Narrative nonfiction writer Mario Kaiser on the importance of deeply reported journalism

Recently ivoh featured an excerpt from “Mr. Ince and the Hope of Being Needed.” The story, written by narrative nonfiction writer, Mario Kaiser, follows the life of a Turkish day laborer in Berlin. Written over the span of a year and a half, Kaiser’s honest portrait of a day laborer’s life confronts stereotypes of migrant workers and deeply examines the affects of a migrant’s hard day’s work.

Kaiser’s writing, which spans human rights topics including immigration and incarceration, balances both the personal conditions of the individuals he spends time with and the larger social context that looms behind his protagonists. His socially oriented long form stories do not shy away from difficult subject matter. In fact, most of his long-term immersive stories are written in areas that are difficult to reach. Kaiser emailed with ivoh and shared his perspectives and insights on immersive journalism, the skewed portrayals of migrants, writing and resilience.

Gloria Muñoz: Your story “Death in Camp Delta” encapsulates the lives of three Guantánamo Bay prisoners as they lose hope of ever being tried or released. Empathy seems to be at the center of this story, yet you also brought in the hard cold facts surrounding information from the Department of Defense and the glib reality of the prisoners’ lives. How do you equally balance both the facts and an empathetic narrative?

Mario Kaiser: As a reporter, I believe it’s important to keep a certain professional distance from the people I write about. Otherwise, you run the risk of clouding your vision, of not seeing the story with clarity. But I’m also a human being, and it’s hard not to feel empathy for a fifteen-year old boy who gets picked up in the fog of war somewhere in Afghanistan and ends up dead in a cell in Guantánamo. Empathy, however, is not what motivated me to write this story. I got the idea when I opened the Economist and read this brief obituary of the youngest of the three prisoners. They were reportedly the first prisoners who committed suicide in Guantánamo, and I wanted to know: Who were these men? How did they end up in Guantánamo? Why did they die? I wanted to put three faces on this faceless place called Guantánamo and tell a story that would shed light on the larger issue of the so-called “war on terror.” I believe that the most harrowing stories should be told with relentless calmness. In a sense, writing is a bit like surgery. You wouldn’t trust a surgeon who seems too emotional, but you also wouldn’t want to be on the operating table of a doctor who seems cold-hearted. You’re looking for someone with watchful eyes and a steady hand, whether he holds a scalpel or a pen.

Mario Kaiser. Photo by Holger Keifel.

Muñoz: You’ve written a few immersive stories that focus on migrant populations. Is there anything specifically that draws your attention to this group?

Kaiser: There are few people I admire more than those who leave everything behind and embark on a journey without knowing where it might end. I’m a migrant myself, but a privileged one. I came to America from Germany, a country that gave me everything I ever asked for, from education to freedom of thought. It’s probably not a coincidence that I’m married to a migrant. My wife came here from the Dominican Republic, a country that has seen its share of dictatorships, U.S. invasions, and poverty. She grew up in the Bronx, and she opened my eyes to the pain and sacrifice that come with migration — but even more so to the beauty and richness that migrants bring into our lives. I don’t know what it’s like to see barrel bombs being dropped on your village, or to raise children without shoes. But I can relate to the feeling of being a stranger in a strange place. For my story “Mr. Ince and the Hope of Being Needed,” I followed a Turkish day laborer in Berlin for over a year, and I could see a bit of myself in him. I’m also a day laborer who moves from one job to the next, who wants to be needed for the work he does. I see migration as one of the most important stories of our time, and it’s a sad irony of this presidential election that it’s the men who stand on the shoulders of their immigrant parents and grandparents who portray migrants as rapists and terrorists. It encourages me to write more stories about migrants.

Muñoz: Could you share the types of challenges or setbacks you’ve encountered while reporting a story immersed in a specific location?

