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‘Every Single Person Migrating Has a Story’: Caitlin Dwyer on the Emotional Underlayers of Family Separation

Photos and artwork courtesy of Wafa Almaktari. Illustration by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

For couples and families separated by borders, financial circumstances, and national policies beyond their control, their relationships remain in limbo. As people spend months and often many years physically apart — not knowing when or if they’ll see their loved ones again — love can take on a new shape: It might evolve into pain, or defiance, or patience.

Caitlin Dwyer

“Perhaps a cross-border relationship is less about cathartic reunion than the slow, patient intention to help someone else find joy,” Caitlin Dwyer writes in “The State of Waiting,” her new Longreads essay about a Yemeni couple — and their long-haul love — in the shadow of war and immigration policy.

Dwyer, a writer in Portland, Oregon, produces and hosts Many Roads to Here, a podcast on migration and identity in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the U.S. tell their own stories. I last worked with Dwyer in 2019 on a story called “Shared Breath,” in which she beautifully explored the intimate, unique connections between organ recipients and donor families.

In “The State of Waiting,” she brings this same empathy and care to the relationship between Wafa, a young Yemeni woman in Portland, and her husband Moutaz, who lives in Sana’a, Wafa’s hometown (and the largest city in Yemen). I asked Dwyer about her reporting and writing process for this story, which we published last week.

* * *

I love that this isn’t the usual piece on U.S. immigration. Can you talk more about your approach?

I think so many pieces on immigration feel abstract. Immigration articles often talk about people sort of en masse, reporting on a caravan from Central America or a trend in migration. It’s not that those big picture stories are wrong, but they feel impersonal. So much of our conversation in this country around immigration revolves around policy, and politics, that it’s easy to forget that every single person migrating has a story. People are only abstract when seen from this very wide lens — and seeing people as trends or abstractions or representations of policy dehumanizes them. I wanted in this piece to really focus on one story, a close-up on the emotional impacts of family separation. It’s impossible to dehumanize someone or put them in a political box when you’re hearing about their wedding and all the giddiness of young love. We can all relate to that.

Read stories from other Longreads writers, like Alice Driver and Gabriel Thompson, who also approach the topics of migration and immigration with care.

What drew you to Wafa, the main subject in your story?

It’s impossible to dehumanize someone or put them in a political box when you’re hearing about their wedding and all the giddiness of young love.

Originally I was going to interview Wafa for an entirely different project. I volunteer with a group called The Immigrant Story and she was going to be our first foray into podcasting; the executive director set up a meeting for us to chat. The podcast (which never happened) was just going to be about her immigration story. We met in a classroom at Portland State University, and she was really hesitant at first. I think she wanted to figure out what my intentions were. But a couple of minutes in, she mentioned this secret boyfriend back in Yemen, and her demeanor totally changed. She couldn’t stop talking about him. Her face lit up, her gestures got more expansive. I realized he was the story. We spent the next two hours talking about their relationship. I got all the juicy details of their first dates, her wedding planning … I thought we were going to be talking about serious issues, and instead we’re talking wedding cake and makeup artists — but with this very serious and unavoidable overlayer of civil war. It surprised me, and I realized how many stories about immigration are just framed as tragedies, without the tenderness and hope of real life. Wafa had this great vivacity and excitement for the normal stuff of young romance, and the horribleness of her situation didn’t negate her love. The two coexisted. That really interested me.

As I got to know her, I realized what a remarkable person Wafa is. She’s this bold, brassy sort of person, presents herself as very sassy and unafraid, but she has this deep well of vulnerability because of all that she’s gone through. And she loves to talk, which made my job easier.

What challenges did you face during your reporting?

I realized how many stories about immigration are just framed as tragedies, without the tenderness and hope of real life.

Communicating with folks in a war zone was definitely the most difficult part. Wafa has gone to Yemen twice during the reporting. The first time I met her, she was a senior in college; she flew back to Yemen after we met and I didn’t hear from her for a year. When she came back to Oregon we finally reconnected, but then she flew to Yemen again for another six months. The internet connections are very unreliable there, and it was often hard to communicate with her and Moutaz (her husband). I think also when they are together, they (understandably) just want to focus on surviving and on each other and not worry about some random writer back in the U.S. — so I just had these large gaps where I didn’t know what was going on with them, and then I had to catch up later.

