Stephanie Nolen is a Canadian journalist and writer. She is currently the Latin America bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. From 2008 to 2013, she was the Globe's South Asia Bureau Chief, based in New Delhi. From 2003 to 2008, she was the Globe's Africa bureau chief, and she has reported from more than 60 countries around the world. She is a seven-time National Newspaper Awards winner for her work in Africa and India. She is tied for the most NNA wins in the history of the awards. Nolen is a four-time recipient of the Amnesty International Award for Human Rights Reporting. Her book on Africa's AIDS pandemic, 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa, was nominated for the 2007 Governor General's Literary Award and has been published in 15 countries. She is the co-founder of the Museum of AIDS in Africa. She currently lives in Rio de Janeiro.
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I cover Latin America for The Globe, from a base in Rio de Janeiro, a city that's all the things you've read about (or seen in the cartoon.) It's not all cocktails and bikinis - I write about Brazil's challenges with social inequality and violence. I spent much of the past year working on a project on race and identity in Brazil. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/brazils-colour-bind/article25779474/)
And I cover (ostensibly) an absurdly big territory. I've just come home from a trip to Central America, where my reporting focused on migrant children, and what is pushing parents to send their kids alone on the dangerous trip to try to get into the U.S. -- it was heartbreaking and kind of terrifying to report that story.
I've been a foreign correspondent for 20 years - I'm hoping to die in the field, the last of my kind, and end up under glass in the Newseum. My previous correspondent postings include India, with a focus on caste issues and gender, Africa, with a focus on the HIV epidemic, and the Middle East.
I've written books about secret female astronauts, portraits of Shakespeare, and AIDS. I also chair the board of the Museum of AIDS in Africa, of which I am a co-founder.
The AMA is now over. Thanks to everyone for the great questions. Feel free to follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StephanieNolenGlobe?fref=ts
And Twitter: https://twitter.com/snolen/status/638287578010140672
What's one thing you've seen in your travels that truly broke your heart?
Thanks for asking. Really, at this point my heart is a billion tiny pieces held together with ... something. Gin, probably.
It gets broken all the time. Last week it was the faces of the parents at the migrant station in El Salvador, waiting for their kids to get off the bus, so so happy because their kids were alive and safe and coming home, and so distraught because their kids were ... coming home.
One days in Swaziland when I was reporting on the impact of HIV I saw 3 little kids in school uniforms - white shirts, blue skirts, white knee socks - lined up at a gate and Siphiwe Hlophe, the amazing activist who was with me, told me both their parents were both dead of AIDS, and I said (grimly in search of a silver lining), Oh well, at least they're still in school! And she said, No. They can't pay school fees. They don't go any more. But they still get up every day and put on their uniforms. And then they stand there at the gate and watch all their former schoolmates walk by.
That may have been my low point as a reporter. Or as a human, actually...
I'm a journalist who is looking to do some stories in South America, but don't speak Spanish. How do you find a reliable fixer?
Good question! I ask other correspondents who I know have worked somewhere I'm going, and if I can't find anyone that way, I call up the local papers and ask who on their staff speaks good English. The Lightstalkers network can be useful that way too. The best advice I can give you though is CRASH COURSE IN SPANISH. You will still want to have a fixer, but speaking the language is invaluable. (You probably know this)
What are some of the issues that are important in Latin America, or Africa, or India, that are underreported in North America?
I desperately wish there was better reporting on trade barriers, and on agricultural subsidies, so that people had a better understanding of what the impact of North American policy is on developing countries - it's really not about our (laughable) foreign aid spending, it's about what we do, and don't that makes things vastly more difficult for emerging economies.
You've made a career telling the stories of folks in Africa, India and now Latin America. Can you talk about your perspective on how race informs your privilege to ask, what kinds of protections you get or risks you face because of your whiteness, and how questions of race inform your journalistic ethics?
