The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Emily Parker

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Emily Parker is the author of the new book, “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground which Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, described recently as, “a rigorously researched and reported account that reads like a thriller.”

I met Emily a decade ago in Hong Kong, during her stint as a reporter, columnist and editor for the Wall Street Journal. She speaks Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish, and is a deeply intellectually and politically curious adventurer and writer. After her years at the WSJ and then as a staff op-ed writer for the New York Times, Emily was a member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning staff at the U.S. Department of State. She covered 21st-century statecraft, innovation, and technology; advised on Internet freedom and open government; and traveled to the Middle East to explore the role of new media in post-revolutionary Egypt.

Emily spent ten years researching and writing Now I Know Who My Comrades Are, following the lives and works of bloggers in China, Cuba, and Russia, toward telling a nuanced, human story about the internet and freedom.

These days, Emily is a digital diplomacy advisor and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She is also a founder of Code4Country, the first open government coding marathon between the United States and Russia. I recently chatted with Emily about her book, government work, what it means to write about yourself and others; and about truth, fact and fiction.

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The Rumpus: This is your first book, but you’ve been writing for a decade. What drove you to tell this particular story now? And to name it as you did — where did you get the title?

Emily Parker: Now I Know Who my Comrades Are took root in 2004, when I began writing a column about China and the Internet for The Wall Street Journal. At the time it wasn’t clear that the Internet would be a game changer in China. There was so much censorship, and only relatively few people were getting around it. The title of the book comes from a conversation with a Chinese netizen that took place around 10 years ago. I asked him why the Internet mattered in China, and he responded,  “Now, I know who my comrades are.” In other words, this isn’t a story about freedom of speech, it’s a story about freedom of (virtual) assembly. If you are a critic of the Chinese government, it’s not easy to organize a physical gathering. Beijing cracks down hard on that kind of thing. But online, critics find they are not alone. I heard versions of that phrase, “Now I know who my comrades are,” from Internet dissidents all over the world.  For the people in my book, this was a life-changing discovery.

 

Rumpus: I know there has been talk about your choice of China, Cuba, and Russia – can you say a little bit about how you chose your countries?

Parker: My book tells a global story, a human story. I didn’t want Comrades to be pigeon-holed as a “China book” and primarily read by people who are only interested in China.  The countries in my book, China, Cuba and Russia, all share a communist history. There has been so much ink spilled about the role of social media in the Middle East, so I thought it would it be good to look at how this plays out in the communist and post-communist world.

 

Rumpus: Tell me about working for the state department. And being a writer? Overlaps? Divergences? Any James Bond details?

Parker:  I am a writer who spent time serving in government. This is very different from being a government official who happened to write a book. I wanted to work at the State Department in large part because I write about international affairs and US foreign policy. I didn’t want to be one of those people who writes op-eds saying, “Washington should do this, Washington shouldn’t do that,” without understanding how government actually works.

I’ve since learned that serving in government can be a liability for a writer, especially if you write about Internet activism. There’s a scene in my book where Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most famous blogger, says to me: “Listen, I’m not sure I understand what you do. If there’s anything I need to know, please tell me. It could cause real problems for me.” I assured him I was not in the CIA, and have never been in the CIA. In fact, when we had that conversation I had already left government, and was working on the book.

Maybe some people see my bio and think that my writing secretly reflects the views of the US government. That’s ridiculous. I have no affiliation with the US government.

 

Rumpus: Now I Know Who My Comrades Are is full of careful and potentially sensitive portrayals of people toeing political lines in their home countries and online, trying to affect change while also needing to protect themselves. What were your interactions with your sources (especially Michael Anti, the China blogger) like? Did your project present any potential danger to them or you?

Parker: In China in particular, it took a long time to build trust. The China section of this book spans nearly ten years. I would have to be introduced to a blogger by someone he respected. I couldn’t just call out of the blue. The great thing about China, though, is that you can feel trust building over time. It’s like a savings account that gains interest over the years. With every trip people would open up a little bit more. This was true of Michael Anti, and of the people I met through him. I think they were also testing me a little bit, trying to see if I would stick around or just breeze in and out of their lives.

It’s worth noting here that this is not a book about anonymous bloggers. For the most part, the people in my book were eager for the world to know their stories. That’s why some Cuban bloggers intentionally post their names and photos online.

The Cuban blogger Laritza Diversent put it this way: “The fact that the world knows the name and face of dissidence, people of flesh and blood with their own existence, gives us a little bit of protection.’ Does it afford them complete protection? No, absolutely not. But it is somewhat harder for authorities to just make a troublemaker disappear.

As for myself, I didn’t want to be kicked out of the countries I was writing about. I was most concerned about Cuba. The Cuba expert and academic Ted Henken also traveled to Cuba to investigate the blogosphere, and on one of his visits authorities stopped him at the airport in Havana and told that him that this would be his last trip to Cuba. That story really spooked me. I wanted the book to have a narrative arc, which required staying with these bloggers over a period of years, charting their developments as writers, their personal relationships and in some cases, their rises to fame. It would be much harder to do that if I was told to leave and never come back.

 

Rumpus: The book is structurally very ambitious – can you talk about your writing process? How did you sift through a decade’s worth of interviews and reportage, and make it into a clean account? Was it a challenge to find the book’s core argument/meaning? How did you create the drama in it?

