Interview by Arnold Serapilio
Danna Lorch was immersed in a literary world from an early age. When she was nine, her father and mother Jim and Randy Weiss started a storytelling company that created and sold audio cassettes of classical literature and Greek mythology in northern California’s Bay Area where Lorch grew up. Many of her earliest childhood memories involved following her father to his storytelling performances or visiting bookstores and libraries.
As a teenager, Lorch’s parents enrolled her in the University of Virginia’s Young Writers’ Workshop, a summer program she attended during her high school summers. “For the first time I was around other kids like myself who thought it was a great idea to sit around quoting Sylvia Plath and other angsty things.”
Lorch has a master in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame, Massachusetts and a master in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. A prolific interviewer and writer, she has chronicled arts and culture for over a decade, first in Jordan and Dubai (more on that below), and more recently here in Boston, where she currently is a freelance writer focusing mainly on New England art, design and architecture in addition to Middle Eastern art.
Anyone looking to connect with Lorch to ask questions, write together, or commission potential stories, can do so through her website, or on Instagram, @dannawrites.
Q: How did you find the BA?
DANNA LORCH: I was looking for interesting things to write about in Boston when I moved here. I connected with Maria and began to hear about the Hayden albums, then wrote that story for Smithsonian about the acquisition of the Hayden albums. Whenever I visited the Athenæum I found it to be charming and magical but also really grounding. That so many people who’ve done incredible things have walked through those doors and had great thoughts inside. And just being among so many older books and publications is really exciting for a writer! Especially after having been in the Middle East. There aren’t many older institutions in Dubai, the excitement of Dubai is that everything is new and developing.
To be in a historic part of Boston, in a historic library, with collections dating back hundreds of years is really very thrilling. I feel like I know everyone there, even though I’ve never spoken to them, do you know what I mean? I appreciate the industriousness with which people are dedicating themselves to their research or their writing here, and it propels me not to waste my time. I arrive and see that everyone is so focused and it forces me to be focused and take risks and be daring and go places I’ve previously been perhaps too fearful to go creatively.
Not to mention how much the Athenæum has come to mean to me in such short time. I also want to give a shout out to the librarians! One of the reasons I joined was because of the research opportunities. I find it tremendously helpful to be able to book an appointment with a librarian and have someone help you with your research tasks and offer ideas. As a writer, I can’t even say how much time that saves, how reassuring it is to know there is someone who can help you find obscure texts or resources.
Q: Everyone’s writing process is different. What does yours look like?
DL: It’s changed since I became a parent. Parenthood has forced me to be a lot less precious with my words. I have these boundaries of time and I can’t cross them: I can’t be late to the preschool pick-up, and once I get home I’m usually exhausted and can’t necessarily think very creatively at night. It’s changed the way I structure my time.
I try to have one to two major deadlines a week and then set aside one afternoon (this is pre-pandemic) to go to the Athenæum and write something I’m working on for myself. I’m really protective of that time.
In general, most of my work involves interviews. I write a lot for arts publications, so most of my work involves either going to see a space, or going to see an exhibition, or visiting an artist’s studio. I get a lot of energy and structure from that. I like to record an interview, transcribe it, and write immediately after the interview. I find that if I wait any amount of time, I lose the energy of that connection and then have to retrace that feeling. And, so much of writing is also what’s not said, so if you visit an artist’s studio, it is about looking, seeing what she has on her desk, or how her books are arranged, or listening to the music she’s been playing while she works on her most recent series, or noticing that there’s silence.
Post pandemic—whatever that means—is going to be really different, because so much of my writing comes from visiting other people and spaces [laughs].
Q: What are the great struggles of your writing projects? The great joys?
DL: The biggest struggle is always hitting “send” and submitting something to an editor. I almost always have this horrible feeling of loss. Second to that is this feeling that I’ve missed something, that the piece isn’t done.
