Kim Wall was born to tell stories. I miss my friend’s light, and her love

Kim Wall died doing the job she loved. Caterina Clerici recalls her journalistic soul sister: full of life, bubbling with ideas and about to start a new adventure

The last time I saw Kim was in late June 2017.

She was back in New York after a few months in Europe, visiting friends in the city she loved to hate and doing the rounds with editors to pitch ideas.

Kim and I started off reporting together just over four years ago, fresh out of journalism school. We both liked to write, but I soon shifted to photo and visuals among other reasons, because it allowed us to be a team.More recently, we had begun applying for grants separately and were hardly ever in the same city. We would sometimes joke about how we had started seeing other people, but were still each others first reporting partner some kind of first love.

Over the last year and a half, a lot of things had happened: she had won fellowships with the International Womens Media Foundation to travel to Uganda and then to go back to Sri Lanka. She had also gotten a commission for a feature in Harpers Magazine on how Cubans deliver culture without the internet.

Most importantly, though, she was about to move to Beijing with her boyfriend.

After years of moving around frenetically to pursue her career which at times made her feel removed from her Swedish childhood friends, who were all already married, buying houses and starting families she finally had a long-term plan.

None of us could believe that, especially her. But she seemed truly happy. Copenhagen is super cozy and Im outrageously in love, while trying to figure out my future (freaking out every now & then!), she had texted me.

Kim
Kim on a boat to le–Vache, Haiti. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

She was excited and scared, as always, but this time more excited. Beijing was like New York in the 1980s, as she used to put it cheap, buzzing and ready for change. People are actually doing things, not just talking about doing them.

Kim had been testing the waters, spending the last year and a half living in China for a couple of months at a time. She wanted to make sure she could make ends meet working freelance, with some odd policy analysis reporting to pay the extras.

As always, she was bubbling with ideas. She wanted to write a feature on Mao impersonators, and another on the social repercussions of the one-child policy. She wanted to show a different China to western readers, but wasnt sure the time had come for a woman to take that role.

That day last June, we went to a Soho bookstore. She started reading through tomes about the history of China while I sneaked downstairs to get her a copy of Italo Calvinos Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Its one of my favorite books, and I wanted her to have a copy to always remember why she had to keep writing, despite the difficulties.

The collection of essays talks about a poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world. In my head, Calvinos auspicious image for the next millennium had blonde-reddish hair, and looked a bit like Kim.


A couple of months later, in August, Kim became the story. Her death was announced on 21 August, 11 days after she had boarded a submarine where she was to conduct an interview.

What happened to her is not the screenplay for a Swedish noir, contrary to how the media presented it. And it must never, ever be used to blame a woman for reporting on her own, or to say that women arent able to do this job.

Every independent journalist I know would have put herself or himself in that situation, pre-reporting what sounded like an extremely quirky, complex and challenging story the story of a Danish man who had started building rockets as a teenager, and invented the largest private submarine.

What saddens me the most is that she would have written a fair and beautiful portrait of an unusual character.

It would have been a perfect Kim story.

Kims reporting outfit white tennis shoes, her hair in a messy bun was always somewhere in between casual and confident, clumsy only at a first glance. A bit like her. Biting a pen in the corner of her mouth, she would absent-mindedly stare outside the car window, at a blank spot in her imagination, and then scribble down questions on her notebook until we got to the interview location.

There, shed start her magic.

In February 2015, we were on our first assignment for the Guardian US in Gibsonton, Florida, known as the town where American freakshow went to die. About 12 miles south of Tampa, the carnival capital was founded by a man called the Giant (he was over 8ft tall) and his wife, the Half-Woman (she was just over 2ft). By the 1960s, it was home to hundreds of self-defined human oddities the Monkey Girl, the Fat Lady, the Penguin Boy everyone who had run away with the circus.

For those who didnt quite fit elsewhere, as Kim wrote, Gibtown was a utopia.

This was exactly the kind of story Kim liked to do. She had a soft spot for misfits, for places and people that did not conform and were frowned upon if they stood up for themselves. She made it her mission to learn from their perspectives, always trying to make the odd one out a little less odd.

In Florida, we spent the week with some of the last-remaining carnies, as the people in the carnival industry like to call themselves. We met John Red Stuart, the oldest sword performingswallower in the world, and the King of the Sideshow, Ward Hall, a ventriloquist and sideshow owner for most of his 70 years in the circus biz. The freaks were now his family. On one of our last afternoons there, we wanted to shoot some nice footage and decided to meet with Lamount, a fire-eater who liked to go by The Human Volcano. He invited us for tea at a friends Gloria, who was in her 60s and trained chickens to perform in shows around Las Vegas.

I remember Kim looking at me with that sparkle in her eye, while Gloria was putting the kettle on.

Can you believe this is our job?


Kim was born to tell stories, and born to write. When she was six years old hardly she thought that the bedtime stories were too short, her mother Ingrid Wall told me. Then she learned to read on her own.

