Saturday, August 23, 2014

Author Spotlight: J. Malcolm Garcia

In What Wars Leave Behind, journalist J. Malcolm Garcia reveals the stories of the people left behind in the war-ravaged countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Kosovo, Chad, and Syria. Garcia gives readers the sort of gritty detail learned from immersing himself in other cultures. He eats the food, drinks the tea, and endures the oppressive heat. These are the stories of how a middle-class guy from the Midwest with a social work degree learned to experience and embrace the cultures of Third World countries in conflict—and lived to tell the tale.




Q: You wrote that you were “more than a little worried” when you gave up your 14-year career in social work to become a reporter. What was the turning point that pushed you into journalism?
I worked at a social services agency for about 10 years. But then it lost its funding. By then I had been doing social work for about 14 years and was ready for a change. We had published a monthly newsletter that was more newspaper than newsletter in that we reported what was going on in the neighborhood. I loved it. When the agency closed, I decided to pursue journalism. 

Q: War zones are obviously not the safest areas, to say the least. What were the most memorable times in your travels when you felt concerned for your well-being?
During my first embed in Afghanistan I remember sitting on the plane, a C-130, and the soldiers all started saying goodbye to one another and me because they thought they could very well be killed by Taliban fighters. Needless to say we weren’t, but it was an odd feeling. Afghanistan, after the heady days of the first few years when Afghans loved us, always had a current of threat. You knew if you wandered by yourself you could be kidnapped. Westerners had prices on their head, $25,000 if I remember correctly. Their translators too. So on the one hand no one was shooting at us in Kabul, yet there was this invisible undercurrent of a threat, of a guy just walking up to you and shooting you or a car screeching to a stop and throwing you in.  

One time in Pakistan, I was in an area of Peshawar that was controlled by the Taliban. The driver took a wrong turn. I was dressed as a native. We were pulled aside by bearded men in black turbans, the kind the Taliban wear. Whether they were Taliban or not, I don’t know. I kept my mouth shut. The driver said I was sick and could not talk. But I was watched closely. The driver said we were visiting family and they let us leave. “You passed” he said, meaning I looked enough like a native. I must have.

Q: You describe journalism as helping to “keep the world real” for you. What is the harshest reality check you’ve come across in your reporting?
The hunger and general deprivation of people in all the countries I’ve visited, and then coming back to the US and confronting malls and coffee shops and the pounds of discarded food that fast food joints and restaurants throw away. The other reality check is that our inner cities are little different than the impoverished neighborhoods in Third World countries. And I sometimes feel comforted in a ghetto because the waste of the affluent neighborhoods I find so jarring.

Q: Your book does a great job of spotlighting the issues that wars leave behind. What programs have you found to be particularly effective in helping resolve these issues?
Support groups where people can talk about the trauma in their lives so they know they are not alone. These people don’t have post traumatic stress, they have ongoing traumatic stress. They feel shamed and weak. Talking makes them feel not so alone.

Q: What kind of impact do you hope this book has on your readers?
That it allows them to envision a world they may not have considered. That they see people are really all the same. They want security and safety for their families. The people affected by wars, including the soldiers, are too often collateral damage to the mindlessness of their leaders.

Q: Are you working on any new projects?
A story about deported American veterans—they were not citizens when they joined the army. They served honorably and, after their discharge, were deported. 

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