Great questions. I talked about this a bit here http://ijnet.org/en/blog/qa-stephanie-nolen-how-globe-and-mails-multimedia-project-tackles-race-brazil in relation to the big project I just finished on race in Brazil http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/brazils-colour-bind/article25779474/
It's something I think about a lot, you may not be surprised to learn. The short answer to your specific questions is, I don't know. I don't know how much my whiteness informs privilege to ask, although it unquestionably does - I get allowed access to places, waved through police tapes and into ministry offices, being white in a place where most people are of another race - so much so that other correspondents and I have a bleak joke about it, WPIA - white privilege in action. But then I've talked about it with correspondent friends who aren't white, and they say that it happens to them too, although perhaps less - there is something about showing up with the camera or the notepad and the cultivated sense of entitlement to answers that makes people let you in doors, often - and of course we have no control group for how often I get waved in compared to a friend of South Asian origin. Similarly, there's a degree of protection being white in a volatile situation, although sometimes that changes on a dime and makes you a conspicuous target: I'm not going to just melt into the background in Calcutta or South Sudan.
As a former CUPpie, do you think there's still a role for student journalism in Canada, beyond the level of "looks good on a resume"?
Ah, CUP! I love CUP! I absolutely do think there's a role for student journalism - I learned SO MUCH working on The Watch at King's and on the Dalhousie Gazette. You face all the big ethical questions about what to print and what to prioritize and whose stories to tell and how to deal with pressure from big interests - when you run the show. You won't have that experience again in the "real world" until you're senior senior management somewhere.
Do you think that Brazil (and Rio) is the best place to be based to cover Latin America? Is this a decision you made or your employer made?
My editors at the Globe and I made the decision together, after much discussion - you could argue in favour of another of other places. We chose Rio in the end because we thought Brazil, as the sixth largest economy in the world and an important new trade partner for Canada, was the best country, and Rio because of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Now that I live here, I would say it was a smart choice because while Sao Paulo is Brazil's business centre, much of the most interesting stuff happening in Brazil today is happening or most visible here - such as the efforts at reforming policing, through the "Pacification" policy, and the challenges of how you integrate marginalized communities such as the favelas, in to larger urban areas.
How do you view movies like "City of God" and "Elite Squad". Do you feel they exaggerate the violence or do they come off fairly authentic?
I will be honest: I can't get to the end of City of God. Too violent. I'm fine in those situations in real life, but I can't bear them in movies. (Many Disney movies are too violent for me.) But I think that and Elite Square are fairly accurate representations of a certain aspect of life in Brazil. Brazilians tell me so. The problem would be in seeing them as entirely representative. But I think the representation of the callous-creating effect of living with that level of violence is fairly accurate - the "cultura da morte"
What do you think is the reason for Brazil's high intentional homicide rate? With a population of 2 hundred million, nearly 60,000 people are murdered every year. And those are just the bodies that are found. Brazil is the world's 7th largest economy by GDP, yet it is first in murders per 100,000 when compared to other countries with similar GDPs.
There's a doctoral thesis worth of answers to this question. Quickly 1/ Lack of firearms regulation. 2/ Poor policing - especially a lack of public security training. New research for Amnesty International says that a fifth of homicides in Rio de Janeiro, for example, are carried out by on-duty police officers. (Not accidental deaths - murders.) 3/ Racism - young black men die at wildly disproportionate levels. 4/ A lack of understanding by a lot of people about the causes of systemic violence - so for example Brazil right now is lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 16, which is a move wildly popular with the electorate even though there is a MOUNTAIN of research that shows that not only will this not lower the rates of violent crime, it will probably raise them ....
How do you see the Argentine Presidential election going ?
eesh - tough to call. I thought CFK's folks had a lock on it but suddenly it's starting to seem much more up for grabs. Basically what I've learned about Argentina is not to predict anything.
What are the biggest challenges about reporting on such a large continent, and how do you overcome them? How do you stay safe in places like El Salvador?
