Mexican journalist focuses on narrative storytelling

Alma Guillermoprieto, an acclaimed Mexican journalist, will give her second lecture Thursday night on the paradoxical relationship between the “War on Drugs” and the expansion of the drug trade. She gave her first talk Wednesday on crating an online altar for the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.

The Center for the Humanities invited Guillermoprieto to speak as part of the 2014 Henry King Stanford Distinguished Professors series. She has written articles for publications such as the New Yorker, The Guardian and The Washington Post throughout her 30-year career as a journalist. She also received the George Polk Award for her book “Looking for History” and the MacArthur Fellowship.

Before her lecture, Guillermoprieto sat down with The Miami Hurricane to talk about writing, reporting on Latin America and the future of journalism. She met with journalism professor Bruce Garrison’s class earlier as well.

The Miami Hurricane: How would you describe your writing style?

Alma Guillermoprieto: When I sit down to write, I write what I know in a way that is satisfying to me aesthetically. I write thinking that it should last and that you should be able to read it with pleasure. You should be able to read it and learn something about that time that’s still valid 20 years later. This approach has served me well.

TMH: What considerations do you make when you write?

AG: I focus a lot on character. I focus a lot on having my own voice. I would like to be able to think that when you read a story by me, you know it’s by me. And I try to achieve that voice by working carefully on language, and letting my personality express itself. I think when you do long-form narrative journalism, your individuality is present in the story. A big part of the objective is putting your own sensibility into the story. It’s a different way of approaching the story. … I work in a specific genre, and that genre is long-form narrative journalism. We tell a story using the techniques of literature. That’s how you define the genre.

TMH: How did you arrive there?

AG: I really like telling stories. So I think it was natural for me. When I started writing news stories, when I was very much a news reporter for The Guardian and The Washington Post, my poor editors would take my stories and take a pair of scissors and do this [Guillermoprieto demonstrated a cutting gesture]. I was too busy telling a story and setting an atmosphere. … You get more facts with long-form narrative journalism. I like that. I have always liked that.

TMH: What’s the benefit of news journalism versus long-form narrative journalism?

AG: It’s indispensable. There’s too much feature writing in the daily papers. When I look at the front page of the daily newspaper, I want to know what happened yesterday. As a citizen, what happened yesterday in the world? That’s news. It’s not a lesser or superior genre. It’s just a different thing. I read five papers everyday to get that, though I’m not the news junkie I used to be.

TMH: What would you tell the next generation of journalists?

AG: If you’re starting out to be a journalist today, first of all, you have to be brave in a different way. You have to be brave about not knowing how you’re going to make to make a living.  Second, you have to invent your own form of intermedia communication because it doesn’t exist yet. Third, it’s very exciting to be part of a generation that’s making it up as they go. And fourth, storytelling is going to be even more important in the new media. I think people of my generation tend to get very annoyed, and they say “well people are getting their news from Twitter, and that doesn’t allow you understand anything,” which is true. But Twitter is not about that. I think Twitter is about getting very essential information out there very fast from a journalism point of view.

The only way people are going to pay attention to the world outside of their own lives, these days is not by reading a newspaper that all of society participates in, which is the old model, but by being told stories about the world that they’re so seductive, they’ll keep reading. The news is not enough. You also need to understand why something is happening, and what the world feels like in this place. That’s why my stories find an audience. It’s not about the structure of the drug cartel, but what it feels like to live in the drug world.

TMH: What challenges have you faced in covering Latin America?

AG: The biggest challenge has been, as a Latin American writing for an audience mostly in the United States, to tell people on the outside what it feels like to be on the inside. Most of the reporting that gets done about Latin America for the U.S. is done by people who speak English as their native language and who are visiting a foreign country. To me, the U.S. is a foreign country. To keep that two-way communication going in my stories … to not assume that they’re going to be familiar with things that are natural and logical, to me, is a challenge. How would you explain a U.S. university to someone in Bolivia?

TMH: How do you position yourself in the place of the people you are interviewing and meeting?

AG: Very often the stories are emotionally difficult. It’s harder to get into that world and harder to leave it. By this time, I’m carrying a lot of baggage. It weighs on you. There’s no question that it weighs on you. Over time, I’ve learned to fill my life with other things so that’s not all blood and guts, like art and music. I have a garden that I devote my life to. It brings you back to the question of making things live.

The real difficulty is having access to that understanding. Reporting hard enough and talking to enough people so that you have some sense of what their lives are from the inside. What it might be like to be powerless and to shoot people. That’s a big question. Why do people want to shoot people?

TMH: In terms of the stories you’ve written, which one stands out?

AG: I think I learned a lot when I was writing a story for National Geographic about a religious cult that is tied to the drug trade. It’s called of the cult of the Holy Death. Eventually, I was able to go into a couple of prisons in Mexico and talk to people with murder charges and were hired killers. It was a good opportunity to talk to them because they were in jail and were very young and had committed terrible crimes. To understand their loneliness was something I hadn’t expected. I hadn’t expected that somebody would be gratefully to talk them and not be afraid to shake hands with them. It was moving for me. It was very difficult to forget.

TMH: What are some of your future projects?

AG: I am about to do something quite different for me because I’m going to Rome and write a story about the Vatican. I’m doing it because the pope is Latin; he’s Argentine. Reporting in Europe is a new subject, and the situation in the Vatican is new for me. I’m looking forward to it. I get to have dinners in Rome 21 times, seriously that’s enough of a reason. I had qualms … because the risk of failure is so high, but the dinners compensate for that.

TMH: Will you report in Italian?

AG: I don’t think so. I’ve been working on my Italian, but it’s not good enough to actually ask questions. There’s the risk that if you’re not fluent; you might think you understand when you don’t understand at all. I always feel that it’s a real barrier. I’ve been an interpreter myself, and you might skip a word, nuance or sentence. Using an interpreter is a risk for misunderstanding. I have some trepidation about that.

This interview was abbreviated for the sake of brevity.