Interview with Jennifer Steil
One week from now, the movie Eat Pray Love will (perhaps) be the hot new movie of the summer. The book by Elizabeth Gilbert was enormously successful, and I will be talking about three OTHER women travel writers during this week of hoopla. Sorry, this first interview runs a bit long, but I hope you’ll find it worth the time.
After I reviewed The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Jennifer Steil, I talked to the author. Ironically, the woman who went to Yemen to teach good journalism practices, discovered even worse journalism in England. You may want to go back and read the review(click on the title above) to put this conversation in context.
A Traveler’s Library: You obviously are a person with some strong opinions–how did you manage to be so objective in describing the practices in Yemen, particularly when it came to the treatment of women?
Jennifer Steil: I went there knowing very little about the country and the culture…Yemeni culture is so complex and multilayered that I was always learning new things…
Oddly, I found that the longer I stayed in Yemen, the less tolerant I became of various aspects of the culture. After four years of witnessing the way women are treated there, I could no longer be quite so nonjudgmental about it. In fact, I now get quite furious about things like early marriage, when girls as young as 8 are married off to older men who rape and abuse them.
ATL (When she had finished her year working at a newspaper, Steil met the British Ambassador to Yemen, who was still married. He left his wife and moved Steil into the official residence. They had a child together.) How has the publication of the book affected your life? Would you like to go back and change any of the things you included in the book?
JS …By the time I finished writing the book, Tim and I had already been together for two years and his divorce was well underway. I was never a secret; Tim had told the Foreign Office about me from the start… Everyone in Yemen, from politicians to our household staff, treated me as his wife.
The “scandal” was invented by the [London] Daily Mail. There was nothing in the least bit newsworthy about my relationship with Tim – divorces are commonplace and so are new relationships… [and]perhaps naively it never occurred to me that anyone in Britain would pay any attention to my book.
I was shocked when the first Daily Mail story came out. Tim and I had already been together two years, I was his official partner, and I was in the middle of giving birth to our daughter. There was no news at all. I was even more shocked at how much of the story the newspaper invented. But even worse than that was that all of the other British papers picked up the story and ran it without doing a jot of original reporting of their own, and without confirming any facts!
If I had been the author of any one of the British stories that has been written about us at any of the newspapers for which I have worked, I would have been fired. Making up quotes and facts are fireable offenses in every paper I know in the US… I find the whole trashy tabloid culture in the UK just horrifying.
…It was most horrifying that they completely misrepresented my book. It’s most definitely not a book about Tim, who does not appear until the last few pages of the book. It’s a book about this newspaper in Yemen and my staff and how we all changed over that one year together. But the British press missed the point entirely.
…And in fact the first draft of my book did not include Tim. He was only mentioned briefly in the epilogue. ..I usually hate books that end with engagements/weddings. But my editor liked Tim as a character and asked me to write a chapter about him.
Ultimately,though, I bear the responsibility for including him. It was not my intention to upset or hurt anyone [by] including him. If people have been hurt by what I have written than I am deeply sorry and regretful.
I was simply trying to be as honest as possible… I do not regret anything else in the book. It is truthful to the best of my ability. And honesty is what I value most.
ATL: Yemen and the countries of the Middle East in general are so little known by Americans. What books or movies can you recommend to readers of A Traveler’s Library who want to increase their understanding of Muslim countries?
- I recommend Tim Mackintosh Smith’s book, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land.
- And Steve Caton’s book, Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation.
- There is a Yemeni movie called A New Day in Old Sana’a that is fun to watch, though not quite an accurate portrayal of life in Yemen! It is a fairly amateurish film, but it’s gripping in its own way and has some interesting things to say about the power of tradition.
- Filmmaker Khadija al Salami has made some wonderful documentaries. I recommend Amina, about a woman accused of killing her husband. Khadija has made several other films as well and is an amazing woman.
I am most grateful to Jennifer Steil for taking the time to answer my questions in great detail (I had to leave out a lot of her interesting replies and hope that I have not distorted her thoughts.)
Reader: What are your impressions of Yemen? Would you go to work in a country like Yemin as Jennifer Steil did, if you had an opportunity? Let’s talk. And if you enjoy author’s interviews, please pass this on to friends by clicking the stumble or tweet button below.