Cover Reta Lee, editor of The Stories Women Journalists Tell, published by Penguin Random House SEA (Image: Reta Lee)

Writer and editor Reta Lee has brought together 22 women journalists in Southeast Asia to share their personal experiences as women covering news in a male-dominant newsroom culture

‘Where will you pee?’ reads the first line of the opening essay from The Stories Women Journalists Tell. The next line continues: ‘Guys can piss anywhere. There are no proper toilets there and you girls will have problems.’

Such words, laced with scorn, were said to Kuala Lumpur-based veteran journalist Seema Viswanathan, who chronicled it in her contribution to The Stories Women Journalists Tell. You’ll easily find more of such riveting pieces—22, to be exact—in the book, written by former and current women journalists in the Asia-Pacific region. Each essay, like Viswanathan’s story, highlights the journey female journalists go through “as a woman covering news in male-dominant newsroom culture, while reporting on the ground”. 

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“When you’re in the field of news reporting, it’s always about being factual and balanced, but behind the reporting and the assignments, there’s always that emotive feeling—an experience that you yourself have as an individual,” muses Reta Lee, editor and creative force behind the book. “I wanted to celebrate the experiences of women journalists as stories of their own.”

Like many during the lockdown period caused by Covid-19, Lee explored several ‘pandemic projects’, from painting artworks to hydroponic kits. The idea to start a book struck in August 2020, when Lee was in Kinokuniya Singapore. “I was just browsing through the books, and randomly picked one up; it was a compilation of war essays by women journalists in Arab,” she recalls. “When I held the book, I realised that there are actually so many of such stories by female journalists in the Asia-Pacific that I’ll also be able to compile.” 

For me, it has always been about celebrating the camaraderie and strength of women
Reta Lee, editor of The Stories Women Journalists Tell

A collection of essays that span from politics and human interest to culture and travel, The Stories Women Journalists Tell truly highlights the grit and determination of women journalists to overcome structural barriers and excel in their field.  “For me, it has always been about celebrating the camaraderie and strength of women,” Lee reflects. “I think that’s just so important and I hope that’s a message that readers of the book can take home.”

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Here, the editor shares more about the process of working on the book, her personal experience covering the Bersih 3.0 rally and street protests in Kuala Lumpur, and why she chose to stipulate that royalties for the book would be split evenly amongst all 22 journalists. 

How did the process of the book come about? 

Reta Lee (RL): The pandemic took away nearly two years of our lives, and I knew I wanted to create something more positive and optimistic. After that moment in Kinokuniya Singapore, I then cold-emailed Penguin—I didn’t know anyone within the publisher at that time—and pitched the idea to them. After three business days, my publisher actually reached out to me and that moment really hit me: that this project is actually happening. 

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There are 22 journalists featured in this book. What was the selection process like? 

RL: It was actually a very open process. I began reaching out to my own network first, to journalists who might be interested in this project, before launching a call for entry using my social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. 

There was such an amazing outpour of support from the get-go, with everyone tagging their friends and colleagues. I then began the process of compiling the names of women journalists in the Asia-Pacific region; I told them my idea of this compilation of essays and from there on, everything just started rolling!

How has it been working with this collective of female journalists? 

RL: It’s been wonderful, and I’m grateful for their trust—I felt a heavy sense of responsibility for me to see through this project. I’ve never met half of the women in this book, so can you imagine the amount of trust they had in me to get their stories out? 

On my end, I drew out contracts with them and in the contracts, I stipulated that royalties will be split equally among all 22 of us. I guess that’s my way of guaranteeing that there is some level of trust, even if you don’t know me.  

[When I was reading their essays], I put myself in their shoes at that moment when they’re reporting that particular news or assignment. Although we might be in a different country altogether, the emotions come true through the stories.

Like I shared in the acknowledgement of my book, I hope that this collective of women do feel like we’ve shared a piece of history together. At the end of the day, we just wanted our stories to be heard. That was what’s important.  

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You wrote about your coverage of the 2011 Bersih 3.0 rally in your own essay for the book. What was it like reliving the experience? 

RL: To rewrite from memories is one thing, but to relive those memories through your writing was also a very emotional process for me. Like you said, it was in 2011 and 11 years have passed. Back then, I was the only female journalist on my team going down to cover the rallies—even though I was never trained in hard news reporting and I was not taught how to protect myself in a street protest. 

My duty was to go down and cover [the rally] from the ground. I guess when I wrote my story, I wanted to showcase a little bit of that bravery and confidence that I had at that time as a reporter. 

Which are your favourite stories from the book?

RL: This is such a tough question! I would say the opening and the closing stories are probably my favourite essays so far, I think that they are very strong stories that can stand on their own. The opening essay by Seema Viswanathan and the closing essay by Amy Sawitta Lefevre—the stories are such an important retelling of history right through their eyes. 

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Tell us more about the design of the book’s cover. 

RL: For the cover, we had the idea of having the silhouette of a woman. Penguin’s own design team came back with their own drafts after taking in some of our input, and then together with the collective, we refined the design together—because again, it’s not just my book, it’s our book. 

While the book says ‘Reta Lee’ because I’m the project manager and book editor, I also wanted to celebrate the women that contributed to the book, and that’s why we had all their names printed on the cover.  

Will there be a second edition?

RL: I don’t know, let’s ask Penguin! (laughs) I’m pretty thankful that Penguin has given me that confidence and freedom to build up this project on my timeline. 

I am open to doing a second edition. The whole journey itself has been so fulfilling to me, working on top of my current full-time job as a journalist wasn’t easy, but at the end of the day, I just wanted to feel like I own something that’s personal to my heart and this book is a result of that. 

And most importantly, I really love just sharing and celebrating the spirit of women supporting women.

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