Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2014

Storyteller (2014), by Zoe Daniel

I read Storyteller with a heightened sense of awareness this week because of  the death of James Foley, a death which has reinforced my admiration for the courage of journalists who venture into dangerous places.   Zoe Daniel’s remarkable memoir bristles with perilous events, yet somehow she managed to combine her career as a foreign correspondent with motherhood.  It’s an extraordinary story.

Zoe Daniel is a familiar face to those of us who regularly watch the ABC.  We’ve seen her reporting on conflicts in Sierra Leone; we’ve seen her compassionate yet compelling reports about the famines in Somalia and Darfur.   When the opportunity to become the ABC’s foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia arose, she jumped at the chance, but there were new pitfalls to confront on her first assignment.  She wasn’t a mother when she was the ABC’s foreign correspondent in Africa in 2005-6.  When she arrived in Bangkok in 2010 to take up her dream job, she had two small children with her.  In no time at all the political crisis in Thailand erupted into violence on the streets, and no sooner had they settled into their rented house, her husband had to get the children out of the country to safety.

It’s hard to imagine this calm and authoritative journalist bursting into tears because of a spoiled birthday cake, but it’s the frankness of this memoir that makes it so authentic.  Because like all of us combining career and motherhood, Daniel had ambitions to be a good mother too.  Being a good mother these days means mastering complicated cakes from the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book, in a country where some of the ingredients can’t be bought and the quest for alternatives leaves her hot and bothered even before the baking starts.  The kids are in her face wanting to help with the decorating, and the cake falls apart.  Not a major tragedy, not compared with the terrible events she witnesses, but it shows how hard it is to maintain a ‘normal’ life amid the stresses of a demanding and dangerous job.  (Remember how vividly Charlotte Wood captured that psychological disconnect for her foreign correspondent character in the novel The Children?)

Being a good mother also means doing Christmas, but Santa is only a fortnight away when she gets the assignment to report on the 2010 Christmas Island boat tragedy.  The ABC finds a charter plane to get her there, but cash-strapped Aunty can’t guarantee a flight back because the commercial networks have got all the charter planes.  She packs up to leave Bangkok just as her mother arrives for a visit, and because of the name ‘Christmas Island’, the kids think she’s going there to pass on their lists to Santa.   But when the reports are done and everyone else packs up to go home, Daniel’s got no ticket home …

I sit in the hotel room with my head in my hands and seriously wonder whether I can continue to do the job if it means sacrificing things like Christmas when the kids are so young.  (p.103)

She’s just lucky that a friendly reporter from Channel Nine offers a seat on their luxurious charter plane – but of course it’s heading for Sydney via Port Hedland, and then there’s the long flight back to Bangkok.  And all the time she’s dealing with the psychological disconnect – the contrast between her plush surroundings and the people

… who risked everything on a leaky boat to escape war and poverty for a chance of a life in Australia.  Forty-two were rescued but fifty drowned. Their case is one of many and it will further fuel a long-running and highly political debate about our country’s treatment of refugees. (p. 104)

Daniel shares the experience of living amid the Bangkok Floods; reporting on the dreadful bridge disaster in Cambodia; a world exclusive interview with Thaksin Shinawatra in Dubai; with all these assignments involving a complex parental relay:

The night before I leave, Rowan is away.  I have an early flight and he’ll land from wherever he is in the afternoon.  We’re still attempting to tag in and out of the country so the kids will have at least one of us home all the time.  We’ll pass somewhere in the sky maybe. (p 117)

It was very interesting to read about the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from an insider’s perspective.  In the middle of the fraught Thai election campaign, Daniel secures an interview with the most famous opposition leader in the world.  They have to sneak into Burma posing as tourists, and then they have to gain access to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house without being noticed.  But perhaps that was not the most difficult part.  On the one hand Daniel had to deal with her young son’s anxiety that she’ll be arrested too. With the implacable logic of small children he says:

