Professional Autobiography

Professional Autobiography: BARBARA KASTELEIN

I was brought up in the South East of England, by Dutch parents, but primarily speaking English. My father was a language teacher. This has made me a permanent foreigner and I think has also brought me a certain sensitivity to language and its uses. When I was 14 I decided I was going to be a writer and I used to keep a diary.

My favorite subjects at school were literature, whether English, French or Spanish. My forte was in French and on the strength of my results in a French literature exam when I was 16, a teacher recommended I apply for Oxbridge. I did, but on being offered a delayed entrance (or a place if I chose to study French rather than English), I took teenage offense and decided at the age of 18 that I would accompany an aunt and then a boyfriend (who was studying American Literature) to New York and then California in a year off between school (high school) and university (college). This trip gave me ample opportunities for independent reading (Flaubert, Golding, Kafka) and I also accompanied my boyfriend to all his American Literature classes, which I found thrilling (at UCSD) and were very important to shed small-minded English prejudices I had picked up in my early teens against US culture. However, I was not fond of the way of life in Southern California and, eager to try out my Spanish, visited Mexico regularly, which is where my fascination for this country began in earnest. I wrote extensively in that year (1984 – 5), mostly in the form of descriptive letters, and this was the beginning of my leanings towards travel writing. I was an avid user of the UCSD library and learned my first computing skills there as well as learned what ethnographic film was and certain elements of cultural criticism, which fed into my intellectual interests from then on.

The first piece I published was an article critical of the unadventurous canon promoted by the philologists who ran the English department in the rag week magazine of my university college in London and it was appreciated by students but very angrily received by some of the teaching staff. Two of my fellow students and friends (Andrew Wilson, now author of a biography on Patricia Highsmith and another on Harold Robbins, and Richard Benson, author of The Farm) went on to take a one year journalism course and I was very curious about this, and have remained in contact with them. However I did not join them immediately as I was in a phase of political activism and was rather inspired to work in press offices (and “do something useful”). I worked in press first for an NGO then known as The Spastics Society, and later helped form an NGO with Olga Heaven, MBE, in which I worked as press and fundraiser, to assist foreign women in British jails. Together we created what is now an award-winning charity called Hibiscus.

I found the work fulfilling on one level but not creative enough. As I had good university contacts and had received a high degree at undergraduate level (meaning I was entitled to a full grant at PhD level), I followed my interests in media by creating with the assistance of my supervisor, Dr. Helen Taylor, a PhD in “popular cultural studies,” including media, in the Comparative Literature Department of Warwick University. The focus was on “post-feminism” as a media invention and also, arguably, a reality in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During that time I interviewed Camille Paglia for The Face magazine and Naomi Wolf for The Big Issue, and I published to date my only real academic article in a journal called “over here: reviews in american studies.”

When I finished my PhD, I spent only one semester in university teaching, and then moved to Mexico – despite having good contacts at the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), where I had given talks previously – I immediately applied for, and was given, a job in a new English language newspaper called The Mexico City Times (1995). There under the tutelage of Andrea Privitere (a Reuters journalist on sabbatical) and Ronald Buchanan, my editor, I learned some basics of sub-editing, news writing, and how to select and edit news for a daily. I wanted to write however. I gravitated at first towards the cultural supplement where I first wrote a Travel Column (the beginning of my column that I more recently held for three years in the Herald, “Travel Talk”) and restaurant reviews every two weeks. I started writing political and business news for magazines as a freelancer when that newspaper eventually folded (in 1998).

I was then given a job as “Editorial Assistant” for the Toronto Star, working with the foreign correspondent Linda Diebel for a year on Mexican, Latin American and Caribbean stories. I generated, researched and interviewed for stories, and had a welcome experience traveling, setting up itineraries, dealing with presidents’ offices, spies, the military, dissidents, human rights organizations, folk in the arts, etc. Disappointed that Ms. Diebel did not give me the opportunity to write, I left to become freelance again when pregnant with my second child. President Vicente Fox’s landmark victory took place just before I gave birth and there were many opportunities for me to write political stories. A string I had with the now defunct magazine Automotive News (Crain Publications) had me writing political, union and social stories to do with the car industry and was a good experience, as my editor encouraged me to learn more about feature writing. At around the same time, I started guidebook writing for Fodor’s and accepted a string with The Bureau of National Affairs as Environmental Correspondent in Mexico for INA (International Environment Reporter). For four years I juggled reporting on environmental law in Mexico with travel writing and cultural features. By mid 2005, the travel and tourism reportage had become self sufficient so I reluctantly left my environmental string.

Curiously, the current and I believe future, direction of my journalism career formed when I revisited aspects of my academic past, when being asked at the end of 2004 to write a chapter on Acapulco for the book Holiday in Mexico.” This book is a collection of essays on the anthropology of tourism (due to be published soon with Duke University Press). Finally, I wrote three travel vignettes for my chapter, and in the process I believe I found my voice as a writer as well as the path to much greater satisfaction as a journalist. My future plans are to diversify my journalistic writing within a specialized focus, firstly on the cliff divers of Acapulco — a project which as a journalist I find very fulfilling, not least because no serious writer has ever become this close to the divers, and this is a fruitful time of change for them (and, happily, a positive one). From here on I intend to keep up my travel journalism but with a greater confidence in my ability to focus in a way that appeals to readers, and print media publishers, on community and political change in Mexico, by looking at meanings perpetuated and also contested through various Mexican fiestas, mostly in the provinces.