Journalist publishes first book on his politically perilous journey through South America

Born and raised in Edmonton, Alta., Arno Kopecky started off as many other young writers might – frustrated with mainstream media and having high aspirations to write novels. Reaching the inevitable quarter-life-crisis we all hit in our 20s, Kopecky set off to travel the world.

Ironically enough, he ended up landing a job working at a small newspaper in Mexico and realized that journalism was “something he could do better than writing fiction.”

 He spent his subsequent years interning at a budding journalist’s dream job – the highly reputable Harper’s Magazine in New York City. From there he moved on to work at the Walrus, and eventually branched out on his own to do freelance journalism.

Over the the past 10 years, Kopecky has travelled to over 20 countries around the world writing about globalization, culture and the environment. His work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s and many other revered publications, and he is also the co-editor of two anthologies on foreign policy.

In 2009, Canada and the United States made moves to finalize a free trade agreement with Peru, which would essentially allow them open access to the vast expanse of Peru’s Amazon.

The indigenous population responded with a massive protest – 3,000 Awajun natives set up a blockade along a thin stretch of highway in Peru called The Devil’s Curve which disrupted trade routes and inhibited resource extraction. A state of emergency was called and a deadly battle ensued, resulting in one of the worst examples of political violence Peru has seen today.

Kopecky journeyed down to South America in 2011 to investigate the “whys” behind the incident, and ended up writing his first novel The Devil’s Curve, which was published in September 2012. On the eve of his appearances at Wordfest in Calgary this week, Kopecky spoke to the Calgary Journal about his life-changing excursion through Peru and Colombia.

How did your initial investigation on The Devil’s Curve evolve from “just a plan” into a book?

Kopecky just finished a three-month excursion up the B.C. coast investigating the ecosystems likely to be affected by the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

Photo courtesy of Arno KopeckyI got a fellowship through the Gordon Foundation in Toronto that gave money to various people to pursue foreign policy. Even though it wasn’t for journalism per se, I managed to convince them to give me a shot at investigating Canada and America’s strategy. So, my year in Peru was mostly going to be writing some newspaper stories and submitting reports to the Gordon Foundation about what I was finding out. Ironically, one of the directors on the board of the foundation – who happened to be one of the founders of Douglas & McIntyre, the publishing house that published my book – found out about my project, and said it might make for an interesting book. But there were no promises made, and I had no idea what kind of year lay ahead of me. I was hoping I would have enough for a book, and it turns out, I did.

How did you, as a journalist from one of the countries that played such a crucial part in The Devil’s Curve incident, get the Peruvian people to open up and confide in you?

We have to use the term journalist loosely here – I don’t even really know if I am one. Mostly, I just try to find people who are willing to hang out with me, and then get them to forget that I’m a journalist. I go out of my way not to interview people – unless it’s a politician who only has 10 minutes for me – and I just wanted to get a sense of what people were like in the Amazon. And that’s where I think mainstream media failed in this situation – they didn’t get a flavor of the psychology, personality and culture of these people. So rather than trying to “trick” people into answering certain questions, I genuinely wanted to get to know them and befriend them. It’s still hard. You have to have patience, have more than one sit down with them – some I spent days and weeks with – and then you just end up becoming a part of their lives. It also depends on your personality. Are you somebody who likes to talk to other people, is genuinely curious, and wants to contribute? If not, then you’re not going to care about these people or their situation.

What was it like writing a journalistic piece of literature on such an easily biased topic from a first-person perspective?

I feel like objectivism is becoming part of yesteryear. For me, it’s about transparency. In this book, I think it’s pretty clear where my sympathies lie – with the natives and the environment. Rather than trying to hide that, I’m trying to spell out “why.” In the last few years, we are seeing more and more literary journalism, or first-person stories. And that’s because we are a part the story. For me, a big part of it was the relationship: first-world versus non-first-world. What’s it like for a white middle-class kid from Edmonton to go meet somebody in the jungle and explore the cultural divides we have to bridge in order to understand one another? That whole process was just as interesting to me as the politics behind free trade and resource extraction. For me, it was the most honest way to approach the subject, to be transparent about it.

What do you hope your readers take away from your book?

I hope they get a flavour, a sense of what this part of the world is like and who the people are. There are a lot of political overtones, and I guess I do hope to expand national awareness about free trade, this age of resource extraction, diminishing supplies and climate change. But really, I just want them to be interested in a good story. Really good stories rely on characters, and I hope they come away with a couple belly laughs, maybe some tears, and really get to know some of the people whom I got to know. I also hope it makes readers realize that we’re all people. The natives aren’t crazy people who live out in the jungle that have nothing in common with us. We have tons in common; all the basic things of humanity – love, betrayal, fear, hope, ambition – all these things are universal.

What’s the next big project you are working on?

I do have another book underway – basically a Canadian sequel to The Devil’s Curve that focuses on the Enbridge northern gateway pipeline proposal. It’s called The Oilman and the Sea. It’s a travel log about the three months I just spent learning how to sail down the coast of British Columbia, following the oil tanker routes and meeting a lot of first nations groups who would be affected by the oil spills. It was a pretty powerful experience, I’m still kind of at sea right now.

abrooks@cjournal.ca