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'It's really awful talking to women who'd rather burn themselves alive than marry an old man'

As Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is set for cinema, former war reporter Kim Barker, whose memoir inspired the film, tells Hannah Stephenson about Afghanistan, the allure of danger, and humour amid conflict.

In the madness and mayhem of the Afghanistan war zone, former foreign correspondent Kim Barker, pursuing stories for the Chicago Tribute in the mid-2000s, became addicted to the adrenaline rush.

The experiences prompted her to capture the melting pot of life, both on and off duty, in her memoir Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, previously published in the US as The Taliban Shuffle.

"It's a darkly comic book about Afghanistan and Pakistan," says the journalist (45), now an investigative reporter at the New York Times, whose story is being published in the UK for the first time.

It's a mixture of serious and surreal, as she details the trials and tribulations of being a female reporter in Afghanistan and Pakistan, adapting to both the climate and the dress code, and encountering dating problems ranging from a journalist boyfriend competing for the same story to being romantically pursued by the former prime minister of Pakistan.

She recalls everything from arriving as an awkward newbie, to becoming a wisecracking reporter indulging in plenty of raucous celebrations with her fellow hacks.

The book is peppered with humour, but it's also harrowing. Everyone witnessed horrific scenes in Afghanistan, she reflects.

"Whenever you are covering a suicide bomb, it's awful. When you are talking to women who would rather burn themselves alive than be forced to marry an old man, it's awful. It takes a toll on you when you're observing it, but it's worse for them. We are just there doing a job."

How did she cope when uncovering something horrific?

"I probably drank," she says, half-laughing. "We all did. I'm not going to pretend I was able to go for a run or do yoga to be able to balance out."

The book has been renamed Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to tie in with the eponymous movie due for release on May 13, starring Tina Fey (as Kim Baker - they've changed the surname by one letter and made her character a TV journalist), Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman and Alfred Molina.

The idea for the film came about when a New York Times critic wrote that Barker had created a Tina Fey-type character in her memoir.

"Tina's people saw it, got her the book and within two weeks of the review, had pushed Paramount to option it on her behalf.

"I was thrilled. Anybody who writes a book and gets the attention of Hollywood is thrilled."

She had little involvement with making the movie, however - though she did visit the set in New Mexico (extra footage was added from Afghanistan).

"I met Tina Fey and screenwriter Robert Carlock every month or two when he was working on the writing," she explains. "Tina and I had lunch and talked about it, but she wasn't trying to recreate me. The character in the movie is Kim Baker, it's not exactly me. She wanted to create her own character."

It's opened to mixed reviews in the US.

"I'm not paying attention to it, because I have a day job," says Barker. "Some people really like it, but there's the inevitable complaint in America of, 'How can you find any sort of humour in a war zone?' But often you use humour to cope with really horrible situations.

"To me, it's a naive statement by folks who don't travel that much, and have no idea what life is like outside their fairly middle class confines," she adds.

"The other complaint is, 'Why is this movie about a woman?' - which is down to sexism. The leading roles are two female foreign correspondents. But a lot of people find the movie pretty empowering. I think they did a really good job.

"Tina Fey's character is a braver person than I am. Anybody who knows me, knows I'm not terribly brave. But it's really accurate to the core of the story - a reporter goes overseas for adventure, finds the best relationship there with the fixer, and then decides to come home."

Barker lived in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009, by which time she'd had enough.

"I thought it might be healthier to see if I could adjust back to living in the West, as opposed to running around war zones. It wasn't the healthiest way to live," she says.

"Everybody who leaves covering that part of the world is affected by being back in the West, where you feel there are a lot of superficial, selfish concerns.

"It was hard for me to sit still for long. I'd say, 'Oh, $15 for a drink? You know what that could buy in Afghanistan?' It wasn't very good party conversation.

"The minutiae of these countries felt so important, but you came back and talked mortgages and the economic crisis, which didn't register with me."

Writing the memoir was her therapy.

"I deal with things through humour. That's why I wrote a dark comedy, as it was the only frame that ended up making sense to me. I'm not the first person to see war through that prism; look at Catch-22 and M*A*S*H."

She's since returned to Afghanistan, to see friends, while writing the book.

"I missed it and thought maybe it would help me to be in that space. You really fall in love with the country - for me, it reminded me of where I grew up in Montana. It's beautiful - really stark mountains, beautiful wide skies, and the people," she says.

"At first, I thought it was a very depressed country, and while - to an extent - it is repressive, especially for women, as a reporter, there are stories falling off trees and the people are very hospitable, have this amazing sense of humour and are incredibly warm.

"In the mid-2000s, it was a special place to be. You just hope it will get some sort of success and lasting peace."

She's currently single, but has found a sense of balance.

"For me, being happy has never really centred on whether I have a man or not - I've never been that person - but being happy definitely involves a balance between friends and love and work and exercise, not staying out too late and not drinking too much," says Barker.

"Some of that stuff falls away when you're in a conflict area. Some people were better at balancing life out there than I was."

But she has never been one to play it safe.

"Safe jobs are totally fine, but when I've had choices in my life, I've always volunteered for the job that scares me a bit more.

"I don't want to get to the end of my life and think I played it safe. I want to be able to see as much as I can."

  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker is published by Scribe, priced £8.99. Available now

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