafah and I'm thinking, I'm going to have to draw this stuff. I'm always thinking -- like, making mental reminders to myself, which I'll put right in my journal, I'll say, don't forget how many kids you have to draw in the background, because there are kids everywhere. So I'm thinking in those terms, it's like the atmosphere -- sometimes you can't capture it exactly on film, but you're thinking about it, you're thinking about the way the dust is swirling in the air, and bits of trash are flying up, all that stuff you can really never capture unless you're a really good photographer. And I'm not, and I've got a cheapo camera. But yeah, you don't need to write about the swirling dust and the sand that's blowing in your eyes, you can just draw that all the time. And if you draw it over and over again, people get the message.

You talked before about how you prefer British news sources to American, but more specifically I was wondering what news sources you like to read.

I like reading the Independent. And the Guardian. Those are great publications. There are journalists who write in the first person, and I appreciate that. Because if you read someone like Robert Fisk, who is one of the Independent's journalists, you know his political viewpoints once you've read enough of him. So you can either trust, or read his work with a grain of salt, or swallow it fully, depending on what your own inclinations are.

Are there any American sources that appeal to you?

I'll read the New York Times, maybe to get some basic facts down, but I would never read the New York Times for any kind of sense of atmosphere or what a place really feels like. It's useless. Absolutely useless, and most American journalists -- and I studied American journalism -- it's just this tendency towards uselessness as far as giving people a feel for what it's like.

I was wondering about influences. Whether you have influences, whether they're journalists or cartoonists? If there's anybody out there who's doing more or less the same thing you are?

There's a cartoonist named Ted Rall who went to Afghanistan and did some work about that. So you could say he's doing it. I mean people like Spiegelman are doing it. So, there've been a few things here and there. But I'm never quite comfortable with that question because I don't really know, exactly. I can mention a few people here and there, but it's not -- I don't even read that many comics myself. My main influences are writers, and in particular Orwell. But in my style, even fiction writers will grab me and make me sort of think: Oh, that's a great way of writing. It's not like you write like them, but you get sort of a thrill by their writing, and in some ways you want to infect your own writing with that.

Which of your books is your favorite?

I think the best comic I wrote is How I Loved the War. And that I wrote a long time ago. But what I like about that book is it's not really journalistic, so it allowed me freedom just to write. And I always look at that and think: God I want to write like that again, I want to write with that sort of freedom. But when you're writing journalistically you kind of have to -- OK, you can write in a way that's interesting, but basically, you're trying to move the story forward, that's the main thing. And great phrases you had, blah blah blah, things that become your little jewels, you kind of have to get rid of. Because they just get in the way sometimes. So, I don't know if that's my best work, but it's the one I'm most attached to. Probably Gorazde's the best work. But the one I'm most attached to is that comic book.

So did you feel like that was more artistic, as opposed to journalistic?

Yeah. I'd like to get back to it, you know, if possible. The journalism is -- you can be artistic in journalism, no doubt about it, but I really let myself go in that one. I don't know if I have it in me anymore. I'm kind of curious, I'd like to try it.

What you're saying about journalism and about the Times specifically and how it doesn't give you any sense of what it's like to be in a place, is kind of related to a question I wanted to ask…because for me, probably the most moving moment in Palestine -- and maybe in any of your books -- was at the end, the boy in the rain. And even though it was less dramatic than a lot of the other stories the characters had to tell, it just gave me a sense of what it was like to live there probably more than anything else did. I don't know if part of that was because I could relate to it more, as an American, I could relate to this kind of minor incident of humiliation, more than I could relate to being tortured or killed…

Exactly. Right, right.

And I was wondering to what extent you're conscious of that, and how much you think of your audience when focusing on anecdotal stuff like that.

I focus on anecdotal stuff, but it's not that I'm so much conscious of the audience as I'm conscious of myself and what affects me. And I agree with you: you can find any number of hard, hard stories that would fill an Amnesty report or a Human Rights Watch report that are terrible stories, and are compelling in their way. And I'll tell some of those. But yeah, it's that little thing -- it's the little things that break things down. I mean it's that sort of thing that in some ways is the most telling because you can relate to it. Torture is a hard thing to relate to. The idea of standing in the rain because someone is making you do it, is something you can -- it almost even harkens back to the schoolyard. And it's something that -- yeah, it's small and that's what makes it powerful, I think. I mean I agree with you 100 per cent.

A lot of the stuff I'm going to do about Rafah is the same way. You can say the Occupation is horrible on the levels of the killings and the house demolitions and all that sort of thing, but then you have to find out what all that stuff means, or what are the lesser things that happen. Just not being able to go to your sister's wedding because of a road block. That's the stuff that really affects people, because it wears them down on that sort of hour-by-hour basis. And that stuff is -- it's important to relate it. And it often gets missed.

Yeah, definitely. It's not stuff that a Times reporter will dwell on.

You're not going to report on the littlest humiliations, but it's the littlest humiliations that add up, I think. Maybe that kid will never be tortured. But that's something that would stick in my mind if I was him. | June 2003


Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn.