Sasha Abramsky was a Nation intern in 1994. Now a freelance journalist, his work has appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, New York, Salon, Slate, The Village Voice, and Rolling Stone. His most recent book, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, was published by Nation Books in 2013. In this interview, Spring 2014 Nation intern Mara Kardas-Nelson asks Sasha about his career and his time at The Nation.
1. Why did you pursue a career in journalism?
I was always interested in politics and at a certain point realized I was more interested in writing about it than actually being in the world of politics myself. So I started writing, and then did more and more writing, applied to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and saw what a wonderful way journalism was to engage with the world.
2. What is your fondest memory of The Nation's internship?
The combination of very hard work and very good, intelligent, companionship. It was an intense experience and the interns I worked with, as well as the writers and editors, formed a unique group. To pay my way, I worked at a Starbucks on the Upper East Side till 2 am every night and brought in leftover pastries to feed all my friends at The Nation each morning. I'd lug this heavy paper bag of pastries with me from my apartment in Washington Heights down to the Nation offices.
3. You're originally from the UK, but now live and work in the US. How do you think being from outside of America helps you to write about it?
I'm half-American, so am not truly an outsider. But I do think growing up in another country helps one to understand the complexities of America — both good and bad. It's such a vast country, with so many cultures and languages jostling to be seen and heard; that geographic and demographic spread is something extraordinary. It's an entire continent bound by one common political boundary. But despite its complexity I do think Americans have a tendency to look inward rather than outward, to think that all lessons that can be learned can be learned within the US; and that's not true. It's not true for any country, and I think having grown up in Britain, which in many ways used to occupy the geo-political role now occupied by the US, it gave me an understanding of how the forces of history can change quite suddenly and also an understanding of the fact that even powerful countries are, ultimately, only part of a global community or communities.
4. You've spent much of your career focusing on poverty. What is your biggest lesson learned — professionally, politically, or personally — through researching and writing the subject?
That it's a huge and often humbling arena to report on and in; that one can't — or shouldn't — reduce poverty or people in poverty to caricatures or stereotypes; that people are amazingly resilient and creative in the face of hardship; and that when we rush to judgements on causes and consequences of big-picture events like the current poverty crisis we oftentimes miss the most interesting parts of the story.
5. There's a lot of talk today about the "death of journalism." What is your perception of the vitality of the industry today — how has it changed, and where is it headed?
I go up and down on this, largely depending on my mood. In some ways I'm optimistic — there's a lot of very creative journalism going on and a lot of new venues and forms of communication opening up. BUT, the demise of the print news genre has, I believe, had catastrophic effects on the broader culture. My students nowadays almost never read newspapers — not just of the printed variety, but also online. They instead get their news scattershot, from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. It's a peculiarly disempowering way to engage with the broader world and leaves vast swathes of ignorance about major global events. The demise of a coherent news culture has vast implications for democracy and for the ways in which civic engagement is understood.
6. What are you reading these days?
Lots of things simultaneously: a history of ballooning, titled Falling Upwards; Scahill's Dirty Wars; Churchill's World War Two history; a history of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, by my college fried Pete Sarris. On the fiction front, I just finished Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I'm about to start a short-story collection by a woman called Jodie Angel, and just picked up a memoir titled Where the Peacocks Sing. Last night I also began browsing Henry Fielding's book titled Jonathan Wild.
7. What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the field?
Persevere, stay curious, read a lot and widely, don't get discouraged if and when your ideas and stories are rejected, set yourself writing exercises (observational, analytical, editorial, etc), and, again, stay curious. It's that engagement with the broader culture and history that will make you stand out both as a person and as a journalist.