Some of the best moments come with really great editors. There’s so much to be said for editors who ask insightful questions. I really appreciate editors who edit. Editing is a craft. The author’s job is to write the piece they’re commissioned to write—not to question it or to look back at it and think it’s not ready. That’s the editor’s job.
One lovely thing about being a writer who covers visual arts is the marriage of visuals with your text. When we’re children we get to read picture books that have these beautiful images. Then, as we become adults, somehow our books aren’t supposed to have visuals, like it demeans them or makes them seem less intellectual or academic. I feel privileged to get to write in response to and in dialogue with powerful visuals so often.
Q: How did you wind up living in the Middle East?
DL: It was the post-9/11 Bush era. The CIA was recruiting and wanted people from our class who spoke Arabic to just go and sit in State Department offices and dictate how the Middle East should be run. I considered diplomacy, but I didn’t think I should do that unless I actually spent some time in the Middle East, really seeing how people lived, listening to people and learning from their stories.
Q: Your instinct to want to live the experience before passing judgment on it—did it seem like you were alone in this approach?
DL: So many of the people I graduated with went straight into counter-terrorism having never once set foot in a mosque. They would go to these very elite language immersion programs during the summers and would socialize with a very distinct class of individuals in those countries, but maybe would miss the feeling of walking down the street and talking to the average person and really listening and learning.
While at Harvard I spent a lot of time doing research in mosques. Right out of grad school I got a job as a nonprofit manager in Amman, Jordan with the Canadian outfit Right to Play. My job was, basically, to help several thousand Palestinian refugee children play [laughs]. I hired a local staff and worked with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) and spent a crazy year and a half working in refugee camps trying to get this program off the ground.
During that time I met a friend who edited the magazine Viva. When I wasn’t in a refugee camp she would send me for these crazy spa appointments where I would have to review the spa facilities at, say, the Four Seasons Amman, or whatever. The cognitive dissonance between being in a refugee camp where people sometimes couldn’t even afford shoes, to going to the Four Seasons and having a gratis $300 seaweed wrap was really confusing.
That seems like a very jarring head space to constantly occupy. Being yanked between two extremes like that.
DL: It was jarring. It was exhausting. And it was confusing! There were many powerful lessons about that time. One of the most powerful was, I lived by myself and many of my colleagues were refugees themselves and lived in what we here would consider very impoverished circumstances. And yet, they felt like I was the impoverished one because I was alone, I was without my family, I was not married—
DL: Totally different priorities—that was another thing that was quite jarring and fascinating about that time. I journaled a lot about this era, and I always thought I would write something larger about it.
When that ended, I worked for Operation Smile, another nonprofit and they sent me to Cape Town. I eventually got really burned out. Seeing that amount of suffering and poverty gets to you. I wrote full time for three months and started to get published. Then I fell in love with the man who’s now my husband. He was in Dubai so I moved there, thinking I’d get another nonprofit job, but none were very transparent. Plus most of the work involved heavy duty fundraising and development, which I had done previously, but it wasn’t what drew me to the nonprofit world. I loved sitting on a floor of a refugee camp listening to women tell their stories, helping to make those women feel heard. The idea of raising money in a non transparent way was depressing.
One day I was in an industrial area of Dubai called Al Quoz, where the art galleries are. I was at this compound called Alserkal Avenue, which now is really well-known, but at the time was still developing. It was a former marble factory that a generous patron of the arts had given over to creatives and gallerists at subsidized rental rates so they could have a community.
So I was there and had booked an interview with Syrian artist Tammam Azzam for my Jordanian friend’s magazine Family Flavours. Just before we did the interview, one of his photographs, “Freedom Graffiti,” went viral—it was all over CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times. He had superimposed Klimt’s The Kiss on a bombed out wall in Damascus which was where he was from. It had caught on as this message of hope and beauty during a really bleak time in the Syrian conflict. And I had the first interview with him since we’d already set up this time to speak! We were sitting in this little alley on this little bench and he’s chain smoking his cigarettes and the Ayyam Gallery phone inside is ringing off the hook. I realized then that this was the same thing I had done at the nonprofits: listening to people’s stories and bringing them to a wider audience.
