Tag Archives: Tristan Ahtone

An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

12 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in a series for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in the series, America by Bus, for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To read an exercise about writing character descriptions based on Ahtone’s essay on riding Greyhound busses across America, click here.

In this interview, Ahtone discusses the role of human and technical limitations on writing and choosing what makes the cut in a piece of journalism.

Michael Noll

It seems like something you’re trying to convey in these pieces is the fleeting nature of encounters on a bus. So, for example, your description of Russell Hall focuses on only a few seconds of observation: Hall on the phone, a glance given to him by a woman sitting nearby, a look that he gives to something he set out the window, the condition of the Bible he’s holding. Was it tempting to try to make more of this encounter? Or was the opposite true: was the challenge instead trying to build a vignette out of only a few details?

Tristan Ahtone

Each encounter we had during this story could have been expanded to a feature-length story. The challenge was having so much detail and condensing it into a vignette. However, in Mr. Hall’s case, the simple nature of his story stemmed from a technical error, embarrassingly enough: the recorder we used to interview our subjects decided to become uncooperative, so there were no accurate quotes save for what I caught in my notes when first observing him. It would have been great to get his backstory in—he worked for the Los Angeles public school system as a truancy officer and had been involved in the church for years traveling the country by bus—but when I sat down to write about him, I found that the brief encounter offered more with less dialogue. So in short, Mr. Hall’s story functions as a fleeting encounter but its creation stems from a technical problem and having to make due with good note taking to replace missing quotes.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that you capture. In the piece about Hu Li, the dialogue isn’t really conversation so much as different people talking at the same time. You must have overheard or participated in so many conversations. How did you decide which ones to write up?

Tristan Ahtone

There are about half a dozen interviews we did that never made it to the final product and many never even made draft form. In each case my partner Tomo Muscionico and I would strike up conversations with people, feel out whether we wanted to continue the conversation for a story, and eventually asked to mic them up so we could record that interview. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In the end, a lot of people we took photos of and interviewed didn’t make it in usually because their narrative wasn’t as strong when putting it in short form. For instance, there was a woman named Dianne Whitlock, who showed up briefly in Rosalinda’s vignette – she had a wonderful story and had a great conversation with another gentlemen that had his own vignette that was also eventually cut. The primary reason was because in short form, we couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, we gathered as much material as we could, and when we sat down to write and edit it, a lot of people washed out.

Michael Noll

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

In his essay on riding Greyhound busses, Tristan Ahtone met a woman named Rosalinda who was traveling from Guatemala to Florida and who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

In the piece about Rosalinda, you write, “She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison.” This description has two parts: the detail (matching yellow wristbands) and the interpretation (the kind one gets…). How much of your task as a journalist, as a writer, is helping the readers understand the details you show them?

Tristan Ahtone

I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience. We spent a long time with Rosalinda and ran into her twice: once at the Phoenix bus station and again on a bus we boarded in El Paso. I think I can speak for my partner, Tomo, that we’re not the superstitious types, but we knew we had to write her story when we ran into her again. We had to do something. She was too special and too important to let drive off without trying. That meant we had to get really creative, though: we couldn’t talk to her, nobody could really, so we had to take a lot of pictures and extensive notes so that we could make her a real person to our audience, and that meant keeping an eye to detail and interpreting who she was, where she was going, and what her situation was based on physical information that was available.

Michael Noll

In that same passage about Rosalinda, you have the problem of not being able to communicate with her. So, you approach the description through the other passengers’ eyes and knowledge about her. As a result, the passage becomes not just about Rosalinda but also everyone else on the bus, the community they form. Was that approach a matter of simply using the information available, or had you sketched out a variety of approaches to these passages before the trip?

Tristan Ahtone

The only thing we had sketched out prior to going on the trip is where we would leave from and where we would end up and even that changed mid-way through. Originally, I wanted Rosalinda’s story to be weaved in throughout the entire piece with other passengers narratives. The original structure I sketched out more closely resembled a Robert Altman film with a number of different characters all overlapping at various places. I couldn’t get it to work though, one reason being that while we have rich detail on everyone we spoke with, there wasn’t enough information to support a story that long. It also felt confusing, so we scrapped it. One of the only variations of that idea that remains in the final piece is the interaction between Lonnie Head and Christopher Nyman in Nashville. Had we stuck with the original structure, you likely would have seen a lot more interactions like that between a lot of the people we met. As I mentioned before, Dianne Whitlock makes an appearance in Rosalinda’s vignette: originally she had her own story, which is part of the reason she’s even named at all in this one instead of just identified as another passenger. In the end I really liked how Rosalinda’s story came to embody a greater sense of community. I think that people deride and criticize people who ride busses, but I have to say, I’ve never seen people on a plane act so kindly to each other. In Rosalinda’s case, we observed how people behaved toward her and reported it. If she had been treated poorly, we would have written it that way instead.

