If there was an award for the ultimate wonder woman Janine Di Giovanni would be our pick. An award winning author and foreign correspondent who contributes to The Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and the Guardian. Besides being kick ass at her job Janine is a loving mother living in Paris. So when she emailed me asking if I would consider her as one of our inspiring women I had to pinch myself twice. Read below our little interview with her:
When was it that you decided you wanted to be a war and human rights journalist?
I always wanted to be a writer, from the time I could hold a pencil, but I never planned on being a war reporter. I studied Comparative Literture - I imagined I would be a novelist, but I had not really worked out how I would pay the bills doing that...What I did know, from a very early age, is that I wanted to be an independent woman and a free woman - which is not at all the way I was brought up. Women in my family were very conservative and traditional - and it was not always easy to try to forge my own path. At any rate, I went to Palestine while I was still a graduate student.
A human rights lawyer, Felicia Langer, took me to a refugee camp near Bethlehem, and I was shocked out of my comfortable little world of academia.... The sheer injustice of how these people were living plunged me into a different life, one I could never imagine. What mattered to me then, and still does, was fighting injustice and giving a voice to people who do not have a voice. That trip started a lifetime voyage that went from the Middle East to the Balkans, to Africa and back again to the Middle East, whereI am focused now on Syria and Iraq.
How was that experience for you being a young female?
If only I could sit down with my 20-something self and say, "You're beautiful! You're great! Wear what you want, live how you want, and stand up straight!" I think my younger self was seeking something, and as a result I always felt slightly tortured. There is a wonderful thing about growing older- not that I consider myself old, I still think of myself as a teenager and I certainly act like one! - and that is you feel bien dan sa peau - good in your skin. You know what works for you, emotionally, physically. You know what clothes are best for your body. You stop punishing yourself about parts of yourself you don't like. You learn how to love more, live more, relax more. Life really is a wonderful process, and as long as you retain curiosity and compassion, you have everything you need.
Did you have a mentor at the time who could offer you advice?
I always wanted a mentor. I never really found one early on, in fact, I found most older women were rather scathing to me - I was too pretty, too young, too ambitious - I suppose I was a real threat. I did find those older women later in life- a wonderful Serbian journalist called Dessa Trevisan, who became something of a mentor. But I really was inspired by what I read about strong women and free women - Martha Gellhorn, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Roosevelt. the key is to be strong AND smart but still be feminine.
Anyway, that is the balance I prefer. Also my friends who were successful at their jobs, especially those working in a man's world - finance, government, diplomacy, journalism. I have a dear friend Myriem, a successful banker, who I really respect. She earned her own living her whole life, and has a happy marriage and two beautiful kids. She always said, "I never wanted a man to have to buy my knickers." I see women shopping with their husbands and I don't get it- buy your own La Perla, it feels so much better!
What challenges did you face as a modern woman in a changing world?
It still is slightly shocking that there is such a pay gap - SUCH a pay gap! The sexual harrassment I always just bucked up. I thought - this is the way it is, and we have to deal with it. When I think of some of the things people said to me, or people said about me - if it happened today, they would be slammed with harrassment suits from here to kingdom come. then, you did not do that. my biggest policy as a working woman in a man's world was never, ever, ever sleep with anyone who is your boss or in a senior position in your company. it will inevitably back fire on you. keep work and love separate. peers are one thing, senior figures will come back to haunt you - no one will ever take you or your work or your talent seriously. just say no!
For someone who holds such responsibility as a voice for those living in war torn countries how do you manage to balance this with your own personal life?
I am a pretty balanced person. I think this comes from my ability to create homes and a nest whereever I am. The first thing I do is unpack my things, create a space of my own. I need that to keep myself strong, inside, knowing I am about to do some very tough and disturbing things.
I have a strong support system of friends, family, loved ones. This helps. It keeps my interior world sane. I also am very good at self-care. I know what is good for me and what is not. I know that when I am tired, I am sad and emotional. I know that if I drink too much, I get raging hangovers that make me feel awful. I know I feel mentally better when I exercise. So I often go into field assignments already in good shape - rested and healthy. That enables me to tackle some pretty difficult moments.
I also believe in God and I believe in humanity. I believe that essentially people are good and will do the right thing, even in war. Despite all the misery I have seen, and lived through I truly believe that there are good people, extraordinary people who are courageous and noble. These people inspire me, and keep me going in my darkest hours...
But my greatest joy is my son. It's cliche but my life was pretty empty - despite all my boyfriends, my awards, my lovely flat in London, etc. until Luca was born, I don't think I ever understood connections and that pure, pure love that you feel for someone. I had been in love plenty of times - but nothing like this...
He makes me laugh, he makes me cry, he gives me a reason to hang on. Life is a different color now, and coming home from a painful assignment, I know I have a kid at home that I have to cook for, do homework with, scold, and bring up right. That keeps me balanced. No time to think about myself or dwell in misery - I have to get up and make him breakfast and walk him to school.
Janine di Giovanni is an author, award-winning foreign correspondent, and current Middle East editor at Newsweek. She is a regular contributor to The Times, Vanity Fair, Granta, The New York Times, and The Guardian. You can find out more about her here.