By Michael Miner

Into the Great Unknown

Ayoung writer acclaimed for a triumph of the sympathetic imagination, Natasha Tarpley of Hyde Park now goes to work for Fortune magazine. Her reasons for turning to orthodox journalism are the traditional ones: travel, new experiences, and that’s where the money is.

Girl in the Mirror came out in June in a modest printing of 5,000 copies. “Some say our story begins in the middle of an ocean, in the belly of a monster, at the mercy of demons,” Tarpley writes. “Others say that we began with a hammer and a nail; that we laid our bodies down and raised cities along our spines.”

The 27-year-old author took two years off between her first and second years of law school to think through the book she wanted to write. She had something in mind vast and amorphous: African-American history in general and somewhere within it a history of her family. These great themes condensed into a series of snapshots set securely in time and place–“the book that was beneath all the rubble.”

Tarpley speaks in the voices of her late grandmother, who migrated from Alabama to Chicago as a young woman, and her mother, who was raised here, as well as in her own. In addition, she briefly becomes a grandfather who died when she was a baby and a family friend murdered long before she was born.

“I didn’t know either of those people,” she told me, but she recognized herself in the stories she heard about them. Her grandfather “wanted his own business, his own career, and I could strongly relate to that as a writer.” Iona Jackson, abandoned by the charming idler she’d married, “was someone I connected to in a lot of ways. She was trying to find a relationship, as well as to be fulfilled in her own self.”

In Girl in the Mirror, Tarpley’s first person wanders audaciously. “I was able to speak to my grandmother at length before she died. I spoke to her sisters. My mom is still here. I used what I learned about them.” Even so, she said, “I took a lot of liberties. There were things that were unspoken. I wanted to explore those silences.” Looking for her own reflection in the lives of the women from whom she was descended, she let conjecture lead her as well as facts. “I wasn’t trying to transcend history, but to use history to figure out what my own life was.”

Natasha Anastasia Tarpley–her mother was reading Russian novels during the pregnancy–speaks tentatively of journalism, her choice for the immediate future but not yet a significant part of her life. Tarpley began her first book, the anthology Testimony: Young African Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity, while she was an undergrad at Harvard. Her second book, I Love My Hair!, written for children, appeared last February. She recently graduated from the Northwestern University School of Law, the law appealing to her largely for its narrative possibilities. “My experience as a writer has been useful,” she observed in a job application, “for it has helped me to see the law, fundamentally, as a means for people to tell their stories.”

She was scheduled to take the bar exam at the end of July, but decided not to. “Being in law school was very difficult for me,” she explained. “It was something I did without really knowing why I was doing it. I didn’t have a clear sense of wanting to achieve anything in law. I knew I wasn’t going to practice.”

Did the reception for Girl in the Mirror tip the scales?

“It did,” she said. “What really did it for me was that I got a job in New York working for Fortune magazine as a reporter. It gave me that bit of security. The fact the book was well received gave me encouragement to do what I wanted to do, to write and read this summer.”

Tarpley enters formal journalism with trepidation. “I think Fortune is doing some interesting things–the way they talk about business and culture in our society. That’s a very small part of it, but that’s the part I’m interested in. For me, it’s having access to information, and as a writer to have the experiences, the discipline, as well as the exposure. I’m one of these touchy-feely people, so I think that exposure is good for me as a writer. Journalism, I think, has tremendous potential and capacities, but it’s very narrow as well. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the alternative presses and the mass media have the potential to do that, but they haven’t gotten there yet.

“If it’s something that feels stifling,” she said, thinking ahead to her new job in New York, “I’m not afraid to leave it.”

Can Girl in the Mirror be considered–certainly among many other things–journalism?

“As an entire text, I think it could be,” she replied after giving it some thought. “There’s a lot of information about history and about how people experienced history. Yes, I think it could be.”

I asked her what writers she admires with at least one foot in journalism. James Baldwin, she said–“I love his prose. His prose to me is more effective than his fiction.” Alice Walker. Toni Morrison–“for the way she talks about history.

“I haven’t really followed a lot of full-blooded journalists,” she allowed. “I don’t read a lot of daily publications.”

