10 Questions with Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is a celebrated journalist best known for her work as an immersive journalist, spending years reporting a single story. Her book “Just Like Us”, a story about young immigrant students, was named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and went on to win the Colorado Book Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, Texas Monthly, and 5280.

Interview by ABIGAIL CENSKY

The Catalyst: Do you remember a particular moment when things clicked and you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Helen Thorpe: When I was 7 years old, a friend of my parents gave me a typewriter, like a really old antique, even in that era, and I mean this was 40 plus years ago. I started writing poetry on the typewriter. And they were just the kinds of poems that a seven-year-old would write. But, I was actually kind of enchanted with the idea of becoming a writer through this act, and it became like my beloved possession. And this friend of my parents who gave it to me is an artist, and I used to go visit her while she was painting or doing sand sculpture, and just type poetry. I mean this went on for some time. So, I think from that point forward it was a dream that I had and, you know, intermittently I thought I would do other things, but I kept returning to that idea.

TC: What drew you to immersive journalism?

HT: It was the experience of writing my first book […] When I think about it I realize that a lot of the books that I was reading were based on immersive reporting, and I hadn’t thought a lot about that term or the practices that these authors were using, I just loved their books. And so, I think I had kind of a model in my mind when I started my first book — “Just Like Us” — that I really wanted to be able to write about people after getting to know them over time. I feel like journalism—a lot of it—involves parachuting in, asking questions, running away, writing your story. And I never felt that I knew people well enough, and I just really wanted to spend years getting to know people. And then, about halfway through working on that book, I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s book, Random Family, and she kind of set the bar for, you know, as immersive a project as anybody I know has ever worked on: spending 10 years doing that project. Actually, I remember thinking at the time, “OK well, I should just give up, like I can’t possibly immerse myself as fully or write a book as extraordinary as what she did.” And then I modulated that response too, “OK well, let me try to get to know these people I’m hanging out with even better and try to really be able to bring them to life on the page” where a reader can fully empathize with them because they know them as a human being, almost.

Photo by Nick Penzel

TC: A lot of your work involves shadowing people for a prolonged period of time. How do you enter into these insular communities, and what level of trust is required for them to share their stories with you?

HT: A huge level of trust is required for them to share their stories, and I think I had different practices with different books but maybe I’ll talk about the most recent one. So, for “The Newcomers”, I visited South High School in August 2015, and it was a week before school was going to start, and the principal had agreed to meet with me just because she was an expert, in my mind, on refugees, being the principal of this high school where so many refugee students and immigrant students were enrolled. An interesting thing happened, which was the principal said, “You’re welcome to spend as much time in this building as you want. I read your first book. And I know that you were really sensitive in how you treated the stories of undocumented students, and I know you’re sensitive to immigrants and I think you would be really respectful of our kids. And as much time as you want to spend in this building you’re welcome.” […] I put myself in this beginner level English Language Acquisition classroom and wanted to see what would happen.

For the book to work, the students in the room had to open up to me, and, if you can imagine, they’re arriving from all over the world. They don’t speak English yet or not very well, and they’ve had maybe difficult experiences — their coming from countries where there’s more conflict — and they’re trying to get used to an American high school and learn a new language. It’s an overwhelming experience for them. So, I just waited and I did not try to interview them for many months. […] But basically, I try to let them acclimate and I try to sense when would be a comfortable time for them to try to open up to me if they wanted to. And my instincts told me to wait till they were more ready. And then I really left the choice up to them. They had to choose freely whether they wanted to talk to me or not. […] I think I have one skill: I’m a good listener. I try to elevate that as close to a super power as I can get it to be. I mean I try to really listen to everything somebody is saying, everything they might not be saying, all the nonverbal cues. I try to listen as closely as I can to  people and I think if you’re trying to really listen to them that deeply, they sense that you’re really trying to understand their story, and trust accrues from there.

TC: In this book, did you find that even though these 22 students spoke 14 different languages and had ranges of experiences entering the United States, that there are any universal high school experiences that transcend cultural or linguistic background?

