The currency of the issue of female journalists working in danger-zones remains high at the moment, and so it’s great to see Anne Sebba of Battling for News fame et al writing for the Independent on an intriguing new fiction by Annalena McAfee. Read the whole for yourself here, the opening paragraphs will grab anyone with an interest in this field:
In 1991, researching a history of women reporters, I wrote to veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn requesting an interview. She declined to co-operate with a book which had women in the title, insisting that she was a reporter, not a woman reporter.
The Spoiler, Annalena McAfee’s first novel for adults, is, the author insists, not based on Martha, nor any of the other distinguished women journalists of her era. Yet her heroine, Honor Tait, (born 1917) bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose fearless reporting from the Spanish Civil War and the front line during the Second World War made her a legend as much as her messy private life, which included a stormy marriage to Ernest Hemingway…
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The recent success of Finds’ reissue of Virginia Cowles’ Looking for Trouble gives us a chance to spotlight another of Anne Sebba’s titles that we are fortunate to have on our list and which should be read in tandem with Cowles – that book is Battling for News: Women Reporters from the Risorgimento to Tiananmen Square. Originally published in 1994, it offers a terrific history of the gendered division of labour in the business of reporting from frontlines and battlefields – from the age when a female war correspondent was rated no better than an ill-equipped hindrance, to the slow grudging tolerance of women writers as exponents of ‘human interest’ in wartime, to our present day, when female war reporters have proved their fortitude and perspicacity under all kinds of fire. Virginia Cowles is seen by Anne as a mould-breaker in this regard, alongside other such luminaries as Clare Hollingworth and Martha Gellhorn. In a good piece about her time at Reuters available at Anne’s own website, she writes of how Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian told her “that the reporters she worked with in Bosnia were far too busy staying alive to worry about what gender their colleagues were. O’Kane’s brilliant style of war reporting, echoing Martha Gellhorn before her, may focus on children in orphanages, young girls satisfying soldiers as prostitutes or women scavenging for food – stories once demeaningly referred to as ‘soft news’ are now not simply regarded as the norm, but often as the only news that really matters…”
I asked Anne what she thought the passage of time since the book’s original appearance had shown us about how the woman war reporter is now perceived. She answered me thus:
“‘Battling for News’ was published just as the war in former Yugoslavia was changing the way we thought about women reporters – because the nature of warfare itself was changing so dramatically. Today more women than men graduate from media courses, and just as many women as men want to report wars. But there are still certain taboos about where to send a woman, especially if she’s a mother. Is that sensible or mad? Is it to protect the woman reporter or to protect the soldiers she is writing about? This is more relevant than ever in Afghanistan, since one of the key issues around the war is about allowing Afghan women to be treated fairly and, at the very least, given an education. Do women have a greater interest in reporting these issues than men?”
Readers interested in exploring more about this subject are recommended to look at the work of Afghan journalist Farida Nekzad, who offers some unnerving stories about her working days in this online piece (scroll down). Anne Sebba’s Battling for News is available to order from Finds, and comes highly recommended.
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