By Mildred Largaespada/ Anny Baldwin
He arrives by car, with a beautiful blonde woman beside him in the passenger seat.
He is easily recognisable: his photo has recently appeared in the Spanish press and social media: a man in an elegant crisp white guayabera shirt, pictured standing on the roof-terrace of a building in Madrid. The headlines name him with the reverence due celebrities. His words are retweeted, commented and celebrated.
His name has a substance of its own: Jon Lee Anderson. Known as one of the best journalists on the planet, he has garnered worldwide praise for his writing in the New Yorker. University schools of journalism study his dispatches from Latin-American reality: Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti… and also from Libya, Siria, Liberia, Iraq and Angola… he not only exercises the craft of journalism, but also teaches it, at the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for Iberian-American Journalism. The school was set up by the Nobel laureate himself and provides training to dozens of Latin American journalists every year.
My meeting with Anderson takes place in Salobreña, near Granada, in southern Spain. The Mediterranean is just a few feet away, but we won´t be dipping into it. Instead, we’ll refresh ourselves with ice-cold Alhambra beer and eat a modestly-priced set menu. Having managed to park the car, Anderson hurries over, apologising for having arrived almost an hour late. But I don’t have it in me to grumble at someone who has courteously agreed to be interviewed in the middle of his summer holiday.
He’s wearing the sort of t-shirt generally favoured by true rock stars at their hot-weather gigs: short sleeved, grey, or a washed-out shade of blue, easy-fit. And loose-cut jeans. Summer flip-flops on his feet. Altogether essential clothing for riding out another of Spain’s July heatwaves.
He has that aura of sex appeal exuded by certain members of the male species: tousled and unshaven, broad-shouldered, with strong forearms and expressive, animated conversation. He is attractive in photos and in person, his conversation is relaxed and his behaviour affable. It immediately becomes easy to understand how he has gained his fame as an interviewer: he is instantly approachable, or seems to be.
Anderson was born in 1957 in California.
— Where do you feel you are from?
— I recognise that I am American. I don’t feel the same way about it as others do. I can’t give a simple answer. I am American, my passport says so, my parents were, my accent is from there, I don’t have an English accent. But I didn’t grow up there and there are a lot of cultural values that I don’t share, because I’ve spent most of my life in other cultures. So I’m North American, with those extenuating features.
Anderson’s mother tongue is English, although he speaks with me in perfect Spanish, with the c’s and z’s correctly pronounced, in an accent that is mostly Argentinian but veers into Cuban at moments of forceful expression. At one point during his childhood he spoke Chinese, and as a teenager he learnt a smattering of the Liberian Kpelle dialect.
Growing up like Jon Lee
The author of high-profile journalistic portraits of Gabriel García Márquez, Che Guevara, Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet and others, Anderson found his first readers among his neighbours when, as a nine year-old living in Taiwan, he collated his early journalistic efforts into a micro-newspaper he called ‘The Yangminshan Yatter’, after the Chinese neighbourhood where his family lived.
The Anderson family came to Taiwan from California, but by then they had already lived in Trinidad and Tobago and then Haiti, where Jon Lee’s elder sister was born. They then moved to El Salvador, where Anderson likes to say he was conceived. During this same period in Central America his parents travelled to Costa Rica to adopt another daughter. Jon Lee was born after they returned to California, with his brother following later. And then they adopted another daughter while they were in Taiwan. ‘We’re a pretty unusual family, we lived in eight countries before I was 18 years old’, he says cheerfully, describing an itinerary which could drive many a cartographer to distraction.
He spent his whole childhood outside the United States, returning at the age of 12, when he was sent to a school in Virginia. ‘I had a terrible time, I got called ‘the white chinaman’ as my manners were Asian and I didn’t know any of the smart answers and bad words kids used to defend themselves with, you know? And they could tell I was a ‘gil’, as they say in Argentina – naïve and gullible.
By the time he was 13 Jon Lee didn’t want to live in the US anymore, so he ran away from home towards the snowy peaks of Washington State ‘to live like a wild man, with a spear. The police picked me up and brought me home. Once they’d punished me, my parents didn’t know what to do with me, so they asked me if I wanted to go live with my uncle Warren, who was a geologist and lived in Liberia.’
