This week, we’re sharing stories from Ronan Farrow, Nawal al-Maghafi, Corey Robin, Minda Honey, and E. Alex Jung.
Minda Honey| Longreads | August 2018 | 11 minutes (2750 words)
My friend and I sit on the patio of a tapas restaurant in suburbia with a view of the parking lot, SUVs lined up baking in the summer sun. We sip sangria. We eat off tiny plates. We feel bougie. She tells me about her dating turmoil. She’s not sure where she stands with a man she isn’t sure she should be with. “And,” she says, “the other person he’s sleeping with is a trans woman. I’m trying to be OK with that.”
“I’ve slept with a trans woman,” I say before pushing more shrimp, shiny with olive oil and studded with minced garlic, into my mouth. An SUV pulls out of a parking spot, another SUV pulls in. I can see my friend thinking, the muscles in her lips flexing and relaxing, questions forming and crumbling, but never leaving her mouth.
I wonder if it’s her understanding of me or of herself that is changing. I do not tell her about the graduate-level writing course I took as an undergrad, or about the other undergrad in the class whose writing I loved, and who offered me words of encouragement. I don’t tell her about the night that writer walked me to my car after a reading, or about how the only thing that stopped a kiss was the thought of the boyfriend waiting for me at home. Or the years that passed, the writer resurfacing on Facebook, the Messenger chats about my move back home and about writing and work leading to chats about her being a trans woman, about the excitement of trading T-shirts and jeans for dresses and makeup. Or about our paths crossing at a house party, the hand-holding by the fire, the annoyance at drunk interlopers trying to crash our conversation, the said and unsaid, the invite back to my place, the movie unwatched, the open window in the rain, how consent culture showed us the way: “Is this OK? Do you like this? What do you want?” Yes. Yes. You.
I finish chewing, and instead of telling my friend these things I say, “It’s not a big deal,” and take a drink of my sangria. But I haven’t always been so unprejudiced.
In the parking lot, another SUV pulls out, another SUV pulls in.
Minda Honey | Longreads | June 2018 | 11 minutes (2,763 words)
In December, when a creative agency asked me to participate in a regional Volunteers of America public service announcement encouraging my fellow community members to “know your status,” I said yes. A hesitant yes, but a yes. At least once a year, I make it a point to enlighten myself by asking my gynecologist for a full screening for sexually transmitted infections, including an HIV test. But I’m more of a safe sex bronze medalist than an all-star. My 17-year track record of requiring men to wear condoms during intercourse is only nearly flawless, my trysts with unsafe sex more recent than I’d like to admit.
A retrospective on my vagina’s contact with bare penis: When I lost my virginity — It was over and done with before I could utter any questions about using protection. There was time the condom slipped off — it happens. Or at least it did that one time. In an encounter with that same man, who I’d casually been sleeping with for a long stretch, he sweet-talked me into letting him take the condom off mid-act. I want to feel you, he’d said — I’d felt terrible afterward. I knew better than to trust these hoes with my sexual health. There was the spontaneous Halloween makeup sex in the back of a minivan with a guy I was kinda in a relationship with. Immediately after, he accused me of trying to get knocked up because I’d always been so vigilant about condom use, nevermind that a jobless, carless rapper living with his brother’s girlfriend’s parents isn’t my ideal baby daddy material. There was the man I was seeing who made a fuss about it every single time, whining he couldn’t come with one on, so half-asleep, I finally just let it happen sans condom. Shortly after, I learned he’d been cheating on me. And, I assume, he’d been doing the same sort of whining in the other woman’s bed, being sexually reckless with us both.
And, more recently, when after a 12-hour stretch of drinking, I fell into bed with a man and nodded when he asked if it was OK, even though I knew I wasn’t OK with going without a condom. Every time we hooked up after that first time, I felt weird about insisting he wear one, so I didn’t ask him to. Even though changing your mind is totally allowed and asking can be so simple and I’m sure he would have complied, it just felt complicated in ways that feel dumb now. This lapse in judgement happened to overlap with my period deciding to be six weeks late and my new gyno calling to tell me my IUD might have shifted and might not be effective. After two intravaginal ultrasounds (and a negative pregnancy test) it was determined that, LOL, my IUD was actually where it was supposed to be all along.
