Alison Kinney | Longreads | March 2018 | 17 minutes (4,156 words)
In the foreground of the early Netherlandish painting stands a couple, holding hands, amidst the comforts of their cherry-upholstered, brass chandelier-lit bedroom. The husband, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, raises one hand in greeting, but neither to his unnamed wife, who clasps one hand over her belly, nor to the lapdog at their feet: behind the couple, a small, wall-mounted convex mirror reflects two other men, facing the Arnolfinis in their room yet visible only in the glass. One of these men may be the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.
Like many other paintings where looking glasses, polished suits of armor, jugs, and carafes expand or shift the perspectives, The Arnolfini Portrait shows us how many people are really in the picture. Painted mirrors reflect their creators, or at least their easels, in Vermeer’s Music Lesson; in the Jabach family portrait, where Charles Le Brun paints his mirror image right into the group; and in Andrea Solario’s Head of St. John the Baptist, where the reflection of the artist’s own head gleams from the foot of the platter. Mirrors reveal the whole clientele and an acrobat’s feet in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère; the two observers of a couple’s ring purchase in Petrus Christus’s Goldsmith in his Shop; and, regal in miniature, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria in Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Sometimes mirrors invite us to regard the artist’s reflection as our own; as John Ashbery wrote of Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist, who, in The Arnolfini Portrait, paints his signature over the mirror, like a graffito on the wall: “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434.” Jan was here.
In this personal essay, in the aftermath of rape, Alison Kinney discovers that a new lover who helps you to heal can just as easily betray you.
This weekend’s events in Charlottesville will resonate long after the crowd was dispersed, long after the cable news trucks leave, long after the school year begins—new students are scheduled to arrive on the University of Virginia campus on Friday. The confrontation — and the resulting deaths of three people, two national guard pilots who were killed in an accident, and counter-protestor Heather Heyer, who was killed in a deliberate act of domestic terrorism — is neither the beginning nor the end of an ongoing resurgence of white supremacy. What was once discussed in closed online forums is now on the streets, armed—as Virginia Governor Terry Mcauliffe described —with more firepower than the Virginia National Guard. “Emboldened” is the word that’s been used by politicians and the media to describe the relationship between white nationalists and Donald Trump’s rhetoric. “Blame” is what the word should be.
Here is our reading list of features from the past two years that trace the disturbing path of how we got to Charlottesville. Read more…
The sentencing phase of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof’s trial for racially-motivated mass murder is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, January 4th, 2017. The white supremacist’s trial brought together two writers of color—Shani Gilchrist, one of a small group of black reporters in the press room, and Alison Kinney, an Asian-American living in New York—who, prior to the trial, knew each other only from Facebook. Here they write about their experience in Charleston. They write about banding together to get better access to the story; about resisting white supremacy with creative collaboration and strategic silence; about working together to figure out the ethical responsibility of storytelling now—and to find hope and friendship in their conversations.
1. We write:
On June 17, 2015, a Bible study group met at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Their text was Mark 4:16-20, the parable of the sower, a narrative of words scattered, heard, received, or failing, of deep-rooted faith that withstands trouble and persecution. The parishioners welcomed a newcomer, who sat down with them, listened, reflected, and then opened fire.
Of the twelve parishioners, three survived: Felicia Sanders, her little granddaughter, and Polly Sheppard. Nine died: their names were the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel W. Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson.
A year-and-a-half later, at Charleston’s J. Waties Waring Judicial Center (named for the civil rights judge who first declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional), the two of us, Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney, would briefly note the scripture. We were at the courthouse, listening for the most incidental revelation, not only on the trial of Dylann Storm Roof, who would be found guilty on 33 counts of federal hate crimes, including hate crimes resulting in death, but also on the national crisis of bigotry and empathy. From the courtroom arguments and testimony, we gleaned bits of procedure, too: when Judge Gergel told the counsel for defense and prosecution to reach a resolution on the evidence, “I would direct you two to sit down together today and see what y’all can work out.”
We heard it as a directive to the nation, and to us—two writers who’d met through a Facebook group, whose prior interactions were limited to reading each other’s work there—sitting down together for the first time in real life, in coffee shops and in the courtroom, to work it out. We’d already found that we were both people who knew within five minutes if we were going to like someone, both people with loquacious, goofy senses of humor that masked our shyness. As writers on race, social justice, and culture, we were also figuring out how to participate in our country’s post-election dialogue. Some of the people we’re supposed to interview and interact with pose dangerous threats to us—although the invitations and threats we receive are not commensurate, as Shani is black, and Alison is Asian-American.
Another random moment: on the day before opening statements, Roof, who’d chosen to self-represent, reinstated his attorneys. While the courtroom deputy, Eunice Ravenel-Bright, a dark-skinned woman with a serious face whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Ravenel, readied a Bible for him to swear upon, he stood up casually, unshackled, as he’d remain for the duration, and started to make his way to the podium. There was almost a sideways swagger to his walk. Mrs. Ravenel’s body stiffened. The consummate professional, she said what sounded like, “No, Mr. Roof. You wait. Will the U.S. Marshal accompany the defendant to the podium?” But what the entire gallery heard in their heads was probably more like, “Hell no. Don’t get near me or my judge without someone with you who can legally knock you on your ass if you even look at me funny.”
An accused mass murderer. An entitled, lazy kid who was a proven danger to society. Unshackled and unaccompanied. In a courtroom. It’s an image that does not set right. An image that shatters the illusion of safety: safety depends here not on the law, but on rebuke, minding, and vigilance—not by the marshals, but by the person subject to the greatest threat. Read more…
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in under-recognized stories.
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Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
You Are Not Going to Die Out Here: A Woman’s Terrifying Night in the Chesapeake (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)
I saw this story posted and shared a few times when it first ran, but in the middle of an insane election cycle, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. This is the tale of Lauren Connor, a woman who fell off a boat and disappeared amid the crashing waves of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about the search to find her, by both authorities and her boyfriend, and about a woman whose life had prepared her perfectly for the kinds of challenges that would overwhelm most of us. This is a deadline narrative, but it’s crafted so well—weaving in background and character development at just the right moments, giving readers so many reasons to care—that you couldn’t stop reading if you wanted to.
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.
A clear-eyed, thought-provoking retelling of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s long legal battle in hope of becoming the first American to receive sex-reassignment surgery while in prison. Her lawyers argued that the surgery was medically necessary and withholding it violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, they argued, rather than grant the surgery and set a legal precedent, the Department of Corrections instead ordered her parole. The piece is a nuanced take on what it’s like to transition in prison—at least 400 California inmates were taking hormone replacement therapy when the article was published in May—where trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and survivors are placed in a kind of solitary confinement, stuck in limbo in a prison system where it’s unsafe for them to live with men, but they are generally not allowed to live with women. And it asks a bigger question: What kind of medical care must the state cover?
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.
At first, it may seem like a simple essay about cultural appropriation, but this opus on the nameplate necklace is so much more than that. It is a beautiful ode to black and brown fashion. It is a moving history of how unique names became a form of political resistance to white supremacy. And it is the biting reality check Carrie Bradshaw so desperately needed. Read more…
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Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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This morning, as I filed folders at my day job, I turned to the podcast Criminal for comfort. Today’s episode was Gil From London, the story of a strange man posing as a British sixty-something who almost seduced an American widow named Karen. There are lots of well-told stories about con men, Craigslist hoaxes and financial scams—here are a few of my favorites.
1. “Crowded House.” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker, May 2013)
Mix cutthroat New York real estate, a too-good-to-be-true apartment, an unstable photographer to the stars and dozens of international tenants. Read more…