"I have a California State Teaching License 'issued for life' and signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. Ironic, considering I got blacklisted by the Oakland and Berkeley school districts for anti-Vietnam war activity."
"I had always thought I could be a writer—I loved to read after all—but I thought this meant living in Paris and wearing a long black trench coat, black net stockings, long earrings. I didn’t know I’d have to write".
"I like biographies a lot, especially of artists and writers I admire. I’ll always try to find out about a person—journalistic curiosity—once I like the work. Many of my writer friends don’t care about this and think the work has to stand on its own. But I love context."
Interview: Carol Bergman
In October 2003, Orbis Books (U.S.) and Earthscan Books (U.K.) published Another Day in Paradise, an anthology of first-person stories by humanitarian workers in hot-spots around the globe, compiled and edited by the journalist Carol Bergman.
Bergman had intended to write a magazine article about aid-workers, having met several socially and in the writing workshops that she teaches at New York University. She found their stories intriguing, perhaps all the more for being the daughter of Holocaust survivors and having been raised among refugees.
“At first I thought I’d write journalistically about them, their lives, how they cope but then Iain Levine, who at the time was Amnesty International’s representative to the U.N., disabused me of this idea,” Bergman told VerbSap in an interview. Levine, a nurse whose career had began in Calcutta with Mother Theresa, had just returned from war-torn Sierra Leone and was grappling with how to write a book about his 20 years as a relief worker.
Bergman read what he had written and, as she recounts in the preface to Another Day in Paradise, “My own intention - journalist writing about humanitarian workers - felt like an appropriation, and evaporated. Iain's manuscript was a gift; I would compile and edit an anthology of stories by the workers themselves.”
The result was a poignant collection of 15 first-person descriptions of the trials faced by relief workers in areas under siege from Rwanda to Afghanistan to the Gaza strip.
VerbSap decided to turn the tables on Bergman and have her tell her own story. What follows are her written responses to questions about her life and her work.
Bergman: I was born and raised in New York City in a refugee community. Both of my parents escaped the Nazi genocide, both are/were physicians. My 92-year-old dynamic mother is still alive. They worked for the Red Cross while they waited for their American visas in Paris: 1938-1939. Though Jewish, my father was interred there briefly in a camp for enemy aliens.
I went to school in Manhattan: PS 75, JHS 167, and then Walden, a private school, with a short interlude at Julia Richman High where I got beaten up by a gang of very tough girls. As my parents were always struggling when I was a child, they were not that attentive to things like gangs and college entrance requirements. They didn’t know the lay of this land. They didn’t speak English well. So I had to learn a lot on my own. I read avidly and helped to educate my six-year younger sister, was a parental figure to her.
I went to three universities—Boston, NYU and UC Berkeley. I felt most at home in California, most free. I majored in English and stayed on for a post-grad year. I have a California State Teaching License “issued for life” and signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. Ironic, considering I got blacklisted by the Oakland and Berkeley school districts for anti-Vietnam war activity and an arrest or two during civil rights marches.
I left the United States with my husband, Jim, in the autumn of 1966. We went to live as expats in London and stayed for ten years. He had been in the Navy and was then in the reserves. His unit was called up for Vietnam one week after his official discharge. With the GI bill, he went to graduate school at the London School of Economics and we traveled a lot during our holidays. I got a job teaching in the English secondary schools and started to write about my experiences.
My husband comes from a family of journalists. His father worked for the San Francisco Examiner, his brother for the San Francisco Chronicle. His uncle, Norman Cousins, owned The Saturday Review. I liked the way they talked and looked skeptically at the world, gathered information under the radar.
I had always thought I could be a writer—I loved to read after all—but I thought this meant living in Paris and wearing a long black trench coat, black net stockings, long earrings. I didn’t know I’d have to write. I realized writing was work quick enough in London. Jim started writing there after grad school and he got me assignments from the Times Educational Supplement and other newspapers. I started out as a book reviewer—anything American that came in. That was a good discipline, not only the deadlines but the word count, always low. No fluff. I still write minimally often though I’ve experimented with more florid literary styles—and don’t like myself when I do it. It feels pretentious.
We had a rich life in London and traveled a lot. Eventually I got a job as a reporter at the BBC and it was there that I really got a rigorous apprentice training as a reporter. I worked in radio and was sent out to interview all kinds of people. I worked directly with the producer but never spoke into the microphone with my New York born and bred accent.
I started writing fiction when we returned to the United States with our 2-year-old daughter, Chloe. The dislocation was profound and I needed an outlet. I never tried to publish those early stories but recently I went back to one of them for a collection I was gathering and thought it pretty good. It surprised me. I guess I learned something about storytelling after all.
VerbSap: Diversity seems to be your hallmark. You're a journalist, a biographer, a writer of fiction and nonfiction and a teacher.
Bergman: I would prefer to use the word internationalist. I don’t quite feel American. I always feel like an outsider. My parents are European, I lived in Europe for ten years. I could easily do so again.
I think the world will be at peace when all borders are dissolved. I know this is a ridiculous and utopian pipe dream, only accessible in science fiction novels. Yet I hope for this. I loved Michael Ondaatje's book, The English Patient, those images of the sand dunes, a seamless world. It doesn’t mean we won’t have ethnicity, cultural identity, languages. English is becoming a global language but we can speak English and something else. Is this hegemony or something more? More I hope.