I worried that doing the PSA would make me a hypocrite. Who was I to encourage others to engage in safe sex when there were times I hadn’t? I reasoned with myself that I’d read enough inspirational quotes on Instagram to know my humanity wasn’t a byproduct of my perfection but rather of my mistakes. So I decided to do the shoot anyway, because I was someone who knew what it was like to be so distracted worrying about the possible long-term consequences of my split-second decision not to require a condom that I couldn’t even enjoy the act itself. I was someone who’d felt bashful about asking to be tested because heaven forbid the medical professional I pay to look after my reproductive health, and who I was required to see once a year to re-up on my birth control pill prescription, know that I, an adult woman, was having sex outside of a monogamous marriage for purposes other than conceiving a child. I was someone who was tired of always being the enforcer in the bedroom. It made me feel like a finger-wagging mom-type: “Eat your Wheaties, do your homework, wrap it up!”
Minda Honey | Longreads | April 2018 | 20 minutes (4,980 words)
Let’s start at 16-and-a-half, a half-a-lifetime ago. I was gone off this boy who lived around the corner from me. He was two grades ahead in school, a senior. We rode the bus together. His name sang with alliteration fit for a newscaster. Tall, Black, beautiful in that stony, delicate way only young men can be. Already toxic, poisoned by his father, knuckles split and scarred from fighting. One morning, on the ride to school, he showed me a picture of his girlfriend, his other hand in my lap, beneath my uniform skirt. “You should shave,” he said. I listened.
In the afternoon, on the walk to his house — I’d walk past mine and double back later, just to spend more time with him — the younger boys would crowd around, their white school shirts untucked, sneakers untied. They wanted to hear stories about his fights. They wanted to know if he’d play basketball with them. They were gone off him too. We knew something special when we saw it. When he smiled, his cheekbones rode high and his eyes stretched into slits as thin as pennies.
Once, when it was just the two of us, the younger boys elsewhere, he looked down at me walking alongside him. My backpack’s straps dug into my shoulders, the bag weighed down by AP textbooks. He said, “You’re going to be pretty one day when you get those braces off and stop hunching over like that.” I listened.
School out for the summer, I walked around the corner to the boy’s house and into his living room. I left without my virginity. It was all over before I’d even understood what we’d began. Afterward, he turned on BET and pointed out which girls in the music videos he thought were fine.
Back then, there wasn’t consent culture. There were just fast-tailed girls who let their hearts race places they didn’t belong. Girls who wanted it. I wanted it. But not yet. Not like that. Wanting is a welcome mat for danger. There is no safe place for PG-13 lust, for innocent desires. For girls there is “Just say ‘no.’” And for boys there is “Just the tip” — a coercive game that can give way to rape. Only we didn’t know that the first time around. And who would want to play a game like that more than once?
The next time, I say, “I don’t think we should …” The next time, there are no games, just rape. He didn’t listen to me.
He had a problem with taking things that didn’t belong to him. The last I heard of him, one of his friends told me he had a baby on the way and had been locked up for pulling a gun on a pizza delivery guy at his own apartment. It wasn’t hard for the police to figure out where to find him. Who knows if it’s true, but when I Google his newscaster name, a name he shares with many men, the only link relevant to him is a Florida mugshot from around the same time for an out-of-state felony charge.
In the photo, he doesn’t look stony, delicate, beautiful. He doesn’t look like anything to me. He’s wearing a white shirt, just like in the photo of him I have in the box full of high school keepsakes under my bed. It had been taken when he still looked like something special. I don’t ever look at it, but I’ve never been able to let it go.
