I was lucky enough to meet Joan by chance this year on a bus to Nazareth. We started chatting about life, as you do when you meet fellow travellers and she mentioned to me that she is a journalist. I was fascinated by some of her projects and in awe of some of the work she’s done and I’ve been a loyal reader and avid follower of everything she has published since. I mentioned to her that I am a software developer and that I was hosting a hackathon for teen girls in a months time and she told me to look up Gaza Sky Geeks, I’m so happy she did. Since then we’ve stayed in touch. You always meet the most amazing people on the road. I am honoured to share her story with you and I hope you become a loyal reader as well.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?
I’m a 32 year old writer currently living and working in New York City –I’ve been here for about 5 years now. I was born in Kisumu, Kenya and lived all over east and southern Africa as a child, finally moving the US with my family in ’97. I guess I consider myself a very passionate woman – I don’t want it (or him) if I’m not 100% sold and I value being utterly driven towards something. That’s how I feel about writing. I’m very passionate about words – the power of words – and so I try to keep that as a guiding post in everything that I do.
Right now I’m working for InDepthNews as a United Nations Correspondent, covering the Sustainable Development Goals and Sexual and Reproductive Health & Rights. I’m trying to focus more on what member states are doing in terms of their national action plans –
or better yet, how they perceive the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) with regards to context, culture etc. It’s been quite the enriching experience thus far because it’s more analysis than anything else – I really do believe in the work of the UN and its role as a global leader, so it’s really nice to be back in the mix. It can be challenging though – the UN is going through a interesting time with regards to relevance, impact and influence so we’ll see what happens.
I also contribute to OkayAfrica and HuffPost from time to time – I’ve been working on my second book and just trying to be as creative as possible. I’m in a very collaborative and creative space so I’m just trying to capitalize on the energy.
Why did you choose to become a writer?
I don’t think that I ever chose writing, I think writing chose me. I think it just took me several years to understand and appreciate the art. I remember distinctively when I was in the 5th grade – I wrote a play/musical and went about enlisting my classmates to play different roles. We practiced for about a week and then performed it on a school field trip to Masai Mara for the rest of the class. Even back then, words meant everything to me. One of the things I love so much about writing is being able to tell stories – stories are our saving grace! Without them we wouldn’t know history and we wouldn’t have anything to look forward to. Through writing, I feel like I get to breakdown the world around me in a clear way that lets me analyze and then decide how to proceed.
What inspires you?
Compassionate humans. I can’t say it enough, but those that are willing to put their lives aside in order to help someone else – in order to feel what others are feeling are some of the most fascinating individuals I’ve ever come across. I am inspired by compassion everyday. We don’t live in a world where compassion is valued – I think that’s the sad truth. However, through compassion one realizes that we’re all interconnected.
Having compassion is the easiest thing to do, yet the hardest for us to tackle on the list because it requires a selflessness even I find hard to do sometimes.
Cultures unlike my own also inspire me greatly. It’s why I prefer to travel alone, and almost always to a place where I don’t speak the language. You’re then forced to be compassionate, but also to fully surrender to the culture at hand. I love learning from others. I am inspired by new rituals, new foods, new ways of thinking, new art – if you ever have writers block or don’t feel as creative as you want to…just go immerse yourself in a different culture and see what happens.
What is your personal mantra or mission statement?
For of those to whom much is given, much is required.
What does happiness mean to you?
I truly think happiness is a choice you make everyday. To actively choose happiness in every scenario is a tall order, but I try to do it. As I’ve gotten older, happiness to me has become simpler. A super early morning run. Coffee and a book in bed on a Sunday morning. The laughter of my friends over dinner. That goodbye hug at JFK before a long trip; I guess I’m romantic that way.
What are your hobbies?
Oh man, we could spend all day on this if you let me! Funny thing, I don’t own a TV. I haven’t had a TV for about 9 years all because I’m usually never home, and I’m constantly doing something.
I love people, I love cities, I do love going out and engaging with my friends so hobbies to me can take any form. I suppose traveling is a huge hobby and one I try to prioritize — that and exploring neighbourhoods. I’ve been living in New York for 5 years and I’m still not done exploring – whether it’s a gallery, a talk, a dance night, a new restaurant I’m usually flying down some busy street in heels almost always 10-15 minutes late! Sorry John!
What are a few things you do every single day to keep yourself on track?