It’s also hard to verify information about Yemen, other than through large official sources like the U.N. At this point, there isn’t a lot of on-the-ground reporting in English on the conflict. I was lucky enough to get in touch with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, which studies and writes on policy and conflict in the region. They really helped with finding the contextual resources I needed.

This essay, like your last piece for us that explored how donated organs affect a person’s sense of self, is meditative in parts: You pause to reflect on larger themes that emerge from the story. How did the shape of this piece come about?

I’m interested in slowness. That’s a weird thing to say, perhaps, but the pace of a story — writing it, reading it, thinking it through — really matters to me.

What interests me more is what the facts cohere into, what webbing and connections they create: the emotional and psychological underlayers.

When I went to journalism school, I was really frustrated by the restrictiveness of news writing. On deadline, we couldn’t really do storytelling that got deeply into human emotion and descriptive scene-making. It was just facts. I respect traditional journalism, but in my own writing, I always wanted to slow down and take a second look at every article. Situations always seemed so much more complex and nuanced than could be covered in a quick feature. I think maybe I just fear getting things wrong, and I know that if I slow down, I have a better chance of not messing up. I worry about leaving out some essential angle. This is true in my daily life, too — I’m always the friend who asks, but what about this factor, doesn’t that make it more complicated? I’m sure it’s annoying sometimes, but I can’t help it.

That tendency comes from a real respect for the people I’m writing about. I want to honor their stories, and if I rush, I’m possibly going to miss something. (I’m not trying to malign traditional journalism here, only to own my own capabilities and weaknesses). My personality is that of an observer. I’m kind of shy, so I’ve learned to get a lot of information by watching and listening. I don’t jump in and ask a million questions. I pay attention. I’m comfortable with long silences — because people jump in to fill them, and you get a lot of really interesting material that way. But that method takes time.

When I’m writing a piece like “The State of Waiting,” I can see right away that the facts alone are pretty dramatic and make a good story: long-distance love, war, separation. Boom. What interests me more is what the facts cohere into, what webbing and connections they create: the emotional and psychological underlayers. That larger, more interesting story for me emerges as I write. Sometimes I figure that underlayer out by writing these more meditative sections; as I write them, they help me make sense of the facts.

That’s one way past politics and dehumanization, and toward empathy, it seems to me.

The meditations also help me check myself, to make sure I’m not off-base with my assumptions and biases. In this piece that was really important to me, as a white American writing about Muslim immigrants. I was constantly questioning the narrative in my head and asking, where is this story coming from? I wanted the emotional and thematic content to emerge from Wafa and Moutaz, not from some preconceived notions I’d developed in my head about them. The meditations function almost like a break: They slow me down, help me work through the material and examine my assumptions.

If the writing ends up decent, and the section helps the reader to do the same thing — slow down, sink into their assumptions, make an emotional connection to the story — I keep those sections. I want the reading experience to be slow-ish, too, because my goal in writing these pieces is to tell a full human story. That can’t be done at top speed. We don’t feel a lot when we rush. Again, it comes back to complexity and nuance. Immigration stories — actually, all stories — are complicated and messy. If we go slow, pause, reflect, we have a chance to go beyond what we were sure was true at the start. We get to revise our thinking as we read. That’s one way past politics and dehumanization, and toward empathy, it seems to me.

Seeing real change from a shift in immigration policy is a slow process. But has the Biden administration given Wafa and Moutaz any more hope? From the stories you’ve told through your podcast, how do you think people cope with the uncertainty, with this state of waiting, for an indefinite length of time?

I do think Wafa and Moutaz feel more hope now. With the travel ban lifted, there is a chance that Moutaz’s application can move through the system, though I believe it’s pretty backlogged right now after the pause on visa processing for four years. More simply there’s just a shift in rhetoric. We had an administration that didn’t speak well of immigrant communities and tried to deter immigration; that was part of their policy agenda. Now we have an administration whose rhetoric is different, and the language coming from the top levels of government has a profound effect not only on policy, but on people’s hopes and actions. If there’s a chance that Moutaz’s application can move, they’re willing to wait. If there’s no hope, well, you start to look for other options, because you can’t just sit still forever and hope the nations of the world align with your personal family plans. You have to act to protect the people you love.

If there’s no hope, well, you start to look for other options, because you can’t just sit still forever and hope the nations of the world align with your personal family plans.

