Faculty Reflections: Daniel Alarcón
Daniel Alarcón, Assistant Professor of Journalism and 2021 MacArthur Fellow, recently spoke with Jennifer Leach, Associate Director for Faculty Advancement, about his early influences and his path to becoming a creative writer, journalist, and professor.
I read that you were born in Peru and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm really curious how your upbringing influenced your decision to pursue writing and eventually journalism.
That's a really good question, and I think the juxtaposition of the two places was pretty intense. My family and I were lucky enough to be able to go back and forth a fair amount. Not every year, but every other year during my childhood until about 1990. At that point, the situation in Peru was very dangerous and my parents would go, but we would stay behind.
So as a kid, I grew up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, a kind of pretty typical American suburban experience. And then flying to Lima, which was this chaotic megacity in the middle of a war and a deteriorating economic situation. So my summers in Lima were very vivid to me. They were intense and exciting and sort of made me ask lots of questions about things I didn't understand; it was almost like having my feelers up all the time.
My Spanish wasn't perfect, so I had to really pay attention. I was always fascinated by the wordplay. Limeños in particular are very sharp and witty, and I really like the spectacle and the fireworks of the spoken word, but it wasn’t just because it was hard and different; it was also exciting and illuminating. And I think that I didn't understand anything about the political situation at the time; I was too young.
But the older I got, there were moments where I realized that I needed to try to understand what was happening. And I began asking these hypotheticals, specifically, what would my life have been like if I had stayed? And I think a lot of my early work sort of deals with and confronts that question in various ways. I would say that I had not a small amount of survivor's guilt: why did I get the chance to grow up in a safe and comfortable American suburb, while everyone in my family essentially grew up in the middle of the most chaotic and dangerous decade in contemporary Peruvian history?
It wasn’t that my parents had a great amount of foresight; an opportunity presented itself and they took it. They were thinking about opportunities for our education, and that meant that by dint of good fortune, we just happened to be absent when the violence began.
Limeños in particular are very sharp and witty, and I really like the spectacle and the fireworks of the spoken word, but it wasn’t just because it was hard and different; it was also exciting and illuminating.
What was that like, being a kid with your feelers up? How did that influence your educational path?
In 1989, when I was thirteen years old, my uncle disappeared, and that dramatically changed our relationship to Peru. Suddenly, the war was not this thing happening to everybody—it was this thing that happened to us. And I saw a dramatic change in my father; there was a lot more discussion about politics. And then because it was dangerous for us to visit Peru, we [kids] didn't go. That coincided with my high school years, when teenagers naturally pull away from their parents anyway.
I wasn't hanging out at home as much as I would have been before. Instead I was getting the independence of being an adolescent. As a result, my Spanish deteriorated and my sense of connection [to Peru] did as well. That changed when I got to New York—to Columbia, specifically. The city was being remade by a wave of Latin migration. People in the street would ask me things in Spanish, and I realized that I would have access to entirely different parts of the city if I could speak with them. It just began to make sense to me—I should dust off and recover what was in my memory banks.
And so it was really being in New York that made me begin to remember all the stuff that was sort of buried. I started taking my Spanish more seriously and reading in Spanish. I think I took a Spanish class here at Columbia. I also started going back to Peru on my own. I began reading a lot of the history of what had happened while I had been hanging out with my friends in high school. And that was a big part of my intellectual development as a young man.
By the time I graduated, I had worked in schools here in New York City, and then from there I got a Fulbright scholarship to go back to Peru. I pitched a project working in what was kind of a marginal district of the city at that time. It was home to the two largest prisons in the country. I lived and worked in that neighborhood teaching photography and writing for the better part of a year and then went to Iowa for grad school.
And I didn't do any writing while I was in Peru. Basically, I just took notes. But what I did was gather material, in that way where you don't realize you're gathering material. And when I got to Iowa, it was just cornfields and big libraries and lots of time. The time was key -- that when I finally had the head space to make sense of everything I’d seen and lived while I was in Lima.
When you began writing, what was your process?
