Longreads Best of 2017: Under-Recognized Stories

Here are the best stories we thought deserved more attention this year. If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

Sari Botton
Essays editor, Longreads

How to Write Iranian-America, or The Last Essay (Porochista Khakpour, Catapult)

Women writers of color aren’t given enough opportunities, and too often when they are, the opportunity is limited. They’re asked, again and again, to write about aspects of their identity, and are rarely afforded chances to write about anything else. Writing in the second person, Porochista Khakpour helps the reader to imagine being an artist hemmed in by such limitations. She takes us through the arc of her career thus far: from deciding early on that she didn’t want to “write what you know,” as a mentor suggested; to becoming the Iranian-American essayist of choice every time certain publications wanted an opinion from that particular demographic; to deciding she was no longer willing to be limited in that way, but feeling conflicted nonetheless. As a fan of Kahkpour’s writing, I certainly hope this isn’t her last essay but instead marks the beginning of a new chapter in which she feels free to write about whatever she chooses.

Kate’s Still Here (Libby Copeland, Esquire)

I’ve reached an age where death — of friends, family, colleagues — has become a more regular occurrence. I’ve become slightly obsessed with it, but at the same time, remain afraid to discuss it and plan for it. It was refreshing and moving for me to read this feature by Libby Copeland about a couple who embraced the inevitable so boldly and lovingly. Copeland spends time with Kate and Deloy Oberlin as they consciously prepare for Kate’s death from metastatic breast cancer, and again in the aftermath of her passing. Deloy honors his wife’s wishes that once she’s gone, a gathering will be held where family and friends can visit with her body, chilled with dry ice and frozen water bottles. Afterward, he delivers her body to a site where it is composted as part of a study in green burial. I believe it might be impossible to get to the end of this piece without feeling warmed and shedding some tears.

Aaron Gilbreath
Contributing editor, Longreads

In the Land of Vendettas That Go on Forever (Amanda Petrusich, Virginia Quarterly Review)

Amanda Petrusich she traveled to Northern Albania to write about the culture of vengeance that guides the region’s sense of justice. Her story takes readers along rocky roads to mountain villages, but the real journey takes place inside the minds of the local people, whose ideas about justice require a vigilante, not the law, to kill a person who was involved in a murder. His eye-for-an-eye approach harkens back to early tribal times in the country. Perfectly mixing narration with analysis, the story ultimately asks philosophical questions: Does revenge really make up for a loss? What is justice? In a year when many of us eagerly watch special counsel Robert Mueller investigate a president who flaunts his disregard for the law, justice is on the forefront of our minds, except some of us want it to arrive through legal channels.

Matt Giles
Contributing editor and chief fact-checker, Longreads

Jumpin’ Joe (Robert Silverman, Victory Journal)

Much of sports discourse this year has centered on Colin Kaepernick. Thousands of words and hours of conversation have been unspooled on the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, his stance on athletes’ rights, and why the NFL has seemingly blacklisted the QB who nearly won a Super Bowl four years ago. But to understand the present, it helps to look to the past, and Silverman’s profile of Jumpin’ Joe Caldwell, a star forward with the ABA in the 1970s, is timely and worth highlighting. Caldwell was vice president of the league’s players union, and after a contentious episode with the management of the St. Louis Spirits, who believed Caldwell convinced Marvin Barnes, the team’s best player, to jettison to the NBA, Caldwell couldn’t land another contract in either league. Caldwell’s story is truly one of the first in which athletes sought the control they deserved from their employer, and though Silverman doesn’t overtly connect Caldwell’s situation to Kaepernick’s, the parallels are more than evident.

Ethan Chiel
Contributing editor and fact-checker, Longreads

The Immortal Life of John Tesh’s NBA Anthem “Roundball Rock” (David Roth, Vice)

The first time I heard John Tesh’s voice was in the passenger seat of my dad’s Mazda, driving through upstate New York as part of a road trip to visit colleges. Tesh was hosting his daily radio show and he was telling an interminable story with no point, but I ate that shit up. It was only later that I’d see the famous Red Rocks video David Roth mentions in his wonderful story about Tesh’s NBA on NBC anthem, or learn anything about that part of Tesh’s life. But through the story of that instrumental anthem — which remains a banger — and his conversation with Tesh, Roth manages to tease out the easygoing, very slightly anodyne, successful-yet-anonymous nature of Tesh’s work and life, as well as what makes him so bizarrely charming.

