Courage: On the Record with Geraldine Brooks

by Anne Pender

After September 11, 2001, the Australian-born author and journalist Geraldine Brooks wrote about the heroism shown by the firefighters of New York City, the passengers on Flight 93, and the way catastrophic events can bring out extraordinary self-sacrifice. Brooks’s fiction deals explicitly with the subject of courage in the face of calamity, and she wrote with authority as someone who had first-hand knowledge of ethnic cleansing and war.

In her comments about the events of September 11, Brooks drew parallels with the historical figures of her just-published first novel, Year of Wonders. In this novel Brooks portrays the plight of the inhabitants of a tiny village called Eyam in the north of England, who were hit by bubonic plague in 1665. Unbeknownst to them, the lethal bacteria arrived on a bolt of cloth, bringing agonizing disfigurement and indiscriminate death to villagers within days of exposure. The terrified villagers shut down their village, preventing anyone from leaving or visiting in order to try to contain the danger. A year later some 260 were dead. During the scourge, several individuals showed immense courage, nursing the sick and dying. It was the challenge of imagining the response of the people to the calamity that inspired Brooks to write her novel and to portray their fears, faith, and moral choices.

Brooks worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and covered dozens of crises in the Middle East, Gulf States, Africa, and the Balkans in the 1980s and 90s. In her life as a foreign correspondent, she rose to the challenge of bearing witness to brutality and oppression and talking to those whose opinions are rarely sought. Although she learned to be a war correspondent primarily by doing it, early in her career she turned to other female war correspondents for inspiration—particularly Martha Gellhorn, whose writing focused on civilians rather than soldiers.

This emphasis on civilians is a feature of Brooks’s writing as well. She observed courage in others and demonstrated it herself in the face of terrible dangers. Traveling long distances at a moment’s notice to report on a riot or a battle, Brooks grew accustomed to confronting the realities of war. She has said that she will never forget the sight of dozens of corpses of teenage Iranian boys who had run headlong into the gunfire of teenage Iraqi soldiers on the battlefield of Majnoon.

Brooks’s editor in New York ordered her to leave Iraq just prior to the American bombing during the First Gulf War and to take refuge in Jordan. Reluctantly she did so, waiting in a hotel until she could re-enter Iraq. She lived in a state of constant readiness, holed up in her room in Amman with her flak jacket, jerry cans of fuel, water, boots, and camouflage gear assembled on the floor. As the days dragged on and other reporters gained their permits to re-enter, Brooks gave away her provisions, thinking she would not be so lucky. She began to look for other material that might be of interest to her readers, including interviews she had conducted with King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan at home in their palace.

When Brooks received a telephone call from a Kurdish contact promising to get her in to Northern Iraq (Kurdistan), she did not hesitate, driving across Syria through the night to meet him on the banks of the Tigris River. A Peshmerga guerrilla rowed Brooks and her contact across the swollen waters on a raft constructed from car tyres, and they continued on tractors and trucks to Halabja. There they found Kurdish families desperately trying to dig their relatives out of mass graves in order to identify the bodies. These were the victims of Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attacks, and relatives had not been allowed to bury them. “It was the most intense reporting,” Brooks told me in fall 2018,“watching the people return to their bulldozed villages, free for the first time in years, and yet having to confront so many dead.”

With the communication systems down, Brooks wrote her news reports by hand and took turns with other reporters to deliver them to a courier who would cross into Turkey to attempt to file them. While Brooks was away on one of her missions to meet the courier, Saddam Hussein’s troops recaptured the city of Kirkuk and one of her close colleagues was killed. Gad Gross, a young graduate from Harvard, had been on his first assignment as a photographer for Newsweek. His body was never recovered. Two other colleagues were captured, and once again the Kurds fled on foot across the mountains into Turkey. This time Brooks walked with them. Later on, she recalled the experience as “exactly what you had hoped to do as a journalist, to be a witness at a time like that.” Brooks had been covering the oppression of the Kurdish people for the previous five years and was pleased to see the people “seize their freedom.” It was short-lived, however, and the violent response to their uprising was horrific.

Geraldine Brooks’s mother, Gloria, had modeled courage for her daughter at home in Sydney in the 1960s. Gloria helped neighbors with their problems, advocating for a Greek woman whose employer failed to pay her the basic wage and taking on local issues. “My mother was a total champion of the underdog,” Brooks told me.

Geraldine’s parents were Leftists. Her father, Lawrie, had served in Palestine during the war and was an ardent supporter of the kibbutz movement in Israel. Gloria encouraged her daughter to do the things she most feared, encouraging her to audition for stage and television roles at a time when the shy teenager found mixing in large groups difficult. Brooks followed her mother’s advice, however, and appeared in some advertisements and a television comedy. Quoting her mother, Brooks said, “The minute you are afraid to do something, that’s when you do it.” Her mother, she added, “really understood the corrosive nature of fear.”

