Journalist Jennifer Steil
St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
May 27, 2010
Journalist Jennifer Steil abruptly quit her New York City job at The Week magazine in 2006, and moved to Yemen. Soon she became Managing Editor of the Yemen Observer, an independent English language newspaper in the capital, Sana’a and it proved to be the most challenging year of her life. This memoir of her first year in Yemen entitled, “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky,” will be released in print and audio versions on May 11th. Jennifer will share her stories and read from her book at the St. Johnsbury
Athenaeum at 7:00 p.m on Thursday, May 27th. Copies of the book will be available for sale.
Steil holds degrees from Oberlin College, Sarah Lawrence College (creative writing) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Since 1997 she has worked as a reporter, writer, and editor for newspapers and magazines in the US and abroad. While writing the book in Yemen she continued to work as a freelance journalist, doing pieces
for Irish National Radio, France 24, and CBS radio.
Jennifer’s deep roots in the Northeast Kingdom developed as she spent childhood summers and vacations in Ryegate and grew deeper while attending the Putney School. Her parents are Cynthia and Gil Steil of Ryegate. Gil is presently a trustee of the Athenaeum
Jennifer’s memoir is among the first to investigate the pragmatic and ideological challenges facing journalists in the Arab world, especially in a poor, desperate country struggling toward democracy. “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” is a classic story of culture clash, while at the same time a narrative of breaking down boundaries
and finding friendship in unlikely places.
In her role as new editor, she found a newspaper staff often unaware of the need to separate opinion from news, the ethics of lifting stories verbatim from the Internet, and of the importance of getting all sides of a story. In Jennifer’s words, “They were desperately hungry for training. One in particular, a pocket-sized, abaya-clad ballof-
fire named Zuhra clung to me like a drowning person clings to a passing boater. ‘Please, tell me how to structure this story,’ she pleaded, dragging me back to the dingy newsroom at the end of a 12-hour day. ‘Tell me how to be a real reporter.’ Never before in my journalism career had I felt so useful every day.”
The book explores the clash of western and Yemeni work ethics; the self-censorship imposed to keep the building from being bombed; and the courtroom drama that unfolded after the Yemen Observer published the incendiary cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed a few months before she arrived. It offers insight into the challenges of living in a traditional Arab country as a woman and a westerner. Along the way, the book brings to life the wonder, mystery, and beauty of life in an utterly foreign place, as well as the humor inherent in being such an outsider. Jennifer continues to reside in Yemen with Tim Torlot, the British Ambassador and their four-month-old daughter, Theadora Celeste.