Ben Huberman
Senior editor, Longreads

The Age of Rudeness (Rachel Cusk, The New York Times Magazine)

Last February feels like centuries ago. There were still so many terrible things for us to endure in a year that had just started. Yet 10 months and 10,000 news cycles later, Rachel Cusk’s essay remains fresh and unsettling, like a prophecy in which the worst parts may or may not have already come true. Cusk looks at airport agents and shop assistants, Sophocles and Jesus, and yes, Trump makes an appearance too. Through this tangle of anecdotes, she channels something many of us have been feeling yet have failed to articulate: The sense that all previous protocols of basic social decency are broken, and that we’re still not sure how to handle the shards.

Catherine Cusick
Audience development editor, Longreads

The Selfie Monkey Goes to the Ninth Circuit (Sarah Jeong, Motherboard)

Humor never really felt like an option in such a serious year, but Jeong’s simian legal saga reminded me that humor shouldn’t be so disposable. Her story isn’t really about the monkey; it’s about who can rightfully be considered the “next friend” of an Internet-famous crested macaque. It’s about whether or not we can fight the good fight and giggle our way through it and still make a case for justice when it really matters. Bonkers things happened in 2017 — absurd, hilarious things — and not all of them were life-threatening or world-ending or rights-violating. (Unless monkeys have standing to sue under the Copyright Act. Then yeah, some violations went down.)

Humor is like taste-testing non-lethal poison: you never forget it. It’s what made Naruto stand out as the one monkey I clearly didn’t appreciate enough at the time. Most of what flew under the radar this year was probably funny, and I think missing out on that laughter cost us. But writing that has a punchline isn’t an indulgence, it’s a vitamin. We always need more of it than we think we do.

Emily Perper
Contributing editor, Longreads

Contemplating Death at the Edge of the Continent (Laura Turner, Catapult)

This year, I wrote rarely. Every time I put pen to paper or started to type, I began and ended in the same place, full of dread. Writing, which used to be a way to work through my fear, seemed only to reinforce it. And so I looked for writers who could say what I could not. Laura Turner was one of those writers. Her column at Catapult, “A Cure for Fear,” made me feel less alone. Every entry was poignant and true, in an eerie get-out-of-my-brain sort of way.

But my favorite essay of hers predates that column, and it’s called “Contemplating Death at the Edge of the Continent.” Maybe you, too, spiral into a panic when you think about the inevitability of dying. Many nights, I lie awake and hyperventilate while my partner sleeps peacefully next to me. Catapult published Turner’s essay on January 11, the week before Trump’s inauguration, and dying felt closer than ever this year. Would my death come via nuclear war with North Korea? Cancer I wouldn’t be able to treat when my healthcare disappeared? Assault at the hands of someone who hates trans people?

To come to terms with her own anxiety about The End, Turner sought out solitude at the New Camaldoli Hermitage on the Pacific coast. In addition to our shared chronic anxiety, Turner’s writing is infused with a Christian spirituality I recognize and appreciate deeply. I am a person of lapsed faith, but in these uncertain days, Christianity feels comforting in its familiarity. There are no neat answers. We have to sit with that — Turner in her quiet cell on the coast, me at my desk in my cold apartment. So I implore you to read Turner’s work — not just this essay, but her entire oeuvre about anxiety, because it is beautiful, authentic, and necessary.

Danielle Jackson
Contributing editor, Longreads

Eve Ewing: Other Means to Liberation (Kiese Laymon, Guernica)

This conversation between Laymon and poet and sociologist Eve Ewing on the publication of her well-received collection of poems Electric Arches, is spirited and wide-ranging. They talk through the policies that shaped the conditions of Chicago’s public schools, the migratory patterns of black Americans in the 20th century, and the case of Assata Shakur. What has stayed with me is how the sense of comfort and warmth between Ewing and Laymon makes space for them, and by extension, their audience, to imagine new ways of thinking, talking, and doing creative work.

