Hit by a grenade, journalist Carmen Gentile keeps telling stories

Ayisat Bisiriyu, 15, recently sat down with Carmen to talk

  • News/Info Literacy
  • Storytelling
  • Travel
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Photo courtesy of Nish Nalbandian

Carmen Gentile is a journalist and co-founder of Postindustrial, a media production company in Pittsburgh. He spent several years reporting from war zones abroad and writing for leading news outlets such as The New York Times and TIME magazine. In 2010, while reporting from Afghanistan, a rocket-propelled grenade hit him on the side of the head. It didn’t detonate, but it damaged one eye. He writes about it in his book “Blindsided by the Taliban,” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018). Ayisat Bisiriyu, 15, recently sat down with Carmen to talk.

Q: Why did you decide to become a journalist?

A: I knew I wanted to write, and I wanted to see the world, but I wasn’t sure what form that would take. And I found myself, after (college) graduation, in Cairo because my Arabic professor had said to me, “Why don’t you go take classes there?” I was in my early 20s. So, I found a job at a newspaper, an English-language weekly in Cairo, and sort of fell into it from there.

Q: How did you become a correspondent for national and international news outlets?

A: A lot of trial and error … trying to find my place in the world, learning. I was thrown into certain stories that I had no idea how to cover, and I had to figure it out as I went. One day I woke up and realized that that’s what I do.

Q: In 2010, you were reporting in Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade hit you on the side of the head. Did your injury change you, and if so, how?

A: I went through a period after I got hurt where I felt as though the world owed it to me that I could pretty much do whatever I want and say whatever I want and act any way I felt. But I soon learned that just because I had been hurt — and survived a trillion-to-one situation, the universe did not owe me anything for it. So there was a recalibration of my perception after a few months of some ill-advised behavior.

Q: Tell us about some stories the world would not have known about if you had not been there reporting.

A: There are a couple of stories that stick out. One involves Afghanistan. There was this very small combat outpost where I was, and I reported in my story that a lot of the soldiers there weren’t getting the supplies they needed because it was in a very dangerous area. After that story ran, they started getting better supplies. And there was another story I did: I got a tip from someone that there were these Americans being held illegally in this Honduran prison. So, I managed to get ahold of them, actually. There was a cellphone smuggled into the prison, and I spoke to them. I did this story for CNN, and a few days later, they were released.

Q: What do you like most about traveling?

A: I like to see a new thing every day. In the summer of 1997, I rode my bicycle cross-country from Plymouth, Mass., to San Francisco. And the thing that struck me is that everything I was seeing was brand new, every day. And I thought, “Wow, this is great. I wish every day could be like this.” And, of course, it can’t, but when you go live someplace different or you’re visiting a new place, you see things with fresh eyes.

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

A: My favorite book and the book that’s influenced me probably the greatest is Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge.” I just love (how) the main character, Larry Darrell, has this almost childlike wonder about the world, and he’s willing to shrug off conventional attitudes about (how) you have to have a job, and you have to make money, and you have to do this, and you have to do that, to pursue a life more meaningful, or what he perceived to be more meaningful.

Q: What advice do you have for a young person who aspires to become a journalist?

A: This business is fraught with all kinds of perils, not just the kind that I faced here, but it’s a difficult time for journalism. It’s also an exciting time for journalism because journalism seems to be reinventing itself every few years now. People are finding new ways to tell stories. When it comes to doing the kind of work that I’ve done, covering conflict and other situations, I would say there are two different kinds of risk in this profession and in life. There’s calculated risk, and there’s stupid risk. But no story’s worth your life. That’s the advice that I would like to impart, especially to young people who think they’re indestructible. You have to come home at the end of the day with the story, so don’t throw your life away.

Q: What else should we know about you?

A: I am still trying to figure out how to be a better journalist, a better writer and a better person. I’m still a work in progress.

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