The New York Review Abroad: A breathless journey around disparate worlds

Tara Isabella Burton reviews a a hefty and often harrowing compendium of The New York Review’s foreign reportage over the past fifty years.

The New York Review Abroad
Edited by Robert B Silvers; introductory updates by Ian Buruma
New York Review of Books, 513pp, £16.30

The greatest challenge in reading The New York Review Abroad, a hefty and often harrowing compendium of The New York Review’s foreign reportage over the past fifty years, is knowing when to stop for breath. Arranged chronologically, with minimal editorial context, the twenty-seven essays that comprise the anthology form a relentless march through the worst of recent history: rape in South Africa, extermination camps in Cambodia, suicide bombers in the West Bank. Characters – an elderly man attempting to make sense of the cult of youth in 1968 Paris, a Turkish provincial official who announces “we have no minorities” – appear, make their mark, and vanish just as quickly, subsumed into the wider narrative. At first, such rapid-fire shifts in focus induce a strange combination of vertigo and numbness – how can we invest, as readers, in so many disparate worlds?

Yet, as the book progresses, the strands of narrative start to weave together. Figures that appear in one essay as hopeful revolutionaries – Winnie Mandela, for example, in Nadine Gordimer’s 1976 “Letter from South Africa” – re-appear as more ambiguous figures: Mandela’s infamous 1986 “necklacing” speech, implicitly condoning a particularly inhumane form of vigilante violence, serves as the occasion for Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “Fire on the Road”: an account of the author’s near-death experience at hands of UPGA activists in 1966 Nigeria. Recurring questions – of collective memory, of atrocities enacted, re-imagined, forgotten or suppressed – become all the more powerful in their repetition. The story that takes shape is undeniably a brutal one, but it is, in the absence of unnecessary editorialising, also brutally honest.

Standing out most prominently against this backdrop of often-unremitting desolation are the collection’s quieter moments. Caroline Blackwood’s 1979 account of the Liverpool gravediggers’ strike, for example – its smaller scale brought into relief by the macrocosmic perspective of the essays surrounding it – is easily one of the most memorable essays in the collection, transforming a personal attempt to make sense of the culture of fifty-six gravediggers into an incisive study of the intersection of class, region, money, and identity in 1970’s Liverpool. Tiny details – the presence of a single black gravedigger in a largely inherited profession; one gravedigger’s inability to let an amateur perform a burial – become all the more compelling in the light of their seeming insignificance.

So too Susan Sontag’s 1993 “Godot Comes to Sarajevo” – another highlight of the collection – which examines the Balkans conflict through the lens of the author’s attempt to stage a production of Waiting for Godot in a Sarajevo theatre. Day-to-day concerns – rivalry among various Sarajevo theatre companies; the actors’ attempts to read their scripts in the absence of available light sources; the scrounging through leftovers at the Holiday Inn to find suitable props to replace the carrot Estragon is meant to chew on throughout the play – become far more revealing, and certainly far more memorable, than more programmatic analysis found in the anthology’s weaker essays.

Yet, at times, this personal perspective can prove problematic. While Sontag’s treatment of herself as a character, desperate to “be [more than] just a witness: that is, meet and visit…feel depressed, have heart-breaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight” is intensely compelling, other examples of authorial presence are less successful. In Ryszard Kapuscinski’s otherwise finely-crafted “Fire on the Road”, for example, the authorial voice becomes intrusive, silencing his subjects: “They do not know that I am not their enemy. They know that I am white, and the only white they have ever known is the colonizer who abased them…I am to die because Lady Lugard ordered them to carry her in a litter.”

More compelling are those details allowed to stand on their own, without the buffer of the authorial voice: few sentences in the book are as striking as the awkwardly-translated rule William Shawcross finds written on the blackboard in a former Khmer Rouge extermination camp: “You must answer in conformity with the questions I ask you. Don’t try to turn away my questions.”

One exception, however, is VS Naipaul’s 1972 “The Corpse at the Iron Gate”, a highly stylised account of the cult surrounding the corpse of Eva Peron, deceased wife of Argentinian President Juan Peron. Embracing the authorial presence – Naipaul begins by outlining the political situation in fairy-tale language, “like a story by Borges” – the essay melds the mythic and the prosaic (Eva Peron’s “thickish” ankles and “country girl’s taste in clothes”) to tell the story of a figure who likewise existed at the intersection of fantasy and reality, in a world “made deficient and bogus by its myths”, Naipaul’s essay is distinctive in its flair.

The book loses some momentum as it reaches the twenty-first century; the pace slows as history transforms into current events. Yet here, too, it is the stark and uncompromising commitment to presenting these stories on their terms that gives the narrative its strength: editorial minimalism takes on a character of its own. Thus does contributor Ian Buruma introduce Mark Danner’s account of Operation Iraqi Freedom, “Delusions in Baghdad”: “Mark Danner wrote his report in December 2003. The mission was not accomplished then. It still isn’t.”

Winnie Mandela in 1995. Photo: Getty

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.