Search Results for: susan straight

‘To Be Polite By Ignoring the Obvious’: Jess Row on Unpacking Whiteness in Literature


Morgan Jerkins | Longreads | September 2019 | 10 minutes (2,662 words)

Despite the recurring cycle of conversations on topics such as the need for fully-funded MFA programs, the financial challenges of sustaining oneself as a writer, and the lack of diversity in all levels of media, the issue of whiteness in publishing — and the privileges that come with being white in publishing — continues to justify our scrutiny. We are aware that white people hold much of the power in the literary world, but how do we assess this fact critically, understanding that whiteness is not just a factor in the economics of writing, but in the writing itself? Novelist Jess Row investigates this question in his latest book, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination. In his own words, “American culture has evolved a theory of the white psyche that rarely, if ever, considers racism as a direct or even proximate cause of its disorder and distress.” Read more…

In the Country of Women


Susan Straight | In the Country of Women | Catapult | August 2019 | 38 minutes (7,573 words)


To my daughters:

They never tell us about the odysseys of women. They never say about a woman: “Her passage was worthy of Homer . . . her voyage a mythic quest for new lands.” Women don’t get the Heroine’s Journey.

Men are accorded the road and the sea and the asphalt. The monsters and battles and the murders. Men get The Iliad and The Odyssey. They get Joseph Campbell. They get The Thousand Faces of the Hero. They get “the epic novel,” “the great American story,” and Ken Burns documentaries.

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Live Through This: Courtney Love at 55

Mick Hudson / Getty, istock / Getty Images Plus, Michael Ochs Archive / Getty, Vinnie Zuffante / Getty, pidjoe / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | July 9th, 2019 | 24 minutes (6,539 words)

It’s hard to tell whether Thurston Moore is being sarcastic or sincere. It’s probably a bit of both. “The biggest star in this room is Courtney Love,” says the Sonic Youth singer and guitarist in a scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The documentary follows Sonic Youth’s summer 1991 European tour and features performances and backstage antics from their tourmates, including a pre-Nevermind Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Dinosaur Jr.

Moore comments during an interview with 120 Minutes, an MTV program that spotlighted alternative music in the days before the music channel became the home of teen moms and spoiled Laguna Beach brats. As Moore declares his love of English food to the host — most definitely sarcasm — Love is behind him trying to get the camera’s attention. She waves and appears to stand on something to make herself taller. Her efforts pay off and soon she is in front of the host, all brazen, blond, and sporting blue baby doll barrettes.

Tongue-in-cheek or not, Moore was right. Love’s band Hole wasn’t on the European tour bill that summer and their debut album Pretty on the Inside hadn’t even been released yet, but Love was already on MTV.

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The Brazilian Healer and the Patron Saint of Impossible Causes

Illustration by Aimee Flom

Leigh Hopkins | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,131 words)


The roosters started at 4:30 in the pasture behind the inn. On the second crow, I rolled onto my back and blinked at the jalousie window’s slatted light, considering my first day at The Casa. We were allowed to ask three questions, no more. A visit with the world’s most famous “spiritual surgeon” was like going to see the wizard.

Mariana was silent in the bed next to me, the sleep falling in loose spirals across her face. I pulled back the sheets and slipped inside. “Bom dia.”

“Bom dia, meu amor.” A soft sound from a distant place.

Seven and a half years later, I receive a text from a friend in Rio: “Did you see the news?” She links to a New York Times article: “Celebrity Healer in Brazil Is Accused of Sexually Abusing Followers.”


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An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports

womenSports, Bettmann / Getty

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | May 2019 | 26 minutes (6,609 words)

The idea for womenSports magazine was born in a car suspended over the San Francisco Bay by beams of steel. Several weeks before she captivated the nation by beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in the fall of 1973, Billie Jean King sat in the passenger seat of a car and stewed. At the wheel was her then-husband, Larry, driving the couple from Emeryville near Oakland toward San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, and as Billie Jean flipped through an issue of Sports Illustrated, she complained, which is what she always did whenever she picked up an issue of SI. Read more…

‘Little Grandpa’ and The List

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Abigail Rasminsky | Longreads | May 2019 | 17 minutes (4,208 words)

It’s a long plane ride, so I puke in midair, grunting and coughing up the last remnants of breakfast. My mother holds the paper bag open for me, an encouraging look on her face. When I am done, she closes it up, wipes my face with a tissue from her purse, and carries the slosh to the bathroom. Down the row, a bald man in a suit looks away in disgust.

