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Updated Apr 14, 2024, 6:07pm EDT

Jina Moore Ngarambe: ‘The idea that empathy is zero-sum’

Jina Moore.
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Jina Moore Ngarambe is a veteran reporter who was East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, among other assignments. She resigned as volunteer editor-in-chief of the globally-minded online literary magazine Guernica on April 5, after contributors revolted over an essay by Israeli writer Joanna Chen, on coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The magazine’s founder, Michael Archer, wrote later that he’d opposed publishing the essay because he felt it elevated “individual angst … above the collective suffering” of Palestinians. He announced April 12 that Moore had been replaced by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, a fiction writer who offers an antiracist training course.

In her first interview since her exit, Moore challenges some of the claims about the incident, and reflects on why what she saw as an attempt to explore “empathy” was unwelcome at Guernica.


Ben: What is Guernica for? Why did you become involved in it?

Jina: It caught me as a reader because it was different from other magazines. It was doing the kinds of work and getting interviews with the kinds of people that you wouldn’t see in a lot of other places. It was a little like a literary New York Magazine — that feeling of being a little in the culture, a little bit edgy, but not so far outside of it. And it published fiction and poetry, as well.

Ben: Obviously, Guernica is of the left — but what does that mean in this context?


Jina: There was a general skepticism of political power, and of American imperial power. But it wasn’t a project of people who are committed to a particular political party or ideology. It [had] an awareness that everything is more complicated than it seems, and a lot of people aren’t telling the truth — not even the “good guys.” I guess everybody came to Guernica with a slightly different Guernica in mind, too, but all the currents ran in the same direction.

Ben: What was your favorite work you published as editor in chief?

Jina: We did a package on the Korean poet Kim Hyesoon last year in July, and it was one of these lovely bits of serendipity that happens at Guernica sometimes — the poetry editor had a line on excerpting one of her poems from a forthcoming collection, and I had meanwhile seen a translator on Twitter talking about these strange non-poems that she had written. So I struck up a back and forth with [the translator] about whether any of it might be ripe for inclusion in Guernica. And then he helped us get illustrations from a Korean artist for the package, and we ended up going back into our archives and finding an interview we had done with her 10 years before.


Another was a piece about solitary confinement that was written by a guy serving a life sentence in Texas. He wrote as a kind of reporter-informant. And he recognized that the ways in which he was being transferred around. … [Texas was] covering up by relabeling and moving people around, to continue policies that amount[ed] to solitary confinement while not having to use the word.

Ben: After Oct. 7, did you feel like, “OK, Guernica has a specific role in this argument, in this conflict?”

Jina: One thing that I was thinking about immediately was that we have a long, long history of publishing Palestinian writers. And so I immediately started pulling together a collection of work we had published. When I went back and looked at the work we had published from Palestine, there were pieces there by people about being bombed by Israel in Gaza in past years — so that you could appreciate some of the cyclicality of what was happening now. And so that it felt like an important thing also to be able to add to the conversation, especially early on. We published it in early November.

Ben: Did you feel the tensions on the left immediately after Oct. 7?

Jina: Me personally, not exactly. I’ve [lived] abroad for a long time. And so my left and the American left, they’re not always the same. These days I have been in Seattle with a toddler. But when I came to New York in November, I noticed something palpably different [about] the ways that people who I am close to, who come from lots of different backgrounds and might have different positions on Israel — the ways that this was really at the forefront of their life.

Ben: What did you like about [Chen’s] piece?

Jina: I understood it to be asking an important question. I understood it not to necessarily find a particularly great answer. The sort of baseline question I understood it to be asking is: How can you operate from a position of empathy in such a moment? One of my takeaways from the piece was [that] it’s very difficult and it might not be possible.

Ben: Was there anything unusual, in terms of process, about the way that this got published?

Jina: No. It’s not any different than how I published nonfiction in, say, January or in September last year. [It’s] a production process that involves review of different stages by different people, and we ticked all those boxes.

Ben: [Archer] seems to be saying now that he raised objections to it and you overrode him. Is that true?

Jina: That is not correct.

Ben: What do you make of the reaction to Chen’s piece?

Jina: I received some notes that were really good reading notes. I might have edited [it] a little differently … in retrospect.

The statement that went up on Friday is even a little more clear than in my earlier conversations, that a single interpretation is going to decide what readers can read.

It’s not uncommon for smart people to disagree about how they interpret a piece. And I think that that’s in publishing, that’s a virtue and not a threat. I don’t really know how to do a publication in a different way, which is one reason I knew I didn’t belong there anymore.

Ben: [Archer] did state the basic criticism of the piece quite clearly: that it’s immoral to discuss individual angst when there is a collective struggle. Do you believe that?

Jina: We clearly have different readings of the piece, right? But I think “individual angst” is dismissive. And one thing I’m aware of is that work written by women that foregrounds themes like empathy and caregiving is easy to diminish, and it’s easy to miss the politics of that, too. I think the empathy question in this piece is a way of asking how we handle moral culpability in environments where we have no power. And so I’m worried about a rule about who’s allowed to express empathy, and more broadly about the idea that empathy is zero-sum, because it’s not just about empathy.

Ben: What did this whole thing say to you about this moment, and about, particularly, the way Gaza is shaping people’s views and lives?

Jina: One of the questions that seems to me to be at issue is whether and can think about empathy outside a victim’s perspective. “Empathy” is a tricky word, because it sounds soft and gendered. But I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to understand how empathy operates in communities that are being driven apart by identity. I have seen the way people’s empathy pushes them, in their private lives, to make choices that counter state violence, and the narratives of violence the state wants its people to subscribe to. That drive usually comes down from on top and when there is a political will to instrumentalize that identity. Generally, I’m looking at cases where it causes violence. I think this piece managed to get inside that space in a way that was really interesting to me.

But I think that if the takeaway here is if there’s a way of looking at the world that tells you which singular perspective you’re allowed, what we end up with is a series of literary magazines — one is for this perspective and one is for that perspective. I’m not sure what those magazines are for.

It might also say something that actually is not unfamiliar: that in moments of intense violence, it becomes too hard to talk across communities, across boundaries, whatever it is. I’m thinking about the United States during the launch of the Iraq war, and that feeling that I remember — that you’re with us or against us. It was years before anyone was taking seriously what the Iraqi death count was or even why that mattered.

Ben: Do you think that Gaza is, in fact, such an out-of-scale crazy set of atrocities by the Israelis that it’s kind of appropriate that it shouldn’t be handled like everything else?

Jina: I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that question.

Ben: Do you think this was driven by antisemitism?

Jina: I’m not going to speculate about what’s inside people’s heads.

Ben: The thing I’m thinking about a lot in this context is how left institutions in the U.S. are just burning themselves to the ground. As someone who just went through this firestorm, what do you make of that?

Jina: There does seem to be a kind of hardening, a flattening of nuance or complexity, or even of history. I suppose one of the things that institutions are having to think our way through now is, how do we function in a space that is increasingly governed by competing orthodoxies? That’s probably hardest to figure out in a space like independent publishing, where multiplicity is usually part of the value proposition.

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