She grew up in Trelleborg, Sweden, in a family of journalists (her mother was a financial journalist, her father a photojournalist). Kim and her older brother, Tom, grew up with ink in their nostrils, as her mother put it, smelling five or six fresh newspapers every morning at the breakfast table. When Ingrid and her husband, Joachim, had assignments after daycare hours, they would take the kids with them.

Kim didnt want to be the kind of journalist I was, reporting on economy and business in our region, Ingrid said. She wanted to go out into the world. So, she told us she would get the best education and background so she could understand it. Above all, she wanted to give a voice to the small people, her mother remembered. The ones no one asks questions to.

Impromptu
An impromptu office at Bassin Bleu, a sacred Vodou waterfall where we accidentally crashed a drone. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

The first time I met Kim was at the writing test for the Columbia Journalism School. Right after it, we all headed to a pub to release the adrenaline and chat to our potential future classmates. Kim and I immediately bonded over a pint, talking about 1980s Italo disco music and how absurd the idea of a failed state was.

Even from a conversation in a bar, one could tell she had found a balance between an open, witty cynicism about the system and an incredible faith in humanity and peoples goodwill, which became her signature style.

One example is the article she wrote about the Kaysers, an eccentric Austro-German couple who had spent 28 years launching rockets in the Libyan desert and then retired to a private island in the Pacific:

Since 2006, the Kaysers have been the sole inhabitants of Bikendrik, a tiny island in the archipelago of Majuro, the Marshall Islands capital atoll. They live in a tropical cliche, and have leased it for 100 years.

What the Kaysers really like to talk about, however, isnt palm-fringed beaches and azure water. They like to reminisce about the time they would execute rocket launches, and they recall it in vivid terms: I was addicted to it, says Susanne Kayser. Maybe thats why [Muammar] Gaddafi liked us so much.

At one point, she was reporting on real-life vampires people who identify as vampires and claim drinking blood is far different from how Hollywood makes it look.

I thought my Gchat would break down.

  • HELLO
  • u there?
  • a vampire just reviewed me on fucking linkedin !!

Life was exciting, and Kim was full of it. It wasnt that she was eccentric. Rather, her extreme curiosity led her to see beauty everywhere in her routine, but most importantly in what was different from it. She seemed to find some solace in what she couldnt fully grasp, and she could never get enough of it.


In November 2014, Kim needed to get out of the country again to renew her student visa, and neither of us had plans for Thanksgiving. We started fantasizing about a short reporting trip to the Caribbean, and everything pointed to Haiti: the tickets were cheap enough, and the country was beautiful and eternally misrepresented. It was the worlds first black-led republic, but it was only known for dictators and earthquakes exactly the underdog kind of country we were interested in, as she used to call it.

A week before the plane took off, we went to see Howard French, a longtime foreign correspondent especially known for his work on Africa. Kim and I had both taken his foreign reporting classes at the Journalism School, and there was one piece of advice we learned from him that we never forgot: dont ever think of parachuting into a different country to report and getting away with it; if you have to, at least do your homework.

We were terrified of fucking up.

Kim
Kim after the perfect Instagram photo during a traditional Vodou ceremony at a peristyle in Jacmel, Haiti. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Maybe because we were young female journalists, and definitely because we were just starting out in our profession, we knew wed get twice as many eyes scrutinizing our ideas, motives and final work, and half the chances.

Still, it wasnt daunting; only exciting. We were ready to work harder. And we had done our homework: after talking to all the people we could get in touch with in Haiti, we went to see French to ask his opinion on three story ideas. He destroyed the most ambitious two, but quite liked the third one. It was about whether the nascent tourism industry in Haiti could save it from underdevelopment, but most importantly from its bad name. It had to do with pristine beaches and cocktails as much as with colonialism and racism.

We packed and left. The unspoken rule for the trip was simple, and stayed the same ever after: talk to all the people you see, then go back and talk to some more.


Sunscreen, first aid kit and pepper spray.

Six months after our way-too-short but life-changing first trip to Haiti, we were getting ready to go back, this time with a reporting grant. As we were packing the bags, I would tease Kim for being so Scandinavian first aid kit and pepper spray, really? until she asked if I had a family photo to take with me.

I always have one of my parents and me in my wallet, when I travel. I did a security training for journalists once and they told us it might be useful if you got kidnapped.

I got chills down my spine. It was not about Haiti being a dangerous place the chances that we would ever get kidnapped there were minimal but rather about the fact that I had never even considered that possibility, while she had clearly given it some thought.

She was never afraid, but always extremely aware of her surroundings, and never reckless. That time in Haiti, she was the one who insisted we ask our male translator to stay with us while filming by night at a camp for Haitians who had been deported from the Dominican Republic. She was the one calling out drivers, fixers and sources for not taking us seriously because were women.

Later, while she was in Cuba reporting, I remember her writing to tell me how she felt unsafe there, not only because shed gotten her bag stolen but also because she had to spend a lot of time alone, following subjects who were constantly trying to make moves on her. Calculating the risks was part of the job, and she knew there were more for her, as for all of us, just by virtue of being a woman.