I am 10, it is May, 1988, and we are on our way to my grandfather’s funeral in Los Angeles. In the locker room at school the day before leaving, in the loudest fourth grade voice she could muster, my friend Laura announced that it was my fault that he had died. I suspect this can’t really be possible — I live in Montreal, which is in a different country, after all — but it still worries me. On the plane, lying my head across my mother’s lap, I tell her about Laura and the locker room. She glares down at me from behind the thick frames of her oversized oval glasses, then looks up and starts fiddling with the tray table. “Sweetheart,” she says. “I think it’s time for some new friends.”

My grandfather is being cremated, and I am spellbound by the word — I have learned its meaning especially for the occasion, and let it cycle through my mouth over and over again, the “eemmm” sound turning into a hum at the back of my throat. Last night, my mother explained that a lot of people didn’t like the idea of being put in a coffin and buried in the earth. Instead, she said, some preferred to be cremated, which turned out to be a fancy word for being burned into ashes. But the word seems slightly suspicious: too lovely to mean something so violent.

In bed the night before, I wondered where we’d visit Grandpa if he wasn’t lying in a cemetery next to Grandma — the two headstones side by side, their bones resting together underneath. “Cremation” made it sound like he would just disappear.


We arrive in L.A. in the afternoon. It is bright everywhere. Since I still feel a bit like throwing up again, the warm breeze feels good on my body. As we wait at an outdoor baggage claim, my mother yanks my long, thick hair into a tight ponytail, the tip tickling my spine. A little yellow stain, evidence of the unsettling flight, has dried on my pink-and-white striped T-shirt.

Even though she has a bad back, my mother drags our big beige bag off the carousel by herself, her red sundress riding up the back of her thighs. Once she takes hold of the handle, she yells for people to get out of the way, then drops it, the tiny wheels crashing to the cement. I stand a bit away, wishing Dad were here.

The four of us usually rent a car when we come to visit Grandpa in L.A., but since my father and older sister will arrive later in the week, we take a cab, my mother talking in a feverishly speedy tone all along the freeway. Once in the city, I roll down my window, and the familiar smell of L.A. — a cocktail of palm trees and dry grass — calms my stomach.
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After a Fashion

Vianney Le Caer / AP, Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 |  8 minutes (2,349 words)

Rufus: Models help people. They make them feel good about themselves.
Meekus: They also show them how to dress cool and wear their hair in interesting ways.
Zoolander: I guess so.

The schadenfreude was swift and it was sharp the moment the Met Gala announced this year’s theme: camp. “do you ever wake up in the middle of the night because you remembered the met ball is camp themed this year and so many celebrities are going to have to explain what they think camp is,” tweeted New Yorker fashion columnist Rachel Syme. The idea that the fashion industry, infamously out of touch, was not only bypassing urgent matters of the present to focus on the past, but that the past it chose is defined by its indefinability — Susan Sontag’s attempt, “Notes on Camp,” is a series of contradictions for a reason — was too delicious. We were all Divine, in drag, crouching next to that puli, waiting for that shit. And when Lady Gaga and Celine Dion showed up vamping their souls out, it was the perfect symbol of fashion’s near-constant missing of the mark even when it is the mark. Because camp, a lurid pink flourish on the margins of society, is at its core the opposite of what fashion has become: a sanitized institution that sets itself apart from the mess of our reality. “Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp,” wrote Sontag, “what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.”

The stars who seemed to intrinsically understand camp, from Danai Gurira to Natasha Lyonne, are familiar with the fringes of Hollywood. And it was a surprise to no one when Billy Porter — who made his name in Kinky Boots — arrived like the second coming of Tutankhamun, in head-to-toe gold, carried by a coterie of beefcakes. This is the man whose name few knew three months ago, whose style alone threw him to the top of the red carpet, above the old A-listers in the likes of Chanel and Valentino. Like Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, he is fashion precisely because he poses outside of it. Established fashion these days is a place where tradition trumps trendiness, and the biggest couturiers seem to be moving backward rather than forward. Prada, Gucci, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana, among others, have lately made missteps so basic it has become clear that being clueless is not the exception but the rule. “Fashion is old-fashioned,” says Van Dyk Lewis, who has worked as a designer and teaches fashion at Cornell University. “The clothes might be cool, but actually the sentiment of fashion in our moment isn’t.” Read more…

‘I Don’t Think Those Feelings of Self-Doubt Ever Go Away.’

Heather Weston / Henry Holt

Amy Brady | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,627 words)

The truth has never been a universally agreed upon concept. As most psychologists will tell you, a shift in perspective can alter how a situation feels as well as what it means. And most historians agree that the “truth” of any significant event changes depending on who’s telling the story.

In her astounding fifth novel Trust Exercise, Susan Choi plays with both perspective and narrative structure to tell the truth, or “truth,” about a group of suburban performing arts high school students. The book begins with Sarah, a fifteen year old in deep lust with her peer, David. Their friends, Karen and Joelle, and outcast Manuel, round out the teenage cast. Martin is a theater teacher from England who spends a couple of weeks at the high school, and Mr. Kingsley is their beloved theater teacher who makes the students participate in trust exercises usually reserved for older, more experienced actors. His questionable teaching style and Martin’s over-familiarity with the students are clues that the adults view the teens as both children and grown-ups, as needing guidance to navigate the professional world of acting but as also already possessing the emotional development needed to withstand the cruelty it bestows upon them.

As the novel unfolds, Choi captures the rage and lust of teenage life with thrilling verisimilitude. Who hasn’t felt the devastation of unrequited love as a horny fifteen year old? Or felt mistreated in a friendship? Or held a secret from a parent? Choi’s descriptions of her characters’ psychological interiors are equally adept: The teens walk assuredly into a classroom one moment, only to feel crushed by self-doubt the next, their self-confidence ruled by roiling hormones.

The novel’s authenticity is what makes both of its structural shifts, when they arrive, so shocking; the lives of these teens feel too real to be anything but the truth. But after each shift, everything in the story that came before is changed — changed but not entirely undone. It’s as if we had been reading the novel through a telescope only to be handed a kaleidoscope to finish it; the story’s pieces are all still there, but now they are arranged in different and surprising ways.

The shifts bring revelations about what the students endured from their teachers and parents and each other. Some of the revelations are amusing in their familiarity. Others are heartbreaking for the same reason. Trust Exercise is a novel that resonates with the #MeToo movement, but it’s also a story as old as time — it’s about those in power taking advantage of those who are powerless to stop them. Read more…

Orwell’s Last Neighborhood

Barnhill on the Isle of Jura, Scotland. (David Brown)

David Brown | The American Scholar | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,796 words)

It’s hard to know what would be a good place from which to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure up a dystopia?

Apparently not.

We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.

We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.

This was where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. It was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, and couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Orwell lived here for parts of the last three years of his life. He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and a boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home. When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanatorium or hospital.

I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland. My purpose was to drink single-malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, where Orwell’s landlord had lived. I was not on a literary pilgrimage. Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 235 residents remembers Orwell. Read more…

The Unreliable Reader

Aditya Chinchure / Unsplash, Collage by Katie Kosma

Wei Tchou | Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,983 words)

“I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead,” the novelist Esmé Weijun Wang writes at the beginning of “Perdition Days,” an essay from her new book, The Collected Schizophrenias. (Read an excerpt on Longreads.) “What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point,” she continues. “I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.” The passage moves swiftly, from first person agency (“I am writing”) to distanced third person (“the patient,” “the writer”) to the famous Descartes assertion, in Latin, “I think, therefore I am.” As a reader, it’s astonishing and a little unnerving to consider the immediacy of the prose, your intimacy with a speaker searching to find the correct vantage from which to narrate the strangely drawn, difficult-to-map districts of her mind.

That same authorial compulsion to navigate and survey pervades the book, which is notable for its subject matter alone: a first-person investigation of “the schizophrenias,” as Wang describes the four overlapping classifications of the mental disorder listed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, often shortened to DSM-5. (Wang was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, in 2013.) Wang approaches the work of writing about her mental illness as if she were reporting from a foreign place, returning to it diligently, pursuing dark corners as if to case the joint. She publishes email correspondences between herself and her physician, written in a period of psychosis. She considers her desire for motherhood through the lens of her time as a counselor at Camp Wish, a bipolar youth camp. She recalls scenes from her three involuntary hospitalizations, describing the trauma of those stays, as well as the slippery interviews on which those hospitalizations were based. Read more…