I believe in intermarriage and even assimilation, in the most positive sense. My daughter married a British man, my lovely new son-in-law Ryan, and his mother’s mother and my mother—so oddly—are both Viennese born except one is Jewish and the other isn’t. It seems like the most beautiful divine justice that so many years after WWII, suffering and reparations, all of it, these two families can come together and form a larger transnational family. We have ease of travel, email, telephone—we can stay attached—care about each other.
At the wedding supper, my daughter and her new husband announced that they had even merged their names and would carry both family’s names. This is very beautiful
VerbSap: Did putting together Another Day In Paradise change you?
Bergman: In many ways it was transformative for me, in many ways a continuation of previous concerns. Transformative, because it was the first book I edited. I had to suppress my own ego, help the authors find their voices and stories. And it is difficult for me now to go back to money-making insipid projects - such as articles about face lifts for Cosmopolitan. (I once was a stable writer for them in the Helen Gurley Brown days.) I really can only tackle meaningful work, or work that means something to me.
Verbsap: You teach about writing creative nonfiction at NYU. What advice would you have for writers who want to breathe life into their nonfiction, to make it as gripping as fiction?
Bergman: Don’t ever forget you are telling a story. Use all the fictional devices at your disposal—character development, an empathic narrator, description, and so on. And come take my class. All are welcome.
Bergman: I’m very strict about the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, for myself and my students. The boundaries are so blurred in the mass media, and there are ethical considerations. We have to be credible narrators as nonfiction writers/reporters.
Creative nonfiction is also called literary nonfiction or literary journalism or reportage. Essentially, it uses fictional storytelling devices to tell a nonfiction story. It has a strong sense of place, a strong narrative point of view. Gonzo journalism is more driven by ego and, in the beginning, back in the sixties, strong white male ego. It gave us a lot—it broke down omniscient storytelling—but when women entered the news room in the 1970’s the ethical bar was raised. Mine stays high.
Each project is different. Some require an intimate first person narrator, some require a third person narrator. Sometimes we have to allow ourselves into the story, sometimes we have to step away.
Bergman: The Recently story is one of five Japanese stories. This is the second one that’s been published, three are in revision. To make extra money while I was working on Another Day in Paradise, which took two years and involved travel not paid for by the U.K. and U.S. publishers, I started teaching ESL at a Japanese language school in New York. Essentially, I was getting my Japanese students to tell me their stories. They are mostly wonderful people—so thoughtful during the 9/11 period—and well educated. They grow up in a peace culture, not a war culture. I really love them and their stories are fascinating. It’s a way into the culture I can’t have through the language which is inaccessible.
I thought a lot about how I’d like to write these stories. I went back to Robert Olen Butler—a good writer—but felt uncomfortable at the way in which he appropriates the Vietnamese voice. I decided not to do that. Instead, I’d create various Western narrators and keep that point of view. Here is the narrator looking into another culture without the benefit of language—it’s an interesting exercise, a metaphor for tolerance, I feel. These stories are all about connection across the border of culture and language, which as I said before is more my subject than diversity, per se.
VerbSap: What are some of your favorite books and what are you reading now?
Bergman: I’m usually reading a lot of books at once, fiction and nonfiction. I’m reading Robert Kennedy’s Crimes Against Nature, which is so disturbing I can only manage five pages at a time while I am on the machines at the gym. I leave it in my locker.
My husband and I have a book club. Recently we read Edward JonesThe Known World, a masterpiece, and last month, Chekov short stories and Uncle Vanya because we have a theater director in the group who wanted to help us tackle dramatic writing. We take turns choosing books and have a meal to go with the theme or setting of the book. This month is my husband’s turn: Larry McMurtury’s Lonesome Dove, mass market Pulitzer prize winning fiction. I love it, he’s a great storyteller and there’s a lot in there to think about re: the formation of the U.S. and what might have happened if the Native Americans hadn’t been wiped out.
Because everyone in the group is so different and not everyone is a writer, I get to read books I wouldn’t ordinarily choose for myself. I tend to have highbrow preferences in literature. So this stretches me. I usually like to be reading what I call a mind-bender book. The Kennedy book is that for me this month. I have to think about every paragraph. It’s well written too and well researched. I like biographies a lot, especially of artists and writers I admire. I’ll always try to find out about a person—journalistic curiosity—once I like the work. Many of my writer friends don’t care about this and think the work has to stand on its own. But I love context.
Carol Bergman's feature articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The Daily News, The Amsterdam News, Cosmopolitan, Family Circle, Child, and many other publications. She is the author of two film biographies (Mae West, Sidney Poitier), a memoir, Searching for Fritzi, and the ghost of Captain Kangaroo’s autobiography, Growing Up Happy. Her creative nonfiction and literary fiction has appeared in Aim, Willow Review, Onionhead, Potpourri, The Bridge, and other literary journals in the US and the UK. Objects of Desire, published in Lilith and Whetstone, was nominated for the 1999 Pushcart Prize in nonfiction. She teaches writing at New York University. Another Day in Paradise, which she compiled and edited, will be published in China, Poland and Brazil in 2005.