INTERVIEW WITH ANJAN SUNDARAM — AUTHOR OF STRINGER - A REPORTER'S JOURNEY IN THE CONGO
He’s a man with a ticking brain. The kind people want on their pay rolls. When Goldman Sachs offered Anjan a job, he went up to their Manhattan skyscraper, looked down from a cubicle and thought, “You’ve got to pay me a lot of money to work here…” And then walked out. The cubicles didn’t inspire him. He couldn’t see himself spending the rest of his life in places like that. He preferred to live in a place almost forgotten by the world, the Congo. In a country (with its thriving gun culture) where there is a constant battle between life and death and where you could easily become ‘collateral damage’ …Anjan felt at ease. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez was a book that marked Anjan when he was in his late teens. He felt it touched something about how he wanted to live – reckless, but still thoughtful. He’s a freelance journalist who’s reported from Africa for the New York Times and AP. His book Stringer is what it says it is; a reporter’s journey in the Congo and it’s riveting.
You studied mathematics at Yale. Guys who do that hardly become journalists. What changed for you?
In the 19th century, mathematics changed radically. It became divorced from the world, essentially. I studied abstract algebra, and I felt I needed to connect with the world, to understand it. Mathematics, interesting and challenging, was no longer fulfilling that need.
How does one learn to write creative non-fiction while crunching numbers?
It started with a writing class I took at Yale. I remember thinking that I had found what I wanted to do in life. But the transition from mathematics took several years. I started with short stories, then became a journalist, then wrote Stringer .
What you studied in Yale… is it of any use to you now as a writer, a journalist?
Abstract algebra resembles writing in that it is a creative field. In algebra, you build mathematical objects. You also try to show that seemingly different objects are the same. You try to see the world in a different way. This is the essence of what I enjoy about writing.
Goldman Sachs offered you a job. You did not bite the bullet. Do you regret that decision, especially now that you realise that you cannot fly ‘business class’ on a journo’s pay-check…or do you fly business class?
I don’t fly business class! And I don’t regret taking up the Goldman job. I think it’s important to realize that when people give you something – money, perks – they invariably take something away. You have to decide if you are willing to make that trade.
Why did you pick Congo as the subject of your first book? Why not a zillion other place in the world….even India?
I had heard that there were not many journalists in Congo to cover the country – the war, the refugees, the medical emergencies. The events in Congo seemed both important and unreported. When I found the job there as the AP journalist, I became one of four international reporters in a country half the size of Europe.
Stringer records the struggle of being a freelance journalist? What has been your biggest struggle?
As a stringer in Congo you often felt that there were an impossible number of events happening that you could not report on, that seemed lost to the world because they went unreported. This was a great frustration. You were constantly searching for ways – money, logistics – to get to places where the war had surged, or where there had been mass rape, for example. Each of those events seemed so large. You end up putting a lot of pressure on yourself.
What’s the one struggle that still baffles and frustrates you?
I think the process of creation of news was difficult to understand. And with the crisis that the world media is currently experiencing, %I fear news may become even more banal.
You have said that the broader story of Stringer is going to a place without a plan; with just a little bit of passion and going out there and making something of yourself?I have always wanted to ask people who talk about traveling without a plan –how do you do it? Do you just wake up one day, open the map, put your finger on a point and say, let’s go? If you went to Congo without a ‘plan’ then what were you going to do after that first shower and a meal? If you didn’t have a plan then how did the ‘plan to write the book’ emerge?
I had little idea of what I would do in Congo. And yes, I stared at the map a lot before I went there. The country is chaotic. There is not much time to think. It was a good place to learn, to become a reporter. When I found an opportunity to live with a Congolese family – relatives of the cashier at Yale – it gave me hope that I would be able to get closer to society. The book came after the journey. I felt I wanted to share the experience. The experience had been powerful and in ways devastating. It was when I was leaving Congo that I felt the need to write this book.
What did you make of yourself in Congo?
I think I discovered the beginnings of my passions. Congo was a little thread that I chose to follow. All too often we let these threads go.
What did you find in Congo that changed the game for you?
I don’t think I see violence as something so distant anymore. It’s easy to dismiss Congo and Africa as this distant place, with people living in exceptional conditions that don’t matter much to us. I think you lose those perspectives and the simplicities that go along with that kind of thinking, when you’ve lived in a place like Congo for some length of time.
The challenges that you faced publishing your first book?
It was a long process and at several points I considered throwing the book in a drawer and moving on to the next one. A number of publishers and agents turned down the book. %I think the process of publication is about finding the people who will really stick with you, those who are really touched by your work. This invariably takes time. It’s like finding a business partner, or a financier for your startup.
What is your writing process?
I work in iterations; I simultaneously spill out whatever it is I want to get out, and try to take a step back to see the larger story. I regularly keep outlines and update these as I write, to make sense of the story for myself. And with enough iteration the book reaches its final form. I usually start writing from memory, until I get the story and larger issues clear in my head. Then I go back to my notes and work from those.
Any writing quirks?
I usually write the beginnings of the book with pen and paper, and then work on a computer once the ideas have become clear. I work well first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening. In the middle of the day I’m usually reading or mulling over ideas. My cat often sits beside me – when it wants to! I use a one notebook for each set of ideas I am thinking about.
Your best writing advice?
Persevere! And don’t seek criticism too early on. Writing or any art requires a certain confidence, and audacity.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Dubai. At ten, I went to a boarding school in India for five years. I was in Chennai for three years (two in high school %and one at IIT) before leaving for Yale. I am married to a journalist that I met in Congo. I have a %sister. My parents had a hard time understanding my decision to go to Congo. But things are easier to explain now.
Currently, you are living in Rwanda and writing a book?
Yes, it is a book about a group of journalists I taught, and their lives.
At twenty-two, just out of university, Anjan Sundaram decided to go to the most forbidding place in the world and learn to become a journalist there. Stringer is an account of a year and a half that Sundaram spent in the country. It was an intense period that would take him deep into Kinshasa, to the dense rainforests that still evoke Conrad’s vision, and to the heart of Africa’s great war, culminating in the historic and violent multi-party elections of 2006. Along the way he would go on a joyride with Kinshasa’s feral children, fend off its women desperate for an escape route and travel with an Indian businessman hunting for his fortune.