Telling the stories of others is a fraught endeavor.
It’s hard enough when you’re doing it in your own city or community, but interpreting cultures and places that are not your own is especially problematic.
International journalists and travel writers take (often deserved) criticism for superficiality, ethnocentrism or exoticizing their subjects. Not a day has passed since I wrote my first article in another country that I haven’t spent at least some time thinking about this inherent problem of journalism.
During those moments I often return to a conversation I had with a friend and colleague – a Kenyan journalist that had spent years in Ohio writing about everything from the economics of the Rust Belt to the rise of farmer’s markets.
Rattling against each other in the back of a pickup truck headed from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi on a reporting project about water resources, we were pondering the value of journalism (that was a very long ride – there wasn’t much we didn’t ponder) when Ernest said, “If nothing else, remember that the visitor always brings the sharpest knife.”
I assumed at the time that it was a Kenyan saying, but now can’t find evidence of it anywhere. Whoever came up with it, it’s a powerful idea. We understand that there are things an outsider can never know, but isn’t it also true that there are things only an outsider can see?
If so, then Americans suffer from a severe lack of this self-knowledge. We spend a lot of time looking at ourselves, a little time looking at the rest of the world and almost no time looking at what the rest of the world sees when they look at us.
Sascha Baron Cohen’s newest film “The Dictator” got me thinking about “the sharpest knife” again.
Cohen himself is British, but his last three movies (Borat, Brüno, and now The Dictator) have had plots that rely on a foreigner traveling to the US for the first time. He clearly understands that this is rich territory that can reveal as much about America as it does about whatever foreign character he’s playing.
Unfortunately, what could be an example of a razor sharp knife is (in my opinion) dulled by stupid stereotypes, lazy clichés and repetitive jokes.
In the wake of “The Dictator” I’ve begun searching for current examples of what I call “Sharpest Knife Non-fiction.” My collection is small but powerful. Help me find more (and yes, I know about Alexis de Tocqueville, but he’s too old!) and let’s see what stories are being told about us.
A two-and-a-half hour long black and white documentary about the abortion debate in the United States.
Sound like the worst thing ever?
It would be except that it’s by British documentarian Tony Kaye. This is a great example of the power of the sharpest knife. Lake of Fire is challenging, upsetting and relentless. It also thoughtfully (and dare I say fairly?) represents this bitterly contentious issue – something that might be impossible for an American filmmaker.
The autobiography of a Sudanese “Lost Boy,” Valentino Achak Deng, who comes to the United States as a refugee of the Sudanese civil war. This book transcends the “Sharpest Knife” category a bit because Achak was an American when he co-wrote this with author Dave Eggers. But I include it here because Deng’s first impressions of the United States (Texas no less) are so vivid and startling I still think about them 4 years after reading the book. Deng’s biting reflections on race and class in America could only come from someone without a lifetime of context.
In the 1960s and 70s a group of Swedish journalists documented the black power movement in the United States for Swedish television. That decade worth of footage (which included interviews with Stokely Charmicheal, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver) was recently turned into a feature length documentary chronicling the movement from a Swedish perspective. The result is a documentary that transcends expected narratives and encouraged me to think about American struggles for equality in a new way.
Sarah Stuteville is a columnist for the Seattle Globalist and co-founder of the Common Language Project. She was born and raised in Seattle but started traveling when she was 17 and has since been to over two dozen countries.