Spotlight Iowa City: Around the world with her pen


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Stephanie Griest fondly remembers the adventurous and worldly bedtime stories her father, a Navy drummer, told her. She got the travel bug early on.

“I just have wanderlust encoded in my DNA,” the UI graduate fellow said.

Years later, she has made her way to more than 30 countries and seen every state in the United States (save for Hawaii, Alaska, and Minnesota).

She’s also an accomplished nonfiction writer to boot, studying to get an M.F.A. in the Nonfiction Writing Program.

The travel obsession began during Griest’s senior year in high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, when she received a brochure for a journalism conference in Washington, D.C., in the mail.

At the conference, she asked the keynote speaker, a CNN correspondent, how she could become a professional journalist.

The man replied, “Learn Russian.”

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So in the fall of 1992, following her senior year, Griest did just that, taking classes at the University of Texas.

Next came the trip — naturally — to Moscow, where she spent almost all of 1996 and started a four-year, 12-nation tour of the former Communist Bloc documented in her first book, the award-winning Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.

Griest has since published other books, including Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines and 100 Places Every Woman Should Go.

In a tour around the country, she and eight others split into pairs and drove 45,000 miles across the United States, documenting history for a children’s website, The Odyssey.

Irene Lin, who made the trip with Griest, said she respects Griest for her “writing and her commitment to giving voice to the voiceless.”

“All of us trekkers are not surprised by her successes as an author,” Lin said.

Griest is also a passionate activist. She cofounded the Youth Free Expression Network, an anti-censorship organization for teens that is a program of the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York City (she sits on its board).

“Stephanie is one of the most remarkable students I have ever encountered. She’s an adventurer, a wordsmith, a polyglot, a free spirit — all of which make her a wonderful writer,” said UI Professor Meenakshi G Durham, who taught Griest at the University of Texas.

In the future, Griest hopes to use the M.F.A. to obtain some sort of teaching job.

In any case, travel writing is a very difficult profession to consistently make money in, she said, citing a common phrase to describe such authors.

“We don’t make a living, but we have a hell of a life.”

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