Carol Burke: Writer for the World

For many, storytelling serves as a way for strangers to connect, for parents to pass down family history to their children and for people to learn from the past. For Carol Burke, an associate professor in the literary journalism department at UC Irvine, it’s her job.

Burke, who has been teaching at UCI since the birth of the literary journalism program in 2003, is a trained ethnographic journalist and folklorist who has headed multiple oral history projects, published a book on women in prisons and written for online journals on the military, traveling around the world to collect stories from soldiers and civilians alike. Her most memorable project to date? Signing up for the U.S. Army and deploying to Afghanistan for a year to listen to what Afghan locals had to say.

Taylor Weik: What was it that made you interested in journalism?

Carol Burke: My move to journalism was sort of in stages. I was teaching creative writing workshops at senior citizen centers in Indiana, and after the workshops I would have lunch with them. During lunch they would tell me all these things about their pasts, how they grew up — most of them on farms, some of them in small cities — and I was fascinated so I started bringing a tape recorder and recorded some of their stories. From there I did an oral history project where I had writers that I trained and we all went out and collected local, personal experience stories from people. I still wrote poetry, but I started to become more fascinated with other people’s stories. I then moved on and did a lot of fieldwork in the state women’s prison in Indiana. I started interviewing women in prison and collected three years of fieldwork, and that became a book of stories of their incarcerated experiences. I am trained as a folklorist and kind of like an anthropologist. A folklorist does actual fieldwork: we usually go out and get people’s stories or their jokes, or we describe their folk rituals. I began integrating those fieldwork techniques into creative nonfiction writing.

TW: What are the main differences between journalism and folklore?

CB: The major one is that I do a more essay form of writing while journalists do a more storytelling form of writing. But I think that even though I am trained as a scholar, in terms of method I am very similar to my journalist colleagues. I don’t read written texts; I go out and gather oral texts like journalists do their reporting.

TW: How did you make your way from a creative writing workshop instructor in Indiana to becoming an associate professor in UCI’s literary journalism program?

CB: I taught at the Naval Academy in Indianapolis, and then I got a job at Johns Hopkins University where I was a dean and taught a lot of nonfiction writing courses. From Hopkins I went to Vanderbilt University and taught literary journalism there, but never as part of a whole major so it was very attractive to me to finally come to UCI where there was going to be a bona fide literary journalism program. So I come from a different direction than my colleagues in journalism who were first journalists because ethnographic fieldwork is more of what I do, though it’s not that dissimilar from journalism.

TW: Because you’re an ethnographic journalist, you do a lot of traveling. What is it that makes you so interested in traveling?

CB: Traveling has always interested me, so as an undergraduate I applied as soon as I could to take a summer program in England. My mom was a single parent and said she couldn’t afford the program, so I worked for a year and a half cleaning houses to be able to get the money I needed to study abroad for the summer. I graduated early so I went back to England, then hitchhiked through France and Spain with a friend, and we traveled through North Africa by train. I’ve always had that desire to travel.

TW: How did you go from gathering stories from senior citizens to gathering stories in war zones?

CB: My interest in embedding with combat units stems from my interest in the military. Every folklorist has a specific group they study, and mine is soldiers, sailors and marines from my time teaching at the Naval Academy. I found out about a controversial program in Iraq that the U.S. army had started, and it had social scientists working with the army to go out and talk to the locals and find out what their concerns were. I wanted to go and see firsthand what they were actually doing, so I went to Iraq in December ’08 to January ’09. I came back with articles I did on Iraqi interpreters and incarcerated Iraqi women that were published in online journals but then I thought that to really understand this, I needed to get closer as a real participant observer and embed myself. I took a year’s leave of absence without pay and I applied to the army, went through the training program and was deployed to Afghanistan. I became a cultural advisor to the army and was there for almost a year.

TW: What is the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in?

CB: In both Iraq and Afghanistan, I was fired on and the bases I was on were mortared. During my first week in Afghanistan we were mortared by insurgents. I was staying in the medic tent and had to clear out because a wounded man was brought in; he lived, fortunately. The problem was the mortar came into this tiny base, and our Afghan neighbors started shooting over us so I had to drop down to avoid being hit. That was the time I felt most frightened. After that, what you do — and I don’t think I’m unique in this — is when you’re in a dangerous area, you just bracket your fear. You set it aside. After that incident, I was never afraid again. I’d interview locals in bazaars where a lot of insurgent activity was and we’d get reports of insurgents with suicide vests, but I never felt any fear.

TW: What fascinated you about the Afghan locals?

CB: A commander of a small outpost will often meet local leaders and get their stories, but they almost never talk with religious leaders — which I did — and they certainly never talk with women — which I did. You get an increased understanding of what these people have been through. 30 years of war and chaos are the normal and they try in spite of that to raise their children, to raise their sheep and to be farmers. It’s incredible resilience on their part to do this. I’d go out any time I could to get into the community. It was always dangerous, but always interesting.

TW: What was your most memorable experience in Afghanistan?

CB: The aftereffect of the Qur’an burning that Pastor Terry Jones did in Florida. It took a while for that to get on to the radio news in Afghanistan — that’s basically how news travels — and when we heard it, it ignited protests around Afghanistan. On April 1, which was a Friday, there were a few preachers who wanted to march from the mosques down to U.N. headquarters to protest. It got louder and louder and it turns out there were Taliban who were part of the ranks and were inciting the violence that took place. A few climbed up on the wall around the U.N. headquarters, broke into it, cut the throats of the police and they killed a Swiss lawyer I personally knew who was working on behalf of the U.N.

TW: What is something you hope all your students can learn from the journalism classes you teach?

CB: More than anything else, I want journalism students to approach people who may be so different from themselves — who may have radically different values, maybe even values that they find abhorrent — and be able to cross over into their world to try to understand what it’s like living in their shoes and what motivates them. I’ve done interviews with Neo-Nazis and I’ve tried to understand what is it they see themselves doing; to suspend my judgment enough so that I can honestly hear what they’re saying. When I was doing fieldwork in prisons I had to interview a lot of murderers; they seemed so foreign to me at first. It was incomprehensible to me how they could take another life. But their stories become instantly comprehensible. When you start to imagine what it’s like to be living the lives they’ve lived, it makes perfect sense for some of them to turn to stealing, drugs, prostitution and to murder someone. That’s the incredible virtue in hearing someone’s story: it removes the distance between the both of you. I always learn something and feel closer to someone that I didn’t think I’d have anything in common with. That’s a real gift. To be able to spend your life doing that? That’s fantastic.