Minda Honey | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (2,955 words)
One week into the new year, my friends assembled in the cellar lounge of an upscale restaurant to celebrate my 33rd birthday. On that frigid January night, we drank fancy cocktails made with bourbon, made with bitters, made with things that don’t seem like they go together but do. Music meant to be forgotten even as you’re listening to it played in the background beneath our chatter. I leapt from my seat, tugged down my short dress and flung my arms around each friend as they arrived. My friends kept my drinks coming all night and properly admired the way my 33-year-old cleavage still defied gravity in the most spectacular way. The group who turned out that night represented nearly every phase of my life from childhood to high school to college to career to the other cities I’ve lived in, but in that amateur episode of “This is Your Life” the romantic partner I longed for had yet to make an appearance. Many of my friends in the small city I call home paired off years ago. I’m always the one without a date to every party, even my own.
A girl I’ve known since we rode the bus together in elementary school offered to give me a tarot reading. She settled on the couch across from me and I cut and shuffled the deck as instructed. She flipped each card over and carefully placed it down on the small round table between us — 10 in all. First was the Wheel of Fortune, perhaps commentary on the success I’d seen over the past year as a writer, and last was the Queen of Wands, maybe insight into my passion for nurturing community and my ambitions for the upcoming year. But it was the middle card that interested me most. When my friend turned over the sixth card, the card that predicts what lies ahead, it was an older white man with a long white beard seated on a throne, The Emperor. “Oh, interesting,” she said.
She foresaw a man coming into my life. He would not be a young man. He would be a good influence. Maybe business, maybe love. I wondered, would he be the man I’ve been waiting for? Like many women, I’d thought by 30 I’d have found The One. Had there been a candle to blow out, my birthday wish would have been for the perfect man for me: an educated, financially stable, liberal feminist. A man who was a manifestation of my politics, of all the things I believed in.
Minda Honey | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)
“And sometimes you meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
I sat alone at a picnic table sipping a hot can of beer in Sequoia National Park under the stingy shade of a nearby tree. I was surrounded by families. White families. Sequoia was the first of four national parks I had planned to visit on my summer road trip from Southern California to a writer’s retreat in Lake Tahoe, and from Lake Tahoe to my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I needed to get out and away. I’d just completed two years as a POC in an MFA program. Two years in classrooms at long tables surrounded by faces as white as the paper we printed our work on. I felt like the black text on that paper, forcefully marching across the landscape of my peers’ white lives.
I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.
It was July, the busiest time of year for the National Park Services. A narrow road ran past my campsite and the gravel grumbled in protest at the occasional passing car. No one bothered me. No one acknowledged me. I was just a lone Black woman day-drinking at a picnic table. I’d drained three cans with no buzz before realizing it was only 3% alcohol. It would do nothing to calm my anxiety about spending my first night in a tent alone.
The only other Black person I’d seen at the park was with his white wife and their children. As they ushered their brood onto the path that led to the giant sequoias, I heard him speak and suspected he was African. I’m not sure if he saw me, if he was tallying Black bodies like I was. Read more…
Near the end of my MFA, someone asked what my plans were after graduation. Before allowing me to answer, he said, somewhat wistfully, that he thought I should move to New York City and “live a little” before writing anything else. In the moment, I probably nodded politely and smiled, as I’m prone to doing, but his suggestion frustrated me. How, after living for two years on a barely-sufficient stipend, did he expect that I’d be able — or want — to fling myself across the country to a city with exorbitant rent prices where I had no job, no insurance, and no community? And what did he mean by living? Had I not been living during the two years of my MFA, during which I moved to an unfamiliar-to-me city, taught classes at the university for the first time, learned to edit a journal, found my way into a community of writers, and struggled in draft after draft to improve my own prose?