I think uncertainty is pretty devastating. The world just went through a pandemic year of profound uncertainty, and look what it did to everyone. We’re a mess, mentally. Uncertainty generally is a difficult place to live, and so you have to find ways to cope. For some people, that’s finding other ways to ground yourself and make things feel less unstable (that’s Moutaz). That might mean choosing to ignore situations that scare or further unsettle us, the way he endures daily scares like bombings and armed militia and sort of shrugs it off. For other people, it’s finding ways to take action and change the situation, even in small ways (that’s Wafa). At least then you feel like you’re doing something, you aren’t passive and helpless amid these huge circumstances.

I think the uncertainty of living across a border can be devastating especially for children. I didn’t write about that situation, but adults can find coping mechanisms; kids really suffer from the state of waiting. They need comfort and care now, not later. My Buddhist tradition would tell me we can all learn to live with uncertainty, to accept it as a fundamental truth of life, but that’s asking a lot of folks who are living apart from their kids.

We can hear Wafa talk in short audio interludes throughout the piece. Can you tell us more about this additional layer in the story? In general, how do you approach storytelling as both a writer and podcaster?

There’s something really powerful about hearing the person’s real voice, unmediated. The podcast I work on (and I should add that Many Roads to Here is a fully collaborative effort with many skilled producers; I’m just one of a team) uses first-person storytelling, so I am intrigued generally by the personal oral narrative. Whenever I write, I automatically filter the story -— pick certain details, put them in a certain order, leave out other details — and I think that hearing the person tell their own story is a wonderful counterpoint to that filter. Multimedia storytelling is also just a great way to keep people’s interest online, especially in a long story (which this one is). You can read, then pause and listen, and read again. The audio offers a break and also adds another voice beside mine to the storytelling, so it’s more of a collaborative effort.

Recording was a delight, because it happened just as Wafa and I had both received the second shot of our COVID-19 vaccines, so we could record in person. We left the windows open in her house (that’s why you can hear traffic in the background) for additional ventilation, but it was the first time I’d seen her in person in a long time. I had asked her to pull out objects that really mattered to her and Moutaz, and she had these amazing stories behind each object that enriched my understanding of their relationship, and of her relationship with Yemen and her culture as she becomes an American.

In both podcasting and writing, I try hard to let the storytelling emerge organically from the conversations I’m having with the person. I might arrive at an interview believing I’m there for a particular story, and learn halfway through that this person wants to tell a different story. Sometimes it’s good to let that person just talk, and just be a good listener. What are they really trying to say? What emotions or fears or passions underlie their storytelling or have brought this particular narrative to the forefront, where they’re willing to talk about it with a stranger? I may end up telling the story differently from them, but I always try to honor their intentions in telling it. I’m also pretty transparent with people about the themes and big ideas I’m getting into. Sometimes I check in and say, hey, I’m thinking this story is about the sacrifices we make for love. I asked Wafa that, actually, and she totally agreed, so I knew I was on the right track. 

At the same time, I know that I’m bringing artistry and craft to the table to assemble all these pieces skillfully. Whether that’s cutting audio or writing scenes, I’m always aware that I’m reassembling pieces in a way that appeals to an audience and makes a (hopefully) delightful listening or reading experience. So there’s a certain amount of artifice that automatically goes along with that. I try to balance my responsibility toward my subject with my responsibility to my audience, and that comes down to the craft elements of editing and selecting and cutting. In other words, I think storytelling is a super ethical endeavor. You can’t enter into telling other people’s stories without considering your own self, your tendencies, your biases, and being kind of unrelenting in your self-scrutiny.

Read “The State of Waiting”

“We Can’t Rush This Kind of Power”: An Educator on Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers During the Pandemic

surreal moment of a butterfly entering the pages of a book
fcscafeine / Getty Images

During this period of remote learning during the pandemic, poet and educator Paola Capó-García decided to reimagine her senior English class into a more immersive and focused eight-week poetry course. Through poems, she thought, perhaps her teenage students could reflect on “the particular chaos of 2020” and begin to process the loss they’d experienced over the year. In a piece at Teachers & Writers Magazine, Capó-García recounts this special time spent with her students, and how she created a safe, quiet space for them to think, to write, and to heal.

Poetry is so often neglected at the high school level, deemed too difficult, too precious, or too esoteric to tackle. And when it is taught, it’s typically filtered through dead white men. But teaching Whitman and Frost does not fit into my politics as a teacher and human, and it certainly does not fit the narrative of the students my school serves. I’m not interested in widening the gap between them and poetry, between them and knowledge. My goal, now and always, has been to make poetry accessible, exciting, and useful to young people. To teach them that the way they speak and live is already poetic. To help them manage the messiness of 21st century youth with 21st century language. And in this extra-messy age of Covid and Zoom and rightful apathy, poetry felt like the perfect way to make sense of it all.

