12 MIN READ
I am always pleasantly surprised by how much coverage science and environment stories get from newspapers in Nepal, far more proportionally in my view than in the US. Nepali Times has been a leader in this area, in part because of longstanding editorial interest but also because of the work of their health, environment, and science writer, Sonia Awale, who became the weekly’s executive editor last month. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an excellent article on some environmental topic — such as the recent editorial on the climate meetings in Glasgow — and looked down and found her name as the author.
This week’s Writing Journey is an interview with Sonia ji about her experiences growing up and going to school in Patan, and writing and reporting for the Nepali Times. She speaks of her family’s influence on her, ways she thinks science teaching could be improved in Nepal, favorite mentors and science/environment authors, as well as her interviewing and writing process, among other interesting topics.
Several of Sonia ji’s comments hit on a theme that I care about a lot — the interconnections of the environment with social, economic, and political dynamics, and with human lives. One trick to writing an interesting science/environmental article, to telling a good story — a second recurring theme in the interview — is to find the people whose lives can help us see and feel how and why those interconnections are so important.
Thank you, Sonia ji, for sharing some of your journey.
Sonia Awale is executive editor of the Nepali Times, where she is also the health, environment, and science correspondent. Aside from regular coverage, she reports on climate, air pollution, biodiversity, and public health issues — looking at their political and economic interlinkages. She is a graduate of public health and obtained her Masters in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong in 2016.
Some of her writings include ‘Lessons not learnt from 2015’, ‘Dirty politics = Dirty air’, ‘Nearly half of the Nepali children still malnourished’, ‘In conservation, Nepal is not out of the woods yet’, ‘Back to the land’, and ‘Recharging the mountains’.
Previous editions of Writing Journeys can be found here.
Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in reading?
I was born to a family of farmers and artisans, and grew up in the 1990s and 2000s in a Patan neighborhood. I used to make up all kinds of excuses to avoid going to school: stomach ache and feeling sleepy were my favorites. What I loved was listening to stories. Every time there was a free period in school, a teacher would come in and tell us a fairy tale. Those were the best classes.
Then at home, before going to bed, I used to ask my Dad to tell me a ghost story. I used to be spellbound. Before long, this got me into reading. My Dad would bring me illustrated storybooks, biographies of famous scientists and their inventions. I devoured them.
What about writing?
I must have been about 10 when I discovered among my parents’ things a stack of documents containing short English poems. They were typewritten on yellowing paper. After I found out that my dad wrote the poems, I also tried to write poetry. They were obviously childlike, but they got me interested in writing, and I filled a whole notebook with jottings. It was a big deal when a few of the poems got published. After that, I started writing short stories.
What kind of experience did you have in high school and college with writing?
I was academically inclined but writing remained a hobby; I never pursued it seriously. But my teachers and classmates noticed my interest in writing and singled me out as a creative one.
As a student in the science stream in Plus Two, we were inexplicably not allowed to borrow literature books from the library! So, reading and writing were limited to the mandatory (and rudimentary) English classes, which were mostly limited to learning grammar and writing essays, summaries, or reviews. Still, I managed to impress my teacher, who, after looking at my very first assignment, told me that my writing was better than that of most post-grad English students. That made me feel good, until I got my mid-term report card in which, let’s just say, my science instructors were not as impressed with my scholastic abilities.
As an undergrad public health student, there was not much time or space for creative writing. Despite this, I remember being a very curious student, interested in what was going on around me, in the country and around the world. I always tried to infuse that understanding into my studies. Memorizing for exams was never my thing.
Did you have any favorite writing teachers or mentors?
In a way, what I am doing now is storytelling. And perhaps it all comes from the stories read to me by my Dad or teachers. Everything I later came to know about reporting and journalism writing, I learned during my Masters at the University of Hong Kong, on the job at Nepali Times, and in my specialized profiles of scientists for an international science journal.
I started at Nepali Times as an intern, with no real plan to become a journalist or a writer. But with encouragement from my supervisors, I used my public health background to report on health, climate, and environment. The 2015 earthquake took me to various parts of Nepal, which gave me a new perspective on my country and people, and also experience in field reporting.
How did you get interested in science and environmental issues?
It might have been the books I was reading, the news I was watching, or perhaps even my family’s ancestral ties to the land as farmers. As a child, I accompanied my family for paddy planting and harvesting, and very early on, this work instilled in me a sense of how agriculture is tied to nature and the seasons.
It might have also been those EHP (Environment, Health, and Population) classes in middle school. I had strong opinions about environmental degradation, the loss of nature, and the climate crisis long before journalists started talking about COP, adaptation, or mitigation. Later, while reporting in the Khumbu for Nepali Times I got to learn first-hand how the climate crisis was affecting Himalayan glaciers, and in Kavre I met women farmers who were coming up with local solutions to the water crisis after their springs dried up.
