Author Archives

Maria Bustillos
Journalist and critic

The Internet Isn’t Forever

Illustration by Shannon Freshwater

Maria Bustillos | Columbia Journalism Review | February 2018 |2900 words (12 minutes)

This story is published in collaboration with the Columbia Journalism Review, whose Winter 2018 issue covers threats to journalism.

The Honolulu Advertiser doesn’t exist anymore, but it used to publish a regular “Health Bureau Statistics” column in its back pages supplied with information from the Hawaii Department of Health detailing births, deaths, and other events. The paper, which began in 1856 as the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, since the end of World War II was merged, bought, sold, and then merged again with its local rival, The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, to become in 2010 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. But the Advertiser archive is still preserved on microfilm in the Honolulu State Library. Who could have guessed, when those reels were made, that the record of a tiny birth announcement would one day become a matter of national consequence? But there, on page B-6 of the August 13, 1961 edition of The Sunday Advertiser, set next to classified listings for carpenters and floor waxers, are two lines of agate type announcing that on August 4, a son had been born to Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama of 6085 Kalanianaole Highway.

In the absence of this impossible-to-fudge bit of plastic film, it would have been far easier for the so-called birther movement to persuade more Americans that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. But that little roll of microfilm was and is still there, ready to be threaded on a reel and examined in the basement of the Honolulu State Library: An unfalsifiable record of “Births, Marriages, Deaths,” which immeasurably fortified the Hawaii government’s assertions regarding Obama’s original birth certificate. “We don’t destroy vital records,” Hawaii Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo says. “That’s our whole job, to maintain and retain vital records.” Read more…

The Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit: An Introduction

George Saunders Photo © AP Photos

A little over three years ago I asked George Saunders whether I could sit in on one of his MFA classes at Syracuse, and, flabbergastingly, he said okay.

This opportunity seemed particularly valuable at a time when education privatizers and MOOC-peddlers were busily attempting to equate “education” with “that which can be bubbled in on a Scantron form.” Saunders’ work is very particularly about human qualities, fallibility, the unexpected; dissonance, misapprehensions; comedy; mystery; beauty. Immeasurable and incommensurate things. What he’d already taught me, just as a reader of his fiction, was and remains the diametric opposite of anything you could answer by multiple choice.

MFA studies consist largely of working on individual students’ writing, in conditions too sensitive for me to be barging in on with a tape recorder. But George’s students were also required to take “ENG 650 (Forms): The Russian Short Story in Translation (for Writers),” a class devoted to learning structures and techniques that might effectively be pilfered from the Russian masters—and that one, I could attend.

My instructions were as follows:

Syllabii attached – looks like you’ll be there for the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – usually the best class of the year. It’s Bowne Hall 101 or 110 – it says on the sheet. The easiest thing to do is to park at the University Sheraton and have them give you a campus map – it’s a short (though uphill) walk… I’d say read the stories just a few days before and if you really want to do it the way we do it, write a little essay on each, or on the three (they’re linked).

I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.

In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.

* * *

Explore the kit

STAT: My Daughter’s MS Diagnosis and the Question My Doctors Couldn’t Answer

"Nearly 24 years later and still just that crazy about my kid." Photos courtesy of the author.

Maria Bustillos | Longreads | September 2016 | 40 minutes (10,049 words)



In the first days of 2014, in her senior year at Oberlin and just a few days before the winter term she’d arranged to spend in France, my daughter Carmen’s legs went numb. First her feet got all tingly, then her ankles, calves, and knees. Over three days or so, the numbness crept up to the base of her rib cage, and then stopped. But it didn’t go away—a weird sensation all in her skin, almost as if the whole lower half of her body had been anesthetized. Shingles, the internist told us—really?—okay. The acupuncturist, too, told us he’d been seeing anomalous cases of shingles cropping up in younger people. Carmen seemed to get a little better, and off she went to Paris; the tingling and numbness subsided slowly over the next several weeks, just as we’d been told they would, and the episode faded from memory. But about a year later, they came back again: Not shingles, after all.

Carmen in a hospital bed, uncharacteristically quiet and gloomy, the dark jungle of her curls against slick, plasticky polyester pillowcases. IV steroids, and more and more tests. Legs pretty numb, still. From pregnancy onward, I imagine, most parents harbor a cold little drop of inward fear, even as each day passes peaceful and undisturbed, through birth and babyhood and all the playdates and sleepovers and math tests, rock shows and summer vacations; at any moment, perhaps, from out of nowhere, comes the pounce. Here it is, then. Multiple sclerosis: I didn’t know anything about it really, beyond calamity, wheelchairs, and Annette Funicello. Instant by instant I composed my face and steeled myself as best I could for… what?

For every cliché in the world, naturally. A soul-wracked family, just like the ones you’ll see every day on the Lifetime Channel and the evening news; a brave young person, scared and in trouble; you register a fleeting hope that things will work out for them, in fact or fiction, as you flick to the next station. Now it’s your turn, but you won’t be changing the channel. Can this thing be treated? What is it? How do I discover how bad this will get? Or maybe let me just jump out this motherfucking window this minute, because I’m going to die of the panic alone.   Read more…

Friendship Is Complicated

Illustration by Pat Barrett

Maria Bustillos | Longreads | January 2015 | 15 minutes (3,706 words)

Read more…

Longreads Best of 2012: Maria Bustillos

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work for The Awl and Los Angeles Review of Books was featured on Longreads this year.

In the essay “Freedom Is Overrated,” the theologian and scholar Sancrucensis contrasts the humanism of Jonathan Franzen with that of David Foster Wallace. A transcendentally beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on self and other.

I’ve enjoyed a number of essays from The American Conservative this year, but my favorite may have been Mike Lofgren’s “Revolt Of The Rich”. It’s a blistering reproof of our moneyed classes and their disconnect from the historic aspirations of our country.

The tagline of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, is “Biased and Balanced.” An earlier incarnation of the Dish bore another, equally good: “Of No Party Or Clique.” I consider Sullivan an indispensable companion, not least because his views so often diverge from my own. I can’t choose just one entry from his heady, rapid-fire mix of opinion, reporting, photographs, jokes, poems, ideas. But Sullivan’s great heart, his compassion and intellect, are a salutary test of my own convictions most every day.

The scholar Aaron Bady exposes the fatal weaknesses in the arguments of those promoting “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in a resoundingly persuasive and passionate essay in Inside Higher Ed. Absolutely crucial reading for anyone remotely interested in the academy.

Mike Konczal, known on Twitter as @rortybomb, led a breathtaking debate on debt relief at the Boston Review that blew my wiglet sky-high. In the lead essay, Konczal makes an ironclad case that a strong social safety net, including debt relief, is crucial to the economic health of the country. Splendid, limpidly clear, beautifully reasoned.

It’s scarcely too much to say that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson single-handedly rescued my sanity from the maelstrom of this year’s election. I pretty much hop on Twitter and start banging out exclamation points every time she posts, but her recent column on the public confrontation of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by a gay Princeton University student will serve as well as any to demonstrate her unwavering clear-mindedness, her sensitivity, fairness and brilliance.

Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.