Writers in Residence: Acclaimed authors Alma Guillermoprieto and Walter Kirn spend a quarter at the University of Chicago (part two)

Alma Guillermoprieto

“I like Colombia because people dance for no reason. But this place, it is not supremely dance-oriented.” The words, slow and carefully pronounced, and the voice, soft but firm, come from a journalist who knows how to answer a question. Mexican-born reporter Alma Guillermoprieto has called Hyde Park her (temporary) home for only a few weeks, but she has already observed certain attributes of the University of Chicago, from its intensely academic community to its rumored lack of enthusiasm for fun. The light dances off amber square earrings framing serious yet kind features as Guillermoprieto declares how at the UofC there is a “pride in grunge: the grunge of the city, the grunge of hard work.”

As a respected journalist, Guillermoprieto has observed everything from the grunge of war to the simplistic beauty of samba–she wrote an entire book about the dance. A former professional dancer, Guillermoprieto never attended college; she began writing only because a friend of her mother who worked for a Latin American newsletter in Britain was “short for correspondents, and he was sure I’d make a great reporter.” Her first story was on the Nicaraguan Revolution. “Wars are a very unfortunate place for reporters to start. The training is intense,” Guillermoprieto notes. “But young people are foolish enough to want it.” She was young, and she learned on the job.

Today, as a freelance writer for publications such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, Guillermoprieto’s approach to journalism is one “focused very little on news. I want to know what happens to people after reporters leave.” Guillermoprieto is interested in “what most people do–and in Latin America, most people are poor.” Her writing focuses on Latin American issues: the people, the culture, the stories. Her approach is less than direct: “I go to a place, let the story happen to me. But you have to figure out where to place yourself.”

How does a dancer-turned-journalist view the life of the mind versus the life of the body? Both require great persistence. “A dancer gets defeated several times a day by the limitations of her own body.” Likewise, a reporter has to take the initiative to discover the true story and the facts. Guillermoprieto also describes herself as “always [being] a very active reporter, finding material by walking.” Her transformation was almost accidental.

After the fall of Somoza, Nicaragua’s leader from 1967 to 1972 and 1974 to 1979, Guillermoprieto traveled all over Latin America, observing and reporting for publications like the Guardian and the Washington Post and feeling like she had basically “stumbled into the whole thing. I was writing for a big London newspaper and I didn’t even realize it was a big newspaper because they paid me such a puny amount.” Dancing was so important to Guillermoprieto’s young life, she admits that at first she “did not take journalism too seriously.” When she was visiting Britain for the first time for the Guardian, she struck up a conversation with an old lady on a bus who asked her what she did. “It turned out she had been reading my stories religiously. It changed my attitude about my work… I felt a different sense of responsibility.” With a greater awareness of an audience, she continued her process of traveling and waiting for a story. In her opinion, because most journalists have to search for a story, “that determines what they find…they lose a lot of information.” Guillermoprieto traveled and waited. And the stories came.

One of the main things that attracts Guillermoprieto is “the absurd situations that people find themselves in.” Guillermoprieto spent two years in Brazil researching for her book “Samba,” living “really immersed as part of the Carnival life.” She “moved into the community, made costumes, selected songs” and was deeply changed. “I forced myself to spend a lot of time with people whose situations were so tragic and who were so completely focused on joy. Who lived for joy, not for the tragic.…It’s corny,” Guillermoprieto admits. “I’m changed by every story.”

Aside from her ability to initiate change through her writing, Guillermoprieto actively influences the broader world of reporting through her teaching. Through the Fundación para Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, Guillermoprieto heads journalism workshops in Colombia for young Latin American journalists. And 2008 marks her first year teaching in academia. “It’s very intimidating,” says a reporter who prefers to “hide behind [her] notebook”–a reporter who never experienced academia as a student.

Guillermoprieto is a visiting lecturer at the UofC through a Tinker Fellowship, teaching a class in the Latin American Studies Department while she learns the ropes of campus and the greater Chicago area. With the election approaching, Hyde Park is arguably a dynamic place to live, but so far, she says, “I wish I could say that some of the excitement of having the Obamas in the neighborhood were visible to me, but all I see is a leafy neighborhood with elegant brownstones, and students shuttling to and from classes.” Guillermoprieto does claim that “it is riveting, though, to be in the United States for this electoral and economic crossroads.”

Aside from her fellowship, perhaps Guillermoprieto came to Chicago partly as a strategy to allow a story to unfold. Perhaps not. But even if Hyde Park doesn’t deeply inspire Guillermoprieto, she’ll surely leave her own mark on Hyde Park.