Kaiser: When you spend a lot of time with your protagonists, one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that they don’t get tired of you. They don’t know how immersive reporting works, and I’m glad — because I don’t want them to do anything that makes my work easier. But when you follow people for months, even years, there comes a point when they start wondering if you’ll ever be done with your reporting, if the story will ever be published. I wrote this profile of a man who, for political reasons, severed his ties to the German state and chose to become homeless. I followed him for more than two years, and at one point he didn’t want to see me anymore. He thought I was wasting his time. I kept explaining why I needed to spend even more time with him, but to no avail. What saved me was when he googled me and saw that I had a track record of staying with my protagonists. I constantly struggle with that, especially since I rarely take assignments anymore. I just follow stories that I believe are important. Needless to say that this is a precarious business model. The silver lining materializes at the end, when the story is published and the protagonist says, “Now I understand why you got on my nerves for such a long time.”

Muñoz: Long-term reporting often relies on the journalist’s ability to become a part of the community they are reporting on. How do you work to connect with the people and environments you write about?

Kaiser: Mostly, I just hang out and stay quiet. In the case of my profile of a day laborer, I started my reporting in the waiting room where men arrive at four in the morning and wait for jobs to be passed out. For a week, I just sat in that room and watched. At the end of the week, the men recognized that I was really interested in them. Once I settled on a protagonist, I stayed as close to him as possible. You want to establish a connection with your protagonists, but you don’t want them to feel like you’re stalking them. That is a delicate balance to strike. You need to develop an instinct for when to give people space. You also learn not to reach for your notebook every time something important happens. There’s no such thing as being the fly on the wall, but there is a discrete way of being present without being felt. What I always find useful is to become part of a protagonist’s routine, to be there during the seemingly mundane moments of their life. I would always walk home with the day laborer after work. That way, I found out that he loves cheesecake, which is a telling detail about a Turkish man in Germany. I didn’t write about it, but it was an important thing for me to know — a fragment of the man. The easy way into this story would have been to work as a day laborer myself, but I don’t believe in impersonation. There was one moment that posed a dilemma. When another day laborer deserted my protagonist at a construction site, I replaced him for a few hours. I saw it as an opportunity to get a feel for the back-breaking work. I didn’t write about it, but it informed my writing, and I think the protagonist appreciated that.

Muñoz: In what ways do you think your work connects to the Restorative Narrative genre?

Kaiser: It’s an almost impossible task for journalism to restore things that are broken. Syria is broken, and the best journalism in the world won’t mend it. But I wouldn’t underestimate the importance that in-depth journalism can have in the restorative process. Hiroshima was as shattered a place as can be, but I’d like to believe that the way John Hersey wrote about it helped us understand why it must never happen again. I don’t know if that is what Hersey intended, but I’m certain that he wanted us to see and feel what it does to people when you drop an atomic bomb on them. I play in a lower league than Hersey, but I aspire to what his writing exemplifies. When I followed a group of Mexican migrants on their grueling journey from their hometown to New York, I wanted to both understand what drove them and how the system of people smuggling operates. I don’t want to teach readers, much less lecture them, but I want to create understanding. Deeply reported journalism can be a powerful tool in the process of understanding. I leave it up to readers how to use this tool, but I want them to have it, and I hope there is something restorative in that.

Muñoz: When you were awarded the Kurt Tucholsky Prize for Literary Journalism, the jury remarked that they selected your stories for their “moving depth and the subtle way in which they weave together social conditions and the protagonists’ personal circumstances, illuminating the subjective reality behind a pre-textual façade.” Could you share how the narrative nonfiction genre informs your writing process and storytelling?

Kaiser: I like complicated stories. When people ask me what I’m currently working on, I always struggle to give them a concise answer. Part of the reason is that I’m still trying to understand the story I’m writing, and that usually lasts until the day I type the last word. Another part of the reason is that I’m not interested in stories that can be neatly summarized. Having a narrative helps the writer as much as the reader in untangling a convoluted tale. You won’t have a story without the foundation of in-depth reporting, but you also won’t have readers if you don’t tell the story in a compelling way. And by “compelling” I don’t mean gimmicks and flowery language, but the beauty of clarity, of words that clear a path to the core of the story. There is a certain archeology to narrative nonfiction. Digging up bones and pre-historic tools won’t enlighten you if you stop there. It is when you examine the bones and put them together in the context of the tools that a story emerges.

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