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Behind the Story: Mailee Osten-Tan on Reporting on Gender Confirmation Surgery in Thailand

A patient in a blue and pink dress lays out estrogen injection materials on a hotel room bed.
Penny from New York City, who had gender confirmation surgery (GCS) at the Preecha Aesthetic Institute (PAI) in Bangkok, lays out estrogen injection materials on a bed. All photographs by Mailee Osten-Tan.

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Since the first operation in Bangkok in 1975, Thailand has become one of the top destinations for gender confirmation surgery (GCS). But what drives people to seek trans healthcare in Thailand, and why would so many patients rather fly across the world for the procedure than do it in their home countries? In her new story for Longreads, “Finding a Path in a Broken System,” Bangkok-based visual journalist Mailee Osten-Tan explores these questions and more. She spent the past year researching and reporting this feature, speaking with 15 trans women around the world about their experiences. I asked Osten-Tan about what attracts her to a story, the challenges she faced working on this piece, and her creative approach as a visual storyteller.

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Your work spans written and multimedia features, on a range of issues in Thailand and abroad. What do you look for when you search for a project?

Other stories by Osten-Tan: a piece on leatherback turtles returning to Thailand to nest, a story about a rural village in the Loei province at odds with a goldmine, and a short film about a rape and sexual assault responder in Maine.

Growing up in a mixed-race immigrant family in a majority white area in the U.K., I have always felt like I occupied a space somewhere on the periphery — not quite part of the community around me but not completely divorced from it either. The older I become, the more I understand this to be a fundamental part of human nature; that all of us are in various ways searching to find our place in society and to feel like we belong. I think that’s why I find stories of people from marginalized communities, or those in the process of defining themselves, so compelling. Discrimination is often at its core political, but I’m more interested in how discrimination impacts lived human experiences. Wanting the acceptance of others is so universally relatable that it can be an important entry point for anti-discrimination advocacy. I also love visual journalism because it opens doors to worlds I would never otherwise interact with. For example, for Al Jazeera, I’m currently working on a photography feature about a woman cockfighting bird breeder in the north of Thailand, breaking into a very traditionally masculine sport. Read more…

Charting Worlds: Five Longreads About Maps

Robert Carner / EyeEm / Getty Images

This week, we recommend five longreads about mapping worlds, including a recent piece at the Atlantic on a little-known group in the U.S. federal government that has the power to remake maps, and an early pandemic story at Wired about a preteen who found comfort and an escape during lockdown within Google Maps.

How to Rename a Place (David A. Graham, The Atlantic, January 2022)

If you didn’t know — and you likely didn’t — there’s a U.S. Board on Geographic Names, a government body of subject-matter experts who meet to approve the names of lakes, mountains, and valleys on official government documents, like maps. In recent years, this board has spent a lot of time reviewing and reconsidering offensive place names, but isn’t moving as fast as others would like. Graham’s piece is an informative, interesting look at this process through a historical, political, and cultural lens.

But even the expedited process will take time. Removing all uses of “Squaw” is expected to take about a year, and that’s the simpler of the two orders. One challenge is that determining what’s offensive isn’t always straightforward. Names including a slur are easy, but others—such as Jew Valley, Oregon, named after a group of Jewish homesteaders—are less clear-cut. Another is that any feature whose name is removed needs a new one, ideally one that is locally meaningful and that will age better than whatever it’s replacing. The BGN is designed with process in mind, not justice or equity.

Read more…

Braindump: A Reading List on the Future of Sanitation, Toilets, and Bathrooms

Robot pushing portable toilet behind android woman
Getty Images / Donald Iain Smith

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Some of the most delightful stories I’ve read recently are, surprisingly, about going to the toilet. Did you read Sabrina Imbler’s piece for the New York Times about roosting bats who hang out in pit latrines in Tanzania? Or Ryan Hockensmith’s ode to the mobile commode at ESPN? While not entertaining in the same way, Nandita Dinesh’s essay at Guernica, “Thinking About Toilets,” is a beautiful meditation on her life, privilege, grief, collective trauma, and India.

It feels odd to say, but I love bathroom reads: examinations on the potential of poop, from unconventional life-saving treatments called fecal microbiota transplants to the humanure movement — and the cultural shift toward understanding and embracing the relationship to our own bodily waste (versus the very Western attitude of just getting rid of it). My reading list on really good shit seven years ago covers some of this ground, but I wanted to gather a follow-up collection of complementary reads, this time focused on the future of toilets, bathrooms, and — more broadly — innovation across the field of sanitation and waste management.

