In 2004, journalist Kim Barker began working as the South Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune.
She covered the resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the paper until her return to the United States in 2009, when she wrote a memoir – The Taliban Shuffle – about the experience.
Her book 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 Tina Fey and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who turned her book into the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which opened in the US this month.
In the film, a TV reporter (Fey) is in a rut when she is sent to Kabul and the movie deftly nails the book’s key themes, from dealing with corrupt leaders to the challenges of dating as a journalist in a conflict zone.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets it.
One American critic recently referred to the film as “Eat, Pray, Love but with war (and Tina Fey)”.
Incensed, Barker took to Twitter and posted: “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.”
Seated on the sofa of her Brooklyn apartment, she asks: “Why are women only allowed one narrative?
“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 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,” the journalist, who has a younger brother, says. “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 top 10 New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction. The success has lent itself to even more real-life comedy for Barker, now an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
First, there was the red-carpet premiere. “Normally, I would go to T.J. Maxx,” she says, 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 sequinned Sexy Prom Dresses because I don’t know what to wear, right?”
So she showed up in a designer Princess Prom Dresses, but when paparazzi asked her who made the dress, she says: “I was like: ‘I forgot to look at the tag.’ So I just go: ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to ask women that anymore.’ 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,” she says. “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 Tina Fey 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.'”
When she first went to South Asia, she did not worry about the risks. “My thought has always been leap first, figure it out six months later. 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. 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. 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,” she says. 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.”
She was more interested in telling stories about how people lived through war than how they died. “I 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 her back to Chicago, moving her to a job on the metro desk. She turned it down because she was not ready to leave Afghanistan. She later decided it was time to go and finally moved to New York to start a press fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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 could not stop talking about “AfPak” and writes that she “constantly felt uneasy, like I should be doing something else”.
She adds: “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.”
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 non-profit newsroom ProPublica.
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 New York, 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 Michaels for giving this book a second life.”