Sophie Pinkham, professor of the practice in comparative literature in the College of Arts and Sciences, received the 2023 British Journalism Award for Travel Journalism for her feature “Inside the European forest that geopolitics has turned into a graveyard.” The piece investigates a refugee crisis in Poland’s primeval forest.
“I was excited to see that the award’s judges included a story about a migrant’s journey in the travel category,” Pinkham said, noting that travel writing is often considered a light genre, especially in magazine or newspaper journalism. “There’s no reason that travel writing should be the exclusive realm of those privileged enough to travel for pleasure or adventure. We live in a world where many people travel out of desperate necessity, risking their lives for the journey.”
Pinkham’s winning story, which appeared in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine in March 2023, follows migrants from Syria “wandering in a cold, wet purgatory” on the Polish border of the European Union after Belarus ferried them there as a political stunt. The same story has been shortlisted for the 2024 True Story Award.
“Belarus itself has no desire to harbor the migrants pushed back into the forest,” Pinkham wrote in the article. “Instead, for the past two years, cold and frightened Algerians, Afghans, Egyptians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Syrians, Tunisians and Yemenis have ricocheted back and forth across the nether-region that separates Belarus from democratic Europe.”
The piece is “brilliant investigative journalism with a kick in the solar plexus,” judges said. “It took headlines, soundbites and government propaganda around immigration and turned it into a deeply human story that gets to the heart of the issue.”
A writer, journalist and critic specializing in Russian and Ukrainian literature, culture and politics, Pinkham contributes to the New York Review of Books, writing primarily about Russia and Ukraine. Her work also appears in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New Left Review, The Washington Post and other publications.
Pinkham’s 2016 book “Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine” blends reportage, cultural criticism and memoir. Her forthcoming book, “The Spirit in the Trees,” for which she has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar grant, explores the role of the forest in myth, culture and politics in Russia and its surrounding territories.
Pinkham was inspired to write the migrant article while discussing “The Spirit in the Trees” with a Polish friend, who urged her to write about the refugee crisis. Polish non-governmental organizations and activists shared their time and knowledge and connected Pinkham with migrants who had passed through the forest.
“One activist who helps stranded people in the woods also took me on an aid mission with her so that I could witness the process firsthand,” Pinkham said. “We may be returning to an era of narratives of travel as a perilous ordeal rather than a leisure activity.”