Between a raging pandemic, civil rights unrest, controversial U.S. election, and graduation on the horizon, the students needed a space to explore the enormity of their feelings. To address this, I designed the writing prompts around the concept of loss. The world we’re living in is punctuated by overwhelming loss, and it must be confronted and articulated in cathartic ways.

I value the elegy as a poetic form for teenagers because it invites healing; it’s a way to give grief a name and exit strategy. I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.

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‘The Price For Your Return to Normal Is My Life’: On Dismantling Layers of the Doll

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“Trapped indoors as they and we have been for a year, it occurs to me that White people have just figured out what it’s like to be in a living nightmare,” writes Baltimore-based writer Breai Mason-Campbell. In “Seeing in the Dark,” a stunning essay in the first-ever issue of Pipe Wrench, Mason-Campbell reflects on how the pandemic “has been like smelling salts for the soul, quickening even the most apathetic Whiteness,” and opening the eyes of Nice White Folks, even if momentarily, to the reality and experience of being Black in America.

They now understood what it felt like to be distant from their freest selves, so they listened when we said that our grief is a nesting doll: That inside the outer sphere where Corona had stolen our loved ones, our job security, and our sense of safety, was another layer. A more suffocating circle of experience that White people, previously blinded by the light of their own incandescence, could now begin to make out from the shadows, their eyes adjusted by the global shroud of doom. These grief-bound White people, uncharacteristically able to see in the dark, became more discerning. More sensitive. More human.

But white attention is short, she writes, and Nice White Folks can retreat back into their homes — back to (their) normal — until the next moment signals them to check in with a friend or take to Twitter or donate to a GoFundMe page or post a black square or display a BLM sign.

Justice was a seasonal item, it turned out. And empathy, its sister-at-arms awakened by the storm and subsequent power outage, was being sent back to the secreted and suppressed corners from whence she emerged. Her only-just-forged outer doll dismantled and packed up in the garage. Back to business as usual.

What’s needed, she says, is the support after the funeral: the support, the solidarity, the action three months later — a year later — when everyone has moved on. “How are you going to help the family now?” she asks.

We all share the grief of Covid-19, the outer doll of fear, uncertainty, and isolation. But beneath that breastplate of horror, there are layers upon layers of sarcophagi limiting the agency and humanity of people like me.

White men, White women, Black men, cis women, cis men, hetero folks, people with degrees, people with generational wealth, anyone who doesn’t share their neighborhood with drug dealers: Corona helped you build up some armor. Use it. Now is the time to show mercy with brave and decisive acts. Stop confusing irresponsibility with freedom. Accept accountability for the fact that where you live, what you buy, how you handle the noise on your block, and where your kids go to school all help or hurt somebody’s chances at life itself. Make. Different. Choices.

Read the essay

“I Was at a Loss for Any Facts that Would Actually Stick”: An Investigative Reporter on Losing His Mom to QAnon

WASHINGTON, DC—JANUARY 06: Crowds gather outside the U.S. Capitol for the Stop the Steal rally. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

I Miss My Mom,” Jesselyn Cook’s HuffPost piece, is another read on losing a parent to QAnon.

At Buzzfeed News, Albert Samaha recounts his unsuccessful efforts to pull his mom out of QAnon. She had been an early adopter of the far-right conspiracy theory and has believed, since 2018, that Donald Trump is the anointed one — a savior in a war between good and evil. By 2020, it was clear to Samaha that there was no longer any “overlap between [their] filters of reality,” and he had given up trying to argue with her over basic, indisputable facts. After all, in her eyes, he was a dangerous member of the “liberal media” — a journalist of the “evil deep state.”

In the piece, Samaha traces his mother’s journey to QAnon, first explaining how she came to the U.S. from the Philippines and was initially indifferent to politics. But that changed during the 2000 presidential election, and in that race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, she “saw the candidates as pieces on God’s chessboard.” Later, she would declare her support for Barack Obama, but that period, writes Samaha, “turned out to be the final chapter of [their] political alignment.”

Meanwhile, she wondered where she’d gone wrong with me. Was it letting me go to public school instead of Catholic school? Subscribing to cable TV channels operated by the liberal media? Raising me in Northern California? She regretted not taking politics more seriously when I was younger. I’d grown up blinkered by American privilege, trained to ignore the dirty machinations securing my comforts. My mom had shed that luxury long ago.

