In the 16 years she’s been a journalist, Ash Gallagher has reported from the world’s most challenging places. From covering the plight of refugees in Germany to reporting from war-ridden Gaza and Mosul,
In this interview with The Coalition For Women In Journalism, Ash talks about her life as a journalist in a warzone, who found her way forward in the midst of trauma and a lot more on her memoir Reckoning in the Rubble.
1. In your writing, from reporting to poetry, you tackle trauma, healing and tap into raw human emotion; how do you channel that into words?
The role of a storyteller is to channel what we all go through as human beings and find ways to communicate those things in our craft. When you think of a film or a song that strikes you, you know the one you play over and again, quote or memorize effortlessly, it’s because you felt it… it resonated with you.
As a writer, I make the same effort. If I can channel what I’ve seen or experienced into a piece of writing, ultimately take the reader with me, then I’ve connected us and connected them, we all want connection — a ‘me too’, so to speak. But it can’t end with trauma. Life is about moving forward, and I want to take the traumas we all face — from war at home to war outside — and say, hey, there’s a way out.
Using grief and acknowledgement, stories themselves can be a path to generating healing. I hope my writing can reflect that. As for my poetry, it’s a raw, gritty look at what we all go through in love, in heartbreak, in our wounds, and in our healing, elevating something deeply connected on a soulful level, perhaps, in a more aesthetic format. The poets were always considered by ancient people to be the storytellers and wise ones, their writings were used to understand the world. Why should it be different now?
“Life is about moving forward, and I want to take the traumas we all face and say, hey, there’s a way out.”
Q2. What was the inspiration behind writing a memoir?
I’ve always wanted to write books, I have a few in mind on my life-goals list. But it seemed as good a time as any, and honestly, I was so deeply impacted by covering Iraq, there was more to say, there was more to communicate, so the way to put it down was through a memoir. Iraq is a significant place, an ancient one, where as far back as we know, was the central ground for human development, writing and stories.
It is like ground zero for human civilization in a lot of ways. There’s a story in that which still affects all of us thousands of years later. In a way, perhaps, my memoir is a discovery of how we are impacted by the ancient ground.
Q3. Tell us a little about your book, the Mosul Memoir Project: Reckoning in the Rubble?
Reckoning in the Rubble, as I’ve decided to call it a memoir-style series of essays about an awakening and acceptance of self — a sacred reverence for what lies beneath the rubble of war within us all. I unpack themes examining tribalism, the sacred self, accountability and the idea that everything is spiritual and how we all belong. In a way, I suppose, it’s as if I went to the source of where our human record of consciousness began and “got woke.” The book tells my story, nestled in the cradle of civilization; it’s the raw human experience. Examining the effects on mental health, pain and what leads to restoration are themes many can identify. There are no winners in war, but there is opportunity. There is nothing glamorous about being a war correspondent, but there is a journey.
Q4. What made you go for crowdsourcing for your memoir and are you getting the support you are looking for?
There are a couple of things at play here. First and foremost, as a freelance writer and journalist, it is hard to take time away from day to day breaking news. We have a mentality about us which struggles to know where our skills fit. So while I still can pick up ad hoc work here and there, if I’m going to concentrate on the manuscript and where It might take me, I need the time to write. And in order to do that, I need to make sure I can eat, sleep and have enough for transport and a cup of coffee. So I have musician friends who have paid for their first albums through crowdsourcing and it’s apparently the supplemental way to find funding in the 21st century. I decided to give it a try. It’s not easy asking folks for support, but if I’m confident in the work, they will be too.
I also worked with an agent for awhile, the publishing houses are competitive. Even ones who were interested, their sales teams would turn it down for one political reason or another.
And that meant it was harder to get an advance or stipend to finish the writing.
I have had incredible support from a lot of good people who I couldn’t do this without, many of them journalists; ironically, who understand and believe in the work. But journalist or not, the folks who have supported have often been unexpected and a complete blessing. That said, there’s still a way to go. Writing is the first stage, then comes editing and publication. And the latter is still up in the air about where it fits, once I finish writing.
