Editor’s note: Today’s post by VQR contributing editor Delphine Schrank is part of an online companion to our Fall 2012 issue on The Female Conscience. Click here to review all blog entries related to our fall issue.
I’m drinking whiskey with the boys again. The flies have given up on the fried cashews; the ice bucket has sweat its contents all over the table; the waiters, what few remain, slump on stools, ogling a football match on TV half a world away from here, Rangoon.
It’s clocking in past 2 a.m., and the boys, my friends—my sources, if you will—appear to have forgotten all about my digital recorder. Its baleful eye beams red back at them from behind an ashtray, and on they riff, tossing tidbits back and forth about the dirt of their world. I listen, chide them, ask a question here and there, safely hidden behind a delusion of invisibility. I seek to disappear. Not to delude my interlocutors, merely to fade into the background.
I’m wearing cargo pants. It’s 31 degrees Celsius at least, double in humidity, so thick the leaves of my notepad perpetually curl. I am dressed much like the boys, which is to say not like a woman, not in the airier fashions I’d prefer back home, nor as one from these parts—for their sake, but also, let’s be honest, for my own. However gender-neutral I am at this precise moment, my sense of self, however invisible my femaleness, it will come back to bite.
I don’t often think about being female when I work, only in those rare instances when it’s too late, when I’m stuck on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle cruising down a potholed, dark road, far, very very far, from any cell phone tower. Then it occurs to me in a flash that my assumptions about my own invincibility are, to be gentle, cretinous. In those moments the vulnerabilities or cultural expectations of my gender crack the shield I naturally assume as a reporter in hostile worlds abroad: a sense, in the dark, distant, disconnected places of the world, that my primary identity is Foreign.
There’s danger, of course, in suggesting that a foreign correspondent is inherently more fragile if female. A whole host of reporters before me killed that canard with mettle at least equal to men, dispatching their A1 stories, hard and cutting as the mortar fire flying overhead. Men too lose parts of themselves en route to deadline. That battle, I hope, is over.
But there is, I think, validity in exploring the differences, if only a fine grain of it, between a woman and a man doing the work of a journalist: in the acquisition of the information, in its transmutation into something that passes muster with editors back home, and, more evasively, in the private spaces between.
Once, drenched with water, I borrowed a friend’s longyi, the long skirt that girls and women have worn in Burma since time immemorial. They wear them with grace, as if their figures had been curlicues painted in a stroke of quill pen, body and longyi all one. Down mud tracts or over broken sidewalks, they almost float. When I tried walking, I shuffled as if my feet were bound, so when a gutter interposed itself, I gingerly pulled the fabric up past my ankles to step across. Pull it down! my interlocuter ordered, his voice hard—the same voice that normally excused my foreign ways and kept me laughing late into the nights we sat around the whisky.
The lesson was well learned: I had, though inadvertently, made my femaleness an issue. Culture, or gender, or some toxic mixture of both, came crashing down between us. Gone, however temporarily, was that neutrality I employ to slip unobtrusively between different worlds.
So not here, not now, not in this derelict bar in downtown Rangoon. There remain places, of course, where a female reporter doesn’t have the luxury of choice. You wear the veil. You don’t go out alone late at night. But here, at an hour when all the local girls would long ago have retired home or face tomorrow the censure of their society, I can roam free. I can, with my notepad and recorder, like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando or the Renaissance actor playing a woman playing a man, flit between my sensibilities, employing the different facets of my identity as situations demand.
Or can I? However seamless his transition from male to female, Orlando had no choice. The Renaissance player, like the girl he played, at root, had no choice. If you subscribe to the theory, as I do, that feminine sensibility is intrinsically entwined with other parts of your identity, you cannot easily decide when it rears its head and when it doesn’t. You can tell yourself you’ve hidden it, but to deny it outright is self-delusion.
It’s troubling to admit this. Can’t I, after all, be the emancipated soul I was brought up to be, blithely careering forward in trails blazed by the women before me? When I’m abroad, gathering my stories, can’t I simply return to playing the Foreigner, shielded by an anthropological detachment that lets me hold my values close with no disrespect to the world I want to be exploring?