In Iowa, I had no responsibility except to write, but I didn't know how to do it. After teaching in New York City, I would come home and write for an hour and I had put together a portfolio that had been enough to get into Iowa. But I didn't know how to do it day after day, full time. I remember my roommates had their doors open [and they’d just start writing each morning]. Clackety-clack on their laptops. It was eye-opening. I realized that you just get up and do it, you know? I found that work ethic very impressive. At the same time, I was like, I can't write around these people! This is too much pressure.
When I got to Iowa, it was just cornfields and big libraries and lots of time. The time was key—that was when I finally had the head space to make sense of everything I’d seen and lived while I was in Lima.
So I started going to the library, which was fantastic. I remember I really just kept banker's hours; I would go to the library from nine to five. Back then, laptops weighed like 20 pounds. I kept my laptop in a locker at the library and I would pack a little sandwich, a yogurt, and a thermos of coffee. If I got tired of writing, I would wander around this massive library and just find random books. It was magical.
And the first thing I wrote, “City of Clowns,” ended up being my first story ever published; it was in The New Yorker in 2003. And it was basically a mishmash of a family story, my observations of where I had been living and teaching. It was based off of one conversation I had with some street clowns. These were the ingredients for a piece of fiction that ended up being my “big break.”
You started writing fiction and then made your way over to nonfiction and then to journalism. Can you speak to this evolution, to your unique lens into each genre?
I published a story in The New Yorker and shortly after that I was put in touch with this brand new Peruvian magazine called Etiqueta Negra, which means Black Label. It was a completely anomalous, strange publication for Peru because it had very high production values and a really sophisticated, kind of cosmopolitan worldview, publishing writers from Peru and from across the region. It was like The New Yorker for Latin America.
I sort of did an apprenticeship writing nonfiction and eventually I also started editing pieces for them. If each issue had seven or eight features, one or two of them would be translated from English. And so my job was to find stuff that was worth translating for a Peruvian audience—and a Latin American audience, really, because the magazine had become a cult hit.
Eventually, I felt like I was ready to pitch something to an American magazine. The first thing I pitched was to Harper's, and I didn't know how to do it at all. I had been in an anthology with somebody who had written for Harper's, and I emailed him out of the blue. He told me to email his editor and use his name.
I’d been told that a pitch should answer two questions: “Why is this story interesting?” and “Why am I the person to tell it?” I did this in 2,500 words, which was way too long. I had a very generous editor who accepted it.
When I got the call, I was thrilled, literally jumping up and down. It was 45 seconds of euphoria and then absolute panic. I called my editor right back and asked, “Hey, how do I do this?” And I remember he said, “Go talk to everybody and write down everything. When you walk into a room tell me, how many light bulbs are out, how many people are there, who's sitting in what chairs, what they're wearing, the expressions on their faces, everything. You're not going to use it all, you're not even going to use most of it, but you want to be able to have it in order to draw the most vivid scenes.” That was the extent of my formal or informal journalism education, I guess.
When I got the call, I was thrilled, literally jumping up and down. It was 45 seconds of euphoria and then absolute panic. I called my editor right back and asked, “Hey, how do I do this?”
The rest was just kind of learning by doing. I wrote that piece and it went well. I caught the bug; I was like, Oh, I really like this kind of writing. And I sort of went back and forth between fiction and nonfiction for several years. I did another collection of stories and would occasionally publish pieces in Harper's or for The New York Times Magazine. Occasionally short pieces about soccer, mostly for The New Yorker, for the website, and then combining that with stories and whatnot.
Eventually, when I was working on my second novel, really frustrated and things weren't going well, I started playing around with radio. Back in 2007, I'd published a novel called Lost City Radio, and I got asked to do a radio documentary forthe BBC. And I was super excited to do that because my family has this really close relationship with radio. My father was a soccer announcer. I have cousins and uncles who were working in radio stations or had worked in radio stations in Peru.
So all this was very exciting to me. They sent me a producer from London; he was really good, but he spoke no Spanish. I did interviews in English and Spanish, but all the Spanish got cut, basically. And so when the piece was published in early 2008, I was a little bit bummed that so many of the voices that I had, the interviews that I'd done in Spanish, were cut. That's when I wondered, what would it be like to have a space in Spanish for these stories in audio?
