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Powell's Q&A

Alex Perry

Describe your latest project.
I'm a reporter, and Falling off the Edge is a reporter's book. It takes bits and pieces from my experiences in the last decade in war zones and the developing world and draws from them a consistent picture of globalization. It is a far more tumultuous process than is commonly understood. A lot of our wars and social conflict have their roots in globalization; a lot of others have a relation to it.

The book sets out the common dynamic that links many conflicts — essentially that globalization exacerbates inequality and squashes identity, which breeds resentment, which in turn can lead to strife. Boom, then bang. In later chapters, I try to show how that same basic story plays out, in varying ways with varying outcomes, on the ground, from China to India to South Africa, to the pirates of the Malacca Straits, Darfur, Somalia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iraq — you name it. And try also to entertain with some compelling stories along the way.

The reason I wrote it is because the longer you spend on the ground observing globalization, the more many of the more popular theories about it begin to feel misplaced, or at least poorly researched. And you realize, of course, that — and I'm terribly afraid of being rude here, but in the end I think it has to be said — most of them are written in the West by people who haven't traveled enough. As a beat reporter in Britain, I was always told: "If you want to know, go." It stands to reason, right? And if you want to get globalization, you have to travel the world. It's amazing how few of our commentators have. I wouldn't claim to have comprehensively covered the world — I'm not sure anybody can in a lifetime. But my job has sent me further and deeper than most, and when I read theses about places where I'd been — many of which, I'm afraid, are plain wrong — I realized that my experiences had value.

  1. Falling off the Edge: Travels through the Dark Heart of Globalization
    $6.25 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Perry, to his great credit, is on the beat, scratching under surfaces and helping to clear away the obfuscation around this important issue." Kirkus Reviews
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Man Out of Time.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Barman. Not such a strange job, but I was terrible at it — breaking things, giving friends free drinks — and kept getting fired. What was strange was that, in a small town where all the pub owners knew each other, I kept getting re-hired.

What was your first job in journalism?
Reporter for the Great Yarmouth Mercury, a weekly with a reporting staff of two, a circulation of 22,000, and a salary of just more than 7,000 pounds a year. Yarmouth was a dying English seaside town and, in the perverse way of journalism, rotten places make for lots of news. I was there for two and a half years.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
I can't speak authoritatively for fiction, but I suspect there is a wide difference between imagination and lying, and that the kind of fiction that resonates is that which resonates with truth. Like my old Delhi colleague Aravind Adiga's fantastic novel set in modern India, The White Tiger.

In nonfiction, truth is the unassailable standard. You check everything you do, and check again. Otherwise there's no point. I'm interested in the way things are. Truth is fascinating — you really couldn't make it up. That said, I'm very aware that a reporter's idea of the truth is probably always subjective. You can't escape the position from which you look at the world. You just do your best to see the other angles, too.

In nonfiction, of course, truth is a point of principle, too. I'd say that's true for nearly all journalists. There are different ways to present the truth, of course. The British press that I grew up with specialises in taking the facts and stretching them and arranging them in such a way as to create the most sensational impact. It's a commercial technique, and is often brilliantly executed in Britain, but it's not for me. I'm more comfortable with the American way of journalism, which is less sensational — though the (sometimes valid) counter-charge is that that can also make it dull. The solution is to find stories that are intrinsically interesting, rather than try to make a dull story more compelling.

Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I'm a poor liar. I have a boorish attachment to the truth. Often to the point of being extremely impolitic. I'm also a compulsive storyteller. I would have made a very bad spy.

What are your favorite places?
I went back to Kashmir a lot, and not always when it was strictly professionally necessary. An often unnoticed by-product of totalitarianism is excellent cultural preservation, and Burma is a great example of that. Sri Lanka's beautiful. Afghanistan is wild. So is Mogadishu.

Best interview?
Dalai Lama. Obvious, I know. But without a doubt. I'm not a believer, but he has an almost tangible aura of holiness.

Essentials for the road?
I can get by without most things, but I take a mass of communications equipment with me and what I hope is a comprehensive set of plug adaptors. I collect adaptors.

How do you relax?
Used to be oblivion drinking. Very English, very war correspondent. Now I've discovered family, which is a more conventional buzz, but ultimately a longer lasting one.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
No. But I did a rock-and-roll one once, with my guitarist and journalist friend Julian. To Eel Pie Island on the Thames, where the Stones and others first played. We ended up stealing a lovely wherry. Very rock-and-roll at the time; extreme guilt the next day.

We tied the boat up a mile downriver. I think Julian phoned to say sorry.

So, which commentators and authors do you like?
Among commentators, Parag Khanna (The Second World) is a very smart man who also took two years on the road to let his ideas evolve from what he saw on the ground, rather than dreaming them up and finding the pieces of reality that matched. Joseph Stiglitz (Globalization and Its Discontents, Making Globalization Work) is everything an academic should be: learned, brilliant, accessible, and allergic to ivory towers. I try to read all the others, but I tend to prefer the work of my colleagues in journalism: Dexter Filkins (The Forever War), Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City), Jason Burke (Al-Qaeda), Steve Coll (Ghost Wars), Phil Gourevitch (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Standard Operating Procedure), Jon Lee Anderson, Seb Junger, Anthony Swofford (Jarhead), Evan Wright (Generation Kill). And Seymour Hersh, of course. People always think the trend in journalism is heading down-market, but the last few years have seen some brilliant, high-minded work.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Eggs Benedict at Groot Constantia vineyard in Cape Town. Every Saturday.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Scuba. And family.

Why do you write?
It gets increasingly interesting.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alex Perry is Time's Africa Bureau Chief, based in Cape Town. From 2002 to 2006, he was South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi, and covering locations from Afghanistan to Burma. He has won several journalism awards, and his report from the battle at Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan was featured in The Best American Magazine Writing 2002.


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