Breaking the Silence: A Conversation with Sandra Sidi ('20)
Nkiacha Atemnkeng ('22) sits down with Sandra Sidi to discuss her viral essay for The Atlantic, the challenge of self-censorship, and the relationships that have shaped her MFA experience.
It wasn't mission impossible, but it was a daunting task: write a profile on Sandra Sidi—former U.S. Government analyst in Iraq, writer, MFA student, and mother.
We meet in Flowers Hall, the home of the Texas State Department of English and its MFA program in Creative Writing, where Sidi is completing her final year. We move from one hallway to the next, looking for the ideal place to sit. When we’ve exhausted our options, Sidi jokes that this episode reminds her of the broader indecision she sometimes feels. I recall that she’d waited roughly a decade before publishing her first essay about her experience in Iraq, "What I Wish I'd Known About Sexual Assault in the Military”, in The Atlantic. Response to the essay was impressive and immediate. The piece went viral, earning Sidi the top ranking on Longreads a week later.
Finally, we spot an appealing place to sit, on the ground floor of this labyrinthine building that once served as the campus library when President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a student here. It occurs to me that we’ve chosen the one place that begs for beams of light, where nearby students’ voices linger as echoes, and it suddenly feels vaguely bunker-like; an appropriate setting to discuss Sidi’s recent content and the life experiences that inspired it. I begin to ask Sidi about her writing and her scorching, nuanced, and thought-provoking essay.
Your first published literary work, an essay titled, "What I Wish I'd Known About Sexual Assault in the Military" has gone viral. It was the number one read on Longreads in mid-September. How do you feel about the published project coming to fruition and about this moment in particular?
I think I’m still in shock. I was read from The Atlantic slush pile. I was so surprised when I got the email that they wanted the piece, I didn’t answer it immediately. Laurie Abraham (my editor) had to call me. When I saw the number from New York, I answered, “Niki?” because I only have one friend who calls me from New York. Laurie laughed and said, “Nope!”
When you work on something alone in your bed, or in a crowded café where you know no one, you have no idea what you are even doing plugging away at your computer. The response has been very exciting. I’ve received my first piece of fan mail from a sweet, 85-year-old man in Minnesota.
It takes a lot of courage to write such an essay. You grappled with the idea for ten years before putting pen to paper. What was your reason for the decade wait and why did you finally pull the skeletons out of the closet now?
Thank you. It was difficult for me to do. One of the reasons I wrote the piece was because self-censorship amongst deployed women was and is so rigorous. The piece was an attempt to counter my own self-censorship. We felt we were supposed to be GI Jane, Wonderwoman, and what if we didn't look like this? What if our friend, a female officer, had a public breakdown in the DFAC because of the level of stress? What if another friend was showing up late to her job because she was trying to avoid a coworker who routinely propositioned her for sex? I worried about showing women struggling.
The pressure to be perceived as invincible constrained even our dialogue with each other. Some of the women I was most close to, women I saw every day, I learned of what they were experiencing in Baghdad only a decade or so afterwards. We so feared being taken away from the war effort that we felt we could not even be open with each other. We guarded against any perception of weakness or vulnerability. It was a heavy and unnecessary burden. This piece was my attempt to write honestly of our vulnerability. I felt that I could at least start with transparency.
The Atlantic is known for having rigorous editing and fact-checking processes. In light of how personal this essay is, and how many years have elapsed since the events being described, was it challenging to prepare your essay for publication?
The editing was intense! The original piece I sent to Mike Curtis (fiction editor at The Atlantic) was 36 pages. How excessively long! I was very nervous for what editing would look like with them, but Laurie Abraham (my principal editor) was hilarious and worked tirelessly with me. We spoke on the phone often. I was very open to learning from her, and she was also very sensitive to several parts I was not willing to change.
Absolutely the most challenging part of the editing was the fact-checking. There is no line of this piece that was not confirmed by another individual, photo, journal entrée, and in most cases, confirmed by multiple sources. Every woman featured, and most of the men as well, had to be reached by phone. The Atlantic fact-checker compared the journal entrees of my military superiors with my own journal entrees. I submitted dozens of photos and even one of my previous analysis reports. The women featured had to sacrifice their own privacy and time to speak to the (wonderful) fact-checker at length. It was a lot to ask them to relive and I am indebted to them, not just for their life-sustaining friendship in Baghdad and in the ten years since, but for standing with me for the piece. The article isn’t just my story. It was all of ours.
What has the reaction to the story been like from former female and male colleagues, the sexual offenders themselves, and the world at large?
While writing, I frequently worried that a piece like this would be used against women. But I kept coming back to this idea that there’s a certain reality about what women's lives look like in combat zones, and we should talk about it, even if we don’t know how or if we can solve that reality. Because what is the alternative to talking about it? Silence? We did that. A decade of silence. And that did nothing for us either. Should we talk about it even if it leads to questions of women's presence in combat? Should we talk about it if it leads some women to doubt their career choice or to choose another, easier, safer path? I think these are very difficult questions and I know I’ve struggled with them.
The response from deployed women has been unanimously positive. But some women who have not deployed struggled with my openness about the vulnerability of deployed women. I struggled with it, too. I think it’s easier to give an emphatic thumbs up to deploying women if we don’t speak about their very real vulnerability to assault and harassment. But most women who have deployed themselves have mixed feelings on women in combat, and often spend years feeling very guilty for those feelings. We know what we are sending other women to. I want to be clear how much I support deployed women, but I also feel the discussion is incomplete if sexual assault and harassment are not part of the dialogue about deploying women. There is also no hope of improvement if we continue to censor ourselves.
"Because what is the alternative to talking about it? Silence? We did that. A decade of silence. And that did nothing for us either."
