Interview with Mark Danner: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Being a Writer: Conversation with Mark Danner, staff writer, The New Yorker; 3/3/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Writing as Reportage

Your writing is characterized by a rich historical sense. You are also a man who goes to the scene, who writes and clarifies our understanding of what's going on. In the case of your articles on Haiti, you found yourself in some very dangerous situations. Tell us about the writer as observer, how it plays itself out and how it conflicts with a historian looking back. Do those two Mark Danner identities conflict with each other, or do they mesh nicely?

I have never felt a conflict.

There is an odd thing about going to Haiti or Bosnia or El Salvador. You are given a privileged position. In Haiti it's even more pronounced because you are white, and you stand out. You are given a privileged position. You are the observer, the watcher. You have a notebook. You stand there. Others have cameras. There is a certain apparatus that marks them out as separate. And it's a remarkable thing, because you will be in the middle of scenes of violence. Certainly in Haiti I was in several, and in Bosnia, too, where for some reason there is this space of peace that you are allowed to occupy, and of course there is no particular reason why that cannot be breached at any moment. It's almost as if in the cartoon, when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff into the air: until he looks down, he doesn't fall.

I remember very much an incident in Haiti during the so-called aborted election in 1987. A very sunny day, a Sunday, all these people came out to vote, and the Tonton Macoutes of Duvalier attacked several polling places, shot at us as well. They killed a great number of people very savagely with machetes and automatic weapons in broad daylight, and people went back in their houses. There is something very striking about a very huge capital utterly empty on a perfectly sunny day, like a de Chirico painting. But one of the things they did was, after a particularly bloody incident at a polling place where they killed nineteen people, some journalists showed up immediately afterward. I was not among them. They were standing around and taking pictures, taking notes and so on -- all these bodies -- and suddenly the Macoutes came back and shot three journalists point blank. This was like the coyote looking down. Suddenly there was nothing holding any of us up.

Everyone went into the hotel, and at a particular point someone drove by, at least this is what people said, drove by the front of the hotel and waved a gun. There was a stampede in the hotel lobby, and there were probably five hundred journalists there for this election. People smashed through the back wall of the hotel, which was entirely glass, destroyed almost entirely the hotel lobby in their keenness to get away. These were foreign correspondents who spent their lives covering situations like this. Yet removing this protective shell was a terrifying thing.

Now your original question was whether the historical and the observer-on-the-scene personas are somehow separated. I don't think so, because I think the person gathering information and trying to see what is different, trying to detail -- it's the eye trying to detail what this place looks like and how it's interesting, how it is puzzling, and how one can get to the end and tell what happened -- which is really the point in the end: to tell what happened. The historical part has to do with that, because in the end you are trying to tell not only how it happened, but why, to make it make sense.

This idea of killing people, in El Salvador, killing 126 children. You are not doing your job unless you make some effort to have people understand how someone can do that, because it isn't acceptable to simply say "These are evil people. Evil people swept down and killed these people." You haven't gone far enough, and in fact, in Salvador, I eventually did find people who told me about reactions within this particular outfit, the Alcada Battalion in the army, and how they had complained about it [the massacre] and how they had resisted it. They were human beings. They did it eventually, but afterwards there were grumblings about it, and so the officers had to yell at the soldiers.

In any event, one of your tasks is to first of all tell what happened, to do so in a way that is understandable.

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