That was how Anderson stopped being called Jon Lee for a whole year. ‘During that year I spent a lot of time in the bush in Africa with my uncle’s cook and I had fantastic experiences: I danced with the tribe for the first time, they gave me a name and I learnt a bit of Kpelle dialect.’
— What was your name?
— I spell it Saqui. It should really be Seke, but I’ve given it a Spanish spelling.
— And what does it mean?
— ‘The boy who arrived unexpectedly’.
The Kpelle are the biggest ethnic group in Liberia. They speak a tonal language in which the meaning of each syllable varies according to the tone in which it is uttered. Mandarin is another tonal language. The Kpelle dance to traditional music with agile and rapid movements of the feet, following the sound of the drums, with their torsos slightly bent and graceful movements of the arms. Some of the steps resemble the Maypole dance performed on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, although the Liberian dance has less hip movement. They dance barefoot. It is easy to imagine Jon Lee dancing at his naming ceremony.
Even while he was in Liberia, Jon Lee didn’t stay put.
— I went to East Africa for a couple of months, looking for adventure.
— You were just a kid…
— Yes, but I lied about my age.
— Your mother must have wept. I would have.
— She didn’t know, there wasn’t any internet —he says, like a naughty kid proud of his quick thinking— ‘But there was a time when they really did think I was lost’, he admits.
He didn’t stop travelling. He turned 18 in Honduras, where he spent eight months cutting cane with a machete for the miserable sum of two lempiras a day. That was in Sambo Creek, 20 km east of La Ceiba. ‘That’s where I really learnt to speak Spanish.’
He flew to Peru and wrote copy for the English language weekly Peru Times. That, he says, was when he first had an inkling he could be a journalist. He flew back to Central America. Somoza had left Nicaragua, the revolution had triumphed. In El Salvador the conflict was at its fiercest and bloodiest. ‘It was there’ he says, ‘when I was already covering the conflict and filing major stories, that I started to feel like a journalist.
It became his field of specialisation to cover the dramatic events that convulse specific countries. Anderson has given his work a particular twist: he describes the big picture as the sum of many smaller ones. One such piece is Slumlord, his portrayal of Hugo Chávez and Venezuela recounted through the stories of a dilapidated building and its inhabitants.
He focuses on societies caught up in political conflict and bloody wars. I tell him I once found myself flat on the ground with bullets flying overhead; I felt absolute terror and decided that was not the job for me.
— But you are attracted by things like that and off you go…
— Yes, I know. I think its a guy thing.
And he sets about explaining it at length, opening a window onto one of the most intimate chapters of his life.
Anderson’s ‘to do’ list
Jon Lee says that from an early age he read a lot of biographies and history books. He drew up a kind of plan of the man he wanted to be and set himself the task of experiencing a number of situations in order to complete his personal education. ‘I made a list of things that I had to do, apart from finding a professional career. If I didn’t do them, I wouldn’t become the man I ought to be.’
He puts an elbow on the table and stretches his hands wider as if to explain himself more clearly.
‘Such as being a coal miner, rowing a boat from one place to another, climbing a specific mountain, going to prison, cutting sugarcane, going to war… I forget how many things, but they were all experiences that for one reason or another I decided I had to add to the list of things I needed to do in my lifetime.
Going to war was at the top of the list. ‘Ever since I was very young, I felt I needed to go to war, to experience it to (a) come face to face with fear and death, (b) measure my courage and (c) become a man. It’s a man’s thing. And maybe a bit primitive and atavistic and old-fashioned. If anyone asks me why I went to war, that’s the reason.
‘Not only that, but right from when I was very young I was horrified by war on a social and moral plane. I got that from my mother, who was a committed pacifist, and from my father, who was also a pacifist, but less so. My youthful aim was to understand why war existed as an inevitability throughout human history, when it was immoral. I thought that if I could at least experience it, I’d know what to think about it, even if I couldn’t stop it. That was something nobody could explain to me.
‘So that became my lifetime quest, without me realising it. I wanted to be a naturalist, an ecologist. And war ended up being my thing, because when I came into contact with it I realised that was my jungle, the one I had to explore. And it brought me alive. But it’s not, you know, because I like it. I hate war.’