Danielle Tcholakian
Staff writer, Longreads

How a Pearland Mom Changed Her Life to Save Her Transgender Child (Roxanna Asgarian, Houstonia Magazine)

It may seem strange to deem a story tweeted by the ACLU of Texas “under-recognized,” but Roxanna Asgarian’s feature on a devoutly religious, long-conservative Texas woman’s decision to give up her entire life — losing friends, family and community — and reconfigure her own identity to save her young transgender daughter’s life didn’t seem to generate the attention and discussion it deserved. Maybe it was because it came out in Houstonia’s December issue, maybe because the mother and daughter featured in it had also been written about by national outlets. But Asgarian did the crucial thing that local outlets do, after the national media parachutes in and back out again: She stayed on the story. Her account of Kimberly Shappley’s awakening and devotion to her daughter Kai spans years and is excruciating in its heartbreaking detail. I still wince and shudder thinking about the time Kimberly discovered Kai’s legs were cold while tucking her into bed, only to find her daughter — still called Joseph then — had taken too-small underpants from a toy doll and worn them herself, cutting off her own circulation. While national outlets heralded Kimberly’s heroism, Asgarian showed that their story, and their struggle, is far from over.

Before first grade started, Kai asked her mom a question. “She said, ‘Mommy, when I grow up and have really long hair, will I look weird that I have a penis?’” Shappley recalled. It started a long conversation between them about what makes someone beautiful, and about how everyone’s body is different. Kai seemed satisfied, but later, she followed up: Why, then, don’t princesses have penises?

“I said, ‘How do you know that? How do you know that Ariel wasn’t born with a penis? Because she didn’t like the body she was born in either, and so she changed her body to look like what she felt she was born to be.’”

Now, Shappley said, her and Kai’s “secret giggle-giggle” is that Ariel is transgender, and that other princesses might be, too, because “not everybody tells.”

“It’s constantly having to be an inventive parent, and being quick on your feet,” Shappley said. “But isn’t all parenting that way?”

Krista Stevens
Senior editor, Longreads

The Detective of Northern Oddities, (Christopher Solomon, Outside)

As someone who earns her living seated indoors, laptop in hand, I’m endlessly curious about people whose jobs are very different from mine. At Outside, Christopher Solomon profiles Kathy Burek, a veterinary pathologist who examines unusual deaths in the Alaskan animal kingdom. Elbow deep in bodily fluids, Burek works on everything from sea otters to polar bears, and her necropsies are revealing stunning evidence of climate change in the North that will soon find its way South. The fascinating science in Solomon’s beautiful prose made this a satisfying read.

When they captured her off Cohen Island in the summer of 2007, she weighed 58 pounds and was the size of a collie. The growth rings in a tooth they pulled revealed her age—eight years, a mature female sea otter.

They anesthetized her and placed tags on her flippers. They assigned her a number: LCI013, or 13 for short. They installed a transmitter in her belly and gave her a VHF radio frequency: 165.155 megahertz. Then they released her. The otter was now, in ­effect, her own small-wattage Alaskan ­radio station. If you had the right kind of ­antenna and a receiver, you could launch a skiff into Kachemak Bay, lift the antenna, and hunt the air for the music of her existence: an ­occasional ping in high C that was both solitary and reassuring amid the static of the wide world.

Michelle Legro
Senior editor, Longreads

The Painful Truth About Teeth (Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, The Washington Post)

Filling the Gap (John Stanton, Buzzfeed)

It’s almost hard to believe that the life and death battle over health care dominated the first half of this year, as stories about Medicare, Medicaid, pre-existing conditions, and outrageously expensive medications helped defeat the bill in Congress.

Among these dire stories there was a medical desperation still in the shadows: that of inadequate or nonexistent dental care. The Washington Post’s visit to an enormous mobile clinic on the Eastern Shore showed the lengths people were willing to go to in order to fix just one thing. And in a Mexican border town, John Stanton’s riveting reporting revealed a parallel economy thriving on the shoddy American healthcare system, one where patients — many of them Trump voters — cross the border for cheap dental procedures, if they can afford to make the trip. These stories were a stark reminder that medical care is about far more than life or death, it’s about living with dignity.

Mike Dang
Editor in chief, Longreads

Series on Children and Gun Violence (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)

Whenever someone asked me for a story recommendation this year, I asked them if they were reading Cox’s Washington Post series on how children are being affected by gun violence in the U.S. They would either say “no” or would tell me, “Oh, I’ve seen that but haven’t gotten around to it yet.” Well, now is the time to read this stellar series that might have been overshadowed by so many other stellar reporting done this year.

Start here, and then go here, here, here, here and here. If you’ve only got time for one, in this piece Cox does a particularly good job of showing the trauma suffered by six teenagers following the Las Vegas shooting massacre. If I were on a committee handing out journalism awards, John Woodrow Cox would be on my list of honorees.