The Pulitzer Prizes: Q&A with 2018 Feature Writing Winner Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

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Photo by Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is the author of the haunting portrait of Dylann Roof, the murderer who calmly walked into Charleston, S.C.’s Mother Emanuel AME Church and killed nine people inside. Ghansah’s powerful narrative weaves together reportage, first-person reflection and analysis of the historical and cultural forces that brought Roof to that church that day.

Ghansah’s first book, ‘The Explainers & the Explorers’ (Scribner), will be published next year. Her essay “If He Hollers Let Him Go” was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2014.

What drew you to this story initially?

I had gone to Charleston in the summer, because I knew I wanted to write about the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. I had gone there three months before I had approached GQ with the story idea to figure out who were the families, the victims. It was very much angled towards that narrative and I knew the trial was going to be a linchpin in that story and I had pretty much decided it was going to be about the trial and the victims. And as I sat through the trial I realized it has to be a story about Dylann Roof.

One of the things that prompted that was it was powerful to watch the local reporters who were based in South Carolina, like John Monk. The way he was reporting the story. For me, I thought it would be a missed opportunity to just sit in a courtroom. These people were out here working the local beats. Before I had gone here for the story, I didn’t know South Carolina. It gave me incentive to work a little bit harder, to get out there and take a bus to Columbia.

You mention this in the story several times, but what was writing this particular story like as a black woman?

I think the point of the story is to also say it happens to the white community and Dylann is white. There are real responsibilities here.

What was the writing process like for this story?

The writing process was long, and the reason it felt long was because at the time, there were moments when I couldn’t continue, when it was very intense. It felt like a crime and also a wound inflicted on a community and every time I went to write about it, it felt like I was excavating something that was horrific. The thing that was unbelievably life-changing to watch was how the victims families conducted themselves in that courtroom.

Were you ever afraid during the reporting process?

There were multiple moments where I was afraid. Anytime I was out there alone in South Carolina at night I was afraid. But I think part of that is just being a woman, and being out at night. But I think you have to be aware and so I was hyper vigilant in South Carolina because I didn’t know it well and I was also entering people’s homes or knocking on their doors. So I was aware. I would check in with my husband and friends and kind of let them know where I was, but there were real moments of fear and looking back I don’t know if I would’ve done everything that I did.

Where were you when you learned you had one and what does the prize mean to you?

I was walking home along the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and my phone just exploded with emails and calls and text messages. So I just walked over to the pier and took a moment.

I think the things that matters most to me obviously is more people will know about the tragedy that happened in Charleston and they’ll understand the origin and the context of domestic terrorism, which to me is a real problem right now. With a piece like this it’s an opportunity to take the time to really uncover where it comes from, what’s the source.

Are there any particular past Prize winners whose work you admire?

Oh my god, so many. Isabel Wilkerson is the greatest historical nonfiction author of recent memory. “The Warmth of Other Suns” is a tremendous work. Her feature that won, the lede and the way she opens that feature is so unbelievable. I’m in awe of her. Feature writing is such an intensive thing, it takes so much work. You can see where she got her start in the work she won for. There are so many prizewinners who are unbelievable to me. Alice Walker[William] FaulknerMargo Jefferson, she was my professor at Columbia. Her work I very, very much admire.

Read the interview on pulitzer.org.

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