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Oriana Fallaci: a writer on writing and politics

No matter that it is 13 years since her infamous grilling of then-CIA director William Colby on US intelligence operations -- ``The names, Mr. Colby. The names . . .'' -- she is still treated with suspicion. Before being allowed to speak at a Florida university campus recently, Oriana Fallaci had to agree on paper ``not to overthrow the American government.'' But like any good reporter, this journalistic gamin, whose controversial reputation borders on the global, simply tacked the incident onto her next speech and thundered ahead in her rippling Italian accent, exhorting students on yet another college campus to ``make politics.''

It is not an unexpected theme, ``Writing and Politics,'' from this famous Florentine, who has been called arguably the planet's most celebrated interviewer. During the four decades she has plied her pen, first as a war correspondent and reporter for the Italian magazine L'Europeo and more recently as a novelist, Miss Fallaci has interviewed some of the world's most famous figures. Henry Kissinger, Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, and a host of other political poohbahs have come under her scrutiny. Aided by her fearless, dogged determination -- she has been shot three times -- Fallaci has earned celebrity status herself.

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Temporarily abandoning journalism for her fiction and an occasional appearance on the college lecture circuit, this daughter of an Italian resistance fighter remains an adamant anti-fascist. Her political persuasions are well known and seldom dormant. Whether in her interviews, her novels, including ``Letter to a Child Never Born'' and ``A Man,'' or simply in conversation, Fallaci's articulated belief that ``there is no better way to make politics than being a writer'' underscores it all.

While one might ask whether her student audiences register as much enthusiasm for this postulate, Fallaci is unrelenting. During an hour-long speech at the University of New Hampshire here recently and later in a small question-and-answer session with students, faculty, and an occasional reporter, Ms. Fallaci speaks repeatedly and fervently about the necessity of both politics and writing and their ultimate interdependence.

``People think being a writer simply means having your name on a book jacket,'' she says to her audience, peering over the podium with the poker-straight page-boy hair style that has become her signature. ``People think that Jane Fonda, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Shirley MacLaine are writers . . . , that a few years at the White House make [one] a writer. . . . The act of writing comes from the result of being a writer.''

Fallaci not surprisingly categorizes writing, not as an occupation, but as a calling. She uses the word ``artist'' in her definition while opposing the terms ``scholar'' and ``intellectual.'' While some of her pronouncements verge on hyperbole -- and several seem more self-serving than insightful -- her flag-waving for literature and the historically pivotal position of writers is unflagging and appropriate to her collegiate audience.

Writers, she says, ``say for others what they do not know how to say.'' They serve, in effect, as society's ``conscience.'' All of the world's ``big changes'' -- political, religious, philosophical -- Fallaci says, have been heralded, and in many instances instigated, by writers. She ticks off her examples: Cicero, Herodotus, Montaigne, Luther, Kant, Locke, Lenin, Sartre, and on and on.

``Do I need to make my point in a country founded in a revolution?'' she asks. ``The Declaration of Independence was one of the most beautiful pieces of literature ever written.'' Her point? That writers -- true writers -- ``cannot avoid being political.'' Even the most unexpected works -- ``Lady Chatterly's Lover,'' Grimm's ``Fairy Tales,'' Jules Verne -- Fallaci says, are inherently political in that they challenge or promote the status quo or foretell the future.

This Cassandra-like role of writers, Fallaci says, is today ``very well-performed by journalists.'' Although she herself is working less in this genre -- her current book is a fictive account of a Mideast soldier -- Fallaci continues to espouse the controversial principles her work embodied: ``Objectivity [in journalism] does not exist''; ``intellectual detachment is a fraud.''

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When asked how writing should be taught, Fallaci waves her hands dismissively. ``I would refuse to teach writing. It's very American -- these courses for writing journalism. I always thought the best way to learn journalism was to be thrown into newspapers.'' She insists that writing is more complex and difficult to teach than even painting or music. ``You have to resolve your fight with words alone. How can you teach creativity?''

What can be taught, Fallaci adds, is discipline. She cites her own three-year effort at writing her novel ``Un Uomo'' (``A Man'') -- ``no holidays, no Sundays off'' -- as an example. She also doesn't shy away from the rigors of rewriting, a process that she says ``requires tremendous self-criticism. You must be pitiless with yourself. . . . This is why writing is so dramatic. It combines the conflicting forces of inspiration and criticism -- two totally different things [occurring] at the same time.''

While Fallaci waxes almost mystical in her reverence for the printed word, she grows quickly incensed when asked about the growing encroachment of the visual media, particularly televised news. Calling it the ``tragedy of our time,'' she lambastes this ``journalism as show biz. . . . You can have the Einstein of women journalists, and [unless she's attractive] you can't you put her on TV.''

While admitting that war footage makes an abstract and distant occurrence more concrete -- ``You see it; you make your own judgment'' -- Fallaci insists that television ``has destroyed journalism as an act of writing.''

What is truly ``sinister,'' she adds, is that television is ``so superficial, so anti-journalism, but has the most power. . . . As a European, I am horrified to see your elections decided by a kind of boxing match on TV.''

Fallaci reiterates that she is a ``writer who is [temporarily] a journalist.'' But no matter what the genre is, she says, writing remains her passion. ``I cannot imagine any other way of expressing myself.''

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