Well, after Africa and South Asia, South America has a nice cozy feeling to it ... Look, it's ridiculous. The Globe could have 3 correspondents in Brazil alone and we'd all be swamped. I don't "cover" South America in any real sense. I do my best to pick the stories that are most important or least covered or of greatest relevance or interest to a Globe audience. But I can't remotely be everywhere and I'm constantly aware of 5 other things I should be doing- managing that frustration might be the biggest challenge. Trying to do a balance of those stories, and places ... And as with Africa, the sheer logistics of it takes a lot of time. I'm going to the Amazon for an assignment next week, and the travel alone is going to take 3 days each way.
Thank-you so much for taking the time to do this.
I really found your work in Africa (especially the article with Stephen Lewis) fascinating and heart-wrenching.
Would you ever consider doing a follow up on your 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa or another collaboration with Mr. Lewis?
I actually think of this as a bit of an ongoing thing, even though I'm far away from Africa these days, because I'm still involved with http://museumofaidsinafrica.org/ The museum is doing a lot of the work of supporting people in the effects of the epidemic but also memorializing and preserving that story. Stephen serves on our board. I would like to get back to reporting on the story eventually though - so much has changed. I'm still in touch with a lot of people from the book, which also keeps me connected.
which is best country to visit in latin america and which is best country to live in?
tell me what your qualifications are for "best"? safest? most diverse? best parties? best music?
Stephanie, enjoyed your coverage of Africa and Asia, and your insights into women's rights as an aspect of development. You once compared women in Africa and India and how their social status helped in them access maternal services. How do you see women in Latin America in terms of their social status compared to their sisters in Africa and Asia?
In a huge sweeping generalization, I think things are better for women in Latin America than in sub-Saharan Africa or India. I'm sitting in Brazil, with its female president, and female presidents next door in Argentina and Chile. Of course India had lots of women in power too, and then it all broke down on the domestic level. One thing that keeps emerging in my travels in Latin America is the critical issue of access to safe abortion services - I've covered hideous deaths of women in illegal clinics in Brazil and this week I'm finishing a story on El Salvador where women are jailed for miscarriage. I met a woman for example who spent 12 yrs in jail because of a stillbirth she couldn't prove was not an attempted abortion. India, and many places in Africa, have better reproductive rights track records than that ....
The journalism game seems to have gotten worse for women, more of a boys' club, more stuff directed at female reporters. What do you have to say to young women entering the field?
Hi - interesting. I'd like to hear more about why you think that things have gotten worse. I don't feel that way at all - I think we're talking more about the challenges female reporters may face (and maybe that has led to the impression things are worse?) but I think that women feel free to open up about those more because they don't have to soldier on with a brave face because they're afraid someone will say they "can't take it" or "don't belong there" - but I think that's an improvement. I think it's gotten way easier to be a woman in this job - there's better family leave policies. More recognition that you need time to have a healthy life beyond your job. More women in the job.
combination of all, but probably the answers for best for a rich person vs poor person will probably be different depending on how stratified each country is, right?
No question, if you're low income, Brazil is the best. Best social safety network, best investment in human development, most innovative thinking about lifting people out of poverty - even with all its attendant crises. And actually - Brazil is maybe the best place to be rich, too - life is pretty sweet here, if you're rich, at least judging from the outside ...!
Does Canada have issues with Latin American Migrants coming in through the US as we have seen recently in Europe?
Not sure how you mean "have issues" with - judging from the response I've had from readers to my reporting on child migrants, the main issue they see is that we aren't giving families from El Salvador or Honduras asylum. If you mean, are migrants turning up in Canada, I gather there has been a small increase, but since about 98 per cent of the migration is done overland, and to places where people already have family connections, the great majority of Central Americans are going to the US.