The Anderson style
There’s a key to understanding Jon Lee Anderson’s much-admired journalistic style. His writing puts things in order and reduces uncertainty, enabling us to understand the story, however near or far removed it is from us. When asked who has influenced him in his profession, Anderson is quick to answer: my mother.
Joy Anderson was a writer of children’s story books, with the wonderful habit of telling stories to her children. ‘She read to us every night. She encouraged us to write stories, to be writers, she always talked about particular writers and tried to introduce us to them, she brought us books. That’s how she was, that was her world,’ says her son, adding that she was the one who encouraged him to put together his first micro-newspaper, the aforementioned Yangminshan Yatter. ‘She typed it up for me and helped me edit it. She gave me the reading bug, the love of words.’
Anderson’s mother wrote a series of children’s books, including Hippolyte: Crab King and Hai Yin the Dragon Girl and others which can still be bought online. She taught English and children’s literature at the University of Florida, where she is recognised and valued for having proposed the creation of a children’s literature programme, which teaches how to write and illustrate stories specifically aimed at children. This is recorded in the university archives and in volume 3 of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.
There’s more: Dr Joy Anderson achieved a landmark in the history of the university by helping to create the significant Ruth Baldwin Library, named after a Louisiana teacher who spent her life meticulously building a collection of 35 000 children’s story books from the 18th and 19th centuries. On her retirement, Baldwin looked for a suitable home for her huge library and spoke about it with Anderson, who immediately understood the collection’s value and negotiated with the academic authorities for its transfer to the university.
In an interview with the Gainesville Sun, published on 25 April 1982 (available as a digital archive), Dr Anderson spoke about her creative technique:
On how she taught her creative literature students: ‘I can’t give talent. I can only talk about how I write and how others write. Most beginning writers make the same initial errors and I can help them work through these more quickly than they can themselves. But the will and desire to write must be there.’
On the topics she was drawn to at that moment: ‘I have so much I want to write about: magic and the peculiarities of people, the way the stone steps are worn down at the University , the sound of the coast in Yugoslavia… and the sound of a dog barking on a hot summer night. And finding out whether what I have to say about it is important to a reader.’
So there you have it. The source. It looks like Jon Lee Anderson had the best of all teachers of journalistic narrative from the outset. What else are children’s stories if not the superb foundation underpinning a whole world of scenarios and characters? And above all, their words enclose a myth, a character into which universal meaning is condensed. What could happen in your head, in your life, if you listened since babyhood to endless stories blossoming from the same universal root? Maybe you’d learn to tell a good story. Maybe you’d be called Jon Lee Anderson.
‘She was a Californian woman, a social and political progressive, and she brought us up with those values’ says Jon Lee.
— In other interviews you barely mention John Anderson, your father.
— That’s because I’m asked who influenced me when it comes to books.
‘My father was also a big influence. He was a nomad – and when I say nomad I use the word consciously. At the age of 19, when he finished school, he went to live in the Pacific as an adventurer. He was in places like Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, New Caledonia. When he was 27 he went back to the US to study at university, and met my mother. He was a left-of-centre guy. He went into the US foreign service, but in development programmes, in agricultural aid. What’s more, when he retired he carried on being a nomad. He used to travel by merchant navy ships from one country to another. I had to go visit him, sometimes I had to travel to other countries to see him. When we lived in England, he used to travel to Ireland and we had to go there to see him. My father was very influential in that way, in terms of being a bit of an adventurer.
The view from now
At the moment Jon Lee Anderson lives in Dorset, in the south of England, one of the mildest and sunniest parts of that country. The county is known for its Jurassic coast, a rich hunting ground for fossils, and was immortalised in the rural novels of Thomas Hardy, who was born and lived there.
Thanks to modern technology, Anderson is in close contact with his editor in New York, home of the New Yorker magazine, the watchtower from which he alerts us to developing international conflicts. He is an active user of Twitter (@jonleeanderson) and uses it to comment on news items he reads during the day and to recommend topics that might otherwise be swept away unnoticed in the churning rapids of media output.
