Alia Malek is a journalist, author, and civil rights lawyer. Her writing has appeared in a slew of publications including The New York Times and McSweeney's, among many others. She is the author of the narrative nonfiction novel "A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives" and will release her second book in February 2017. Malek is a former senior writer for Al Jazeera America and was recently awarded the Hiett Prize in the Humanities.
Daily Princetonian: How have your personal identity and background shaped your professional life? Are the stories you choose to cover at all influenced by your previous experiences in the workplace and/or family life?
Alia Malek: The fact is that I come from an ethnic/racial group that has been the subject of much journalism about being participants, and the creators of the journalism made me always feel critical and sensitive to how people are covered in the media. And, you know, where people do come from particular racialized ethnic groups, the coverage of one story affects everybody.The way that works is — I started off as a lawyer — I started off wanting to work on effects of prejudice and stereotypes ... which I think does stand in part from bad media, whether it’s journalism or pop culture. And after 9/11, I felt like that problem was so big that maybe I needed to — well, I didn’t make the change then, but I started to think that there really needed to be a much more concerted effort to participate in storytelling and journalism and media creation. Eventually, after six years of law I did go to [journalism] school at Columbia and took that path, and that’s why I wrote—really, that’s a big part of why I wrote—"A Country Called Amreeka," which is my first book, to reinsert the stories that have been missing from the American narrative of who we are as a country and society. The book goes all the way back to the late 1800s for a brief, very meticulous reinsertion into history and even into very contemporary history … So that’s how it’s shaped what I’ve done. You know, it has pushed me to create this book that I always wanted when I was growing up, and then I hope for folks who might be feeling like that, the way I felt when I was a kid, that they also now can find this book … But I don’t only cover Arab people. I also write about all kinds of other people. I just thinkthat with sensitivity to the fact that you can have a lot of power by creating knowledge about a people has meant that — I have always asked myself when I’m about to cover anybody—am I making sure I keep the balance of when to … internalize about how to look at people from certain communities.
DP: Your website describes your work as focusing on “the people whose lives are affected by the events making headlines.” With the introduction of an array of alternative news sources, whether on social media or television, the way we receive and filter our news has altered drastically over the last few years. With this notion of information being readily accessible at our fingertips, what is the place of long-form reporting and storytelling in today’s world? Why is it important to you to highlight the person behind the news headline?
AM: Well, I mean, is it accessible? Yes, it’s out there, but I think it’s already sort of — there’s so much evidence of confirmation bias and stuff. So, is it readily accessible? Sure. Are people accessing these other sources? I don’t think so. And the thing I love about long-form journalism — I mean we touched on this a little bit. [Al Jazeera] Plus has these videos or tweets, they might be tippy, they might be just for the moment, but I’m much more interested in longevity. Even a magazine article doesn’t really last much longer than the week that it’s out. I just won this prize down in Dallas and when I got down there, everybody had read and had been given a copy of Amreeka, which, for me, now is already an older work … still, there’s a resonance to it even today. And I think that’s something that you can’t [achieve with] a tweet [that] isn’t going to be resonant past five minutes … or the 24-hour news cycle in which it gets highlighted. So the point of long-form also is that long-form allows you to storytell. It can’t necessarily storytell in one tweet. Sure, could you do a Twitter storm and you kind of tell a story? Yes, I think that’s true that you can, but for now, for me, being able to take a reader into the skin of another person — right, because that’s what I’m always thinking to do. And I don’t see my role as doing PR for people. I write about really complicated and flawed folks, because everybody is complicated and flawed. And I just think that in long-form, you know, you have the canvas to be able to do that. A book doesn’t necessarily come with the same sort of branding as from the right or from the left.
DP: Your site also explains that with your writing, you aim to “move us past narratives we have grown accustomed to about people we often see as ‘other.’” How do you hope your work will influence the future of how we perceive those who are different from us?
AM: I’ve gotten feedback from Amreeka for a lot of the stuff that’s like — people just say ‘I thought I knew that and I didn’t realize that fully.’ I believe in the power of the narrative...I know that’s cheesy, but I do think that narrative is really strong because when it’s done right, and the way I try to do it, like, it’s not polemical, it’s not argumentative. It’s just sort of like, "hey, this is the experience that this person lived." And it’s kind of hard to deny people those things, because if you tell people that growing up Arab-American and being subject to a lot of racism and prejudice as well, they have no reason to believe you. But if you take someone into your life … just let them speak for themselves … I think it tends to have the potential to be transformative, much more than, like, yelling at somebody or lecturing another person.
DP: As a child of Syrian immigrant parents and a female, what kinds of challenges have you faced as a journalist? Have more obstacles emerged over the years, or do you find that the industry is better adapting to its time?
AM: Well, I think the reason that it’s adapting is … each person’s opinion is different, right? That in itself might open up more opportunities. But also, I think people have realized, after 9/11, people discovered Arab-Americans, and I think they realized that the information that was out there was not particularly well-formed. I think the fact that we want to have more reliable information and stories has helped open the door for more diverse people to begin reporting. I don’t really want to dwell on my own personal experience. I mean, I ultimately still come from a position of a lot of privilege and have been able to … you know, there’s many more tales of harrowing prejudice than my own experience. But as for going forward, of course I’m worried. It doesn’t help that the President-elect is coming from a rhetorical place that … brings out our society’s best. You know, I really feel bad for those kids who are not cosmopolitan and are going to be the brunt of a lot of bullying or discrimination from their teachers. And we’re seeing all of this already, but I think this makes it even more important that there is good storytelling out there so that, you know, people look as people as their fellow Americans, or just fellow people. There’s a role for journalism in society to play as storytelling. I mean journalism to some extent, but even more I think it’s time [that] we need great TV shows and movies, because the reality is a lot more. People sometimes dehumanize people much more in those formats, I think, than in journalism … People pick and choose their sources of information. I don’t think people who are of certain kinds of positions are going to all of the sudden [change] … but it’s as neutral enough ground.
DP: Immediately after the presidential election earlier this month, protests broke out around the country to speak out against Donald Trump’s policies on a slew of topics, including immigration. On Nov. 16, Trump’s team announced they are entertaining the idea of implementing a Muslim registration system for Muslim immigrants in the States. These are merely a few examples of our increasingly divided and heated political and social climates. In your opinion, what is the media’s role in discussing contentious issues such as the Muslim registry? How might citizens and journalists alike effectively use the media as a platform to combat or promote polemic policies?
AM: Well, it’s not just the media’s responsibility. But, I think, as much as they do want to fight the precedent of the Japanese internment, let’s see stories about what that meant for the U.S. You know, let’s hear from those who might still be alive or from their grandchildren. People who are long-time part of the United States are all of the sudden deprived of their businesses and their money and their assets. I’d want to hear from the. In terms of the media, [they] opted to cover the helicopter landings of Trump much more than they did go in-depth exploration with his policies. There needs to be [a] documentary, it can’t just be like a news bulletin… there needs to be in-depth reporting of what that means. You have to challenge these assertions. We need to bring truth back into this, the narrative, because there are objective facts. The media not only needs to do its job, but it also needs to figure out how to access people who are not getting its information. That’s what I think the media really needs to be about right now. How are we going to have these conversations outside of their bubble, and how are they going to have that more with the real cross sections of society?