Instead of moving to New York City, I did what might be considered the opposite; I started a PhD in creative writing in the middle of Oklahoma, which I’m finishing up now. During my years here, I’ve certainly grown as a writer and a teacher, and had the opportunity to build lasting relationships with people who have supported me in innumerable ways. But I also have remained aware of the problems within academia: there is a food pantry for graduate students in the room across from my office, for example, a lack of diversity within my program and many others, and a job market that dwindles every year. Sometimes I think back to that person telling me to move to NYC, and I wonder who I might be now — as a writer, as a person, as a professional — had I “lived life” rather than pursuing another degree. I’ve probably thought about his offhand comment more than I should, but it also seems to encapsulate some of the larger conversations about the function of MFA and PhD creative writing programs and the various pros and cons of making a life as a writer within or outside of academia.
More interesting to me than prescribing one way of life over another, however, is to examine the challenges and sources of nourishment in each, and to wonder about the possibilities that exist beyond a reductive dichotomy. The essays curated in this reading list illuminate problems that exist within MFA and PhD creative writing programs, explore the idea of mentorship both within and outside of the academy, and offer insight on how to live a fruitful writing life without the support and constraints of a formal program.
1. MFA vs. NYC (Chad Harbach, November 26, 2010, Slate)
Chad Harbach theorizes about how MFA programs are influencing both the craft and professional development of fiction writers, as well as impacting the landscape of publishing, in this viral essay.
It’s time to do away with this distinction between the MFAs and the non-MFAs, the unfree and the free, the caged and the wild. Once we do, perhaps we can venture a new, less normative distinction, based not on the writer’s educational background but on the system within which she earns (or aspires to earn) her living: MFA or NYC.
Related read: Which Creates Better Writers: An MFA Program or New York City? (Leslie Jamison, February 27, 2014, The New Republic) and “MFA vs NYC”: Both, Probably (Andrew Martin, March 28, 2014, The New Yorker)
2. Going Hungry at The Most Prestigious MFA in America (Katie Prout, Lit Hub)
The idea of writers living without substantial income is one that’s sometimes romanticized, as Katie Prout notes while listening to an audiobook of A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway says that “he and Pound agreed that the best way to be a writer is to live poorly.” One month away from turning 30, Prout writes about the realities — which include food banks and multiple jobs — of living with very little money while pursuing her MFA at Iowa.
I’m an instructor at the university where I attend the best nonfiction writing program in the country, and I make approximately $18,000 a year before taxes. When I was denied a second teaching assistantship at the university this summer for the upcoming school year even though I already had signed a contract with the offering department, my director explained that it was in the school’s best interests to look after my best interests, and my best interest was to make sure that I had time [to] write my thesis.
3. Every Day is a Writing Day, With or Without an MFA (Emily O’Neill, November 27, 2018, Catapult)
The requirement to relocate and the insufficiency of fully-funded spots are just two of many reasons why MFA degrees are not possible for many people, as Emily O’Neill explains in this essay about how she nurtures a writing life outside of the academy.
I don’t have an MFA. It often makes me feel like the man on that mortifying date to admit this to writers I don’t know well. So many people who write are academics or at least aspiring to an MFA or PhD, and mentioning I don’t feel specifically drawn to the demands of graduate school is often seen as a sin against literature.
4. Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces (Minda Honey, March 2017, Longreads)
After two years, Minda Honey longs to escape from the whiteness of her MFA program, and plans a trip to four national parks, not realizing that “80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white.” Weaving together moments from her travels and memories from her writing program, Honey lays bare the lack of diversity in both spaces.
When I’d first started my MFA program, I thought it would be an escape from the oppressive whiteness of Corporate America. I thought without suits to button my body into, I would be free to exist. But Academia proved to be just as oppressive.
5. How Applying to Grad School Becomes a Display of Trauma for People of Color (Deena ElGenaidi, April 17, 2018, Electric Lit)
When consulting with people about how to apply to PhD programs, Deena ElGenaidi’s advisor tells her to play up her minority status in her personal statement. ElGenaidi explores the problematic and pervasive nature of this advice, while also discussing what it means that minority students and people of color are encouraged to use their trauma in order to be admitted into academic programs.
