LeBlanc Speaks on Literary Journalism



Elisabeth Tone

On the evening of Monday, November 30, journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc rushed into the Robert H.N. Ho Lecture Room in Lawrence Hall. Her flight from New York had been delayed, and she was running late for the lecture scheduled for 7 p.m. Despite this slight delay, LeBlanc’s reading of her book Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx and the advice she gave to the aspiring journalists in the room was compelling and informative. Her reading was sponsored by the English Department, the Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts, the Humanities Division, Sociology and Anthropology, Women’s Studies and the Upstate Institute.

LeBlanc is a literary journalist whose investigative work has appeared in publications like The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Esquire and The Village Voice. She was an editor at Seventeen magazine after earning her Master’s degree in Modern Literature from London’s Oxford University, and now teaches at Columbia University and New York University. She is currently working on a book about stand-up comedians and has been following different comedians around for the past seven years.

LeBlanc revealed that she developed a sense of humor when writing Random Family, which came as quite a surprise considering the nature of the subject matter that she tackles in the book. Beginning in 1989, LeBlanc followed the lives of four adolescents living in the south Bronx: Boy George, Jessica, Cesar and Coco. For the next eleven years, LeBlanc interviewed and interacted with these four individuals, their families and their friends in order to get an idea of what their day-to-day lives were like. LeBlanc ultimately chronicled everything she had seen, heard and experienced during her immersion in the Bronx. The result is a true tale about drug deals, imprisonment, teenage mothers and other troubles afflicting these adolescents in the Bronx.

“[Ms.] LeBlanc immersed herself in her subjects’ lives for more than a decade in order to write the true story of two women growing up in the Bronx. [LeBlanc’s  novel] is, as the subtitle suggests, about love, drugs and trouble, but it’s mostly about the ways in which poverty narrows people’s choices. In addition to spending thousands of hours with her subjects, Ms. LeBlanc went through reams of legal papers, listened to wiretaps, attended trials, read correspondence and visited the prisons where some of her subjects were serving time,” Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice said of LeBlanc’s distinctive writing process.

In her introduction of LeBlanc, Brice described Random Family as “not an easy book to read, but a necessary book to read.”

In order to obtain a clear picture of what these people’s lives were like, LeBlanc practiced “immersion journalism.” Throughout the course of her immersion, she had been forced to abandon her idealism. One day she witnessed the eviction of an entire family, their possessions aggressively cast out into the hall. Although she insisted that they should call someone or do something to stop this tragedy, the evicted family was just “trying to get through it, steel themselves against it.”

“Idealism can blind you to what’s going on before you. The reality was so relentless that I had to let go of my idealism,” LeBlanc said prior to her reading.

When she finally left the projects and returned to her normal life, she was surprised to find that things weren’t so hard – she was surprised when simple technology like doorbells and elevators functioned correctly. Still, the world that she depicts in Random Family is a reality for some who face the constant threat of eviction or arrest. In an effort to make her audience understand that such a reality exists, LeBlanc pushed the information in narrative form instead of trying to use cold, quantitative statistics to illustrate the tragedy.

During the reporting of Random Family, LeBlanc remained on the periphery as the decision to intervene could complicate the integrity of the story being told. She was capturing the lives of kids she had known for more than ten years, though she still didn’t know their last names. In contrast, her new book on stand-up comedians will likely ends up being a double profile of the comedians and journalists. The comedians that LeBlanc has followed are always pushing boundaries, so that she has to deal with almost too much access.

“With the comedians it’s a question of getting them to stop talking,” LeBlanc joked.

Brice found LeBlanc’s public reading to be incredibly interesting, and was pleased that she spoke a great deal about the writing process she went through after her immersion.

“I thought her talk was terrific. She spoke both about the nuts and bolts of journalism – how one gets the story – as well as the ethics of writing about people in poverty, and the actual writing of the book. As a writing teacher, I always love it when a writer says, in front of students, ‘I had to rewrite the opening 40 times, and it took me seven months.’ I sometimes think there’s an inverse ratio between how easy something is to read and how hard it was to write, and she confirmed that,” Brice said.

Junior Emily Kelly echoed Brice’s sentiments.

“Listening to her speak really inspired me to think about my approach to reporting and has helped me to think of new ways to learn about my subjects. The book Random Family was incredibly fascinating, but I think what makes it truly special is the decade of reporting and researching LeBlanc put into her work,” Kelly said.

The following morning, LeBlanc joined Brice’s Literary Journalism class, which is linked with a Photojournalism course in the art department this semester. Brice assigned Random Family to the 15 students in English 379 prior to LeBlanc’s visit to campus.

“I usually assign the book when I teach this course because I think it’s one of the best works of American literary journalism ever written,” Brice said.

During her time with the Literary Journalism class, LeBlanc was eager to hear about the students’ own projects and offered solutions to those who had run into problems during the course of their investigations.

“She advised aspiring journalists to know themselves very well before they embarked on a major project. They should know what scares them, and they should try to overcome those fears themselves in order to understand the experiences of others.”

Kelly was definitely inspired by LeBlanc’s advice for her own journalism project.

“Her insights have given me a lot to consider with our literary journalism final project, and I left her lecture wanting to jump into my own project.