‘Because Daw Suu is a good lady and you’re a good lady and those men put her in jail so what if they put you in jail too?  And then I won’t be able to see you any more.’  He weeps in great, gulping waves, soaking me with tears.  (p.118)

And on the other hand, she finds that while Aung San Suu Kyi is friendly enough…

She’s tough to interview because she doesn’t like personal questions or assumptions, and despite everything that she’s clearly given up, she won’t admit to having paid a personal price. (p. 125)

The subsequent chapter about the political ‘thaw’ after Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma shows us the difference between reporting clandestinely, and open access for journalists.  The downside of sneaking into Burma is of course that they might have been arrested, but the upside is that once inside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, the interview could take place in a fairly relaxed atmosphere.  But once the military junta starts to issue permits for journalists, the Aussie journalist who got the scoop interview is crowded out by American media who get preferential treatment.  And once Aung San Suu Kyi is elected as a politician, access turns into a media scrum like no other:

When the car reaches us, we can’t move.  David is behind me and there’s another cameraman behind him, and we’re pinned against a steel gate with spikes along the top.  The car keeps coming and I feel it squeezing into my torso, forcing out my breath.  ‘Stop,’ I call, but no one can be heard in this bedlam.  ‘Stop!’

The car is only a metre or two from the office gate and it comes to a halt.  Aung San Suu Kyi steps out with a demure smile and strides unfazed through the chaos, adopting a coltish gait and fixed gaze like a model on a catwalk.  Her security guards surround her, blindly pushing anyone who is in the way.  When they’re all inside, the steel sliding door is shut with a clang and we’re left to recover.  It’s by far the worst media scrum I’ve experienced.

Perhaps it was in part the experience of almost being crushed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s car that lies behind the bleak disappointment that Daniel feels when Aung San Suu Kyi later fails to speak up for an oppressed minority group.  Ever the professional journalist, she pens an explanation that recognises the competing demands of the constituency in a country in transition to long hoped-for democracy, but the reader can sense the reporter’s sense of loss when an idealist has to compromise.

Daniel also writes movingly about the conjoined twins in India and the subsequent death of one of them.   Colour photos in the middle of the book include one of these dear little girls and the team that separated them, a stark contrast with the photos of other more political events.  You can see the Foreign Correspondent report filed by Daniel at the ABC website, and there’s a lovely bit of footage of Daniel holding the babies in her arms before passing them on to their mother who relinquished them because she thought she couldn’t cope.  I found myself wondering about how a male journalist might have reported this same event, and whether there would have been the same attention to gender inequity in India.  I think it’s probably true that no man would have been able to talk to the distraught mother of India’s most notorious rape victim.

This is a most interesting book.  It concludes with the family packing up in Bangkok to go home to Melbourne, an open-ended conclusion because Daniel acknowledged that she’ll miss the excitement.  Her audience will miss her clear-eyed but compassionate perspective.  Facebook tells me that Daniel came home to take up a role hosting ‘The World’ on ABC News24 and Australia Network, but that the job ended due to ABC budget cuts.  (Cuts that – before the election –  the electorate was assured would not happen).  She’s still with the ABC, working with ABC News.  Having read this book, one can’t help but wish her and her family all the best, whatever the future brings.

Author: Zoe Daniel
Title: Storyteller, A Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir Like No Other
Publisher: ABC Books, 2014
ISBN: 9780733332319
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: Storyteller: A Foreign Correspondent’s Memoir Like No Other


  1. Correspondents that work in war zones have to be admired especially as these days they seem to be more at risk than they used to be


    • Yes, well, there are people in this world who don’t share our common view of humanity…
      It’s shameful.


  2. Richard Fidler (ABC Radio) did a great interview with Zoe Daniel about this book (51 minutes allowed them both to cover a lot of ground)


    • What a fabulous interview! Thanks for tracking it down:)


  3. As usual a superb and very very thoughtful review. Thank you


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