The experience taught me that society, white America specifically, regularly asks minorities and people of color to tokenize and exploit themselves, talking about their cultural backgrounds in a marketable way in order to gain acceptance into programs and institutions we are otherwise barred from.
6. The Mentor Series: Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson (Allie Rowbottom, ed. Monet Patrice Thomas, March 25, 2019, The Rumpus)
How do writers balance the challenge of seeking publication in a difficult fast-paced market while nurturing their craft? And what role do mentors play in a writer’s development? In the inaugural installment of “The Mentor Series,” a series of interviews between mentors and students curated by Monet Patrice Thomas, Allie Rowbottom and Maggie Nelson ruminate on these questions and more.
Allie Rowbottom: I remember once, after I finished my MFA thesis, you advised I take my time and sit on the project. You said something about not publishing too young, or rushing out of the gate, and I’ve thought about that a lot now that I have published—one of my biggest challenges (or strengths?) as a writer is that I push myself. Now that my first book is out in the world, I feel an urgency to produce more, at the same time I worry that rushing never makes for solid work.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
Valentine’s Day always brings me back to the halls of my high school, which, on February 14th each year, teemed with roses by the dozen, glittery cards taped to lockers, oversized teddy bears, and prolonged goodbyes between couples before every class. As a shy high school student, I was more interested in the characters in the novels I read than pursuing my peers, but the holiday always brought an intense anxiety. Even when I told myself I didn’t want a cache of hot pink roses from the Kroger down the street, and even when I convinced myself that the holiday was a celebration of consumerism, I still felt like I was missing out in some way.
When I look back, I’m able to realize that my sense of loneliness didn’t come from any true sense of isolation, but rather the fact that I only recognized one type of relationship being celebrated, a kind I didn’t fully believe in, romances that relied on public gestures as proof. The essays I curated for this reading list are intended to be inclusive of all kinds of love. These writers explore what the landscape of relationships might look like in the age of robots, how one community of queer and trans women healed after Hurricane Harvey, and what pigeons might teach us about our own capacity for love, just for starters.
1. The Love Story That Upended the Texas Prison System (Ethan Watters, October 11, 2018, Texas Monthly)
Fred Cruz, imprisoned for 15 years for a robbery in Texas in the 1960s, was known for his calm manner, his study of law, and his practice of Buddhism. When Frances Jalet, a lawyer who moved to Texas because she was told it was a place where she could best fight for civil rights, met Cruz, the two hit it off. Jalet and Cruz, through years visitation and discussions of law in their letters to one another, fought for prisoners’ rights in Texas.
‘I know how deeply you love your son,’ Jalet wrote to Cruz’s mother that spring. ‘I have grown to love him also.’ Just what kind of love she was professing was unclear, perhaps even to her.
2. Love in the Time of Robots (Alex Mar, October 17, 2017, Wired)
What are the differences between humans and androids, and can the differences be “solved” through research? Can a relationship with an android stave off loneliness? What are the ethical considerations of trying to create an android so close to a human that the differences are difficult to perceive?
Alex Mar, in this riveting piece, addresses these questions, and also writes about the motives of Hiroshi Ishiguro, a man in Japan who regularly produces androids.
3. They Found Love, Then They Found Gender (Francesca Mari, October 21, 2015, Medium)
‘Gender identity typically develops between the ages of two and four, and sexuality emerges between ages eight and 10. ‘But if you’re not allowed to explore gender and sexuality and yours happens to be different than what’s culturally expected,’ Dr. Colt Keo-Meier, a trans man clinical psychologist practicing in Houston told me, ‘yours will be delayed, which is why you see people transitioning at 30, at 55.’ In Texas, he said, this is particularly true, thanks to the state’s stifling religious, cultural, and conservative forces.”
