Nina Martyris, International Journalist

Last week, I caught up with our March 8th speaker: NPR regular contributor, Nina Martyris:

KWG:  In Mumbai, formerly Bombay, you were the books editor for the Times of India and then in 2009 you left to move to Knoxville and begin your career as an international freelance journalist.  Why Knoxville?  Has working out of Knoxville been conducive to doing your job? Is there a small community of international journalists here?

NINA MARTYRIS: I’m often asked why I moved to Knoxville. My standard – and wordless –  answer is to hold up my ring finger – in short, marriage is what brought me here. My husband teaches at UT.

As far as how suitable Knoxville is to the kind of journalism I do – well, since I write largely on literary or historical subjects, the city I live in doesn’t really have a vital role to play.  All I really need is a good internet connection and a good public library, and Knoxville has both. I love the library – without it, I wouldn’t be able to write the pieces I do. To be able to march home from the library with five different biographies of Napoleon or Dickens in one’s book bag, is, in my view, one the most wonderful perks of the US.

There may be a community of international journalists here, but I’m not really plugged into the local journalism scene, so I wouldn’t know. That’s the one downside of freelancing – I miss meeting other journalists and would love to get to know them.

KWG: In addition to reviewing books, you write about history, food, and tea.  Why tea? I am always fascinated with niche passions.  Do you think you will every exhaust the topics for tea or your interest will diminish?

NINA MARTYRIS: I started writing on tea because NPR has a Tea Tuesday column. I began to research tea stories in order to pitch ideas for this column, and along the way, fell in love with the fascinating history of this leaf – one deeply entangled with everything from pleasure, aesthetics, and culture to slavery, opium, trade, and freedom struggles. As a source for stories, it’s a bottomless cup which I doubt will ever run dry. And, of course, I’m from India, which grows some of the world’s finest tea. One of my dearest friends grew up on a tea garden in Assam, so I’ve been hearing about tea long before I started writing on it.

KWG:  What is a topic or two you will share on March 8th and will there be a Q and A session?

NINA MARTYRIS:  I’m banking on Q&A session – I’m not much of a speaker, so rather than a formal address, what I’m looking forward to, is taking questions. I’d like to talk about my freelancing career – the whole business of coming up with gripping pitches, receiving rejection email, finally getting a piece accepted – and the quirky role the Old Gray Cemetery had to play in that venture.

KWG: You have been a journalist and book reviewer for decades.  Do you see your own book in your future? If so, what genre? Topic? If not, why not?

NINA MARTYRIS: If I ever write a book it will be non-fiction, but no, I’ve haven’t thought of a theme yet. I’m still waiting for inspiration to strike.

KWG: In 2013, you were selected as a Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Fellow.  Was this something you applied for?  What did it mean to be a cultural fellow?  Why is García Márquez your literary hero?

NINA MARTYRIS:  Yes, I applied for this fellowship and was thrilled to be selected for it along with nine other journalists from across the world. It essentially meant a two-week trip to Colombia where we had workshops on cultural journalism – I think it is extraordinarily generous of the Gabriel García Márquez New Journalism Foundation and Colombia’s Ministry of Culture to sponsor this kind of a program at a time when the cultural sections of newspapers are being gutted everywhere for want of funds.

Garcia Márquez is one of my literary heroes – not least because he was first and foremost a journalist. I’ve long admired his beautiful writing which is so full of pathos, humor, sarcasm, cruelty, sorrow, and above all, love. Not love as a sweet, noble, romantic passion but love in all its frail, unappealing and complex glory. As I wrote in an article a few years ago, the protagonist of his great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza, is an illegitimate, constipated, seventy-six-year-old fornicator in a rusty black suit and pomaded hair – he is one of literature’s most absurd lovers, but also one of its most heroic.

KWG: You guest lecture at the University of Tennessee Journalism School.  What have you noticed about the current generation of journalism students?  Are they very different from you and your peers when you went through journalism school?


I’m always surprised and delighted that students still want to pursue journalism in an age when journalism jobs are drying up everywhere. It speaks of a certain old-fashioned idealism, which is reassuring. When I started out as a journalist in 1995, it wasn’t a well-paid profession, but we bashed on, determined to tilt at windmills and make the world a better place, etc. – and I think that kind of thinking continues to be a spur for students today. However, I’ve not really had a chance to interact with the students in a deep way beyond a few lectures, so I’m afraid I can’t answer your question fully.

KWG: Is there anything you would like to add?

NINA MARTYRIS Only that I’m really looking forward to meeting the Knoxville Writers’ Group – thank you for inviting me.

I want to thank Nina for taking the time to participate in this interview–her discussion on the 8th will be very insightful, helpful, and interesting. Hope you will attend.

David N. Drews, KWG Publicist

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