People | 20 QUESTIONS

Ilgin Yorulmaz: Always write as if your story matters

by Alesia Bani

Contributing Writer

Ilgin Yorulmaz is a Turkish multimedia journalist specializing in foreign policy and culture currently based in Tokyo, Japan, where she teaches at Temple University. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Yorulmaz’s drive comes from her desire to seek justice and tell the stories of ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, Vice, The Guardian, Vogue and more.

1. Have you always wanted to be a journalist? I never thought I would become a journalist. But I have always been very curious (to the level of nosy), and willing to talk to others about their problems. And I’ve always felt that I had a very strong sense of justice. All these came together and made me the journalist I am today!

2. Walk us through the typical timeline from pitching to a publication. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of pre-reporting. I always tell my students that the more authority they have over their story material, the better their story will come out. First and foremost, you must always pitch a story, not an idea. Homelessness is an idea; investigating homeless Americans or Europeans in Tokyo is a story. Also, never lie to your editor about access to a character. Find a good editor who can support you, enrich your work and guide you on how to go about conceiving, reporting and later structuring a story. If you work in unison with your editor in those crucial stages of the story, the result is bound to be good.

3. Which of the stories you’ve reported on has been the most meaningful to you? A couple years ago I traveled to Albany, New York’s state capital, to follow a coalition of sexual abuse survivors, faith leaders and people who were victims or witnesses of sexual abuse as children, lobbying the State Assembly to pass the Child Victims Act. Among them was a gentleman, a United States Navy veteran in his 40s, who became the main character of my story. I will never forget how he broke down as he explained to me what he went through as a 10-year-old at the hands of his local pastor in Pennsylvania, as well as the gratitude he told me he felt when he saw the story published.

4. What is the most remote country or area you have traveled to for work? Six years ago I took a group of people on a pilgrimage to Ladakh, India. It’s the northernmost part of the country, “the roof of the world” bordering Pakistan on one side and China (Tibet) on the other side with the Himalayas in the background. I wrote about a sacred Buddhist ceremony held there called Kalachakra, which was presided over by the Dalai Lama.

5. How do you deal with instances of cultural disconnect? Just play the ignorant and follow the locals’ advice — the local customs, the way of thinking. But always be vigilant and aware of a possible hidden agenda behind them. Question everything, but do it politely.

6. Have you felt uncomfortable or unsafe while on an assignment? My very first assignment when I lived in New York was to interview a woman I had found living in a transition house in the Bronx. These are state-subsidized houses halfway between a shelter and a regular house for the homeless and rehabilitated drug addicts. The woman was nice at first, but when I declined to pay for her lunch at the end of the interview, she grabbed my notebook, tore all the pages with the notes from her interview, and threw them in the trash bin on the street. I remained calm, thanked her anyway and left. I then called my reporting buddy, Jihye. The woman hadn’t seen Jihye, and so we planned for her to go and retrieve the torn pages from the bin before dark. It worked!

7. Why did you move into teaching? Several years ago, I went back to school at Columbia University to study for a full-time master’s degree in digital journalism. It was a crazy idea for a mid-career journalist like me with two school age kids and a husband, but I totally enjoyed studying and working with my fellow journalists who were half my age. Upon graduation, I vowed to come back to academia one day to share my experiences. As a teacher, you get to learn something new everyday and then teach it to others.

8. What is the most important thing you hope your students take away from your course? Always write as if it matters. Because if you do, it will. I know, it’s a loaded sentence, but it’s so true. Go against the tide. Find satisfaction in the work itself, in how you get information and turn it into language. That’s the only thing that’s truly yours.

9. Can studying journalism in the classroom replace hard experience? Nothing can replace the hard experience in any line of work, but the nice thing about class is that you have room to make mistakes and learn.

10. Any tips for balancing a demanding career with family life? Just go with the flow. But it’s not always so easy. I’ve had to curb my enthusiasm for certain projects which would need me to spend days, if not months, in some dangerous zones around the world. For me, every one of my kids is a book unwritten, and I know that I have to be there for them as much as I can. For my single or childless colleagues, the closest thing they have is the body of their work, and I totally respect that line of thinking as well.

11. If you could introduce one aspect of Japan to the rest of the world, what would it be? March 10 was the 75th anniversary of the deadliest air raid in human history, when 300 American B-29 bombers firebombed and incinerated parts of Tokyo. My dear colleague Emiko Jozuka wrote a wonderful piece about it. She spoke with a survivor of that horrible raid, who was almost crushed by the fleeing people. That survivor still remembers the muffled voices of those ordinary Japanese people as they were dying: “We are Japanese. We must live. We must live.” I know it’s dramatic, but this perseverance is the aspect I would want the world to know about the Japanese, especially in today’s turbulent times.

12. What is a social issue you care deeply about? The elderly. Everywhere people over a certain age are experiencing a huge loneliness problem. Although we are living longer, we’re losing touch with our elderly relatives faster.

13. What do you miss most about Turkey? The people. I have a group of over 100 high school friends with whom I am in regular contact. There’s nothing like meeting my closest friends on the shores of the Bosphorus or my hometown, Izmir, which I definitely hope I’ll do once we were through these quarantine times.

14. If you retired today, what would you do with your newfound free time? I would definitely continue teaching … and learning a new skill. Now that we’re all confined to working home, I’m looking forward to it.

15. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where and why would you live there? I hope to retire to my hometown, Urla, Izmir. It’s by the Aegean Sea and has an abundance of sunshine, good food and wonderful friends.

16. Who inspires you most? My narrative writing professor at school later became my mentor. He instilled in me the beauty of writing and reading a well-told story. I am also inspired by ordinary people who tell me their stories, open their hearts and bare their souls.

17. Do you have any cool or unusual talents? I’m the living embodiment of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” rule! I can somehow get you in touch with the right kind of people.

18. What do you do to relax? I watch a webcam live-streamed from a distant part of the Earth. My favorite location these days is the live surf camera from various beaches from Bali to Tahiti.

19. What movie do you never get bored of? “The Godfather.” I tell everyone that everything you need to know about storytelling and journalism, you can find in that movie.

20. If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one impractical thing, what would it be? A rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. It may even come handy to use it on a cable to travel between islands!

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