It was a lesson Brooks has never forgotten, and she fearlessly pursued her reporting under the harshest conditions. She came to the United States in 1982 to study for a Master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. She was funded by a scholarship created in honor of the Australian journalist Greg Shackleton, who was murdered by Indonesian soldiers while covering the invasion of East Timor. Shackleton had hoped to study at Columbia and Brooks took seriously his mission of bearing witness. Working with the Australian journalist Wendy Bacon on the National Times during a stint back in Sydney also helped develop her appetite for difficult investigative reporting and provided a model of ethical journalism.

Brooks’s luck ran out in Nigeria in 1994 after a writer named Ken Saro-Wiwa inspired her to investigate the massacre of protestors in the Niger delta. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, who were angry about the despoliation of their region by Royal Dutch Shell, which had extracted millions of dollars in oil from the region. When Brooks sought comment from the military about the killings she was immediately handed over to the secret police.

Lying on the floor in the dark and sweltering cell, Brooks feared she might be held for years, or even killed. To distract herself, she recited poems that she had memorized as a child. Brooks assumed that the nuns with whom she had been planning to meet would not worry about her. But, concerned by her failure to appear for the meeting, they located her driver who, in turn, confirmed that she had been taken by the secret police. The nuns then contacted the Wall Street Journal, and a couple of days later Brooks was escorted under guard to Lagos Airport and deported. Ken Saro-Wiwa was not so lucky. He was executed after being convicted on trumped-up charges. “He should have stayed away from Nigeria, in London, where he had a home. But instead of exile, he went back. Like Jamal Khashoggi, he mistakenly trusted in the basic decency of his countrymen,” Brooks said.

Despite her experience in prison, Brooks continued to work as a foreign correspondent, covering the civil war in Yugoslavia. It was only when she had her first child that she gave up the job, believing it would be difficult to combine the two roles. She settled in the US with her husband, the late Tony Horwitz, and published two potent works of non-fiction: an account of her interactions with women in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates entitled Nine Parts of Desire (1995), and a memoir, Foreign Correspondence (1998).

Her next courageous move involved a turn to fiction, with the publication of Year of Wonders in 2001. Then, with the raw experience of two wars still swirling in her head, she found herself confronted with the relics of the American Civil War. Brooks and her husband were living in Virginia, and she learned that a Union soldier’s belt buckle had been dug up near the well at her house. The town of Waterford had been home to a group of Quakers. Imagining these idealistic people surrounded by violence, Brooks began to write a novel about the Civil War—a difficult task for any writer but an audacious one for an Australian.

Brooks’s desire to write about the American conflagration grew directly from her experience of war, her observations of what it does to people and the ways they are “changed by catastrophe, with no certainty of whether they will find courage and the impulse to self-sacrifice or whether they will become as morally lost as some boy soldiers, some Ba’athist torturers that I saw.” She wondered about the pacifists who were also abolitionists in the 1860s and faced the challenge of deciding whether “the evils of slavery were greater than the evils of violence.” The fact that some of these pacifists took up arms to fight on the Union side got her thinking about “idealists at war.” After rereading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Brooks settled on the idea of writing about an “ardent abolitionist”— March, the father-figure in Little Women, based on Bronson Alcott—and the effect of war on such a character.

In her research for March (2005), Brooks drew on Bronson Alcott’s journals and his “massive” correspondence, much of it held in Houghton Library at Harvard. She told me that Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail May Alcott, was “no goody-goody, but a fervent and outspoken feminist and pioneer social worker. Her mother was much like my mother”—a revelation that emboldened Brooks as she wrote.”

All of Brooks’s novels rely on historical fact. In this way her fiction flows readily out of her training and experience as a journalist. It amuses her that historical fiction is so maligned by novelists such as Henry James and critics like James Wood (with whom she is friends). Brooks has excelled in the genre, publishing five highly successful historical novels since she gave up the role of foreign correspondent in 1996. Her research has taken her all over the world and required investigations of war and war crimes from the time of King David to the siege of Sarajevo. She is currently writing a novel that is partially set in the 1850s and focuses on the enslaved trainers and riders of a famous racehorse. “It’s really a story about race, rather than about racing,” she says.

Although Brooks no longer works in conflict zones, she keeps a keen eye on the regions in which she served as a foreign correspondent. In an essay called “The Dovekeeper,” published in 2017, she explores the tragic effects on two families when a desperate Palestinian child attacks an Israeli close to his own age. The essay is distinguished by its empathy, the judicious sifting of facts, and Brooks’s willingness to expose the brutal effects of military occupation on children. In the face of the many conflicts she has seen, she still believes passionately in the power of words, and her humility and wisdom are striking: “I try to make the suffering I witnessed count for something.”

Books by Geraldine Brooks: Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (Random House, 1995); Foreign Correspondence (Doubleday, 1998); Year of Wonders (Penguin, 2001); March (Penguin, 2005); People of the Book (Penguin, 2008); The Idea of Home: Boyer Lectures 2011 (Harper Collins, 2011); Caleb’s Crossing (Penguin Books, 2011); The Secret Chord (Viking, 2015).

Essays: “The Dovekeeper” in Kingdom of Olives and Ash, edited by M. Chabon and A. Waldman (Harper Perennial, 2017); “One Plague’s Stoics,” Washington Post, 4 November, 2001.


Published on June 6, 2019