Settled into married life with her husband, with two children between them, Jeannot Jonte realized over time that she needed more. She asked her husband to open their marriage, and subsequently met Ashley Boucher at Sue Ellen’s, a famous lesbian bar in Dallas. The two connected. Their romance led to Jeannot divorcing her husband and allowed space for Jeannot — now Johnny — to explore gender identity in a safe space for the first time in their life.
4. After Divorce and Postpartum Depression, Work (and Bees) Brought Me Back to Life (Christine H. Lee, January 8, 2019, Catapult)
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s husband was allergic to bees but, after he left, Lee ordered her own nucleus and began tending to them. In this poignant essay — one that’s part of a series called Backyard Politics — Lee uses bees as a metaphor for the ways in which she learned to build the kind of life she wanted after postpartum depression and the dissolution of her marriage.
“It is no wonder that I am so in love with my bees. They live by structure and routine, but they are also resilient. They fight for their lives.”
5. India’s Golden Chance (Meera Subramanian, January 6, 2014, Virginia Quarterly Review)
Meera Subramanian visits Bihar, India to “find out what it means to be a girl turning into a woman in today’s India.” She is met with startling statistics.
“For every 100,000 mothers who give birth, 261 die—more than ten times the US figure. Though it is an illegal act, nearly 70 percent of Bihari girls are married before their eighteenth birthday, and well over half of newlyweds have their first child by nineteen. The average woman in Bihar bears 3.7 children over the course of her lifetime. Of those, nearly 5 percent die within the first year.”
Subramanian writes about the efforts of a woman named Pinki Kumari, who’s involved with a program called Pathfinder International, which seeks to educate people about reproductive health. The training also seeks to empower women to make choices that might lead to a brighter future, such as resisting arranged marriage, birth control options, achieving economic stability on their own, continuing education, and speaking out against pervasive issues such as sexual violence.
6. How Queer and Trans Women Are Healing Each Other After Hurricane Harvey (Yvonne S. Marquez, October 25, 2017, Autostraddle)
After Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, many LGBT and undocumented Houstonians struggled to heal, and were left without access to resources to do so. In this longform piece, one that is a testament to the power of love that exists within community, Yvonne S. Marquez shares the efforts of people like poet Tiffany Scales, who is part of the T.R.U.T.H. Project, a project that organizes uplifting and educational performance art events for LGBTQ communities and their allies; Ana Andrea Molina, founder of Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLTT), who used her resources and connections to open a nonprofit where undocumented queer and trans people receive support; and Jessica Alvarenga, a queer Salvadoran photographer who hopes to “capture a truer narrative of her community to counter anti-immigrant narratives spewed by conservative politicians who depict all Central American immigrants as members of the dangerous MS-13 gang.”
7. Politics as a Defense Against Heartbreak (Minda Honey, February 2018, Longreads)
A decade away from her last long-term relationship, Minda Honey arrives to a party celebrating her 33rd birthday without a date. After a friend gives her a tarot reading and suggests Honey will find a man, Honey reflects on the way she has evolved throughout various encounters with men, and discusses the way she now uses “politics as a barometer for the caliber of person” she dates.
“But I wish there were space in our culture for single women who are unhappy with their status to say so without being pitied, and without the pressure to break out into the Independent Woman song and dance. I can have a happy, fulfilling life and still long for romantic love. Two things can simultaneously be true.”
8. What Pigeons Teach Us About Love (Brandon Keim, February 11, 2016, Nautilus)
After observing a pair of pigeons for a spring — birds he names Harold and Maude — Brandon Keim ruminates on what we know about how animals conceive of love, and how their interactions as couples reflect on how we as humans engage in relationships.
“Part of the reluctance to talk of bird love, I suspect, is rooted in our misgivings about our own love’s biological underpinnings: Is it just chemicals? A set of hormonal and cognitive patterns shaped by evolution to reward behaviors that result in optimal mating strategies? Perhaps love is not what defines us as human but is something we happen to share with other species, including the humble pigeon.”
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
In the fourth installment of her series on #Dating_While_Woke, Minda Honey interrogates her sexuality and questions the future of straight-by-default.