And that goes back to my fascination as a kid of always wanting to hear how people spoke.
The following year, I met Carolina, who is now my wife, and we would always talk about doing projects together. She's from Colombia. At one point, she was working a job that she hated, and I was struggling with my second novel. Really, really having a hard time, and needed a break. And she was like, Oh, why don't we try that radio thing? And I had a little bit of money saved up from my first book deal and from teaching. And so I was like, OK, let's do it! We had no idea what we were doing, and that was the beginning of Radio Ambulante.
I was a little bit bummed that so many of the voices that I had, the interviews that I'd done in Spanish, were cut. That's when I wondered, what would it be like to have a space in Spanish for these stories in audio?
You've been a teacher for many years, and you've also had this body of life experience to draw upon. How would you describe your teaching philosophy, and what you hope to impart to your students?
I taught in public school in the US, and taught writing and photography in Peru. I have taught creative writing in the Bay Area...but I almost always taught fiction. The whole story of how I got to Columbia is also totally crazy, and I think I had imposter syndrome for the first three or four years that I was here. I'm teaching journalism, but I have always thought of myself fundamentally as a novelist. I thought, do they know that I'm a novelist? And I also do digital radio. I started working in radio on my own and basically started working in audio, in podcasting.
And I had a really unpleasant moment that I'll never forget when I first got to Columbia. I had been helping out with some of the radio classes and they were finishing the summer semester or some kind of training course. A group of students and faculty had gone out to grab a drink in Harlem. I was new and I was just introducing myself and hanging out, and a veteran NPR person, a woman who I'd heard on the air for decades, was teaching the course. And I introduced myself because I knew her work and admired her, and she said, “Oh, you're the new radio professor who's never worked in radio!”
And I was like, “Yeah, that's me”, and it was awful. It was just very cutting and dismissive. And I haven't ever forgotten it because it also struck me as so unfair. First of all, I started my own radio project. You know, I helped build this company from nothing. We have 24 employees in a dozen countries, doing fantastic work. We have millions of downloads every season. But beyond that, even if I hadn't done all of those things, it was a very mean thing to say.
I have had to sort of get my head around the fact that I actually am a professor of journalism, and what does that mean? I teach a basic reporting class without having ever covered a school board meeting or done daily news, but I've been consuming that stuff my whole life. I know what a news article sounds like, you know? I recognize what it is that I do know, and am learning from my peers and colleagues who are on my side and who have been, for the most part, tremendously generous and kind and open and excited for what I have to offer.
It took me a few years, but the course that I designed that I've been teaching now for four years is called Telling True Stories in Sound. And essentially, it’s a very creative class where I want everyone to work with all the rigors of journalism, but to tell stories that are much more expansive, not necessarily ripped from the headlines, not necessarily daily news, sort of like This American Life or Radiolab. That side of journalism, of audio journalism specifically, seems to be growing quite a bit, and it has potential for further growth. So we organized the class like a workshop—it feels in some ways like a fiction workshop. We sit around a table, listen to tape together, discuss story ideas and structure plan interviews together. It's very collaborative. And in past years before COVID, this would all culminate in a live show that was held in one of the lecture halls here at the J School, and friends and family would come.
It's very exciting for the students to be able to put on a show. My students have gone on to work at WNYC, Invisibilia, the L.A. Times or The New York Times, at Gimlet and all over. It’s exciting to see them grow. As an industry, journalism faces a lot of headwinds, but my particular part of the industry is doing well. And so it's growing so fast that people who were my students just a few years ago are my peers now. And it's exciting to see them grow.
I can't let you go without asking about your MacArthur award and what your immediate plans are.
I think that the core of it is to figure out how to turn that money into time. A friend gave me some great advice: Resist the temptation to make any big decisions about the [award] money right now. It's more about remembering that this foundation wants to invest in your creativity. And so how are you going to carve out the time to be that creative person, to dream big and do something cool?
To learn more about Daniel Alarcón's work, please visit his MacArthur Foundation profile or his faculty website.