Q5. Your book is focused on the time you spent reporting from Mosul, Iraq, how you examined the aftermath of war and the spiritual aspect of being in that setting.
Once launched, what impact do you think it would have on the way journalists report in warzones and conflict regions?
The battle for Mosul, really is only the lens for which I am writing through. It is the premise for the story. But the human condition, the way we tell stories, how we all belong and how we all heal is ultimately the goal. Each chapter looks at different aspects of what it was like to cover Mosul and how that translated into my personal life, or perhaps the greater narrative of human existence.
I am a deeply spiritual person, a mystic perhaps, and so I see the depth of how it happens in the physical and how it relates to the soul, to the mind, to mental health and to overcoming tragedy. It’s not an instructional book, but it’s a series of stories, that someone will connect to and hopefully, find a reason to go beyond survival and really live what they’re meant for in this life. But to your point about impacting journalism, I have some hope it will challenge the industry to think more about solution-based reporting. We spend a lot of time on traumas, the number of dead and the tragedy of what happens in war or political situations.
And yes, there’s some great stories out there, but they’re not mainstream and even the analysis on-air is paid pundits to debate the latest tragedy. No one in the audience is listening, or if they are listening, they’re becoming more divided because that’s what they see and hear.
Yes, we as the media have a huge responsibility in informing and identifying solutions to the tragedies in the world, and even more importantly, we have a responsibility for connecting people.
How does it apply to them? People tell me every single day they turn off the news because it doesn’t apply to them and it’s too far away. But what if weren’t? What if I showed you what you have in common with a woman in Iraq whose husband beat her and ran off to shoot people and join a militia? Sounds familiar?
What if neglecting USAID and putting more money into weapons not only affects your pocket book but could cause your son or daughter in the military to miss Christmas this year? Maybe even their funeral? Do you care a little more? I bet. Or what if I could show that your tribe — family, politics and social status — is no different than the ones you call the enemy and maybe there’s room for peaceful negotiation?
What if reconciliation was really possible and we didn’t have to be so divided? Let’s do that because the war stories, the trauma, can’t just be reported because it’s there, it has to move forward somehow.
Q6. Warzones are not the most pleasant places to report from. Witnessing people suffer, especially children and women, can take a toll on one’s mental health. What was it like for you?
I have long said, it wasn’t the dead that bothered me so much. They no longer added to the story, it was the living. Their stories and energy, impacted me a lot. As a journalist, it’s my job to hold space for what they want to say. And if it’s a tragedy they need to tell, then so be it.
In fact, it is a part of my job to help guide them with the questions for which I want answers, the ones I deem important to understand the story or the trauma better. But holding space for so many, some I may never see again, can be a heavy task.
In the moment, I turned myself off or deflected the heaviness of that sadness, just so I could be engaged, listen and do my job.
But afterwards, I always came away with a need to release. The body, mind and soul are connected and so what I felt in terms of sadness or frustration came out in the ways my body expressed itself.
So while I’m not a stranger to insomnia, war created a few more sleepless nights and there have been moments, I’ve needed to isolate myself to scream into a pillow or weep. But I’ve also found something else — covering war can also be enlightening.
“I have long said, it wasn’t the dead that bothered me so much. They no longer added to the story, it was the living. Their stories and energy, impacted me a lot. As a journalist, it’s my job to hold space for what they want to say. And if it’s a tragedy they need to tell, then so be it.”
But I’ve also found something else — covering war can also be enlightening. When I began with the intent to understand the human condition better, I found it, war isn’t always the worst of humanity.
Sometimes, war showcases the best of humanity. People are resilient through tragedy.
I say now some of the most enlightened ones are the mothers who get up off their mattresses everyday in a refugee camp and find the strength to feed and bathe their resilient children, who are often playing outside and laughing. So I learned a great deal from them.
War can take its toll, but war can also enlighten us to who we really are and what we want to become. Bearing witness to war isn’t just about suffering; it’s also about waking up to our very real primal condition and what makes us radically divine beings.
This story was originally written for Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism