Meet the OPC Members: Q&A With Krithika Varagur

Photo courtesy of Krithika Varagur

Krithika Varagur is an American freelance journalist based in London. She spent more than two years working in Indonesia, filing a range of stories for print and online media on topics including fundamentalism and extremism, politics, an investigation into Ivanka Trump’s clothing factory in West Java, violence against gay Indonesians in Aceh, reunions of East Timor’s stolen children, and immigrants who were deported from her hometown in New Jersey to Indonesia. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Financial Times, and many more. Varagur won this year’s OPC Foundation’s Sally Jacobsen Fellowship, and a fellowship with the Associated Press in New Delhi. She won awards in two categories of the 2018 Religion News Association awards. Varagur is also a Fulbright scholar and has worked as a writer and editor at the Huffington Post in New York, and a contributing writer to Vogue India. She is currently writing her first book, for Columbia Global Reports, about Gulf religious investments.

Hometown: Edison, NJ.

Education: Harvard University (A.B. English, 2015).

Languages you speak: Tamil, Bahasa Indonesia, Spanish.

First job in journalism: I interned at Vogue India when I was 18, in 2012.

Countries reported from: Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Singapore, Bosnia, Kosovo, Nigeria, Kenya, Mexico

When and why did you join the OPC:
I joined the OPC when I moved to Indonesia in 2016 because I thought the press card might be useful for a freelancer. And it was!

What draws you to reporting on religion? I’m interested in politics and human rights, primarily in Southeast and South Asia, and it’s impossible to get a sense of what’s going on without accounting for religion. I lived in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, for two years, and I wanted to report from there because it’s a huge, successful, multicultural democracy, but it’s not secular, and in fact never has been. I’m also interested in fundamentalisms (having written about Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist variants to date) and extremism, so understanding religious dynamics is hugely important. Faith-based networks and links are also really cool. In the course of my book research I’ve been working in Nigeria and Kosovo, in addition to Indonesia, and am amazed at how religious texts, rituals, and ideas link those disparate places. And since I’m writing about Saudi religious investments and soft power, it is also a story about geopolitics and foreign policy. Really, I can’t imagine working as a journalist today without accounting for religion. It is endlessly interesting.  (And not just for foreign correspondents; I’ve riffed on the Indonesia tagline that I’m from the “world’s largest Christian-majority nation,” the U.S.!)

Major challenge as a journalist: As a freelance journalist, figuring out how to budget your time chasing stories – features vs. breaking news, long vs. short stories, pitches vs. assignments and so on – is always tough. Having a beat or focus area helps a little with this, but I certainly haven’t fully figured it out. Another challenge, of course, is getting paid, both on time and enough. I’ve been lucky to have made it work over the last few years but strongly endorse a culture of transparency around finances in our industry.

Best journalism advice received:
Don’t talk too much and lean into silences in interviews.

Worst experience as a journalist: Reporting on human rights issues in the structurally and temporally limited capacity of a journalist is always tough. For instance, I met many abused female migrant workers in Lombok, Indonesia in 2017 and felt really conflicted about making them repeat their traumatic experiences in the Gulf, even after obtaining their informed consent. But I think it’s important to sit with those uncomfortable feelings. I don’t expect it will get any easier.

Journalism heroes: Jane Mayer, Lawrence Wright, Pankaj Mishra.

Advice for journalists who want to work overseas: Learn the language (or one of them) as well as you can.

Favorite quote: A recent addition: “Turn every page” from Robert Caro.

Place you’re most eager to visit: the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan.

Most over-the-top assignment: For my first Financial Times assignment, I took two planes, a cargo ship, and a fishing boat to visit the Indonesian spice island, Pulau Run, that had been traded for Manhattan 350 years ago.

Most common mistake you’ve seen: Having preconceived notions about the “frame” into which a story fits – it’s always apparent in the final product.

Country you most want to return to: Timor-Leste

Twitter handle: @krithikavaragur.