She was a primary school student, living in a big house in the suburbs of Manila in 1972 when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in response to a series of bombings across the capital and an assassination attempt on the defense secretary, which he blamed on communist insurgents. But Marcos had actually orchestrated the attacks as justification for his authoritarian turn — a plot exposed only years later. The successful conspiracy ushered the Philippines into a dictatorship that jailed dissidents, embezzled public funds, and installed a bribe-based bureaucracy my grandparents refused to participate in. Having a hard head runs in the family. To this day, my aunties and uncles debate if they would have been better off had their parents just given in to the new rules of the game.

The year my mom began falling down QAnon rabbit holes, I turned the age she was when she first arrived in the States. By then, I was no longer sure that America was worth the cost of her migration. When the real estate market collapsed under the weight of Wall Street speculation, she had to sell our house at a steep loss to avoid foreclosure and her budding career as a realtor evaporated. Her near–minimum wage jobs weren’t enough to cover her bills, so her credit card debts rose. She delayed retirement plans because she saw no path to breaking even anytime soon, though she was hopeful that a turnaround was on the horizon. Through the setbacks and detours, she drifted into the arms of the people and beliefs I held most responsible for her troubles.

In the early afternoon of Jan. 6, a piece of shrapnel landed in my text message inbox: photos of my mom and an uncle among a crowd of Trump supporters in front of the state capitol in Sacramento.

Outraged, I texted them both a righteous screed proclaiming my disappointment with how irresponsible they were, gathering with maskless faces even as COVID cases surged in California — and for what? It was one thing for my mother to risk her life at campaign rallies, but now she was doing so on the basis of a lie, a lie that only seemed to gain momentum. Would it ever end? Would my mother spend the rest of the pandemic bouncing from rally to rally, calling for an overthrow of a democratically elected government, breathing in the angry shouts of mask-averse white people who probably would’ve preferred she go back to the Philippines if not for the pink MAGA hat confirming her complicity?

Read the story

“The Internet Is Inside Us”: Patricia Lockwood on the Portal, Twitter, and Her New Novel

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Reading poet, essayist, and novelist Patricia Lockwood on our internet lives is a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and losing your mind. Lockwood’s musings and observations on what it’s like to be extremely online in our digital and social media age are incomparable. Her essays and lectures — like “The Communal Mind” from 2019 and her coronavirus diary from last summer — are hilarious, absurd, pure, and human. In a conversation with Gabriella Paiella at GQ, Lockwood talks about her debut novel No One Is Talking About This, the strange experience of following current events on Twitter, and how the internet is “no longer an externality” — it’s inside us.

Your London Review of Books talk “The Communal Mind” is excerpted from your book. Do you remember the turning point when you started to think of the internet as a “communal mind” and, as you put it then, “a place we can never leave”?

It did start to feel like we were locked in there. I think, honestly, it probably was 2012. It had to take a political turn. It became the place where we were imbibing the news. The point in which it turned from a communal free space of play to a place where we were getting our information was probably the difference.

We were starting out with a very bare bones, text-based version. There weren’t images. You couldn’t embed video. Ultimately, I think what changed it was the quote tweet, because that meant that as soon as you went into the portal, you were experiencing an argument first thing. You didn’t even know what these people were talking about, and immediately you were faced with the discourse. That to me was the full evolution into hell as we are experiencing it now.

I do think it’s healthy to be pulling away from Twitter at this time. But in times like this, you’re like, “Okay, I’m jumping into the portal, and I’m seeing what’s happening because it is a million eyes.” It’s the only way you can experience all sides of it. The absurd sides and the tragic sides. It’s not like it was this completely hilarious event, obviously. It’s not like it was entirely tragic either. And the portal has really evolved into a place that we can experience all those sides—the only place that you can do that.

Read the interview

A Young Cartographer’s Mission to Map the Catholic Church — and Fight Climate Change

Molly Burhans, known at the Vatican as the “Map Lady,” has a vision: to map the Catholic Church’s land around the world in an effort to battle climate change. The environmental activist uses G.I.S. software, which organizes complex data and presents it geographically so it’s easier to analyze and understand, to build a clearer picture of all the assets of the Church.

Owning an estimated two hundred million acres of land, the Catholic Church is “probably the world’s largest non-state landowner,” writes David Owen in a fascinating New Yorker profile of Burhans. The Church’s properties aren’t just cathedrals and convents, but forests and farmlands (and, interestingly, 21 oil wells, some of which have made nearby residents sick from fumes). Through more effective and morally responsible land management, Burhans sees an incredible opportunity for the Church to be at the forefront of climate action, putting its land to better use and protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of global warming. Burhans’ organization, GoodLands — whose mission is to mobilize the Catholic Church to “use land for good” — has also tracked sexual abuse cases involving priests, so there are other massive benefits of mapping the Church via G.I.S.

When she met with the Pope, Turkson acted as her interpreter. She gave Francis a map that showed the percentage of Catholics in every diocese in the world, and explained how that map related to the bigger projects she envisioned. Francis seemed interested, she told me; he said that he had never seen anything like it. Still, their conversation was brief, and she didn’t think anything would come of it. Shortly before she flew home, though, she received an e-mail saying that Francis was interested in establishing a Vatican cartography institute, on a six-month trial basis, with her as its head.

Burhans was elated: this would likely be the first female-founded department in the history of the Roman Curia. Still, she knew that she had to turn him down. The offer came with no budget, other than a small stipend for herself. “If I’d said yes, it would have been a total failure,” she said. So she returned to the United States, and went to work on a blueprint for the kind of cartography institute that she believed the Church needed. When I first spoke with her, in late 2019, the United Nations had recently named her its Young Champion of the Earth for North America, a prize for environmentalists between the ages of eighteen and thirty. She was also working on a proposal for the Vatican which included a seventy-nine-page prospectus for a ten-month trial project, the cost of which she estimated at a little more than a million dollars. The prospectus included her outline for the environmental mission she believed the Church should undertake, as well as explanations (illustrated by interactive maps and graphs) of how G.I.S. could be used to support and coördinate other ecclesiastical activities, among them evangelization, real-estate management, papal security, diplomacy, and ongoing efforts to end sexual abuse by priests. She submitted her prospectus to the Pope’s office, and booked a return to Rome for April, so that she could attend a conference and, she hoped, negotiate a final configuration for the cartography institute with Vatican officials.

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The Team of Scientists Behind Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine

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As David Heath and Gus Garcia-Roberts report in their gripping story at USA Today, credit for the swift development of the COVID-19 vaccine goes to an unheralded team of scientists and a series of pivotal discoveries in the last 15 years, all of which paved the way for the Moderna vaccine. Barney Graham is the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health. He’s dedicated his career to studying viruses and developing vaccine candidates, most recently for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which reached the U.S. in 2016, and later Nipah, the virus spread by bats that broke out in India in 2018 (and inspired the movie Contagion). It’s Graham’s years-long effort  — and the work of “a constellation of unsung scientists” including Jason McLellan and Kizzmekia Corbett — that put the pieces in place for Moderna’s rapid turnaround.

Not only is Heath and Garcia-Roberts’ piece a compelling read, it’s very accessible in its explanations and illustrations on how SARS-CoV-2 attacks and infects the human body, and how the Moderna vaccine actually works.

As Graham got word through back channels that the new virus in China was probably a coronavirus, he reached out to Moderna’s CEO, who was vacationing in France. We should scratch the Nipah plan, he urged Stephane Bancel in a Jan. 6 email, in favor of a different proof of concept related to the Wuhan outbreak.

“If it’s a SARS-like coronavirus, we know what to do,” Graham wrote. “This would be a great time to run the drill for how quickly can you have a scalable vaccine.”

Graham later laid out the idea for Fauci, his boss’s boss, in a conference room at NIH. Fauci is no micromanager; he hadn’t even been aware until then how confident Graham was in his ability to make a coronavirus vaccine.

There had been two other novel coronaviruses since 2003, although neither SARS nor MERS were terribly contagious and neither became pandemics. In early January, there was no reason to assume COVID-19 would be any different. Yet Graham already had his team diving into how to defeat the new coronavirus just to prove it could be done. Fauci was sold.

“Let’s go full-blown,” he said. “Let’s make a vaccine.”

Fauci had already set aside $5 million for the small Nipah demonstration project. Graham asked if there would there be millions more available.

“Barney, let me worry about the money,” Fauci replied.

If everything went perfectly, Graham said a vaccine could be ready within 12 to 18 months – the prediction Fauci would soon make public.

