I had never heard of Emma Sky before I saw her name in the festival programme, and this was a mistake, because it turns out this self-deprecating English woman has been quietly influencing 21st-century world history. She was the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and served as the political advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010. She’s met Obama, argued with Joe Biden, and tried to keep the US military in Iraq honest.
I haven’t read her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, and in fact haven’t even touched it, because the hundreds of copies the booksellers had in stock sold out in a flash. Simon Wilson had read it carefully, though, and his interviewing was excellent.
Sky was strongly influenced by her time on a kibbutz as a young woman, and wanted to help make peace in the world. When the war in Iraq broke out – with which she strongly disagreed – she wanted to help. She answered a call for volunteers from the British government and went to Iraq “to apologise”.
“I’m Emma from England and I’m here to volunteer.” When she arrived in Iraq there was no one to meet her and she was shifted from pillar to post before ending up in Kirkuk. “I assumed the British government knew what they were doing but had just neglected to tell me.” Sky was equally wry about the violence all around her: “Insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week … it usually takes longer for people to try to kill me.” She met the US army when she went to ask them for accommodation: “It’s all rather awkward and embarrassing but my house has been blown up”. She told another funny story about her employer back in Britain asking when she’d return: “I’m very sorry but I can’t come back to work in Manchester because I’m running a province [of Iraq]”. They told her to stop exaggerating.
As well as filling me with a desire to learn more about Iraq, Sky also made me miss England (I am an English Kiwi). I was reminded of Kate Fox’s Watching the English (one of the truest books I’ve ever read), in which she argues that the distinguishing characteristic of English humour is not is dryness but its omnipresence. There was humour underlying nearly everything Sky said, and when Wilson asked her to speak of the horror of living in a war zone, she became uncomfortable. She did try to articulate it, though, telling us that at one point Iraqis stopped eating fish because the flavour had changed, because the fish were feeding on all the corpses in the river.
Based on the success of her work in Iraq, US General Odierno invited Sky to be his political advisor. Her job was to follow him around and tell him when he was screwing up: “It was fantastic!” They were two very different people but obviously developed an enormous respect for one another. One senior US official Sky has far less respect for, however, is Joe Biden. She blames him for screwing up Iraq’s chance to create itself a robust democracy by focusing instead on his own political gains.
Wilson asked Sky about the sexism she had experienced. She seemed reluctant to talk about it too much; maybe – as Mallory Ortberg said at Writers Week in Wellington earlier this year – she’s sick of the ‘you’re a woman, that must be so hard’ kind of question. In any case, if bombs and gunfire couldn’t slow her down, mere sexism never stood a chance. She made a couple of intriguing allusions to her upbringing in a boys’ school, which she likened to a Lord of the Flies experience. Men, she said, “are much better when they’re adults than when they’re boys”. Feels like there might be another book right there.
The hour we had with Sky flew by, and we could easily have done with a whole other hour for audience questions. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on voluntourism and the white saviour complex, for example. She says her students at Yale, where she now teaches and writes, tell her to get back out into the world. I’m sure that, for Sky, there are many more history-changing years ahead.
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky