NFN18: “Women on the Edge: Writing and Reporting Risky Stories”

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Panel Participants: Melissa Chadburn, Amy Irvine, Lauren Markham, & Jennifer Sahn

Panel description: Sometimes a story requires that the writer put herself at risk. This can mean reporting in unsafe circumstances, or it can mean divulging information that feels too private to share. What is it like to walk this edge, to flirt with danger in order to find and tell stories that are too important to leave untold? This panel brings together four women who have written beautifully and movingly about topics of great consequence — mental illness, immigration, discrimination, and trafficking among them — to share how these stories took hold of them, how they confronted their own vulnerabilities, what protections, if any, they sought for themselves, and how they practiced self-care through the reporting and writing process.

Listening to each of these artists, I thought about the wording that appears on research consent forms in my field, anthropology, stating, “the risks of this research are no greater than the risks of everyday life.” What are the risks of everyday life? And how is it that some of us are at more risk than others, always? During the panel, Melissa Chadburn asked Lauren Markham to recount the story of a man who was perplexed and surprised to learn that his partner put her keys in between her fingers when walking to her car at night. Of course, every woman knows that there is nothing surprising, and that he might as well have been talking about eating with a fork or flushing the toilet. For women, people of color, queer, disabled, indigenous, overlapping identity places of life people, risk of violence is high. All the time. Along with the risks of everyday life are the “risks of not writing,” as Chadburn reminded us, risks that might be too much for us to endure.

Lauren Markham began her comments with a discussion of the dangers she faces when reporting from inside and across borders, and writing urgently needed stories of migrant lives under Trump’s America. Markham noted that her work is sometimes more dangerous for others than for herself. She talked about how her edge is different than some because of her propensity to travel far with little, and her desire to write about what she learned there. She told a story of when her own “bad decisions” had put her in peril, like the time she hesitated too long in the wrong place with a photographer on a river in a boat, until someone appeared to be calling the cartel. Markham said her motivation is a commitment to writing and not to risk, but that the story takes her there.

Melissa Chadburn spoke next, taking us into the classroom, her past, and her current life, where a student sitting in her office asked why she would care about law enforcement. She showed the student a text that came in just then from her partner telling her about holding the hand of an inmate who was about to be released from prison so that she, the inmate, could spend the last days and moments of her life outside. Chadburn portrays the lives of people who are suffering and strong. “My people are trudging people,” she writes in a non-fiction essay. In the panel she discussed the challenges of moving between her own identities and edges, doing undercover for stories like the one she wrote about the ghost economy where she took temp jobs like monitoring sounds, during which she heard men speak about her as though she was an inanimate object: “’We’ve gotta do something about this,’ he said pointing to me. ‘You know, I wake up in the morning and then this is here.’” After which Chadburn shared with us what she thought at the time, “I’m gonna write about you, motherfuckers,” which she did. Her writing and her talk are gorgeously positioned at her edge. It is an edge of an awareness of where she came from including deep loss, foster care, and the identity of being “Blackapino, half black half Pinay,” and an edge of privilege too. Her experiences are interwoven with trouble and success, outsider and insider, survivor, and the feeling women know of being “prey” like “the sounds of heels walking down the sidewalk at night.”

Amy Irvine then discussed the fear and danger of writing about environmental and social justice transgressions committed by her people who are white, multigenerational Mormons in Utah in her book, Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land. She discussed the fears she experienced being pulled over and often threatened, and how becoming a mother changed her sense of safety too, when she was living in remote places and needing to leave her home. After Irvine wrote her first book, she moved on to other writing including one that brought her into another place of risk. When she published her book Desert Cabel, she breached more relationships by challenging the notion of the white male narrative of solitude as it applies to women, and by casting questions out to Edward Abbey’s memory, causing tension for even some of her greatest mentors. More intensely risky than any of these ventures into landscape though, at least to me, another single mother, was her discussion of her piece detailing her maternal mental illness called Conflagrations: A Story of Motherhood, Mental Illness, and a Planet on Fire. Her edge, like the edge that many women and mothers face, was one that sounds like terror and one of survival.

Amy Irvine began her panel comments by telling us, the audience, that she met earlier with the panel and “fell madly in love with these women.” An emotion I quickly came to feel as well as each one spoke of risk, justice, and raw risk. The three authors walked us into the territory of dangerous words through stories of their writing, and what it took to get there. Jennifer Sahn, the panel’s anchor is the current executive editor of Pacific Standard, who serves as the link between them, recognizing and working with them to bring their crucial stories to our lives as audience. It is her courage and skill that brought some of their essays to publication.

Irvine ended the panel with the comment that she is tired of writing against. To the nods of the others she said she wants to “write what she loves.” There is a hunger for this, the women agreed. And now we need it more than ever. We must, as they said, build a narrative arc that is our own: walking with keys between fingers, watching the danger, gripping it, walking forward because we must.

L.J. Hardy is an anthropologist-turned-writer. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Writer’s Resist, Riggwelter, and Bird’s Thumb.


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