Read the story

‘Plant-Based Eating Is Probably One of the Blackest Things I Could Do’

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“Plant-based eating has a long, radical history in Black American culture, preserved by institutions and individuals who have understood the power of food and nutrition in the fight against oppression,” writes Amirah Mercer in “A Homecoming.” The piece, published at Eater, explores Mercer’s path to veganism and the plant-based diets of the Black diaspora. While Mercer’s journey to a plant-centered diet initially brought up feelings of loss — “my veganism initially seemed like a rebuke of the rituals I had always known” — Mercer finds immense power in what she learns. Exploring veganism isn’t actually straying from her roots, and the shift is a way — as singer Prince once expressed — to liberate oneself and the world from injustice. “As a Black woman in America,” Mercer writes, “my veganism is, in fact, a homecoming.”

Just as I began to plateau on plants, my grandmother gave me a copy of Bryant Terry’s 2014 cookbook, Afro-Vegan. Seeing the words “Afro” and “Vegan” together on the book’s cover disrupted everything the mainstream had ever shown me about veganism. Terry, who is the chef in residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, uses the foodways of our ancestors as a historical guide for plant-based eating, combining classic Southern, Caribbean, and African dishes into a uniquely Black vegan cuisine: There were recipes for stewed tomatoes and black-eyed peas, grits with slow-cooked collard greens, and a mango-habanero hot sauce. I felt overwhelming power in the sudden and profound realization that I didn’t have to stray from my roots in order to explore my veganism.

Food is political, and that is especially true for Black Americans. A lack of access to healthy food is a problem that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities — a condition that the U.S. Department of Agriculture formally describes as a “food desert,” though the food justice activist Karen Washington prefers the more apt term “food apartheid” — which are defined in large part by the nearly century-long legacy of redlining.

Decades of U.S. agricultural policies that overwhelmingly favor meat, dairy, and corn have caused many Americans to load up on a diet rich in fatty, processed, and refined foods, but the ill effects of the standard American diet (appropriately also called the SAD diet) are heightened for racial and ethnic minorities. Systemic racism within the dietetics industry has kept Black dietitians out of the field — their number has fallen by nearly 20 percent over the last two decades — while the resulting Eurocentric view of diet and nutrition has severely constrained its approach to non-Western cuisines and cultures. Not only is there a lack of knowledge about the nutritional foundation of many traditional diets, but people from non-Western cultures are pushed toward Westernized views of health and wellness even though, for instance, people of color are generally less able to process dairy products.

Both health care and food policies are greatly affected by who is voted into office. Unfortunately, African Americans have historically been and continue to be victims of voter suppression, which takes away our ability to advocate for health care policies that nourish our families. And so for many in the Black vegan community, plant-based eating can be an act of protest against this disenfranchisement.

Even as Africans in America adapted to their new environment, they retained their Indigenous knowledge of plant-based nutrition. Those forced into slavery on smaller, poorer farms, or in areas where the plantation economy was not dominant, such as New Orleans and the Gulf, kept their own gardens, a practice described by Twitty in The Cooking Gene as “little landscapes of resistance: Resistance against a culture of dehumanizing poverty and want, resistance against the erasure of African culture practices.” In Hog and Hominy, Opie quotes a Scottish-born visitor to North Carolina who remarked that Black people were “the only people that seem[ed] to pay any attention to the various uses that wild vegetables may be put to.”

Chattel slavery, the influence of European foodways, and the interests of a capitalist economy disrupted the plant-centered African diet. That disruption was never repaired, as the government failed to deliver on its promise of “40 acres and a mule” after the Civil War, despite the 1865 special field order to reallocate 400,000 acres of Confederate land to the Black farmers who had tilled it for 250 years. Andrew Johnson — Abraham Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South — overturned the order and returned the land to the plantation owners. Denied the right to land ownership, African Americans who stayed in the South after the Civil War had little control over the food they grew to feed their families. (Of the Black farmers who have managed to acquire their own land between then and now, some 98 percent have had it taken from them.)

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This Visionary Chef Has Unlocked the Secrets of the Sea Floor. Can He Change the Way We Eat?

Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Chef Ángel León’s expeimental dishes at Aponiente, his three Michelin starred-restaurant in the Spanish port town of El Puerto de Santa María, across the bay from Cádiz, showcase his culinary innovation and commitment to sustainability. Consider unexpected ingredients like “discarded fish parts to make mortadella and blood sausage and chorizo,” the “parts of a tuna’s head to create a towering, gelatinous, fall-apart osso buco,” and varied underwater flora presented on plates as sea pears, tomatoes, and artichokes. “He built his menu around pesca de descarte, trash fish: pandora, krill, sea bream, mackerel, moray eel,” writes Matt Goulding in a profile of the chef at Time magazine. “But in León’s mind, these are some of the most noble and delicious creatures in the sea.”

