Mariswamy '10 is telling the stories of others "Through their Eyes"

Release Date: 5/24/2013

The press conference was over, and a young reporter named Kristina Mariswamy made her way through the crowd toward the candidate, Kasturiraani Patto. Election Day for the Malaysian GE13 was only a couple of weeks away and the directive from her boss was unambiguous - "Get the story!"

Patto turned and caught the reporter's eye. "Do you have a few minutes?" Mariswamy asked politely. Patto shook her head. "No," she said firmly. "No, I'll talk to you…I'll get back to you," she said as she moved away, distancing herself from the throng of reporters.

Disappointed, Mariswamy walked back to her car. Patto was not the stereotypical candidate - she was the daughter of a very popular, but also very controversial, former politician, and during this, her first campaign, she had made it her policy to avoid the press. There was nothing new here - she was leaving another Patto press conference empty handed, with nothing except the candidate's prepared lines written in her notes.

But as she drove back to the office, Mariswamy was more determined than ever to break through the invisible barrier Patto had put between herself and the press. A few phone calls later, and she had Patto's schedule for the rest of the week. "I realized that it was a Thursday morning, she was visiting Ladang Batu Kawan," Mariswamy said. There, Patto would be visiting displaced estate workers - people who lived in absolute poverty. And Mariswamy was going to be there too.

Continuing a legacy

Mariswamy's piece of Kasturiraani Patto's campaign gives readers a different look at the political candidate.

She called for the photographer, and together they set off, eventually turning down a rutted narrow road. There, they found Patto, dressed all in white, against a backdrop of run down houses and shacks, surrounded by campaign workers in bright red shirts. "Hey!" Mariswamy called out to Patto and waved as she got out of the car. "I'm here to just walk with you." Patto seemed taken aback. "Oh…you're here," she said. "Yes," Mariswamy thought to herself, and this time, there was no doorway for Patto to disappear into.

"I went with her, and she had to talk to me," Mariswamy said later. "I just talked to her between houses, between walking to the houses: 'so, what are you going to do about this?' and things like that. Nobody else was there - no other journalists."

In the fast-paced world of political reporting, it was like hitting the pause button - stopping the constant barrage of political talk just for a moment, allowing readers to get a more personal look into Patto's campaign. Because to Mariswamy's perceptive eye, this campaign wasn't just about the candidate's policies - it was also about the candidate's history, about the human suffering her policies promised to address, and her reaction to that suffering.

The story that came from that informal walk, GE13: Kasturiraani Patto - Continuing a legacy, describes the warm reception Patto received in Ladang Batu Kawan, but it also tells of the tears Patto cried as she saw first-hand how little the people had, and how she acknowledged that the political system had failed them. "I'm very proud of this story," Mariswamy said. "I was proud of how that one turned out."

How did this young reporter, still in her first year with fz.com, an online Malaysian news portal, sense that there was something so intensely personal in the Patto campaign? How did she see a side of the candidate that so many others missed?

Growing up, Mariswamy had always wanted to follow in her mother's footsteps - become a print journalist and report the news. "My mom was a journalist, so I grew up around it," she said. "She was a newspaper journalist. It was kind of a 9 to 5 thing, one assignment a day, put out the paper."

But as she was finishing high school, Mariswamy found herself in a world where the role of journalism was rapidly changing. "Now, especially online, it's 24 hours," she said. "People want the latest thing, when they want it. It was very different! It was a wake-up call!"

Kristina Mariswamy with Susan Edens

Kristina Mariswamy (left) visited Ozarks in May for graduation. While she was here, she spent time catching up with Susan Edens, Ozarks director of broadcasting, and telling us the latest in her career as a journalist.

She began applying to colleges, and was soon accepted at a small university in Arkansas named "University of the Ozarks." At 18, determined to follow her dream of becoming a journalist, she left home, headed for a country on the opposite side of the world.

And how opposite Arkansas was! Mariswamy had grown up in the Malaysian state of Penang, in what some people from Arkansas would call "the big city," and she now found herself in a place with a population that was only a fraction of her hometown. "It was a big culture shock initially," she recalls. "Everybody would smile at me, when I first got here, seven years ago. I thought something was up…I was like 'Why are you all so nice?'"

Over the next four year, the small university in small town Arkansas would have many lessons for the young journalist. But there was one lesson that Mariswamy says helped her realize what type of journalist she could be - what type of journalist she wanted to be.

For it was in that small town, at University of the Ozarks, that Mariswamy said she first learned about a reporter named Jimmy Breslin, and his 1963 story of the grave digger.

"I think it was assessment day," she said, "and we did a program here, and an alum talked. And he talked about…it's the story…it's 'Finding the Grave Digger,' it was called? He presented this story about this guy, JFK's gravedigger. It was this really cool story about how this gravedigger woke up and his day…having his coffee, and how he knew he was going to dig…it was like any other day, but it wasn't, because it was JFK's [grave]."

The grave digger's story, she said, was one of those "Ah-ha!" moments that can change the course of one's life. "It was like 'finding the people around,'" she explained. "After that, the more I read, the more I realized that it was a great way to have a different, yet more interesting angle to stories and those were the kind of stories that get the readers attention."

As reporter and anchor for Ozarks' television station, KUOZ Channel 6, Mariswamy worked to develop her own storytelling style. She began to look for those interesting angles, and ways to tell the obvious by using the not-so-obvious. She filmed and edited "Pioneers of Integration," which tells the story of how Ozarks was the first school in Arkansas to integrate during the unsettled days of the late 1950s. She worked with Dr. Heather McFarland, assistant professor of communication, and fellow student Andrea Dankert on a documentary about Elizabeth "Honey" Gwin, honoring the life-long achievements of the woman who dedicated her life to the Girl Scouts. "I've been telling people's stories way before I ever became a 'writer,'" Mariswamy says on looking back.