Originally posted in January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

9 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America‘s project, “The United States of Bus Travel.” Photo credit: Tomas Muscionico, Al Jazeera America

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can read the entire project here.

How the Essay Works

The final part of the series, “The Mother,” is about a passenger named Rosalinda who spoke no English. (You can find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.) Normally Ahtone’s approach was to strike up a conversation, but, in this case, that wasn’t possible because Rosalinda didn’t speak English. Watch how Ahtone builds that inability to communicate into the first part of the description:

Rosalinda had all her possessions in two bags: a trash bag and a giant resealable storage bag with the Homeland Security logo on it. She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison. She spoke no English and only a touch of Spanish and, from what passengers could gather, had taken a bus from Guatemala to Arizona 13 days before and was now bound for Florida.

Notice how Ahtone starts with what can be observed: what Rosalinda carries with her and the wristbands she shares with her baby. At that point, he’s run out of what can be learned directly, and so he finds a way to learn information indirectly: “from what passengers could gather.” In short, Ahtone is using the impressions and knowledge of the people around Rosalinda as a source of information rather than Rosalinda herself.

The rest of the vignette becomes as much about those people around her as about Rosalinda herself. Here’s the bus driver:

“She’s probably Central American or something,” said the bus driver. “I think she’s going all the way to Miami. That happens all the time on this schedule. We get a lot of Central Americans probably getting sent from one detention area to another, and they’re being processed.”

Through this quote, we learn something about the route and the people who tend to travel it.

Here’s another passenger on the bus:

“I want to get her something to eat when we stop, but I don’t know how to communicate with her,” said Dianne Whitlock as Rosalinda’s baby cried. “She’s not eating.”

And here is how the passage ends:

At the next stop, passengers in her section pooled their resources for water, soda, chips, diapers, baby food and a cheeseburger with a side of fries.

By looking beyond Rosalinda for information about her, the writer has also opened up the vignette to the world around the person he is ostensibly focused on. We learn about her, but we also learn about the kind of route she’s on and the way that a temporary community develops on the bus. All of this is built from statements made about Rosalinda by the other people on the bus.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s describe a character from the perspective of others, using “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone as a model:

  1. Describe the character using what can be observed. Ahtone describes what Rosalinda is carrying with her and one notable part of her wardrobe: the matching yellow wristbands. The key is to choose details that convey something about the character. It’s actually a good exercise to pretend that you’re viewing your character while riding on a bus. In that situation, it’s natural to draw conclusions about people from what they’re wearing or carrying or from their posture or behavior. So, choose one or two basic details that allow the reader to infer some basic aspects of the character’s life, background, or situation.
  2. State the impediment to knowing more about the character. In Ahtone’s case, he didn’t speak Rosalinda’s language. But language isn’t the only possible impediment. Perhaps a character doesn’t want to talk or cannot talk due to a physical cause or due to the situation (no one or someone isn’t allowed to speak). There are many situations that we encounter where speaking openly or at all isn’t possible or socially acceptable (like on an elevator). Don’t be coy. State clearly the reason the characters cannot talk.
  3. Look for other sources of information. The most obvious, of course, are other people, but in the absence of people, you can study the character’s relationship to her possessions or surroundings. (Think of the Sherlock Holmes line about watching what a woman first rescues from a burning home.) If other people are present, consider the difference in their perspective compared to your own (or your narrator’s). For example, on Ahtone’s bus trip, the other passengers had been riding the bus with Rosalinda for a while, and in that time, they’d observed her acting or not acting in ways that stood out to them. They’d likely tried to talk to her in Spanish and failed at that. Like Ahtone, you can use these different perspectives and levels of knowledge/experience to convey information that is not directly accessible to you or your narrator. What do other people think or see or notice or say?
  4. Look to the setting for information. Ahtone gets a crucial piece of information from the driver, who has seen many passengers like Rosalinda. So, think of your character as being part of a trend or demographic. We draw conclusions about others based on age, gender, dress, race, ethnicity, language, etc, all of the time. What conclusions can/would your characters draw based on their own experience and the setting where the story occurs?
  5. Consider how the other perspectives interact. On the bus, the other passengers worry about Rosalinda and eventually pool their money to buy her food and diapers. Of course, the other perspectives don’t need to react positively. We’re all coming out of the holidays, and so we’ve perhaps been reminded that not all personalities gel or work well together. If a character has drawn many people’s interest, how does that shared interest cause them to behave?

The goal is not only learn about a character who cannot or will not speak but also to learn about the surrounding characters and world.