Do Nepali schools teach science/environment well? What could they be doing better?
My biggest issue with how they teach science and environment at schools is that they are limited to theoretical instruction, when there are subjects like pesticide residue, water management, and river pollution that need more practical approaches. More field trips across Nepal would expose students to the reality outside Kathmandu Valley. Learning to grow our own food can be a science experiment, not just dissecting frogs or mixing chemicals in the lab.
Do you approach a story on science/environment the same way as any other article?
Yes and no. Science and environment stories are as important as other stories. But we need to zoom out, and look at the larger picture — many of these issues have their roots in political failure or flawed economic policies.
Science is also about the social sciences. There is a general misconception that science writing is all technical, with lots of figures. We need to simplify the statistics and communicate them in such a way that people without technical backgrounds can comprehend them. This means journalists have to do more research, more interviews, and we need to be interdisciplinary in our approach to show the linkages.
Since science stories can be technical, more so than reports on other issues, they need to be shown rather than told. This means a more visual, multimedia approach to demystify the content. It is much more effective to show how much a glacier has retreated in before and after juxtaposed images than just writing about it. Creating a heat map to explain global warming trends in the past century is much clearer than writing a long piece.
What makes science/environment writing good?
In addition to what I have pointed out above, the trick is to give science and environment stories a human face. Mainstream media is obsessed with global climate negotiations or the geopolitics of energy, but we often forget about the people who are affected by these trends. We need more reporting from the field, more discussion with people directly impacted by misplaced priorities in Kathmandu or international capitals.
Talking to people not only helps us understand the human dimension, it sometimes changes the way we tell the story. I have seen farmer families in Kailali, Udaypur and Taplejung come up with innovative ways to adapt to erratic monsoons, water shortages, or floods, whereas the tendency in the media is to portray them solely as victims of the climate crisis. Journalism isn’t only about reporting on problems, it is also about finding inspiring stories of people who have come up with solutions that can be replicated or scaled up.
Do you have any favorite science/environment writers or books/articles, in the Nepal context and more generally?
I read Richard Dawkins, EO Wilson, and am currently reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg Curse, a fascinating nonfiction look at resource colonialism and the roots of the climate crisis. I would also recommend Dateline Earth: Journalism as if the planet mattered by my editor, Kunda Dixit, as a must-read for all media students and journalists. Polio: The odyssey of eradication by my professor, Thomas Abraham, is an intimate look into vaccine development and geopolitics, quite relevant in the context of Covid-19 today.
Do you read first or interview people first? Where do you look for information?
I always read or try to gather as much information as I can before I interview anyone. But more so if I am tackling a subject matter I haven’t dealt with before. To prepare, I look for academic journals, relevant news on the topic, even past interviews. Surprisingly, the pandemic has made interviewing easier. We are not limited by distance and can now do Zoom interviews with experts anywhere in the world.
How many drafts do you normally do for an article? What’s your process like?
Usually one, two at most, before it goes to the desk for further polishing or edits. Often, if I’m working on a long-term report, I get a week or sometimes more to develop the narrative line, usually with infographics and video clips to go with them. In that case, I also edit the videos. For a shorter story or an urgent update, we just get a few hours at most. In both cases, what helps is having the right structure, a thread running through the article, on which to hang the details and soundbites.
When you were a new writer/journalist, what were some of the important lessons, big or small, that you learned?
There are too many of them, but just some at the top of my head: get as much information as you can in the least number of trips, keep your writing as lean as possible (keep it simple, follow structure, and avoid unnecessary words or repetitions) and always try to look at a story from a different, original angle. We have to work fast and manage time and trips well so that we don’t miss the deadline.
What recommendations do you have for younger science/environment/engineering students about writing? What do you wish you knew a decade ago?
Journalistic writing is quite different from academic writing. In fact, journalism bridges the gap between researchers and the public. Students in technical fields wishing to write for public consumption must simplify their language and avoid jargon without sacrificing nuance. That is not always easy.
Next, writers and journalists must be patient. A brilliant award-winning report about human trafficking across the border in India will not dramatically stop it nor will the authorities immediately take action to prevent it. People in the media have been writing about air pollution in Kathmandu for over two decades and it is still getting worse. But it is because of our stories that there is now greater public awareness about the health impact, and hopefully, there will be action. The media plays a crucial role in raising consciousness about issues and often, this catalytic role is not readily apparent. The impact is significant but often hard to see.
A decade ago, I was just coming out of high school and did not know where my career would take me. A part of me wishes I had a clearer idea then that journalism was where I was headed. But then, I’ve never been one for wanting to know my future, or what it holds for me. I am just thankful that I am ever learning and ever-growing.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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