But do I ever? Why should I even want to? To be a female in the field so often feels like an asset—an asset in the warmth of the welcome that can come of penetrating, as an equal, a world of men; in the ease with which hearts are unburdened; in the natural proclivity for empathy that, rightly or not, I’ve learned to attribute to the accident of my birth. I think I can disarm more easily for being more often underestimated; I think I have a ticket to travel between the analytical and the intimate, the public and the private.
If I seem suspended between opposing poles, it’s partly the result of two clashing Western views of feminine sensibility. My first is refracted through a decidedly French worldview, which celebrates the differences and appreciates that women inherently have an equal if complementary role to play. From the libertines in the age of Madame de Stael, through Guy de Maupassant’s sparkling wits in perfumed skirts penning newspaper columns for their wine-addled lovers, there’s a direct line to a contemporary notion of femininity that my mother, my Parisian maman, summed best: “Tu as le droit d’ȇtre belle,” she told me once. You have a right to be beautiful. You have a right, she meant, to simultaneously achieve in the realm of intellect and never for an instant disavow your aesthetic self-worth. Dare to be a woman.
The other view feels more quintessentially American—or Anglo-Saxon, as the French would say—wherein gender is an imposed and often frustrating accoutrement that feels, at times, largely irrelevant to the work we do, and should be treated as such. Don’t tell me I’m too soft to get the political story. Don’t assign me the pretty feature when I can be where the action is. Don’t tell me I can’t do it. Willingly I’d wield for you the latest neuroscience, argue my case with the full, unsentimental rigor of post-Enlightenment reason: my capacity for apprehension can be as solid as yours, my news judgment as sharp.
But even then, I’m play-acting—because the moment I sit down to write, another, smaller voice clamors to be heard. Often I’ll ignore it. It never helped me fulfill the requirements for writing a decent A1 story. It can’t even articulate its reason for being. It just sits there, somewhere near the pit of my stomach, festering with frustrations, making me somehow queasy. However maladjusted and inarticulate, it never seems to vanish. If anything, it’s getting louder with time.
Turns out, I’m not alone. My female colleagues and I have often speculated about what exactly that disquieting, inner voice is trying to tell us. Anecdotally at least, we seem to all agree that it chafes against expressing absolutes and certainties. We’ve concluded that the authoritative voice, best evidenced on the op-ed page but permeating most every other journalistic medium, comes more naturally to a man. In that world, however beaten through with female tracks, we can at times feel like misfits, intellectual exiles of sorts, nostalgic on the one hand for a world that isn’t entirely defined but groping with the language of another that isn’t entirely our own.
One friend, a stellar national security reporter, tells me that when she sets out to report a story, her (male) editors systematically require that she summarize its point. To her, this feels absurd: an approach premised on a thesis she can’t possibly formulate before letting the central idea of a narrative reveal itself organically through her reporting. Even after a decade of the same routine, the “point” she formulates for her editor still feels like “an artificial construct.”
For another friend, a longtime war correspondent, the difference can exist simply in a turn of phrase, a few words that she’ll try to slip into her newspaper dispatches. She holds that a woman sees a story differently, with greater compassion, and that gives her license to search for its underlying humanity.
A third journalist, Vanessa Gezari, has explored how truth, acquired journalistically, is evasive; gathering information and turning it into story often involves parsing overlapping, competing accounts, or reading them through the complexity of historical or local narratives. Her eloquent analysis of journalism in Afghanistan subtly faults a generally held (read: masculine) assumption that hardened certainties, across a fog of cultural difference, are even obtainable.
I’m inclined to agree. For my part, on my current project, I’m curious to dig through the overarching, explanatory architecture to tap the underlying emotional currents. I’m curious about the universality of the human experience, however set against an exotic backdrop. In a word, I want to write from the heart. It’s my way of scratching at the truth. So be it: call me female. And pass me the whiskey.
Delphine Schrank is a contributing editor to VQR and The Washington Post’s former correspondent in Burma. She is currently writing a book, The Rebel of Rangoon. Her reporting and photography from southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa has also appeared in VQR, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Time. She has been awarded fellowships from the International Reporting Project and the East-West Center, and most recently received a grant from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Click here to view her work for VQR.