Post-war Iraq is probably not the first place you would think of going to ponder the nature of narrative. In a place where people are still dealing with the loss of their homes and loved ones, where the echoes of gunfire and bombs have not yet stopped reverberating, taking some time to breathe and ponder, say, the fallibility of our memories and the degree to which our incessant need to create stories papers over this fact – just enough to make it possible to actually deal with one another – doesn’t seem quite possible, let alone necessary.
That’s the thing about story, though: it’s an utterly inescapable part of the human condition. As artist and budding comics journalist Sarah Glidden displays in her new book, Rolling Blackouts, there might be no place where considering these questions of narrative is more vital. Not only is any war zone the kind of place that needs to be committed to our collective story, for so many people, stories are all they may have left: stories of a life that was, of a country that was, of people that were. We had better be sure we know what we’re doing when we tell them.
Glidden’s story itself is so intertwined with the thorny issues of truth, recollection and official narratives because it’s essentially one about journalism: Rolling Blackouts chronicles her 2010 trip to Turkey, Iraq and Syria with her friends from the independent news organization the Seattle Globalist. While the journalists were there looking for some of the area’s underreported stories – a Kurdish man deported from America after suspicion of terrorist activities, refugees from the war living everywhere from former Baathist prisons to Syrian camps, the return of an American soldier to the war zone – Glidden was there to watch them do it. The result is something like metajournalism, an exploration of the pitfalls, issues and fleeting glories of trying to decide what is news as much as finding a way to report it.
“I became very interested in the relationship between the journalists and the people they were talking to,” Glidden explains over the phone from Los Angeles, taking a break from a book tour, that brings her to Toronto’s Reference Library for a talk on October 13. “To have someone sit down and ask you your whole life story, beginning to end, everything that happened to you – it’s important for him to have that chance, too. For the Iraqi refugees that we met, too, it was important for them to get to talk to an American: to say, ‘I hate you,’ or just ask why America came to their country. That was interesting: the journalist is a representative of their country, too.
“A journalist is not some objective floating eyeball, looking at someone’s life and then leaving,” Glidden continues. “You’re meeting a person, but that person is meeting you, too. It’s reciprocal. The person you’re talking to, it’s changing their life to tell you their story, too. I think it’s a positive thing – I hope it’s a positive thing. But either way, it’s not nothing, telling your story.”
Though there’s no shortage of still-simmering political relevance to be found in the book: Glidden and her journalist pals spend some time in the Syrian refugee camps that served as part of the breeding and recruiting ground for ISIS, and the six-year lag provides plenty of opportunity for fact-based dramatic irony.
But it’s Rolling Blackouts’s questions about journalism – its role, sure, but also its inherent hypocrisies and functional challenges – that reverberate loudest, especially in a time where its relevance to peoples’ lives, and general trust, is at a low ebb. With people turning more and more to thinly veiled commentary that seeks above all to reinforce their gut feelings and previously held opinions – the notion of even objective-ish truth getting tossed with the first generation iPhone – the idea that trying to fairly tell someone else’s story is a struggle worth undertaking starts to seem almost radical.
“I think a lot about the different layers that go into someone telling you their story, and then you telling it,” Glidden explains. “Because life is not a narrative. Life is just a bunch of stuff that happens. But when we think about our own lives, we’re already creating a narrative of it. So when we’re telling any part of our story to someone else or to a journalist, you’re already editing and making a story structure out of what happened. As a journalist, you’re listening to that, and you’re editing from there, too, creating a story from that story. So there’s always going to be a problem there. You’re already at least two steps removed from the thing that happened, that story that someone is telling you.”