The art scene happened to be rising in Dubai when I was there, and I became one of the first English writers to cover the art scene there and the Middle East at large. I started with blogging, then started writing for local publications, then regional publications and the newspaper, and then eventually international arts publications over the seven years I was there.
Q: I imagine living through all of this must change your worldview. Do you feel your brain is more wrinkled these days?
DL [laughs]:Right now, to me, the world actually feels larger than it has felt in a long time because borders have been clamped down due to the pandemic.
Previously though, I felt like the world was a village. Living in Dubai especially, where it’s so international and so cosmopolitan, and wherever you go you see people from so many different cultures all working together, in peace—that really is happening there. It just changed the way my brain works. But while it’s strange to now be in a place that isn’t terribly diverse, it’s also beautiful to come back to your own culture after being away for so long.
Now that I’m back here, so many times I mention having lived in the Middle East for many years, and the first thing people ask is, “Weren’t you scared?” I’m trying to get brave enough to write something about that, because I actually felt safer there than I do here, in many ways. The amount of welcome and graciousness that people gave me, as a foreign guest, was so overwhelming. The number of times people invited me into their homes, whether that was a grand home or a simple home. Also, in Dubai, we did not need to lock our doors at night. You would walk at night by yourself. If you left something at a restaurant it would not disappear.
Right now I am working on something about being a religious minority in a Muslim majority country. That’s what I’ve been doing on the fifth floor when I get brave enough to write.
Q: You’ve mentioned or alluded to creative bravery a few times. What does that mean to you specifically? Is it about forcing yourself to think really deeply about certain ideas and get lost in them? Is it simply the act of sharing your work with other people?
DL: I think there are two kinds of bravery. The first is commercial bravery. If you earn a living based off your writing you have to have so much courage to pitch things, and you have to be best friends with rejection. You can’t be too precious about sending your ideas out into the world and seeing someone ignore them or twist them or reject them. Knowing that may happen most of the time, the time your idea is accepted is exhilarating.
There’s also courage required to face down the blank page. Just the act of sitting down and forcing out that first draft is really the hardest part. When I start something I generally expect the first draft will be truly dreadful. Once I have something, even if it doesn’t feel right, I can start over, but that initial push is really frightening.
Q: Were there any particular rejections that were more formative or edifying?
DL: I don’t have a formal art history background; I do have a Middle Eastern studies background, though. When I first started writing, I didn’t really know how to approach arts publications and I didn’t really feel qualified, and I would get ghosted. So I started a blog. It was the days of the blog and I amassed quite a social media following. People were obsessed with social media in the Gulf. I don’t know if this is still the case, but while I was there the largest stats in the world for social media engagement came from the Gulf.
I think the way I initially got around rejection was by just publishing my own thoughts. I was really lucky that the gallerists and artists in the region took my work seriously and gave me space to interview really inspiring artists and creatives.
Q: Is it fair to say your experiences have made you more optimistic?
DL: I think so. Especially when I lived in Jordan, one of my projects was in Zarqa, where Zarqawi was from. I have really vivid memories of doing a teacher training with my staff and some really passionate UNRWA educators. Several of the women were fully covered, just their eyes showing. The men were mostly in traditional Islamic dress. I played children’s games with them—we were trying to figure out how we would teach their elementary school students some physical education concepts for the first time—and we laughed so hard trying to pretend to be little cars turning on our signals in a traffic jam. And how to help them, through play, learn about peace and human rights. I realized that everyone is the same, you know? I interacted quite a lot with members of various royal families in the Middle East and I don’t really see any difference in the way that people behave, or the way that people are, fundamentally. Everyone is the same.