Good luck.

An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

7 Jan
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in a series for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in the series, America by Bus, for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To read an exercise about writing character descriptions based on Ahtone’s essay on riding Greyhound busses across America, click here.

In this interview, Ahtone discusses the role of human and technical limitations on writing and choosing what makes the cut in a piece of journalism.

Michael Noll

It seems like something you’re trying to convey in these pieces is the fleeting nature of encounters on a bus. So, for example, your description of Russell Hall focuses on only a few seconds of observation: Hall on the phone, a glance given to him by a woman sitting nearby, a look that he gives to something he set out the window, the condition of the Bible he’s holding. Was it tempting to try to make more of this encounter? Or was the opposite true: was the challenge instead trying to build a vignette out of only a few details?

Tristan Ahtone

Each encounter we had during this story could have been expanded to a feature-length story. The challenge was having so much detail and condensing it into a vignette. However, in Mr. Hall’s case, the simple nature of his story stemmed from a technical error, embarrassingly enough: the recorder we used to interview our subjects decided to become uncooperative, so there were no accurate quotes save for what I caught in my notes when first observing him. It would have been great to get his backstory in—he worked for the Los Angeles public school system as a truancy officer and had been involved in the church for years traveling the country by bus—but when I sat down to write about him, I found that the brief encounter offered more with less dialogue. So in short, Mr. Hall’s story functions as a fleeting encounter but its creation stems from a technical problem and having to make due with good note taking to replace missing quotes.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that you capture. In the piece about Hu Li, the dialogue isn’t really conversation so much as different people talking at the same time. You must have overheard or participated in so many conversations. How did you decide which ones to write up?

Tristan Ahtone

There are about half a dozen interviews we did that never made it to the final product and many never even made draft form. In each case my partner Tomo Muscionico and I would strike up conversations with people, feel out whether we wanted to continue the conversation for a story, and eventually asked to mic them up so we could record that interview. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In the end, a lot of people we took photos of and interviewed didn’t make it in usually because their narrative wasn’t as strong when putting it in short form. For instance, there was a woman named Dianne Whitlock, who showed up briefly in Rosalinda’s vignette – she had a wonderful story and had a great conversation with another gentlemen that had his own vignette that was also eventually cut. The primary reason was because in short form, we couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, we gathered as much material as we could, and when we sat down to write and edit it, a lot of people washed out.

Michael Noll

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

In his essay on riding Greyhound busses, Tristan Ahtone met a woman named Rosalinda who was traveling from Guatemala to Florida and who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

In the piece about Rosalinda, you write, “She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison.” This description has two parts: the detail (matching yellow wristbands) and the interpretation (the kind one gets…). How much of your task as a journalist, as a writer, is helping the readers understand the details you show them?

Tristan Ahtone

I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience. We spent a long time with Rosalinda and ran into her twice: once at the Phoenix bus station and again on a bus we boarded in El Paso. I think I can speak for my partner, Tomo, that we’re not the superstitious types, but we knew we had to write her story when we ran into her again. We had to do something. She was too special and too important to let drive off without trying. That meant we had to get really creative, though: we couldn’t talk to her, nobody could really, so we had to take a lot of pictures and extensive notes so that we could make her a real person to our audience, and that meant keeping an eye to detail and interpreting who she was, where she was going, and what her situation was based on physical information that was available.

Michael Noll

In that same passage about Rosalinda, you have the problem of not being able to communicate with her. So, you approach the description through the other passengers’ eyes and knowledge about her. As a result, the passage becomes not just about Rosalinda but also everyone else on the bus, the community they form. Was that approach a matter of simply using the information available, or had you sketched out a variety of approaches to these passages before the trip?

Tristan Ahtone

The only thing we had sketched out prior to going on the trip is where we would leave from and where we would end up and even that changed mid-way through. Originally, I wanted Rosalinda’s story to be weaved in throughout the entire piece with other passengers narratives. The original structure I sketched out more closely resembled a Robert Altman film with a number of different characters all overlapping at various places. I couldn’t get it to work though, one reason being that while we have rich detail on everyone we spoke with, there wasn’t enough information to support a story that long. It also felt confusing, so we scrapped it. One of the only variations of that idea that remains in the final piece is the interaction between Lonnie Head and Christopher Nyman in Nashville. Had we stuck with the original structure, you likely would have seen a lot more interactions like that between a lot of the people we met. As I mentioned before, Dianne Whitlock makes an appearance in Rosalinda’s vignette: originally she had her own story, which is part of the reason she’s even named at all in this one instead of just identified as another passenger. In the end I really liked how Rosalinda’s story came to embody a greater sense of community. I think that people deride and criticize people who ride busses, but I have to say, I’ve never seen people on a plane act so kindly to each other. In Rosalinda’s case, we observed how people behaved toward her and reported it. If she had been treated poorly, we would have written it that way instead.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

5 Jan
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America‘s project, “The United States of Bus Travel.” Photo credit: Tomas Muscionico, Al Jazeera America

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can read the entire project here.