Other users comment on his work. Some are congratulatory, others complain. He is known for engaging with his critics, and the exchanges become more animated when trolls pop up. At first he tried answering back when trolls insulted him gratuitously. But now he’s learned to sign off with a ‘bye bye troll’ and block them. ‘Like that I get the last word’ he says with a laugh, ‘I just didn’t know how to do it before, but now I do, so I knock them on the head.’
— What could you have done with a blog, when you were starting out? Amazing things, I bet…
— Think about it, when I was freelancing, as a young guy without a name, when the hardest part was getting published. It was a vicious circle because they’d say ‘well, if you’re unpublished, how can we publish you?’ Now, with a blog, anyone can be out there and be heard. And it’s great. It has its disadvantages, in the sense that some people don’t know when to stop, there’s a promiscuousness to it and it’s the tower of Babel. But that’s better than nothing. In that sense, it’s become a much more level playing field.
— People harass you on Twitter…
— Its incidental, something that happens once a month, every two months. What are trolls? Evil creatures that haunt the internet, they’re just there to make your life a misery. That’s where I still harbour doubts, because if we’ve created something which throws up evil and allows it to be spread around by a bunch of bad guys, people who had no forum before, no oxygen… I don’t know whether that’s right. I’m not clear on that one. I left Facebook because it was the low-hanging fruit, I wasn’t using it. And I became disgusted by it after the death of my friend James Foley, when everyone out there shared the picture of his execution without thinking about it.
He is referring to the American photojournalist who was kidnapped by terrorists belonging to Islamic State and subsequently executed. His execution was filmed by the extremists, who also published it on the net. Many people around the world shared the macabre video on social networks, without stopping to think that, by doing so, they were helping the terrorists spread their message. Anderson switched his profile picture on Facebook to a black square, as a sign of protest and mourning.
In some of the interviews he has given, Anderson sounds dismissive of the ways social media is used, or of the type of journalism produced with new technologies. Perhaps this is because he is interviewed by journalists who themselves have mixed feelings about the encroachment of new social media, or have yet not yet tested their potential as a journalistic tool. Since I myself have a blog and work with all forms of social network that enable me to share information, I make a point of sticking with the topic:
— I agree with you. I’m not saying you’re wrong. But look at it this way: I have a blog, I write about Nicaragua, where the political forces in power are quick to close off all independent areas of communication… and I can say the same about El Salvador, Guatemala…
— Well yes, there are countries where it’s essential. Yes, of course. I was looking at it from my own perspective, but I totally agree. As a mechanism, Internet is a fantastic space. Which social media networks should we sign up to? Is it necessary to try them all? Of course it’s worth having a blog. I have one at the New Yorker, it’s the magazine’s space and sometimes they ask me to write an opinion piece. I think it’s been a fantastic, supplementary vehicle for longer pieces of mine, which are published two or three times a year. I use it as a means of self-expression and to participate in fora where I previously had no voice.
Thanks to Internet, young people who are starting out as journalists and who live in remote towns and villages in Latin America can have access to Jon Lee’s experience whenever he is interviewed about his writing techniques or his views on the ethics of journalism. And for those without money to travel or pay for one of his courses, that is a gift without compare. When you help train a journalist, you help a whole country.
I ask him to give his journalistic diagnosis of Central America, as someone who has known the region as a whole for many years. He recently visited El Salvador and Nicaragua. What is his take on the ‘situation’ there?
He feels saddened and upset by the way things have turned out, because although what he saw there in the 70s and 80s was not straightforward, because of the social injustice, the situation now is no better. ‘They were countries in which injustice was endemic, because if you were poor and you were born poor you were condemned to stay that way. If your parents were cane-cutters or tobacco harvesters, then you would be too.’ And then the guerrillas emerged, determined to change all that by fighting. ‘There was all that bloodshed and nothing changed except, for a short time, in the case of Nicaragua. And it all came to nothing. Where did it end? In deals and arrangements where the guilty remained unpunished and the poor stayed poor.’