HT: That’s a great question, and absolutely. I loved seeing that emerge because it’s not apparent at first; we notice all our differences maybe at the outset, not our commonalities. There was a young woman from El Salvador and she was trying to communicate with a young woman from Vietnam, and they didn’t have enough English to have a common language; one spoke Spanish when one spoke Vietnamese. And they started using the Google Translate app on their cell phones to communicate. What they wanted to talk about were what kind of movies they like, and they both liked scary movies like “The Conjuring”. And then they wanted to talk about shoes, and they both loved Converse high tops. And this was how they were bonding during their first months in America when they were scared and lonely and didn’t have any friends. It was so funny watching them type in Spanish and translate that into Vietnamese, and then share the phone because they couldn’t talk, they could only communicate by Google Translate text messaging. But nonetheless they were talking about all the stuff that teenagers would talk about anywhere. I mean they cared about acne medication, they cared about whether a boy they kissed in the park actually liked them or not, and the boys cared about soccer and who was the best at soccer, how to play more soccer, and how to get on the soccer team. How to pay for soccer cleats. It was soccer all the time with the guys in the room.

I have a 15-year-old son and many of the kids in the room were between 14 and 19 — roughly the same age as my kid. I found myself over time feeling very maternal towards the students in the room who were so — their lives were so much harder than say, my son’s life. But also, I could see all these things that they had in common and how they were figuring out what it meant to be a teenager and how you become an adult in America all at the same time. I thought it was awe inspiring to watch them try and succeed and adapt. You know when they started out the room was really silent and scared. By the end of the year it was so filled with joy. And they were flirting and sleepovers, and one kid from El Salvador proposed to a girl from Iraq in math class.

TC: You said in another interview that you have this intention of using the room of newcomers in South High School as kind of a map of the refugee crisis for your readers. How did you arrive at structuring the book that way or how did that kind of thought come about?

HT: So. Immersion journalism is a bit of a gamble because at the outset you don’t know what’s going to happen. In an immersion project, you’re putting yourself in some place because you think an interesting story will unfold over time. […] When I was in this classroom, I didn’t know at the outset who was going to show up in the room or whether it would be interesting enough to constitute a book. And it wasn’t until about four or five months had elapsed that enough students showed up that I could see that they were mapping the refugee crisis. There were only five kids at the outset of the year, and kids showed up all throughout the school year. By the end of the year there were 22 kids who spoke 14 languages and arrived using five different alphabets, and this one teacher had to teach all of them English, which is just heroic. But only about midway through did I start to say, oh my gosh somebody is coming from the Congo, number one center of refugees to the U.S. Somebody is coming from Burma, number one center of refugees to the U.S. in the year past.

There’s two sisters here from Iraq, and they’re sending a lot of refugees to the U.S. We have a debate in this country about refugees and about refugee resettlement. In that debate, we speak as if everybody is from the Middle East. In fact, the reality of the refugee crisis is a lot bigger than just one region, and this room had representation from all the countries in [Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia producing refugees.] And I only realized about halfway through my reporting that that’s what I was witnessing. And that’s when I saw that the room could be used to show the reader on a human scale: here are all the places in the world that are producing refugees and each of these families’ journeys is kind of a hallmark of what the refugee experience is in that particular place. […] So in all these ways the kids were representative of what’s happening in the world. And yet if you watch the evening news or read the newspaper and you see some of those big stories about how many refugees there are all at once, they say 60,000 people are displaced right now — it’s really hard to care about 60,000 people because it’s just vast and it feels insurmountable. It can feel overwhelming.

But if you get to know individuals, it’s a very different experience emotionally. And I think by getting to know these students, I was able to appreciate, as individuals, what they had lived through and then to understand the refugee crisis also more at a human level. And that’s when I think it becomes really moving.

TC: You’ve covered groups of people whose kind of narrative arcs are still relatively undetermined in our national conversation with undocumented immigrants, female soldiers, and now refugees. What emotions do you go through as a reporter of very contemporary history?

HT: I had started reporting this book in the fall of 2015, and I actually taught at CC a block in November 2015, so I had been in this classroom for six or eight weeks before my block started. And then I came to CC and taught narrative nonfiction, and then I went back to the classroom at South High School and started reporting this book again. And, while I was teaching here, we had a conversation in the room about this genre — narrative nonfiction — and I remember realizing that for the students I was teaching, the books that we were reading struck them as very compelling on the one hand, but also in this genre there’s [an importance] to have emotional distance or separation from your subject, and you’re aiming for objectivity. […] And I left my teaching experience at CC and went back and continued reporting. […]I wanted to include some of my own personal emotions that I was experiencing as I was doing the reporting. I wanted to describe them for the reader and be a little more transparent and candid about the piece and to write it from a more subjective viewpoint […] And in the end, I really endorse the idea of refugee resettlement as really meaningful and important work, and I’m kind of unabashed about it.