Lately, I’ve started meditating twice a day – when I first wake up in the morning and right before I settle in for bed at night. Just 10-15 minutes of stillness to keep my mind calm. I also run three times a week around Central Park and I try to cook at least three meals at home during the week. Cooking is my real “Joan time”. I have a glass of wine at the window watching the traffic below on Lenox Ave, then I pick a recipe from one of my cookbooks and go at it for a couple of hours. Having that time in my home on a weekly basis is really important to me.
If you could give advice to someone looking to get into your field what would it be and why?
I’d say that it’s very important to develop thick skin. I can’t tell you how many rejections from editors I’ve received for pieces I’ve pitched or ideas I’ve had – even finished product. At some point, you realize that just because everyone says “no” doesn’t mean that it’s not an important story to be told. After I got over the hump of caring what editors thought, I started truly writing in a way that made me happy – and the responses I received from readers made it clear to me that I was on the right track. Another thing I would say is pick a topic, learn everything you can about it, and then make it your goal to write consistently on that topic. It also helps to identify a great editor that you can work with – someone who is more of a collaborator than a boss. I’m a writer, not an editor – that was one thing I had to get clear. Thankfully, I’ve built a network of great editors to choose from.
What has been your most rewarding experience so far? Work or personal
My most rewarding experience was traveling to Jordan alone to write about Iraqi and Syrian refugee women who were living in a small city outside of Zarqa. The minute I landed in Amman, I wanted to run back onto the flight and head home
to New York. I knew right away that it would be difficult and I was terrified of screwing up. Safe to say, I’m really glad I did it. The women I met wasted no time bursting my bubble and getting me to see things through their eyes. It was rewarding because it was so challenging – till this day, I always look back at that
experience as being one of my best as a woman, and as a writer.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in your life thus far? What did you learn? Are you thankful for what it taught you?
Like many others, I’m sure I have a ton of challenges – it’s hard to pin point just one, however I do think that choosing this life as a writer – accepting this path so to speak – was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. When you’re still in college, you have this fantasy that you’ll totally figure out what you want to do with you life, you’ll find the right job and everything will work out perfectly. It has absolutely not been that way for me at all. I’ve tried to do many, many different things knowing deep down that they were wrong for me. The biggest challenge was letting go of who I thought I was – who others thought I was. It was a painful process, and in more ways than one, I’m still struggling to accept it.
I learned that being honest with yourself about who you are and what you want to do is important. It’s a great base for everything else that’s going to surely come. I’m very thankful for the experience, albeit difficult.
Who is your role model/ who has been the most influential person in your life?
I went out with this guy years ago when I first moved to New York, and though it didn’t work out relationship wise, we remained friends. Since then, we’ve managed to keep a pretty great friendship and his opinions and ideas I really value. I remember watching him work the room and talk to various colleagues and friends once when we were at a happy hour together – he’s the most gracious, attentive and happy person I know. Even in the midst of great difficulty, he finds perspective and meaning. I also remember when he met a few of my close friends for dinner in West Village – they absolutely loved him. Not because he was the funniest man (he’s got the greatest sense of humour) but because he was genuine, engaging and honest. He’s a man of principle and diplomacy – every time I have an issue or I’m struggling with something personal or professional, he just seems to understand completely. I joke that I want to be like him when I grow up; his integrity, his kindness towards everyone, his ability to pursue his goals – he’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met and he continues to influence me in more ways than one. The greatest thing about him is that he does not take himself so seriously – I think that’s a trait that many of us lack. He shows up, he does the work and he makes sure to laugh all the way through.
My role model would have to be my ex-boss turned friend/mentor. She’s one of the most hardworking women I have ever known, but what I really admire about her is her ability to admit when she’s wrong and figure out a way to re-write things. She’s taught me a lot about being honest with myself and communicating my needs and wants. Because of that, she’s like a co- collaborator in my life. I really appreciate her ability to come up with a concrete plan-of- action for whatever it is I want to work on, and also her ability to be so supportive when all others aren’t. I’m really lucky to have someone like her as a model for success – not just professionally, but personally as well.
When do you feel most inspired?
Naturally, I’m the most inspired when I’m listening to someone tell me their story. You can’t imagine the things that people have endured in their lives – and when they can be so generous with their stories, so open to share with you their pain, triumph, loss and love – it’s the most incredible thing in the world. My heart beats like a mad woman when someone gets jazzed up about something in their lives and wants to share it with you. There is so much power in being heard.