If you catch a murderer who’s beheaded and raped 27 women, would you set him free? No, nowhere in the world. But that’s what happens in El Salvador, and in Honduras, and in Guatemala. That’s why they have the problems they have today. Because of injustice. The people who paid the death squadrons and paramilitaries to carry out all those atrocities still have impunity. They still have their wealth, they’ve diversified their fortunes. And poverty is still as bad as before. In Nicaragua 50% of the population survives on less than two dollars a day… we’re talking African statistics! It’s shocking. The lack of social justice and rule of law is a major problem in Central America.’
— And do you think journalism can be a means of solving this problem in some ways?
— Hopefully, yes. It lets people know what is happening. Without information we would be ignorant, wouldn’t we? Where do we get it from? From journalists! Where do they get it from? By searching, sniffing around, by hard work and with a degree of public service, uncovering the facts and communicating them. Without them, where would we be?
— When you write about conflicts in other countries, what is your approach in terms of ‘objective journalism’? Which, by the way, is something I don’t believe in.
— I agree. I try to be balanced, to be fair. Obviously, everyone has their own loyalties, feelings, instincts and opinions. We have to be guided by the bigger picture. There is room for impartiality when providing information about a situation. But when it comes to our analysis, which the general public relies on in order to acquire the tools with which to develop an opinion, that analysis depends on our human instinct and our idea of justice. And that is not impartial. When we explain a conflict by analysing the background to it, we need to be honest and fair, but not impartial, never mind objective.
Jon Lee, father
As I said earlier, we are in Salobreña, beside the sea. Anderson has come here to renovate a house, bought by his mother and in which he lived for several years with his family on returning from Cuba, after writing the biography of Che Guevara which brought him international acclaim for his intimate portrayal of the subject and because in the course of his research he discovered where the great revolutionary’s remains had been buried – something never hitherto revealed by Che’s killers.
He turns his journalistic gaze to the political situation in Spain. ‘It’s very interesting, complex, undecided and encouraging. There’s a new generation which has appeared from nowhere, to a certain extent as a response to the failure of the traditional parties, which have led Spain to ruin. The Socialists were as bad as the People’s Party. Let’s see whether this new generation does any better. There are some good people in the traditional parties, but in terms of conducting politics those parties have become obsolete, they didn’t know how to deal with the failings and situations that they themselves created. What’s needed is a new generation able to change Spain again. I hope it works.
All through this interview I have been talking with Jon Lee Anderson and telling you about this famous journalist. We are at a restaurant next to the street and although I am sure my phone is recording his words I wonder whether they are being drowned out by the constant noisy traffic at the road junction behind me. I am describing Jon Lee Anderson the writer and journalist, but also seeing him in his role as father. Sitting next to him is his daughter Rosie, the young blonde woman with whom he arrived. She listens, sometimes nodding at her father’s answers, sometimes not.
Rosie is tall, with long, long hair. Her eyes are the same shape as her father’s. She has just finished studying for a masters at Stanford in California. She is interested in cultural studies, anthropology, and combines them with literature, proudly telling me that she has just finished writing and illustrating her first book of children’s stories, Joao, the boy who saved the jungle’, inspired by her anthropological research in the Brazilian Amazon.
Jon Lee is also the father of Bella and Máximo. And he is married to Erica, about whom I forgot to ask, much to my regret, although Rosie’s talent and good looks surely tell us much about her mother. Rosie keeps in touch with her childhood friends from Cuba and her teenage ones from Spain. She likes Spain, and she likes her grandmother’s house in Salobreña.
A little earlier, I asked Jon Lee ‘Where do you feel like you are from?’ and he answered me with another question:
— Do you know where I feel most at home in the Latin world? In Cuba. It’s not just the revolution. It has to do with the cultural mix. I feel fine in Andalucia, but Spain has historically been a country which expelled those who were different, rather than assimilating them. Whereas in Latin America, it’s all about the other, there’s a syncretism, an amazing promiscuity, that has given us this mix of all the races, even including African blood. I feel most at home in the Caribbean.
— Black is beautiful…
— That’s it, that’s it. That mixture, the rhythm, everything. That’s where I’m happy.
(This piece was published here on the blog 1001 trópicos on August 5, 2015. Now translated into English by Anny Baldwin. To read in Spanish click here).