TC: What needs to change in our national conversation, from your perspective, concerning refugees and resettlement in this country, and how do you think we can achieve that?

HT: Well I certainly, actually, do understand why people are scared of refugee resettlement because I know that simultaneous with images of many people on the move in the media, we’ve had terrorist incidents also. And, I think those two things unfortunately have been conflate,  when I see them as very separate and distinct subjects. We are actually very good at refugee resettlement and we have five federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, that vet refugees and they’ve never made a mistake. There’s not one instance of a refugee entering this country with refugee status and committing a lethal act of terrorism or…anything like…what the fears may be. I believe we’re really good at refugee resettlement and we’ve kind of forgotten that [….] Refugee resettlement work is done by nine resettlement agencies, but it’s done in cooperation with a lot of churches. Churches typically—and mosques and synagogues—supply the volunteers who befriend families, and bring them used furniture, and help them learn English and sometimes drive them places if they don’t know how to get from point A to point B as they are just in their first weeks or months in America… And, we seem to have forgotten that we’re just really good at this. There’s not actually really a problem in this country with refugee resettlement. There hasn’t been a big issue with it. There hasn’t been a big problem. There hasn’t been a disaster […] We’re really reacting to our fears and I think they’re unfounded.

TC: You gravitate towards these stories where you live in places that aren’t often heard, or [are] drowned out by louder voices. How do you integrate your positionality into your journalism?

HT: In “The Newcomers” I was granted access to an English Language Acquisition classroom where all these kids are learning English. They’ve just arrived. At the outset I couldn’t even walk up to one of them and say, ‘Hi, I’m a journalist.’ Journalists aren’t usually in classrooms. It’s a very protected environment. Normally, it’s just a teacher and his students. The teacher looked at me with my notebook across the room, as I was trying to observe everything going on, and said, “I want you to be part of our community and I want you to work with my students.” And I said, “Well actually, you know, I’m a journalist and I think I should have some distance here and maintain my kind of journalistic role. I don’t want to confuse the kids about who I am. I don’t want them to think I work at the school.” […]

And he was like, “Yeah, no. I’m trying to build a community in this room and I want you to participate with these students and being part of that community. Maybe you could read with them and help them with their writing.” [….] And so, ultimately, I brought in 14 different interpreters to speak to the kids in each one of their home languages to be really sure they understood, there’s a journalist in the room. You get to choose if you want to be part of the book or not. And at the same time, I took the teacher up on this idea that I should participate, and I think in participating in the room and the experience of learning, I got invested in the kids learning. And I was cheering for them. And I wanted them to succeed.

I became emotionally [involved], more than if I had just stayed in the corner of the room with my notes. And this time around I decided that that was OK….First of all it made me much more accessible to the kids and they got to interact with me in a non-journalistic manner first, which, I think enabled them to get to know me outside of the book project. […] It helped build trust and rapport. And then, I never tried to interview them or ask them questions about their background until we’d had the chance to have the interpreter explain…who I was, got permission from their parents to sign a form in their home language. Then, I asked a little bit about their background. […] For me it was some of the most morally challenging questions and dilemmas that I’ve ever faced as a journalist. […] And I try to write about all of that in the book. So, I make the question of my position in the classroom something that the reader is actually thinking about a little bit too. I say in the book at one point that I feel that these kids are so extraordinary and what they have lived through is so enormous the teacher and myself, I feel both of us, are trying our best to sort of rise to the occasion. But it was taking everything we had.

TC: After spending time with these refugees and their families what is the one thing that you wish Americans knew about our country’s refugees?

HT: We have an idea implicit in all of our dialogue about refugees that they are a burden that we maybe should shoulder. But the idea is they’re a burden. Honestly, after spending a year and a half reporting…getting to know refugee families, that has not been my personal experience whatsoever. Some of the families that I got to know had never taken a hot shower before they arrived in this country. One family that I got to know really well, a Congolese family, had never owned a major appliance like a stove, and they didn’t know how to work a stove in their apartment when they first arrived.

It’s kind of easy to live in the United States and take our hot showers and our stoves and having a roof over our head for granted. But not everybody has that. There are people in this country who are struggling. But by and large this country is so much more affluent than the rest of the world. And, we can forget that. We can forget that the vast majority of people in this country lead a lifestyle that’s just really far easier… I found getting to know these families a gift. They were never a burden to me. They just opened my eyes to many truths and many realities.

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