She was not aware that an older, more prominent black woman poet had recently been driven from journalism in disgrace for taking liberties. She knew Patricia Smith only as a poet. “I have her book. I’ve seen her perform. I think she’s a very powerful writer.” Tarpley didn’t know that Smith was also an acclaimed columnist, and I described the circumstances that caused her to be banished from the Boston Globe for fabrication.

“I don’t know,” she mused. “The fact that you’re inventing someone is–like you say–beyond the purview of journalism. You’re supposed to have all your facts right. But at the same time, there’s a value to creating something that speaks to people’s hearts or allows people to see the world through other people’s eyes. I’m not saying you should create a totally fictional piece of work and pass it off as something true and objectively provable. But at the same time, maybe creating characters is the best way to tell the story. I think you can have a basic fact, or basic facts you can build around, and it’s still the same truth. I’m not saying that’s journalism, but maybe it could be. I think there’s room for a lot of different types of work to be done. If you think of journalism as a way to transmit information and provide people with views of the world they might not otherwise have access to, then I think maybe there’s room to be creative about those ways of doing things, and still tell the truth and not make up stuff out of the blue. It’s a disciplined way of writing, but to me there’s a lot of room–there could be room–for different types of voices and styles.”

Do you expect to be a journalist long?

“I don’t know. I don’t. I know that if I could afford to do it, I’d probably spend my time writing books. I’ll see where it takes me.”

Opting Out of Op-Ed

Syndicated columnist Carl Rowan last appeared in the Sun-Times on June 20. His most recent prior column in the same paper ran on May 31. And before that the Sun-Times carried him once a week, usually on a low-circulation day, Saturday or Sunday. As Rowan, a liberal, receded, the conservative Thomas Sowell ascended, becoming the primary black male voice on the Sun-Times’s editorial pages.

The odd thing about Rowan’s diminishing presence is that the Sun-Times was his home newspaper. A syndicated columnist and the home newspaper enjoy more than a nominal relationship. The paper provides a base salary and benefits. The columnist contributes occasional stories that don’t work as columns, and also contacts, influence, prestige. Rowan appeared as the senior panelist on Inside Washington representing the Sun-Times, not King Features Syndicate. As a Pulitizer Prize finalist in 1995 for columns exposing corruption in the NAACP, Rowan would have won not only for himself but for his home paper.

This week I called editor Nigel Wade and asked why the 72-year-old columnist had disappeared. “He retired from the Sun-Times,” Wade said. Is he still writing his column? “I have no idea,” Wade said. “It’s his business, not mine.” Was there a disagreement? “No. The word he used was ‘retired.'”

In fact, there was a disagreement, and as Wade surely knows, Rowan continues to write three columns a week for King Features. “I resigned in some dispute,” Rowan told me. “I still write my column for the other newspapers, but the Sun-Times is no longer my home newspaper. I’m not going into details about the dispute.”

I’m told Rowan’s beef with the Sun-Times turned on his fading visibility. The paper’s forces in Washington are now down to a bureau chief with no staff and the syndicated Robert Novak. But publisher David Radler may view Rowan’s loss as simply a little more fat trimmed from the budget.

The editorial pages, where Rowan appeared, are not a profit center, which is why, in the view of management, little money need be spent on them. Recently Dennis Byrne, 56, who’d been writing both editorials and an op-ed column, asked to cut back for health reasons. Management’s response was less than gallant, and Byrne resigned. This is his last week, though he’ll go on freelancing his column. “The staff is getting a little slim, they’re downsizing the department, there’s not much chance for growth,” Byrne told me, to explain why he was now “looking for new challenges.”

Byrne’s departure leaves a preposterously small editorial board, consisting of editorial page editor Steve Huntley and Mary Mitchell and Raymond Coffey, both of whom write columns as well as editorials. By contrast, there are 11 members of the Tribune’s editorial board.

News Bite

Gary Webb’s the reporter who prepared the 1996 series of articles connecting the CIA and America’s crack cocaine explosion that the San Jose Mercury News first published and then retracted. Far from cowed by his old paper’s retreat, Webb has put his case in book form. He’ll be discussing the book, Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion, next Friday night, August 14, at Ann Sather’s on Belmont, in an appearance sponsored by Chicago Media Watch. The next day he’ll sign books at the Barnes & Noble in Evanston.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Natashy Tarpley photo by Dorothy Perry.