The list of accomplishments of Emmy award-winning journalist Amna Nawaz is an amazing one. She was the Islamabad bureau chief for NBC News and the first foreign correspondent to gain access to North Waziristan. Amna then shifted gears ever so slightly when she became the Managing Editor for NBCnews.com's new Asian America vertical, "the first network digital space devoted to stories from/about/for the Asian American community." She took time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions about her experiences.
What was your childhood like? Are there particular memories or events that stand out as shaping who you’ve become?
It’s funny how, over time, your childhood gets reduced to a series of moments you hold on to. I was lucky. Every memory I’ve now got is a good one. Climbing trees with my sisters in the front yard or careening down the street, all piled into a wagon. Sliding my feet into my mother’s high heels as I watched her get ready for dinner parties. Sitting on the couch with my father’s arm around me as we watched the evening news. My sisters and I all trying to talk over each other over a raucous dinner table each night.
We traveled a lot – for months at a time over the summers. We spent a lot of time together. And we grew up with a sense of community – with most of our relatives far away, many of the other first-generation Pakistani-American kids were like family - their mothers and fathers, our Aunties and Uncles. My parents were loving and supportive and consistent, and they showed up – to every play, every away game, every piano recital.
They raised us to know how lucky we were, and how important it was to leave things a little better than you found them. They told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. And I wanted to tell stories (well, first I wanted to be a Fly Girl dancer on In Living Color, but that didn’t work out.) So here I am.
What made you decide to go into journalism?
My father was a journalist in Pakistan. He covered wars, traveled far and wide, and anchored the national English-language news program. Still, he never pushed me towards it. He and my mother were always firm about each of us finding our own path. I loved to write. I thought I might one day be a lawyer (I also loved to argue.) I got a one-year fellowship at ABC News right out of college. I figured I’d apply for law school afterwards. But a few weeks into the job – my first – the 9/11 attacks happened. A lot of things I’d believed to be true – about my faith, about the part of the world I come from, about who I was – were called into question. I found solace, a sense of purpose, in trying to find out the answers. And I saw how important it was to provide that information to others. It’s one of the only jobs I know of where you can actually learn something new every day. I still get such a kick out of that.
Do you feel that being an Asian woman has had any effect on your career? Why or why not?
Sure, in the parts of the world I’ve covered, there have been a lot of times when I’m the only woman at the protest, or in the briefing room, or on the military embed. I’m certainly not the first woman to be any of those places and was actually really lucky to have the support and encouragement of female journalists before me who’d been there and done that. I’ve had people make assumptions about me – because I’m a woman, because I’m Asian, because my family’s from Pakistan, because I’m Muslim – but I can’t control what others think. All I can do is bring my whole self to this job, to report the stories as I see them, and try to treat others’ stories with the same care and respect I’d want someone to treat mine.
You have many years of reporting from hot spots around the world and were most recently NBC News’ Islamabad Bureau Chief and Correspondent. Was there a particular story that has stuck with you?
We really tried, my team in Pakistan and I, to present an accurate representation of the kinds of stories we saw around us every day. For years before, I think a lot of people outside of the region were fed a very narrow view of what it was like in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the area. That’s probably often the case, when we’re dealing with unfamiliar territory. We covered the news – stories on national security and natural disasters. But we also set out to tell the same breadth of stories I’d been telling for years from across America. We profiled the filmmaker who won her country its first Oscar. We went to the factory where more bagpipes are produced than anywhere else in the world. We found the people trying to make things a little better in their corner of the world and gave them a microphone. And there are still so many stories there left to be told.
Tell us about the Asian America vertical at NBCnews.com. What made you decide to become involved in this project?
The chance to combine my years of television reporting with the network’s digital innovations, the chance to build and create something completely new, and the chance to tell the kinds of stories I would’ve wanted to read, as an Asian American – those were all too good to pass up. There are millions of people in this country whose stories don’t always get the attention they deserve on the national level. This is a place where we can elevate that conversation and push forward the dialogue. This is the place for those voices.
You stated “When you try to group together dozens of ethnicities, languages, and geographic groups into a single identity, you run the risk of over-simplifying and generalizing.” Do you feel that’s how America sees Asian Americans, as one, big stereo-typed group?
It will surprise no one to read that the Model Minority Myth is alive and well. Data is wonderful for so many reasons – and the big-picture numbers show that, as a group, Asian Americans are doing pretty well when it comes to things like education and household income and spending. But as a group - comprised of dozens of different ethnic and cultural groups – one story does not fit all. The Indian American experience is completely different to the Cambodian American experience. The Chinese American struggles are wholly unique from the Filipino American struggles. Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian communities have to shout to be heard. The good news for me, in this role, is that there is no shortage of stories to tell. The challenge is being able to tell them all. It’s a good problem to have.
What does it mean to you to be an Asian woman in America presently?
My family comes from a part of the world where most women aren’t typically given the chance to reach their full potential. My mother is one of the smartest, most creative and most capable people I know. If she’d been given the same advantages I had growing up, she’d be running the country right now. I think, like a lot of first-generation Americans, I carry that sense of heritage and responsibility with me. It matters to me where my ancestors are buried. It matters to me what my parents went through to give me this life. It matters to me that I don’t waste a day. My Pakistani-American identity is unique to me – I think we all assign those parts of ourselves different significance and meaning. For me, it’s always been important to know the stories that came before mine, even as I write my own.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I’m supposed to say I like to relax, right? My husband, Paul, will be the first to tell you – I am awful at relaxing. I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing – some story I could be researching, another load of laundry that could be done, some activity I could be planning for my daughter. I’m very bad at just “letting things happen.” That said, having a child means never having to ask yourself, “Hmm, what should we do today?” Our daughter is now a toddler. And she is a curious, adventurous, little force. My greatest joy, these days, comes from all the moments in which we get to see her world expand every day. Playing in the snow for the first time. Emptying all the books off the shelves (literally, every single one.) Chasing the dog around the house. Learning to say her name. Figuring out she does not like the way kiwi tastes (then discovering the next day that she loves it.) It’s like seeing everything around you for the first time again. It is pure joy.
What is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you as you were starting your career?
I wish someone had told me not to worry about the plan so much. Actually, I’m pretty sure someone did say that and I just didn’t pay attention. But I’m a planner. And a worrier. A terrible combination. I spent a lot of time in my early career worrying about whether the choices I was making were the “right” ones. Was I heading in the right “direction?” Was I “hurting my career” by taking this path?
I’ve only recently learned to stop, and to stop treating my career like it’s something separate from the rest of my life. You only really know what’s in front of you. And if the thing that you’re doing feeds you in some way, gets you excited about getting out of bed in the morning, and makes you feel like you’re growing in some way – you’re good. Go with it. Give everything you’ve got to it and learn everything you can from it. When the next thing comes, you’ll know, and you’ll be ready.
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