She was only two years older than me, but had way more experience. She had already reported in China and in Sri Lanka, where she had been hanging with the Tamil Tigers to most, a brutal terrorist group; to her, just a slice of the population whose voice had not really been heard since the end of the civil war.

She had kept in touch with them, and every once in a while they would call her up to check how she was doing, which would break her heart. People opened their doors to her so that everyone could look into their lives, and Kim appreciated the courage that took.

Wed get anywhere thanks to the changing looks on her face: the lost, the innocuous girl, the I had no idea I could not go beyond that point that said no entry. But often, our breakthroughs were thanks to her wits and attention to details. In Port-au-Prince, we only got an interview with a gay Vodou priest who didnt otherwise seem really inclined to talk to us because Kim noticed his Justin Bieber T-shirt and started singing his songs.

Kim
Kim photographing Jalousie, one of the biggest shantytowns of Port-au-Prince. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Her Swedish bluntness also helped us nail another interview. Once, we were chatting to Roz the Diva, a pole dancing queen and personal trainer, and Kim asked her if she went to any strip clubs something I would have never dared to do, since many pole dancers get offended by peoples immediate association with strippers. Of course, I love to! Roz giggled, still a regular at many exotic venues in the Bronx. As I watched wide-eyed, they started sharing memories about similar Friday nights uptown.

She was a free journalist, and a free woman. Weaned on rye bread and Scandinavian feminism, she was liberated, much more than my typical Italian Catholic guilt would allow me to be. It was naturally she who eventually convinced me to buy my first vibrator a fierce act of sexual independence on our way to get ramen.

Orgasms are the best anxiety reducers on earth! she would say with a laugh.

Back in Brooklyn, she would make carrot, ginger and miso soup while I was editing videos, and wed try to make sense of what we had witnessed while reporting. We would fight about everything, and edit each others work until we cried everything from Instagram captions to the headlines of articles.

Too flowery, Id say about her style. Shed snap back that my writing sounded too involved. Then wed get over ourselves in a fit of laughter, remembering about the time we had spaghetti with chicken for breakfast thats the Haitian tradition, but being Italian, it took me a while to eat overcooked pasta or that time we accidentally crashed a drone into a holy Vodou waterfall (we were mortified and never told anyone, even though it was a really good story).

Kim
Kim teaching Caterina how to use a drone in a park in Williamsburg, before we left for Haiti in July 2015. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

When the phone rang, I was standing on a beach in Sicily. The black sand burnt the bottom of my feet, and a moment later the beauty of the surroundings started hurting too.

After I felt the world crumble under my feet, after I read the dehumanizing headlines, after I declined phone calls from journalists, the only thing I could bring myself to do was to write to all of our sources: the Vodou priest, the sword-swallower, the plus-size pole dancing diva, and many others.

I wanted to share the pain, but most importantly I needed to have some confirmation that we had indeed met them all along the way now that there was no one else to remember those moments with.

One of them was Ira Lowenthal, an American anthropologist and art collector we interviewed for hours on his terrace overlooking Jalousie, a shantytown in the heart of Port-au-Prince. It was a long, otherworldly night, spent talking about Vodou, slavery and racism, and fuelled by clairin (a spirit made from cane sugar). His words were soothing:

The loss is staggering, overwhelming; the crime, unspeakable.

Traumatic moments such as this reinforce our oft-forgotten sense of the sheer fragility of life itself, but also teach us what is precious in life, and in its conduct and encounters whether they be serendipitous and fleeting, as ours were with you and Kim; or become the foundation for a lifelong relationship of collaboration and caring and support.

Our fondest hope for you and others affected most deeply by this tragedy is that, in the long run, your many cherished memories of Kim will outweigh the pain and brutality of her abrupt departure, and fill the space in your hearts left by her absence.

Its up to us to reclaim her narrative which is one of lightness and light, and not of darkness.


In June, Kim had stayed at my place in New York right after we saw each other, since I had left to go reporting in Rwanda and Europe all summer. I finally made it back home in late September, four weeks after her death.

The first thing I noticed after opening the door of my bedroom was her perfume, still somehow in the air.

She had told me she had left me some presents on my desk, and there they were: a Chinese lucky cat, which I later found out is actually Japanese and call Maneki-Neko, sparklers and a Jurassic Park T-shirt. There was also a copy of Divine Horsemen, a seminal book about Haitian Vodou that Kim and I had sworn we would start studying before embarking on our next project in Haiti.

I opened the book.

On the first page, she had scribbled: Soul sister, lets go back to Haiti soon.

Its still hard to believe it wont happen. As another friend of Kims, Mansi Choksi, put it: It still feels like shes just somewhere without wifi.

  • Kims family and friends have started the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, which will be used to set up a grant administered by the International Womens Media Foundation. It will allow young female journalists to do their best work. If you want to contribute to Kims legacy, visit this page

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/12/my-friend-kim-wall-journalist

Author: Billy Roland

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