Known in Spain as “the Chef del Mar,” León has big plans: harvesting seagrass off different stretches of the coast and transplanting it to the Bay of Cádiz, near his restaurant, with the long-term aim of domesticating eelgrass and growing a vast “underwater garden for human beings.” Scientists have known that seagrasses are “one of the most vital ecosystems in the fight against climate change,” writes Goulding, but what’s lesser-known is that seagrass contains “clusters of small, edible grains with massive potential” — and it’s León who is exploring its possibilities.

He sees the region’s vast network of estuaries overflowing with flora and fauna—tiny, candy-sweet white shrimp, edible seaweeds like marine mesclun mix, sea bream and mackerel in dense silver schools. He sees a series of mills, stone-built and sea-powered, grinding through grains for the region’s daily bread. A wind-swept, sun-kissed saltwater economy, like the one that once made Cádiz a center of the world.

Zostera grains look more like amaranth or a chia seed than rice—a short, pellet-like grain with a dark complexion. León boiled it like pasta, passed me a spoonful, then watched me closely as I processed. The first thing you notice is the texture: taut-skinned and compact, each grain pops on your tongue like an orb of caviar. It tasted like the love child of rice and quinoa with a gentle saline undertow.

But there is something extraordinary about seagrasses: they are the only plants that flower fully submerged in salt water. They have all the equipment of a terrestrial plant—roots, stems, rhizomes, leaves, flowers, seeds—but they thrive in under-water environments. Seagrasses like Zostera marina are eco-system engineers: the meadows they form along coastlines represent some of the most biodiverse areas in the ocean, playing host to fauna (like seahorses, bay scallops and sea turtles) that would struggle to survive without seagrass.

But anthropogenic forces—climate change, pollution, coastal development—have threatened eelgrass meadows across the world. As León and team refine the conditions for large-scale cultivation, they hope to facilitate its growth along coastlines around the world—Asia, North America and, above all, across the Straits of Gibraltar in Africa—turning millions of hectares into a source of food, protection against erosion and a weapon against climate change.

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‘We Told You So’: Revisiting the Bleak, Pandemic-Filled World of 12 Monkeys, 25 Years Later

Bruce Willis as Cole, the time-traveling protagonist in 12 Monkeys. Universal Pictures.

Director Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science-fiction film, 12 Monkeys, presented a desolate future in which a virus exterminates most of the world’s population and forces survivors to live underground. James Cole, the movie’s protagonist and a prisoner in this subterranean civilization in 2035, is sent back in time — to the 1990s — to find the original virus and bring it back to scientists in the future to develop a cure.

In the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people stuck at home during lockdown turned to movies about fictional pandemics, including Gilliam’s surreal, chilling vision, which was brought to life by its three big stars — Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe. And 25 years on, as producer Charles Roven tells Eric Ducker in The Ringer, the movie “holds up really well.”

In this complete history of the making of 12 Monkeys, Ducker talks with Gilliam, its screenwriters David and Janet Peoples, and others who worked on the film.

The movie Outbreak came out several months before 12 Monkeys, and journalist Richard Preston’s 1994 book The Hot Zone about lethal filoviruses was a national bestseller. Still, for most of the world’s population, a massive pandemic had not been a pressing concern since the Spanish Flu killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. Now there is a rising feeling that the next one won’t come a century from now. It could arrive much sooner and could be far worse. “I think the very first spoken words that aren’t voice-over in our show are, ‘It’s never been about if. It’s always been when,’” Matalas says. “When you start to really dissect that data, it’s terrifying. Right now we’re on the precipice of a vaccine, but are we truly ready for the next [pandemic]? I don’t think so.”

In 12 Monkeys, Railly has written a book called The Doomsday Syndrome and gives a lecture at a museum about madness and apocalyptic visions. She discusses the Cassandra complex, the idea taken from Greek legend about figures who know the future but whose warnings aren’t heeded, leading to what Railly describes as, “[T]he agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” In the 25 years since its release, 12 Monkeys is increasingly seen as a Cassandra of its own kind.

“We told you so,” Gilliam says.

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