Parker: For the most part I compiled for years and then wrote, though I did write some little sections along the way. It took a while to come up with the book’s structure, but then it hit me like an epiphany, and it felt quite natural. What I observed is that isolation, fear and apathy are among the most effective weapons of authoritarian regimes, and that on the Internet ordinary people can transcend these feelings. So I split the book into three main sections: China (isolation), Cuba (fear) and Russia (apathy). Of course, you can find elements of isolation, fear and apathy in all three countries, but I found that isolation was more pronounced in China, fear in Cuba, and apathy in Russia.

The good thing is that I didn’t have to create the drama, it was really there. In Cuba, you did feel like there were agents or informers everywhere. I don’t think I could have manufactured that feeling, it would have seemed too far-fetched.

 

Rumpus: What did you hope to accomplish by writing about the particular people you chose, and what has the conversation been like since the book came out?

Parker: I wanted to tell the human stories behind the so-called Internet revolution. My book contains a mix of lesser-known bloggers and prominent Internet dissidents. This is not a book about technology, it’s a book about real people. It makes me really happy when people tell me that they thought they would be bored or confused by an “Internet” book, but found themselves drawn to the personalities and stories in Now I Know Who My Comrades Are. One of the most exciting things that happened is one of my favorite novelists, Mario Vargas Llosa, wrote an article about my book. He is far from an enthusiastic user of the Internet, but he still found the book interesting. I feel he understood what I was trying to do.

At the same time, the book came out at a moment when there is palpable skepticism about the Internet and its power to affect change. People are tired of breathless commentary about how the Internet will bring liberation, democracy and revolution. I get that, and I don’t make those arguments. Still, pretty much every book talk has to include the same tedious disclaimers: Yes, I understand that the Internet is far from a free place. Yes, I know that authorities can use the Internet for harm. And yes, bad people use the Internet to do bad things. Even though my book doesn’t deny any of this, and I personally don’t deny any of this. There is plenty of good writing out there about the dark sides of the Internet, but that’s not what my book is about. My book mainly spotlights the people are who are using the Internet to push for greater justice, transparency and accountability. They don’t paint a complete picture of Internet activism, but they are an important part of the story.

 

Rumpus: Let’s talk about fairness and accuracy in non-fiction. And writing –  I noticed that when I wrote a non-fiction book (Foreign Babes in Beijing), no one ever asked me anything about the writing of the book – how I put it together or even why. It almost felt like because I had lived the experiences I wrote about in Foreign Babes, the book had just appeared – sprung from my head fully formed. Do people ask you about craft? About how or why you made the book the way you did?

Parker: Exactly. It seems like some people think these stories magically appeared. It took so much work to tell the stories of these people, to try to bring them to life on the page, and to give the book a narrative flow.

 

Rumpus: What’s the solution when writing non-fiction? How do you make it mean what you want it to mean, without being a propagandist, or a reckless oversimplifier?

Parker: I tried to do what successful fiction does. I wanted to give readers an entry into other people’s worlds. We hear so much about these abstract entities called “the Internet,” “dissident bloggers” and “repressive regimes.” Who will win, and who will lose? Is the Internet a force for good, or a force for evil? It’s so boring to talk about life in this way. The funny thing is that I tried to paint nuanced pictures of individual lives, and then I do book talks and media interview and the questions often come down to, “So break it down for me, is the Internet good or bad?”

 

Rumpus: I’ve always loved the story Anne Patchett tells in her afterward to Lucy Greeley’s Autobiography of a Face, about Greely’s response to a reader who asked, “There’s so much dialogue in your book – how did you remember it all? And Greely said, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” How do you make sure when you’re choosing countries or bloggers or specific lines or anecdotes that they end up saying something both meaningful and true?

Parker: Sometimes I feel like truth only exists in individual stories. Take China, for example. No writer can effectively portray “China” or “the Chinese people.” The two main Chinese figures in my book are very different from one another. One resembles the classic pro-democracy dissident. The other is a provocative blogger who also happened to be an Internet censor. Neither represents China, or even most of China. The most you can do is tell individual stories in a way that is balanced and accurate. If you can help readers see the world through these people’s eyes, then you’ve accomplished something.

 

Rumpus: I think maybe your next book should be poetry, or fiction. How about a novel?

Parker: I do believe that fiction can be the most powerful way to portray reality. In the case of this book, however, I don’t think I could have made up these stories. Readers wouldn’t have believed me.


Rachel DeWoskin’s novel, Big Girl Small, (FSG 2011) is the recipient of the 2012 American Library Association’s Alex Award and was named one of the top 3 books of 2011 by Newsday. DeWoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton 2005) about the years she spent in China as the unlikely star of a Chinese soap opera, has been published in six countries and is being developed as a television series by HBO. Her debut novel, Repeat After Me (Overlook Press, 2009), won a Foreward Magazine Book of the Year award. Rachel has written essays and articles for Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times Magazine of London, Teachers and Writers, and Conde Nast Traveler, and has published poems in journals including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, New Delta Review, Nerve Magazine and The New Orleans Review. She teaches memoir and fiction at the University of Chicago, and divides her time between Chicago and Beijing with her husband, playwright Zayd Dohrn, and their two little girls. Her most recent novel, Blind, will be released in August 2014. More from this author →