Wednesday, June 19, 2013

James Pearson :: Human Interest/Cultural Commentary

James Pearson, a writer and entrepreneur who splits his time between Uganda and California, is Scribes United's second writer interview. James is 31 years old, and graduated with a degree in business economics. He runs a humanitarian business, Ember Arts, and just cracked into the paid-writing world. He's been writing nonfiction stuff, in one form or another, for about 11 years. You can check out his work at

You started a business in Africa. That’s kind of a big deal. Tell us about what your company does.

Sure! There was a nasty civil war in the northern part of Uganda, and a bunch of people fled their homes to try to escape it. Most of them ended up living in poverty around Uganda's capital. My company, Ember Arts, partners with 27 women who survived all of this and together we create beautiful craft jewelry and economic opportunity. But on a deeper level, we create a chance for them to rekindle the dreams they thought they'd lost, like educating their children, providing a safe home for their families, starting their own businesses. We think that chasing our best dreams is core to a fulfilling human life.

You write a lot of human interest profiles. Why do you think these stories are important to Ember?

One of our deepest values at Ember is the importance of identifying and chasing our best dreams. The people we profile are doing that. They have found some place where what they love to do and what the world needs from them overlap, and they're going out and doing that.

On a personal level, these stories are important to me because I have these two warring tendencies inside me. One wants to be like the people I profile and go out into the world and do the sometimes excruciating work of figuring out how I can make it a little better. And the other one wants to hole up and watch the world pass from my, like, hobbit window. I think that some enlightened form of the former is probably a better way to go. I guess these profiles are really neurologically active reminders to myself about who I want to be.

How/when did you realize that written stories about people were a powerful form of communication?

I'm lucky to know a bunch of people I really admire. When we were still figuring out what Ember was all about, brand-wise, I thought about what was really important to me. One of those things is encouraging the people around me. I figured that writing profiles of people I admire would encourage both the people I profile, and the people who read the profiles. And it would express to people one of the core values our company was developing in a way that can never just be said outright.

You also write about American culture. When you craft one of these pieces, what are your intentions?

These pieces always start as explorations of tension points in myself. I'm a middle-class white American guy who grew up in 1980s Southern California. So I have this social wiring that goes way back, and it's really classically 80s American, with the power-suit capitalist Wall Street aspirational imagery, with Tony the Tiger and Thundercats thrown in for commercial entertainment, and with a near celebration of addictive and consumerist behavior. It's all in there. And then there's this whole other world that I've been learning since traveling to Nepal halfway through college, and in this world life and death often hang on like a $10 balance, and also on that balance are just as much love and joy and suffering and hope and longing as are in an American life, and the balance is three Starbucks drinks from tipping into oblivion.

And despite living in that second world now for a good chunk of time, I'm still media-addicted with consumerist impulses and these images of what a successful American male life looks like that have just no bearing whatsoever on the whole life/death balance thing.

And the big secret that's out in most of the world but that we're still keeping in America is that those two worlds, the 80s American fever dream and the subsistence farmers of Nepal and Uganda, are really, really connected. They didn't used to be. Pre-colonialism they really weren't at all. Now we're connected through global trade and climate change and media influence (every Ugandan can sing you a Beyonce song and quote Schwarzenegger) and just the new simple fact that if we want connect to each other on a person-to-person basis, we can. Email and cell phones and Skype have brought the cost down to almost nothing. The only reason, now, that we don't know each other is lack of interest. And I promise you it's not coming from the Ugandan side.

So I'm trying to get a handle on all this myself, on what it means to be an American in this really connected, really uneven world, and when I find little trolls inside me that want their due before I can get further in my journey, I pay them with an exposé.

In the world of writing, why are human interest pieces and cultural observations important?

At this point in my life I think there are three pillars of human meaning, of what makes human life feel meaningful: love of other people, love for the planet and your place on it, and love of yourself in the least narcissistic way you can muster. The goal of positive human interest pieces is to show us how someone is getting some of these things right. The goal of cultural critique is to help us see where we all might be getting some of them wrong.

What is the most alarming trend in today’s writing world?

I've been thinking lately about the disposability of information, how most of what I read today will have essentially no value to me in three days. It means we're not investing real human value in what we're writing, probably because we're too busy chasing eyeballs to sell banner ads against.

You recently wrote about interviewing family members - the process, the importance, the satisfaction. Why should writers write history when the world around us seems to gravitate to images?

Hmm. I don't know that they should, necessarily. I just know it was really meaningful for me to connect with my family's history, to learn things about my grandpa and my dad that I hadn't known, things that helped contextualize my own existence a little bit more. And writing these things out makes an extraordinary gift for the family. If that sounds good to a particular writer, then I think it's a great thing to do. But another thing I'm learning as I write more is that there are a limited number of writing hours in a life, especially when you're doing it nights and weekends. So if you have other roads to go down, by all means, walk your way.


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