Mariswamy went on to earn her Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio/Television/Video and graduated from Ozarks in 2010. She then enrolled at Arkansas Tech University, where she earned her Master of Arts degree in Multi-media journalism. And with that, her days in small-town America were over. She returned home to Malaysia with her adopted cat, determined to pursue her dream. It was not the same dream she had left home with seven years before. It was not the dream to "be a journalist." It was the dream of following her true passion - being a writer.

In August 2012, she was hired as a reporter for a business print publication. In October, her employer launched fz.com, and Mariswamy found herself writing political pieces for the new online news portal.

The job, she recalls, was difficult at first. "After being here for six years, I had no idea of what was going on back home. I had nothing!" she exclaimed. "I went home to a completely different Malaysia. It was a lot of learning."

Kristina interviewed Hasihin Sanawi, a Paralympic silver medalist in archery for a December 2012 "Through their Eyes" feature.

There was hour upon hour of research, learning the back story behind the different campaigns. "I was so frustrated - I'm very used to being very good at what I do all the time, and I just was not for a good while when I first started, and I hated it!" she said. "But I decided I wasn't going to compare with everybody else, I was going to make myself the competition. So I set my goal, and decided, 'This is what I'm going to do.' And it worked out."

Doggedly, she worked through the stacks of information, and it wasn't long before that initial frustration had passed. But as she covered one political story after another, she found herself sometimes thinking about the grave digger and the stories she had written at Ozarks. "I got sick of the same stories," she admitted. She wanted to try something different - she wanted to tell more than what was given in the sound bites.

So she talked to her bosses about it, and they encouraged her to follow her instincts. "It made me go out there," she said. "Whenever they'd visit house - to places that were harder to get to that people wouldn't normally go - I just went. And I ended up getting really good stories out of it!"

As it turned out, her bosses had also followed their instincts, and their instincts were very good. Within a couple of weeks, Mariswamy was given a feature column of her own. "It's called 'Through their Eyes' that I do every week," she said. "I just interview people from all over, and that's been the best part. That's why I wanted to be a journalist, to tell people's stories, I think. Because you know a lot of people don't have a voice so with that, I can."

Her first feature told the story of Sulastri Ariffin, a transgender person. "LGBT rights are really bad in Malaysia," she said, "so I interviewed a transgender person and his story was very fascinating. A lot of people afterwards were like 'You really inspired me!' A lot of times people don't get to go out and talk. You know…people don't know. I like to be that person."

If you search fz.com for "Through their Eyes" you'll find over two dozen features now. They tell the story of a young woman who had gone blind by age 33; of a young Malaysian artist who is teaching children about art; of the inspiring actions of a woman leading the movement calling for electoral reform in Malaysia; of a young man who is a silver medalist in archery in the Paralympics.

"My favorite feature story of all time, I think, is one I did…it's a refugee kid that came from Somalia with his grandmother, because their country was at war - his grandmother, his cousin and his sister," she said. "When he came at 11, he didn't speak a word of English. They were orphans. So after being in Malaysia for a year, these are really poor, and the grandmother died, and they had to move in with kind of someone they knew in an apartment."

These were small apartments, Mariswamy said, stretching out her arms, maybe the size of two offices. Thirteen people lived in this one tiny apartment.

"They don't have school," she explained, "so there's just one apartment with three bedrooms so all the people pitched in so their kids could go to school. Each room is a classroom, and so they just rotate, and all these kids get to learn English, math - very basic stuff, just enough to give them something to do and to learn."

Mariswamy on assignment.

On assignment for a story on the people behind the scenes for a traditional Hindu celebration in Malaysia.

As she followed him through his day, she paid attention to even the smallest details - she wanted to paint a picture of Ahmed and his surroundings for her readers. "I visited him at school; I watched him teach; I followed him to his house; and then I talked to him…and that's how I feel you get a good story," she said. The young boy, she said, went through the school and got through the highest levels, but sadly couldn't afford to get his educational certificate.

Even now, she wears a big smile as she describes how, even in spite of his poverty, the young man persevered. "So he started teaching English to other kids. He was so inspiring! He was such a good kid! He had lost so much, but he was like, 'NO! I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to go to school.…' He had all these plans, and he was so excited."

"So I wrote a piece, and a big foundation read it, and they offered him a scholarship," she exclaimed. "So that's my favorite one! He sent me an email, and he was like, 'You changed my life, you gave me hope.' He said, 'I know I sounded like I did, but I didn't - I didn't really have much hope. You gave me hope.' That was pretty great."

"One thing that I would say that's different for me and other writers, maybe who didn't get the opportunity to come here and study would be Ozarks taught me to be very open-minded," she said. "I mean, I think I was a journalist for two weeks when I interviewed this trans-gender person, at a time where they were getting bashed left, right, and center for who they were. I wasn't scared, and I didn't care. I knew there would be repercussions, but I was like, 'You know what? You're not getting your side of the story out there.' That's one thing I learned from Ozarks, to have such an open mind."

Mariswamy's career as a journalist has just begun, but in this era of the round-the-clock news cycle, she already knows that "finding the people behind" is her true passion. She has chosen to follow a path which was laid out in the story of a grave digger, almost half a century ago. "I don't call myself a journalist," she said thoughtfully. "I call myself a writer. Because I'm not only reporting the news, I write both people's sides. I write about a lot of things, so I say I'm a writer. "

"I might not have to work for a news website, I may not have to work for a magazine, but I know that's what I always want to do," she said. "I always want to tell people's stories."

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Mariswamy visits with a coffee roast master during a recent interview for fz.com, the online news portal where she is a writer.