Writers’ Workshop student Marisa Handler counts herself blessed to have witnessed, a number of times in her life, “history in the making.”
Recent Writers’ Workshop graduate left behind the daily grind to travel the world for six years, telling stories of social and political activism that typically go untold.
“I seem to, for better or worse, either have accidentally landed or put myself into situations where there’s a lot happening, socially and politically,” she says.
Handler lived in Cape Town, South Africa, until she was 11, when her family emigrated to Los Angeles. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in English and interdisciplinary studies, and with hazy dreams for life after college.
After a few years working nonprofit jobs that were not quite satisfying, she wanted to realign her daily life with her values. In the fall of 2001, she found herself boarding a plane for India and Nepal, though she couldn’t exactly explain why.
This was just weeks after September 11, and Handler’s friends and family urged her to cancel her trip. Among those objecting was her mother, who in 1960s Johannesburg had been beaten on the head with a baton and jailed for marching against apartheid.
“I had planned it,” Handler says, “and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.”
Her determination had something to do with the need for a journey, she recalls. But it also came from a growing awareness that although U.S. foreign policy affects millions of people around the world, very few of those people’s stories make their way into the mainstream American press. She pitched herself and was hired as a freelance stringer for the foreign news service at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Her early pieces for the Chronicle covered longstanding tensions between India and Pakistan, exacerbated by new U.S. alliances with Pakistan prior to the war in Afghanistan.
“I don’t think many Americans made the connection between the war in Afghanistan and 2,000 people getting killed in Ahmedabad [India] a few months later,” she says. “I was grateful to be able to write a part of the story that wasn’t being told.”
Handler extended her trip. What began as three months in South Asia became a six-year journey following activist communities across the United States and the globe.
Her travels continued to be guided by stories that otherwise might not have been told. In late 2001 Handler reported from Nepal on the massacre of the royal family—challenging official government reports of the killings. In early 2005, she wrote about a small indigenous community in Ecuador’s remote southern Amazon that has succeeded in protecting ancestral lands from petroleum development. In 2007 she reported from Guatemala on Nonviolent Peaceforce, an international nongovernmental agency that provides human shields for human rights workers in volatile regions.
Handler chronicled her experiences—as both reporter and participant in the global justice movement—in her memoir, Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist, which received a 2008 Nautilus Award for world-changing books. (Other Nautilus winners range from Barbara Kingsolver to the Dalai Lama.)
Although she might have gone on writing nonfiction, she also was frustrated by the limits of journalism. Handler found herself being pulled in a new direction. She applied to and was accepted to the fiction program in the Writers’ Workshop.
“From the outside it didn’t make a lot of sense,” she admits. “If I could have continued writing and publishing, why did I return to school?”
At Iowa Handler has been grateful for time and space to explore her own vision. She credits her faculty mentors with being able to look at a piece of student work “and see it far more generously than the writer sees it—the potential of the characters and of the story itself.”
Among her undergraduate literature and writing students she has focused on building community and maintaining a safe environment for dialogue—and for disagreement.
“It’s futile to just bang our heads up against each other,” she says. “That kind of getting up on a soapbox may satisfy something, but it doesn’t actually get us anywhere. I think the process of engaging itself teaches us—and is transformative in terms of ideas about other people, ideas about ourselves.”
As Handler completes her MFA this month, she looks forward to returning to India. As a Fulbright scholar during the academic year 2010–11, she will live in the holy city of Varanasi, where she will volunteer in a rural clinic and research the novel she began here in Iowa.
“One of the things this program has really drummed into me is the power of the unknown,” says Handler, who expects a lifetime of trying to balance her writing with her activist roots.
“Something I’ve really had to tackle was ‘Oh, my God, the world needs help, there are people who are hungry, people who are affected by war, and here I am, making up stories.’”
Yet she cannot discount the power of writing. It was, after all, her reporter’s notebook—in the midst of thousands of chanting protesters in New York in 2004—that drew the attention of a Secret Service agent.
“Change is such a mysterious thing,” she acknowledges, “and I’ve learned to value the mystery. You’re always digging at something, and most of the time it’s easy to think you failed—but in the end you may be amazed at what you discover.”
story by Eileen Bartos; photo by Tim Schoon
May 24, 2010