Long time, no write. In fact, this is going to be the last edition of Sparks and Splinters. Dramatic, no?!
You see, while I have loved writing this hackneyed screed for you over the past 18 months, growing it from a free TinyLetter to a fee-able SubStack newsletter, moving its physical address from Australia to Mexico, I have decided after much deliberation to replace it with a somewhat more focussed missive.
The Troubled Region will be a newsletter about foreign correspondence In These Times, some almost-twenty years into the 2000s. I’ll track the changing face of this once-colonial practice, which now counts many freelancers and a diversity of women in its ranks that used to be the near-exclusive domain of salaried white men. I’ll consider the potential of contemporary foreign correspondence to raise voices not normally heard in media, to amplify human crises and pressure powerbrokers as well as the serious barriers to doing it, especially for diverse women freelancers, and the harms it continues to do: the stereotyping, surveillance, and silencing of the specific experience of real people in lived places. What is foreign correspondence these days, what is its’ ‘use’, what work (of any kind) does it do? Who’s the foreigner, who’s the local, who’s the audience in an allegedly globalised world?
From Istanbul to Islington, I hope you’ll stick around!
Your support thus far has helped me to clarify the project and see how it can grow into something sleeker, and how its income can support my practice as a writer of correspondence from foreign places—be it reporting on Australian immigration detention on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, for the government-run, Istanbul-based, multimedia channel TRTWorld while living in Mexico City; or travelling to the mountains of Guerrero to research a story on the prospects of crop substitution for opium poppy farmers, and pitching it when back in Mexico City to a trade publication based in London. There’ll be no changes to your subscription—if you wish to unsubscribe, go back to a free subscription from a paid one, or begin a paid subscription, you can do that as normal via your SubStack subscription preferences. Starting next week, paid subscribers will receive the newsletter once a fortnight, and I’ll continue to issue a free newsletter about once every eight weeks.
Light and shadow
In Australia last week, a story originally broken by my Melburnian-by-way-of-London freelance colleague Lucie Morris-Marr reached the near-end of its’ final chapter, as the state court of Victoria lifted its suppression order and allowed the conviction of former Cardinal George Pell for the sexual abuse of two choirboys in 1996 to be covered in Australian media outlets. Eureka Street, an online magazine I have written regularly for in the past couple of years, published a commentary on the trial by Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest with strong ties to the magazine, which is a project of Jesuit Communications and regularly publishes commentary from senior Jesuits. Brennan’s op-ed was also published in The Australian, and timed to be released at the same time as the news of Pell’s conviction officially broke across the nation. In the piece, Brennan defended Pell and questioned the claims of sexual assault victims and the conclusions of a jury. In this, Brennan’s article joined several other articles from high-profile commentators like Andrew Bolt and Gerard Henderson in the Murdoch media (The Daily Telegraph, as well as The Australian).
Upon seeing the piece from Brennan, presented as ‘breaking news’ by Eureka Street, I decided that I would no longer be a contributor to the magazine (in practice this means: I will no longer pitch or accept commissions from the publication). I wrote to the editor to this effect, and publicised the decision on social media.
My main reason for this decision is that, both as a journalist and an ex-Catholic*, I believe that it’s harmful and disrespectful to survivors of clergy abuse to pursue an aggressive (i.e., strongly worded, and using available media levers to get ahead of the story) defence of Pell in this instance, and Eureka Street as a publication is clearly OK with publishing such as ‘the first word’ on the Cardinal’s conviction. While they’ve been great to work with and I’m a fan of many of its writers, my own personal, complicated history with the Catholic Church in Australia put me over the edge here. I still can’t speak to the decision as clearly as I would like, but I’m very familiar with the cultural, hydra-like capacity of institutional leaders to cover up abuse and dissent, and I really feel like news of the conviction for child sexual abuse of Australia’s most senior and influential Catholic leader—one who had such a serious impact on the national flock—is a time for other public Catholics to reflect on how they can stand with survivors rather than pursue a public defence of senior clergy in as loud a voice as possible. For a much clearer account that I agree with completely, please check out Daniel Reeders’ resonant piece on Catholic ‘candle-lighting’, on the Meanjin blog.
Not unrelatedly, I spent some ‘down time’ last week re-watching The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s that scene in S01E09 where June/Offred unwraps a package that’s been smuggled to her with the instruction to ‘get it out’. ‘It’ is letters: hundreds of letters, handwritten by women, testifying to their brutal treatment in the state of Gilead:
“My name is Maria Navarro.
I was captured on December 2nd at a checkpoint outside of Hartford. They took my son Spencer. He was five.
He has a red birthmark on his right arm, just below the elbow. I don't know where he is.”
“Whoever is getting this, please don't forget me.
Please don't forget us all.
We are prisoners.
They rape us.
They treat us like animals.
You have to tell people what's happening here.”
‘You have to tell people what’s happening here’; get the information out. This is the theory of change of a certain kind of foreign correspondence—that the world needs to know about abuse that relies on obscurity to flourish, that foreign journalism has a certain power to bring the truth into the light and spark yearned-for justice. By tracking the contemporary face of foreign correspondence and considering the work that it does, The Troubled Region will also test that theory of change.
I hope you’ll continue to join me, and that you’ll spread the word to friends and colleagues who might want to get on board too. I’m so glad to be on this journey with you, and so grateful for your support.
Sincerely, and till next week,
PS. Follow me on Instagram! I’m posting pics from my reporting and sharing links to published work there now too: https://www.instagram.com/ann_dlandes/
*for the record, my confirmation name was Thérèse, after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, ‘The Little Flower’. Yeah….