How the Essay Works

The final part of the series, “The Mother,” is about a passenger named Rosalinda who spoke no English. (You can find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.) Normally Ahtone’s approach was to strike up a conversation, but, in this case, that wasn’t possible because Rosalinda didn’t speak English. Watch how Ahtone builds that inability to communicate into the first part of the description:

Rosalinda had all her possessions in two bags: a trash bag and a giant resealable storage bag with the Homeland Security logo on it. She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison. She spoke no English and only a touch of Spanish and, from what passengers could gather, had taken a bus from Guatemala to Arizona 13 days before and was now bound for Florida.

Notice how Ahtone starts with what can be observed: what Rosalinda carries with her and the wristbands she shares with her baby. At that point, he’s run out of what can be learned directly, and so he finds a way to learn information indirectly: “from what passengers could gather.” In short, Ahtone is using the impressions and knowledge of the people around Rosalinda as a source of information rather than Rosalinda herself.

The rest of the vignette becomes as much about those people around her as about Rosalinda herself. Here’s the bus driver:

“She’s probably Central American or something,” said the bus driver. “I think she’s going all the way to Miami. That happens all the time on this schedule. We get a lot of Central Americans probably getting sent from one detention area to another, and they’re being processed.”

Through this quote, we learn something about the route and the people who tend to travel it.

Here’s another passenger on the bus:

“I want to get her something to eat when we stop, but I don’t know how to communicate with her,” said Dianne Whitlock as Rosalinda’s baby cried. “She’s not eating.”

And here is how the passage ends:

At the next stop, passengers in her section pooled their resources for water, soda, chips, diapers, baby food and a cheeseburger with a side of fries.

By looking beyond Rosalinda for information about her, the writer has also opened up the vignette to the world around the person he is ostensibly focused on. We learn about her, but we also learn about the kind of route she’s on and the way that a temporary community develops on the bus. All of this is built from statements made about Rosalinda by the other people on the bus.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s describe a character from the perspective of others, using “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone as a model:

  1. Describe the character using what can be observed. Ahtone describes what Rosalinda is carrying with her and one notable part of her wardrobe: the matching yellow wristbands. The key is to choose details that convey something about the character. It’s actually a good exercise to pretend that you’re viewing your character while riding on a bus. In that situation, it’s natural to draw conclusions about people from what they’re wearing or carrying or from their posture or behavior. So, choose one or two basic details that allow the reader to infer some basic aspects of the character’s life, background, or situation.
  2. State the impediment to knowing more about the character. In Ahtone’s case, he didn’t speak Rosalinda’s language. But language isn’t the only possible impediment. Perhaps a character doesn’t want to talk or cannot talk due to a physical cause or due to the situation (no one or someone isn’t allowed to speak). There are many situations that we encounter where speaking openly or at all isn’t possible or socially acceptable (like on an elevator). Don’t be coy. State clearly the reason the characters cannot talk.
  3. Look for other sources of information. The most obvious, of course, are other people, but in the absence of people, you can study the character’s relationship to her possessions or surroundings. (Think of the Sherlock Holmes line about watching what a woman first rescues from a burning home.) If other people are present, consider the difference in their perspective compared to your own (or your narrator’s). For example, on Ahtone’s bus trip, the other passengers had been riding the bus with Rosalinda for a while, and in that time, they’d observed her acting or not acting in ways that stood out to them. They’d likely tried to talk to her in Spanish and failed at that. Like Ahtone, you can use these different perspectives and levels of knowledge/experience to convey information that is not directly accessible to you or your narrator. What do other people think or see or notice or say?
  4. Look to the setting for information. Ahtone gets a crucial piece of information from the driver, who has seen many passengers like Rosalinda. So, think of your character as being part of a trend or demographic. We draw conclusions about others based on age, gender, dress, race, ethnicity, language, etc, all of the time. What conclusions can/would your characters draw based on their own experience and the setting where the story occurs?
  5. Consider how the other perspectives interact. On the bus, the other passengers worry about Rosalinda and eventually pool their money to buy her food and diapers. Of course, the other perspectives don’t need to react positively. We’re all coming out of the holidays, and so we’ve perhaps been reminded that not all personalities gel or work well together. If a character has drawn many people’s interest, how does that shared interest cause them to behave?

The goal is not only learn about a character who cannot or will not speak but also to learn about the surrounding characters and world.

Good luck.

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