New writing prof brings international journalism experience to UVic

Deborah Campbell is no stranger to new adventures.

From uncovering stories in Egypt, Iran, and Russia, to working undercover in Syria, Campbell brings a wealth of knowledge to her newest adventure as the UVic Creative Writing Department’s new assistant professor of creative nonfiction in September 2018 and Director of the Professional Writing program in January 2019.

“I love this idea of taking reality and shaping it into literature,” Campbell says in a phone interview about teaching creative nonfiction (CNF). “Rather than having those inverted pyramid news stories on the news of yesterday, [it’s] taking a broader view of history and politics, and using narrative to convey these greater political forces. That’s what’s attracted me to it, and turning journalism into art.”

For the past 11 years, Campbell has been teaching at UBC as a nonfiction professor, but cites the unique size of the department and the rich history of the program as reasons for her move to the island.

“One of the things that attracted me to UVic is the small size of the program. It’s more like a boutique program rather than a large, sprawling program.”

Campbell says she is excited to join an array of talented writers and journalists at UVic.

“I really hit it off with David [Leach, the Chair of the Writing Department] when I met him late last year,” says Campbell. “I had also known of other faculty members like Tim Lilburn, Joan MacLeod. I knew Lee Henderson’s work. So, I’m aware of the calibre of the faculty.”

Campbell’s work has appeared in Harper’s, the Guardian, and the Economist, and she has been published in 11 different countries and six languages. Her most recent book, A Disappearance in Damascus, won the 2016 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for literary excellence in the nonfiction category.

Before writing A Disappearance, Campbell went undercover in the Syrian city of Damascus four years before the start of the Syrian civil war, documenting the stories of Iraqi refugees. However, she found herself involved in the arrest of her local guide, Ahlam, and then went on a journey to uncover the answers to what happened to her.

A Disappearance in Damascus was definitely my most ambitious and challenging piece of work. Because I was telling the story of my friendship with my Iraqi fixer, she was also a refugee, but I was also telling the story of the Iraq war and how that war influenced the ongoing war in Syria. So, I had to balance all these political and historical contexts with a more personal narrative.”

David Leach says Campbell’s talent for combining these two aspects in a storytelling fashion is what makes her addition to the UVic Writing Department that much more special.

“Deborah Campbell instantly makes UVic’s Department of Writing the destination in Canada for aspiring nonfiction writers who want to learn how to fuse a distinct personal voice with a depth of research and a keen social conscience,” says Leach in a media release.

Prophetically, when Campbell was in high school, she took a computerized career test that told her she would be a journalist or editor in the future. Although at the time she thought the idea was ridiculous — she found covering basketball games for the high-school paper “dull” — she later realized the potential that nonfiction writing has.

“I was particularly interested in the way people behave and the small moments that illuminate, and I didn’t really realize that this was possible to do combined with journalism,” Campbell says. “That only really became clear to me when I started living and travelling abroad.”

Campbell will officially join UVic’s Writing Department on July 1, and will teach two levels of undergrad nonfiction in the fall and two nonfiction workshop classes in the spring. With David Leach taking a sabbatical in the new year to write a book, Campbell will take over as the Director of the Professional Writing program.

Her students can expect to focus on how adventurous journalism can be, as Campbell  encourages them to find stories to tell the world.

“I want to push them to look around themselves, and dare to go out into the world, even if that’s just in their own backyard,” she says. “Learn how to tell a story that reveals the world to other people.”


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