One of the most touching aspects of publishing this piece was the reaction of military men. Many men I worked with in Baghdad reached out to express their support, of me, my work, and of the article. From the beginning, Admiral Gregory Smith (my supervisor in Baghdad, and the highest-ranking Public Affairs officer in Iraq at that time) supported the piece. High-ranking officers I never met have written to me asking what they could do to help two women who had just volunteered to go into their submarine. Doctrine Man (a Facebook Group) shared my article with 170,000 military followers. The piece was featured on Defense One and The Early Bird Report. Those were all decisions made by military men. There is a great desire among military men to improve conditions for women.
What probably meant the most to me was the reaction of my female friends who worked with me in Baghdad. One of them—with over a decade of distinguished service for the State Department and DOD—broke down crying when she saw the piece in print. She hadn’t realized how strong she had had to be to remain in the field. She never felt able to speak about the exhaustion, even with other women. Our careers and our reputations were always on the line.
Do you have any concerns that maybe the story is making waves across the literary world because of its thematic elements rather than the excellence and beauty of the writing?
If a reader reads the piece because they find the writing beautiful, with relatable characters and an intriguing story, or if they read the piece as an anthropological text about women in combat and sexual assault or harassment, those reasons are equally viable to me. If we can combine relevant, unique content, with solid story structure, good characterization, and polished sentences, that's a win, right? Probably most readers read for a mixture of both. And if someone sits down to read for a less altruistic reason, or with preconceived ideas about deployed women, I say all the better! The talent of a good writer is you are able to impart knowledge and perspective to someone who may not otherwise have sat down to learn.
Also, my writing is not florid to begin with. Because The Atlantic has a penchant for journalistic stories, some of the “more literary” lines were scaled back or cut. They want the average reader, with no graduate degree or MFA, to be able to read the piece, and I think that’s beautiful and correct on so many levels.
You are a mother of two young kids, two boys. I'm wondering how you find the time to write given that you're also an MFA student at Texas State?
Time is in short supply, to be sure! I spent all day today building forts and putting dishes in the dishwasher. I came to graduate school with a three-year-old and a five-year-old. I was the only student parent in the program at that time. I learned to write with kids, because I didn’t become a writer until after I was a mother. When my son was a newborn, I used to sit in a recliner and lay him on my chest with my computer in my lap. I’d write for hours this way as he slept. He loved it. It gets harder when they are toddlers and running around. And when there are two of them, just accept the madness. My boys are like two little lawnmowers. I often feel I am stealing time from everywhere. I have never been able to read everything assigned for a class. I told myself from my first class that I had to learn as much from 60% of the material as other students could learn from 100%, and I think I have.
But mothers make great students, because they are incredibly judicious with their time. Women deserve their children and their dreams. I have always been uncomfortable when society has pitted one against the other. I wanted to be a mother and I wanted to be a writer, and I’m overjoyed that I am getting to do both.
Does this essay explore similar themes as your other writing projects?
Until this nonfiction piece I had written exclusively about (male) Israeli soldiers, which is where I thought most of my interest lay. I’m as surprised as anyone else that I wrote what I did about women working in Baghdad. I didn’t know how much feeling and how much tenderness toward women I had stored away inside myself.
Your novel-in-progress is about Israeli soldiers. However, you're an American. You worked in Iraq with American soldiers, as an analyst. Why did you choose to write about Israeli soldiers rather than the American military experience?
I lived in Israel for years, and spent more time living with Israeli soldiers than American soldiers, actually. My undergraduate thesis was on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not Iraq. I studied Hebrew and Arabic. In many ways I know even more about the Israeli Defense Forces than I do about the American Army. I also grew up around career officers in the I.D.F. They were and are still an intricate part of my life.
There is very little written about them and what I had read didn’t match the Israeli soldiers I knew. I came here [to Texas State] to write about the Israeli soldiers that I knew. Many of them have been in combat every week for close to twenty years, in a conflict that is now three generations old. To have found a way to survive, physically and emotionally, these men have done incredible things. Many people think career soldiers are hardened men—and they are very strong, both mentally and physically—but they are also very sensitive. They know just how precious and how transient life is. Because they never know how long they will live they appreciate the small beauties of life. They play with the street cats affectionately and pause to examine a flower. They know friendship with other men at a level that civilians do not. I cannot even describe the depth of love and loyalty these men have for each other. They are also hilarious. It’s a lot of fun writing about their brazen pranks. They have learned to find joy in tremendous hardship. And because they are frequently ostracized on a political scale, they have done all this feeling quite alone in the world.
How has the MFA program at Texas State University been useful with respect to your craft?
I had never taken a creative writing course before coming here, and in fact, had not even taken an English course as an Undergraduate. There was really nothing I knew, but my professors reached out for me with both hands. I wrote the piece in Debra Monroe’s Nonfiction class. I knew it was an uncomfortable subject and I didn’t have a binary opinion on it, but Debra encouraged me to walk forward into the grey, nuanced area. She supported me tirelessly through the lengthy editing process. She is a one-woman army! Karen Russell would meet me for office hours in my car, because that was what I could manage last year. We’d spend hours sitting in my messy car, laughing and talking. Jennifer DuBois comes to my apartment and my two boys climb all over her as we speak about my chapters. I took a Poetry class with Kathleen Pierce, which changed my writing and my life. She had us watch Flamenco dancers in order to learn strength and power. She taught me to work not just on shaping my craft, but to shape my spirit. Kathleen continues to lift me up every day. Anything I have achieved or will achieve as a writer is inseparable from this program and my wonderful mentors.
I also want to thank my classmates, Jack McClellan and Thomas Trest, who always believed in me.
What are your future plans?
Write the next piece and put these boys to bed! And someone needs to finish this novel.