Hi, Stephanie! Are there any new or recent books (in English or Spanish) you recommend that discusses current Latin American sociopolitical issues? I enjoyed Alma Guillermoprieto's "The Heart That Bleeds" in the past. Thank you!
I just read Juliana Barbasa's "Dancing with the Devil in the City of God" which is on Rio, but Brazil generally. Super. And I hugely recommend Oscar Martinez's The Beast, on migration from Central America. I'm about to start A History of Money, a novel out of Argentina that folks tell me is great
Interesting, thank you.
If you were to approximate, what percentage of a city like Rio would live in those conditions? It is never made clear in pop culture if this is 5%, 10% or 70% of the population lives that way
the stat is that one in five people in Rio live in a favela, but they're not all like City of God - and these days not all the violence is within favelas - the low-income "periferia" on the edge of the city is the most violent. Probably 20 per cent is a reasonable guess tho.
Related to this question: do you feel it is possible for women journalists to be successful foreign correspondents, but still have families? I remember all these great women reporters who came for guest lectures in j-school. Many said they were forced to choose between career and family.
Oh, we could spend some time on this question with a bottle of Malbec ... Early on when I was reporting overseas, a very famous woman in the international news biz who shall remain nameless but who had a pretty screwed up personal life said to me, "Look around you - at these men on their fourth marriages who never see their kids, and the women who are 45 and high profile and bitter about the kids they didn't have - don't be them. Choose something different." It was a very clarifying moment for me. And I think a bunch of us have done it - I have a crew of great corro friends here in Rio, all women with young kids - and we had to carve out a bit of a new path, I think. We have some things in common in that we have great partners who really do at least half the parenting, and who cover for us when we travel; and we prioritize putting work into our relationships and families as well as our jobs; and I think we had to be honest about when the job was making us a bit crazy and take care of ourselves and not medicate with booze and extramarital affairs, which is the usual correspondent Rx. And we had to push our editors and our media organizations to be flexible and figure out ways of accommodating us - and I think that's better for male correspondents too, of course.
How do you stay safe in dangerous regions? El Salvador comes to mind (you mentioned it above)
That was a challenge ... the single best strategy for staying safe somewhere new, for correspondents, is talking to people. I hired a great local Salvadoran reporter, Patricia Carias, to help me out - she knew a lot about where to go and not, and what to watch for. I have a pretty highly developed "spidey sense" at this point - acquired over the years - and every corro will tell you to always listen to your gut - but Patricia obviously has a better one specific to El Salvador. Patricia in turn hired a really smart driver who himself lives in a very dangerous community, and we benefited from his sense of what was a no-go zone (and, on at least one occasion, from his evasive driving skills.) I traveled with a colleague, Jon Watts of the Guardian, because two heads are better than one in a place like that - and it's always good to have someone else around who knows how to use a tourniquet. And I spent a bunch of time talking to local reporters, who cover the place for a living, about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and what they thought was safe, or worth the risk, and what wasn't. As much as possible, I tried to meet people of, shall we say, dubious personal backgrounds, in public places on neutral territory. And of course I spent a lot of time thinking about the risk to the people I was interviewing, of talking to me, of being seen with me (that risk was huge) and how to minimize it.
where would poor people from brazil travel for vacation if they had the resources (likewise for the rich of brazil)?
Rich Brazilians go to Disneyland. In incredible numbers. Low-income Brazilians I've met all want to go to Rio, to the beach at Copacabana.
How much influence do you think Rupert Murdoch has had over the content of your newspaper and what harm do you think that has had on the world?
I'm pretty sure he hasn't had much, unless I've missed some late-breaking news about acquisition of the Globe. I think that question might be better-directed to a reporter at a Murdoch-owned property. But I think there's no question that the tactics his tabloid newspapers encouraged reporters to pursue in the UK influenced his competitors to pursue some unethical strategies in the interests of keeping up. And conversely, I think competing with the total pros at the Wall Street Journal pushes a lot of us to work harder and do better