Q & A with Peace Writer Kaitlin Barker
Kaitlin Barker was a 2009 peace writer and worked with Rubina Feroze Bhatti of Pakistan to write "Harmony in the Garden." She attended Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego and previously worked at Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C. She is now editor at the IPJ and recently answered these questions, reflecting on her experiences as a peace writer.
Q: How did you hear about the program?
Q: Describe what it was like working with Rubina.
Q: Did you know much about Pakistan before you started?
Q: How much interaction did you have with the other peacemakers?
Q: How was it working with the other writers and sharing an office?
Q: How has your work in the past (particularly Sojourners and volunteer experience) informed your work here as a writer?
Q: In your application for the program, you were very clearly committed to documenting experiences – both your own and others you come into contact with – and the power of stories. How has this changed or developed since your experience as a peace writer?
A: The year before I moved to D.C. for my internship at Sojourners, I was searching pretty desperately for intersections of my main interests and passions: the art and craft of writing (hopefully narrative) for the purpose of contributing to a more just and peaceful world. I found that such crossroads were rare, and so when the Women PeaceMakers Program surfaced in a Google search of “writing peace justice,” it burrowed into my memory. So I first discovered the program and then the IPJ consequentially.
A: Co-creating Rubina’s story was like no other endeavor I’ve experienced. It was simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding, exhausting and invigorating project I’ve been a part of. Together we discovered a shared value in stories, and even a shared style of storytelling. But that doesn’t mean it was always easy. Writing the story you want to write is quite different than really listening to someone’s words and experiences and writing their story. The Women PeaceMaker narratives are the women’s stories, not the writers’ stories. It sounds pretty simple, but it takes work to put yourself – what you want to say, your own biases – aside and exist as a conduit for your peacemaker’s perspective.
I am grateful for the honesty and communication Rubina and I achieved in our partnership. The peace writer’s ears are privileged ears. They hear the stories no one else gets to hear – stories accompanied by both laughter and tears. I was very aware of the fortunate position I held in the larger scheme of the program. Of all the people that the Women PeaceMakers spend time with during their two months here (and there are many), the peace writers are given the most time by far. I felt honored to be the one to hear all of her stories, in all their fascinating detail.
A: I wouldn’t say that I came with a blank slate, but I also definitely wouldn’t say I knew “much.” The intersection between fundamentalist Islamic traditions and women’s rights had been of great interest to me for some time, but I’d never delved deep into the nuances or complexities, especially narrowed onto a particular country or region. I had a general knowledge of Pakistan’s brief history, which I’d become interested in when Benazir Bhutto returned from exile, entered the election and was then tragically killed in December 2007. But I had no impetus to really try to understand Pakistan’s tapestry until I was accepted as a peace writer – and then I gave myself a frantic crash course, primarily on the history of Pakistan’s conflicts and politics, and religious and gender discrimination.
But my personal tutorial was nothing compared to what I learned from Rubina herself. Being face to face with a woman who has lived the discrimination you’ve only read about ingrains and contextualizes everything. There's no lack of headlines about Pakistan these days, but they don’t provide the depth of understanding or the humanity that individual stories do. After writing Rubina’s story, I feel like I’ve been to Pakistan and I’m determined to go as soon as I can make it possible.
A: Outside of group events or outings, and crossing paths in the Casa and the IPJ, I unfortunately did not have much interaction with the two women peacemakers living across the hall from Rubina. But because Zeinab [Blandia of Sudan] was Rubina’s suitemate, we always got to exchange a “good morning,” a kiss on the cheek, and frequently shared a cup of tea or a meal together.
My best memory of the peacemakers (and all the other women who play a part in the program) was the potluck dinner we had at my house near the end of the peacemakers' time here. They all looked at me a little perplexed when I tossed that lingo out – “potluck” – in my invitation at our weekly meeting, but in the end, I think they were pretty impressed with our Banana Split Bar.
A: Having other women to listen to my challenges, give advice and just take a break and laugh with was often a saving grace. Though the job is wonderful, it is also at times emotionally and mentally fatiguing. While sometimes I needed to be surrounded by the books and the quiet of the library across the way, other times I needed the solidarity of my fellow writers. Peace is largely about community, about living and even thriving together, and as peace writers, we too had the opportunity to build a community.
One morning, during the writing-intensive month of November, when we were all hunkered down in our respective coffee shop corners around San Diego, we gathered for a much needed “Writers Solidarity Breakfast.” We swapped frustrations, pondered titles, shared successes, ate delicious pancakes and went back to our coffee shops rejuvenated to complete our tasks. I’m so grateful to have shared that experience with them.
Q: How has your work in the past (particularly at Sojourners and your volunteer experience) informed your work here as a writer?
A: Sojourners was a necessary step in my ability to do the work of a peace writer. My time there helped me think about telling a captivating story, getting to the heart of something, because space was always an issue. Within the confines of a strict magazine word count, you have to make every word count and think about why each detail is important. There should be a reason not only for every story, but also for every sentence in that story, and every word in that sentence. Besides the actual mechanics and craft of writing, Sojourners exposed me to an array of peace and justice issues – both the hidden and the well-publicized – around the world. I noticed something deep inside me latch on to the challenges of women, and those were always the stories I wanted to help tell.
But while Sojourners gave me experience gathering information, researching, interviewing and putting in my time staring at a screen and tapping on a keyboard, my cross-cultural experiences are what converted my heart and my mind to even care about injustice. You really have to see to believe. You have to look into the eyes, hold the hands and hear the stories. You have to go places where life is not as easy as it is for most of us here in the United States. I traveled through Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia during college, and India, Thailand and Turkey right after, and I spent much of that time practicing observing and listening, and then furiously trying to preserve it all in my journal. Without knowing it, I’d been practicing the art of documentation and storytelling long before I knew I might have this sort of outlet for it.
Q: In your application for the program, you were very clearly committed to documenting experiences – both your own and others you came into contact with – and the power of stories. How has this changed or developed since your experience as a peace writer?
A: I’m still a major advocate of the power of stories to teach, create awareness, stir the conscience and inspire action, but my perspective on my role in the storytelling process has evolved. I used to be compelled solely by the conviction that I needed to be a voice for the voiceless – and that everyone else who could be should be. It’s important to speak up for those who need it and tell the stories of those who can’t, but I’ve realized it’s not just about being a voice for the voiceless. Empowering women really means elevating their own voice, helping them find the strength and platform to tell their own stories and stand up for themselves.
So while I still love to be the one crafting the story, it doesn’t stop there. I’m now aware of further steps. We can begin to unmuffle voices by helping to tell their stories, but a truer success will be when women are free and unafraid to tell their own stories. I learned that from Rubina – to imagine what more is possible.