Timothy Kenny: stranger in strange lands


courtesy of Tim Kenny

Timothy Kenny

Author Tim Kenny spoke to Johnson State College students on March 9 about the work he has done throughout his life. Kenny has been involved in some form of journalistic field for 40 years.

Kenny is from Michigan, and attained a master’s degree in journalism, that landed him a job with USA Today.

About 10 years ago, Kenny changed gears from hard news journalism. “I switched to creative nonfiction writing because it gives me a chance to bend things more,” said Kenny. “It’s really hard to remember things to their full extent. I’ve wanted to get out of the constraints of journalism and move towards the fiction way of things.”

Kenny noted that most of his current day travels are with his family on vacations: “If someone offered me something for overseas work, and I found it interesting enough, I would do it, with the exception of going anywhere near the Middle East. Things are crazy over there.”

With the switch to creative nonfiction writing, Kenny’s book “Far Country: Stories from Abroad and Other Places” was born. He read from a series of essays that comprise the book, set in Kabul, Afghanistan; Pristina, Kosovo; Sarajevo, Bosnia, during the infamous Serbian siege; Baku, Azerbaijan, where he taught briefly; and others closer to home.

This book has elicited positive reviews from a number of seasoned journalists, including NPR’s Tom Gjelten, who noted, “War reporting from foreign lands is an exciting business, but the drama is as likely to involve hostile passport officers and feral dogs as whizzing bullets. In Far Country, Tim Kenny shares his memorable adventures, separated from the events and characters that dominated the headlines of the day. From Berlin to Prague to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Sarajevo, these stories tell what it was really like to be there at the time.”

He read from essays dealing with the particular loneliness and dislocation of “internationals,” foreign workers in NGOs and organizations like the U.N. who populate conflict zones in the aftermath of war, and the culture shock often encountered by those traveling to such places.

“What I try to do with my essays is to find some aspect of life in these places to express the reality to the people who haven’t been to them,” said Kenny. “I’ve always been captivated by the relationships with these places that makes them profoundly different.”

Kenny spoke with JSC journalism students about some of his travels during his time as an overseas reporter before a general reading later in the day in Stearns Cinema. His overseas stories and work experiences took off in 1989, when, as a reporter for USA Today, he went to work overseas for the first time to help cover the Lebanese Civil War for three weeks.

On his way home from that trip, he received a notice from his editor telling him to go to Belfast, Northern Ireland. He noted that there were a lot of riots and that he learned a lot from his time there. “Covering a riot is one of the hardest things that a reporter can have to do,” he said.

In 1990, Kenny was sent to Nicaragua to cover the country’s elections, and he described how presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, running for re-election, came down the street on a horse and someone lit off firecrackers, causing the horse to go wild. This event ended up causing a riot in moments. “Fortunately, I was able to get under a car and stay safe,” says Kenny. “It was really wild how there can be such a drastic change in events that quickly.”

Out of all of the wild overseas jobs that Kenny was sent to cover, he says that he is grateful to have never been hurt. “I feel like it’s fate,” says Kenny. “I’ve made it out all right with every situation.”

As for his trips, Kenny says that they are all based off of news judgment. “Being able to go to those countries simply happened because they were the most important thing for news at the time,” says Kenny. “I made it clear that I wanted to go on these jobs; I had to be pushy about it. I wanted to see what I could do.”

Kenny says that he received no prior training for all of his overseas experiences, and that they can be described as having on-the-job training. During one of his trips, he said that he was stopped at an airport gate and a sniper was shooting over the top of the van that he was in. “Thankfully it seemed that he was just warning us not to go in,” said Kenny. “He could have easily hit any of us if he wanted to.”

Although not given body armor for the trip, Kenny recalled finding a vest that he described as probably being worthless against bullets. “I ended up wearing it everywhere I went all the time, because it gave me some sort of security,” he said.

Kenny noted that in more modern overseas journalism settings, people get trained and usually are sent to their locations with proper equipment. “The worst thing these days is getting kidnapped,” says Kenny. “When I was in Afghanistan in 2010, that was my main fear. There are times when you have to be very careful.”

Kenny left a simple take-away message following his readings, telling students that if they get a chance to go overseas to work, it’s extraordinary, and something to think about taking advantage of. He acknowledged that for him, part of the allure of covering conflict situations was the intoxication of an adrenaline high, which is something that you never forget.

He also noted that the transition from being overseas to being in the United States can cause adjustment problems. “When you see bad things happening [there], it is a fuel for this,” says Kenny. “I have had only one sliver of experience when compared to a soldier. I can’t explain this with words after experiencing all of the near death events over the years.”

Kenny, formerly an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut, lives in eastern Connecticut with his wife and 10-year old daughter.