True to the title of their latest best-seller, which is derived from the Maoist saying “Women hold up half the sky,” husband-and-wife journalists Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof will jointly deliver the commencement address at Middlebury College this Sunday.
WuDunn, 50, was the first Asian American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize. That, too, she shared with Kristof: The couple received it for their coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests while working in the New York Times’ Beijing bureau.
In addition to Half the Sky, which presents horrific examples of the oppression of women in poor countries and inspiring initiatives against it, WuDunn and Kristof have cowritten two books on China’s emergence as an economic dynamo.
“In the 19th century,” WuDunn and Kristof wrote in a Sunday New York Times Magazine article last year, “the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. In this century, it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe.”
The couple has investigated brothels in Cambodia where 12-year-old girls work as sex slaves. They have also documented the suffering and ostracism of African and Asian teens afflicted with obstetric fistulas, whom Kristof has described as “perhaps the most wretched people on this planet.”
A pregnant girl with an undeveloped pelvis may develop a fistula during obstructed labor, leaving her “incontinent, steadily trickling urine and sometimes feces through her vagina,” Kristof added in one of his twice-weekly Times columns. “She stinks. She becomes a pariah. She is typically abandoned by her husband and forced to live by herself on the edge of her village. She is scorned, bewildered, humiliated and desolate, often feeling herself cursed by God.”
WuDunn and Kristof are unlikely to be quite so graphic in their speech to graduates and parents on Sunday. At the same time, they do intend to challenge the class of 2010 to take responsibility and action. In addition to reporting on the conditions they witness, WuDunn and Kristof sometimes become personally involved in their stories, paying to emancipate girls from brothels, for example, or donating blood to a woman hemorrhaging in childbirth.
WuDunn, a Manhattan-born Chinese American with degrees from Cornell, Harvard and Princeton, says Americans “have won the lottery of life” and should use some of their windfall to help those who have not been so lucky.
After having held a variety of reporting and management jobs at the Times, WuDunn now works for an investment firm and promotes charitable and social-action efforts that she describes in Half the Sky. She spoke with Seven Days by phone from New York.
Seven Days: So what will you and Nick tell Middlebury’s graduating seniors?
Sheryl WuDunn: Our hope is to inspire them to get out into the world, out past their comfort zones. Going to Paris is one thing; going to Zambia is another. You can learn a lot in places like Zambia — not just about geography but about the lives of people you’d never know otherwise.
We’ll also talk about some of the issues we raise in Half the Sky — the political challenges and the moral responsibilities.
SD: How exactly do two people deliver a speech? Do you take turns talking, or is it kind of a duet?
SW: (laughing) We haven’t really figured it out yet. But we’ll try to have it be coherent.
SD: You graduated from Cornell in the early ’80s. Did you know then you’d become a journalist?
SW: No, I started out in banking and had a business background. Journalism is something I moved into later. It’s OK to go back and forth, you know — to have different jobs and experiences.
SD: Given how hard it is to find a job in journalism these days, would you advise graduates to go into that field?
SW: Absolutely. It’s a great job. Journalism is one of the best professions for keeping your mind fresh. It helps you develop your judgment abilities, your critical thinking and to improve your people skills. These are very valuable skills to have if you do go into another field.
Even though I’m not a full-time journalist now, I still care about journalism very deeply.
SD: Is it hard for a married couple to work on a book together? Do you and Nick argue about how to do it?
SW: It’s OK for me to work with Nick. In marriage, there are other challenges to manage, but this is certainly not one of them for us. I do get along well with my husband, and it’s good to work with someone you trust.
When they criticize something you’ve written, you don’t see it as personally motivated but as something that may be important to improving the quality of the work. Ego can get in the way a lot of the time. People don’t always know how to take criticism.
SD: You must worry about Nick when he’s off reporting in some pretty dangerous places.
SW: Of course I worry about him. He does take precautions, but unexpected things can happen.
SD: Nick is in Africa now with the latest student to win his annual contest for traveling to and reporting from some really difficult places. You and he seem to have a strong commitment to working with students.
SW: Growing up in the United States, it’s easy to be self-centered. It’s important for Americans who don’t travel to at least see poorer parts of the world — how people there live — by watching television. But TV is cutting back on foreign coverage. At the same time, the world is becoming much more interconnected. Other countries are much more internationally minded than the U.S. is.
Young people especially need to get out of their familiar surroundings. They need to be encouraged to go somewhere really different.
SD: Speaking of different, have you been to Vermont? Are you familiar with Middlebury?
WD: We’ve been skiing in Vermont at Stratton and a number of places. It’s a really beautiful state. We considered studying Japanese at Middlebury before going to Japan to report for the Times, but we wound up studying it in New York because of our kids.
SD: Can you say something about them?
SW: Our oldest child is graduating from high school. He’s been accepted to Middlebury but will take a gap year — probably somewhere abroad — before going to college.
SD: What’s next for you? Are you going to write another book?
WD: I’m still really busy with Half the Sky. I'm working on a multimedia effort for it that involves a documentary series on PBS and an online game as well. Moving into different formats such as games will allow us to reach many more people.