In 2004, began working as the South Asia bureau chief for . She covered the resurgence of the in and for the paper until her return to the US in 2009 when she wrote a memoir – – about the experience. Unlike many book narratives by war reporters, Barker’s pushed through the tragedy and conflict by teasing out the absurdities of covering such a fraught beat. So much so that her story caught the attention of and , who turned her book into the film .
The film’s main character is a fortysomething TV reporter (Fey) stuck in a rut when she is recruited to Kabul (unlike Barker, who had volunteered for the job in her early 30s), but it still deftly , from dealing with corrupt leaders to the challenges of dating as a journalist in a conflict zone.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets it. as “ but with war (and Tina Fey)”. Incensed, Barker took to Twitter and posted a rapid-fire list of counterpoints, clarifications and corrections (the critic also referred to Afghans as Middle Easterners), : “I deliberately wrote anti Eat, Pray, Love. Nothing wrong with that narrative. It’s not the movie’s. How condescending to women to say that.”
“Why are women only allowed one narrative?” she asks me, seated on the sofa of her Brooklyn apartment. “We have one overseas adventure and that’s supposed to be Eat, Pray, Love. It’s supposed to end in a man. And this is not that. It’s not that in the movie, and it’s not that in the book. It just goes to show the limited span that we’ve got for women and adventure stories.”
Barker, 45, was raised without “gender expectations” by her parents, an architect and a nurse, in Montana. “I wasn’t allowed to have dolls or anything like that,” recalls Barker, who has a younger brother. “There was this movement to raise girls just like you raise boys. I was very comfortable being a tomboy.”
This month, her book made it into the for paperback non-fiction, coinciding with the US release of the film. The success has lent itself to even more real-life comedy for Barker, . First, there was the red-carpet premiere.
“Normally, I would go to ,” says Barker, sitting cross-legged in jeans and a T-shirt bearing the words: “Shhh … nothing to see here.” “But I didn’t want to look like I was a journalist going to the prom and wear some sequined dress because I don’t know what to wear, right?” So she showed up in a designer dress, but when paparazzi asked her who made the dress, she says: “I was like: ‘Fuck, I forgot to look at the tag.’ So I just go: Because I read the Oscars controversy where women were like: ‘It’s all about my art, it’s not about the designer I’m wearing.’”
Next, her lacklustre dating life despite being the basis of a star-studded Hollywood film. “If I was a dude, I’d be doing pretty well right now,” insists Barker. “But I think it’s different when you’re a woman who’s a former war correspondent and an investigative reporter who has now had a movie made about her book where is playing her. There’s a certain kind of guy who’s going to find that attractive, and I think there are a lot of guys who are going to be like: ‘Nah.’” (She clarifies: “Honestly, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to even think about it.”)
And finally, there’s the reality of not being able to enjoy the fanfare with your colleagues. “It’s simply a blip,” says Barker. “Lots of people have been foreign correspondents. Lots of people have this experience of coming back, so it’s a little bit of a crack-up. Anybody in the [New York Times] newsroom would be like: ‘Whatever. I’ve written three books and won four Pulitzer prizes.’”
Despite her triumphs, Barker says she doesn’t necessarily advise young women to follow in her footsteps. “The job I had doesn’t exist any more,” she says. “Journalism is a hard field. It’s hard to make a living. If there’s something [else] you think you’d like to do, you should probably do it. But if this is it for you, the way it has always been for me, then suck it up and live with that. You can cobble together a way to make a living overseas – it’s just dangerous.”
When Barker first went to South Asia, she didn’t worry about the risks. “My thought has always been leap first, figure it out six months later,” she says. “If you think about those things, you’ll never be a foreign correspondent because you’ll be nervous about everything.”
“I remember I was angry from day one after 9/11,” she says. “I was like: ‘I want to go to New York.’” Instead, her bosses tasked her with researching Chicago gas prices and contacting the relatives of the terrorist attack victims. But then, in 2003, she heard a rumour that the paper was interested in trying out more female foreign correspondents, as the majority had been male. “That’s when I volunteered,” says Barker. She went to the foreign editor and, as she writes in the book, said: “I have no kids and no husband, so I’m expendable.”
A lot of the male correspondents sought out the frontlines, says Barker, but, she adds: “I wasn’t that reporter – maybe because I was more of a chicken.” Rather, she was more interested in telling stories about how people lived through war than how they died. “I definitely covered the war, but I really liked the smaller stories about what happens in a country when the west rushes in there after being kept out for so long.”
In 2009, the Tribune called Barker back to Chicago, moving her a job on the metro desk. She turned it down because she wasn’t ready to leave . She interviewed at Amnesty International and considered going into consulting, as some of her peers had. But, she says, “When I thought about actually leaving [journalism], I realised I wasn’t done yet.”
Four months after turning down the Tribune job, she decided it was time to go, and finally moved to New York, to start a press fellowship at the . She writes: “I had turned into this almost drowning caricature of a war hack, working, swearing, and drinking my way through life and relationships ... After the running, the bombs, the death, the downward spiral, I had a choice – I could choose life, or I could choose to keep hopping from one tragedy to the next.”
But, back in America, she had trouble leaving behind the intensity of life in a war zone. She couldn’t stop talking about “” and writes that she “constantly felt uneasy, like I should be doing something else. I angered easily. I could not relax. I could not sit still. I could not connect. I had more in common with many US soldiers than I did with my family.”
Her friends called her out on it. She attended one session with a therapist, decided that writing a book about her experience would be better therapy and got a job reporting on campaign finance at . It was her editor, Stephen Engelberg – who had been a correspondent in Bosnia for the New York Times – who may have been the key to her sanity.
“He had known too many people who tried to come back and couldn’t leave it,” she says. “You need to go cold turkey, otherwise you’re always thinking about going back and you only see the stories coming out of there – you don’t move on.”
After two years in NYC, she finally felt “normal” and “less jagged”. Now, she just feels lucky.
“I have a great job and I’ve been able to stay in journalism,” she says. “I just want people to read the book, and I’m just grateful to Tina and [screenwriter] Robert Carlock and Lorne Michaels for giving this book a second life.”