Newsletter #9: The Foreign Dispatch


New work / the foreign dispatch


I’m pleased to share with y’all the cover story for the latest issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. To report it, I spent a week embedded with a charismatic Circassian intellectual and former political prisoner named Schamis Hatko—he’s a kind of Václav Havel of the Caucasus—and his band of patriots from modern-day Russia, Germany, Turkey, Georgia, and beyond. The result is “Mountain of Tongues,” a story about a return migration movement in the Russian Caucasus, a forgotten nineteenth-century genocide, the future of nationalism (it involves Instagram), and the world’s most scattered people.

At the risk of bragging-by-association, it’s the kind of expensive and conceptually remote foreign reporting almost no one other than VQR will publish anymore, so please reward them for their excellent decision not only to run this story but to put their resources (editors, designers, photographers, mapmakers, fact-checkers) behind it: subscribe here. An absurd, almost insulting bargain at $32 a year.

I’m not just saying this as a contributor (and no one asked me to!). VQR is a loving home for a kind of nonfiction writing I like to read, and it’s usually my first suggestion when young writers ask me where to pitch their own feature-y international stories. The reporting in VQR is often excellent but their editors are also uncharacteristically open to working with writers new to the genre. Despite or because of that openness, they have survived and even thrived while other, similar magazines have gone under or rebranded as click-hungry U.S. politics-focused outlets.

What they do is all the more rare considering that the rewards for publishing stylish narrative nonfiction these days are of the mostly ephemeral kind. I won’t go into all the particular difficulties I had getting this story published—briefly, it was first sold to a famous legacy magazine and killed late in the editing process following a sudden change of senior staff—but I’d argue they were symptomatic of a industrywide trend away from long-form immersive reporting/essay and toward domestic opinion, commentary, and the muscular, “epic” narratives of heists, murder, and war that I’ve written about before.

Foreign dispatches, in particular, seem to be slowly going extinct at legacies, and they’re not finding homes in emerging online media empires, where they probably look like expensive, risky dinosaurs. Those established magazines that still run them require a strong news hook that limits the places that end up being written about and the ways those places are depicted. Trump did not create and has merely exacerbated this domestic-facing trend—we can’t turn away from ourselves. Gone are they days when The Atlantic would run a meandering three-part travel story about the Sahara.

I’m not going to mourn what looks to be the natural decline of a genre, especially this genre—foreign dispatches do tend to be moist places for bad journalistic bacteria: purple prose, noble savages, stretched truths, swashbuckling reportorial bravado, orientalism of all colors, etc. It’s good and natural that magazines are moving away from stories whose premises amount to little more than “an American abroad.” One could imagine a more just media landscape where a local North African writer could sell her own three-part Sahara dispatch to The Atlantic that would run fewer risks, narrative and otherwise, require no fixer, and have the advantage of the reporter’s local knowledge.

But I still think that there are good reasons to travel and to write about travels, especially when it comes to places that are literally and figuratively far from the American mind. The reasons go beyond “driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation,” and maybe someday I’ll actually sit down and write them all out. There are pitfalls and challenges that are unique to the genre, but the same could be said of any genre, and if writers are willing to abandon the position that one ought to be able to write about people and cultures other than one's own, we'll lose more than letters from abroad.

I suspect it's the case that news-and-commentary magazines are no longer the right forum for slow-paced foreign dispatches in the tradition of Didion, Kapuściński, Adler, Weschler, et. al. (There are exceptions, for example if you are Peter Hessler at The New Yorker.) In most cases, those dispatches may now be better served by the standards and aesthetics of literary journals, a category to which VQR, a hybrid publication, also belongs, alongside longstanding purveyors of foreign dispatches like Granta and The Paris Review and at least one relative newcomer, The Believer. For a while, Weschler was doing his thing at The Believer after his former home, The New Yorker, adopted its current anodyne house style and resistance to weird reports from afar. Someone should do a more formal count, but I'd be willing to bet a general migration is taking place.

So sure, the foreign dispatch will live on, although writers probably shouldn’t expect to earn a steady living writing them.

Letter archive.

xo,

Ben