What we do and what we leave in the bathroom may not be an exciting topic of discussion to some people, who would rather hold their noses and look away. But I encourage you to take the plunge with these five informative and fascinating reads.

Where Did All the Public Bathrooms Go? (Elizabeth Yuko, Bloomberg CityLab, November 2021)

Dig deeper into the history of toilets with Chelsea Wald’s piece on ancient loos and sewers at Nature.

For decades, cities across the United States have neglected public restrooms, leaving millions with no place to go when they’re out and about. The disappearance of public toilets became even more apparent in the early days of the pandemic, when basic facilities shut down. As Yuko reports, the U.S. has only 8 toilets per 100,000 people — tied with Botswana. Why is it so hard to find a place to pee? What does the lack of access say about deeper inequities? And what would it take for public toilets to make a comeback, and how would we design these spaces? This is an excellent read on the rise and fall of public restrooms and why a lack of toilets became an American affliction.

That reality was underscored as the pandemic dragged on. Infection fears led cities to padlock the few public restrooms that were available. Stories emerged about Amazon and Uber drivers resorting to peeing in bottles, while unhoused individuals relied on adult diapers or five-gallon buckets filled with kitty litterPublic urination complaints spiked in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., especially when crowds flooded the streets in the summer of 2020 to protest the murder of George Floyd.

The presence or absence of restrooms in public spaces has long been an indication of a particular group’s place in society, says Laura Norén, a postdoctoral associate at New York University and co-editor of Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing. From women to people of color to those with disabilities, vulnerable communities have struggled to have this most fundamental of needs accommodated. Most recently, transgender individuals have found themselves targeted in bathroom-backlash debates.

Read more…

Five #Foodreads We Recommend This Week

Top view of delicious Ravioli and vegetable salad, half placed in a takeaway paper box, half placed on a real plate - with knife and fork on a wooden dining table.
Getty Images / Oscar Wong

From a closer look at the future of food delivery at Eater to a thoughtful roundup of food-writing advice at Chapter 16, these five longreads about or related to food are our recent favorites.

Welcome to Invasivorism, the Boldest Solution to Ethical Eating Yet, Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, Popular Science, December 7, 2021

What can we do about invasive species? Well, we can eat them. Imagine starter of cannonball jellyfish from coastal Georgia, main courses of Asian shore crab from Chesapeake Bay and dumplings stuffed with wild boar from Texas, and ice cream flavored with mugwort, whose aggressive roots push aside native plants. In this Popular Science story, Matt Hongoltz-Hetling introduces us to the invasivore movement.

Roman decided to make his appeal for invasivorism another way. That year, he started a website,, to try to convert foodies with an appetite for the unusual into believers. His weapon? Visions of plates piled high with periwinkle fritters and European crabcakes.

Read more…

Holiday Gift Guide: 8 Books We Excerpted on Longreads in 2021

A graphic image of books wrapped in pink holiday paper, lined up against a yellow background. Each book is tied with red string and has a red decorative ball in the center.
Javier Zayas Photography / Getty Images

Looking for a gift for the reader in your life? Here are eight books we featured on Longreads this year: the memoir of a teen environmentalist, an essay collection on dance and illness, a refugee family’s story, and more.

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Diary of a Young Naturalist | Dara McAnulty 

In this debut memoir, autistic climate activist Dara McAnulty writes about his immersive, intense connection to nature and wildlife with lyrical, evocative prose. The book’s entries, centered around McAnulty’s encounters around his home in Northern Ireland through the seasons, show a teenager’s deep appreciation for the natural world, science, and conservation.

Unfortunately, for me, I’m different. Different from everyone in my class. Different from most people in my school. But at breaktime today I watched the pied wagtails fly in and out of the nest. How could I feel lonely when there are such things? Wildlife is my refuge. When I’m sitting and watching, grown-ups usually ask if I’m okay. Like it’s not okay just to sit and process the world, to figure things out and watch other species go about their day.

Read more…

There Are No Seasons: A Reading List on Loss, Love, and Living with Fire in California

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

As a child in Northern California, fall was my favorite time of year. My birthday is in mid-August, so I was always ready to tackle the next school year, and was excited because our hottest days, our true summer, had yet to come. But the past several years have felt different here, ever since the Tubbs Fire tore through Sonoma, Napa, and Lake counties in October 2017. This deadly, unprecedented fire blazed across canyons and hills, jumped the 101 freeway, and cut through the city of Santa Rosa without warning — destroying entire neighborhoods in the night and killing 22 people.

Growing up on the San Francisco Peninsula in the ’80s, the image of the Forest Service’s mascot, Smokey Bear, was ubiquitous, but while we were taught that wildfire was a threat, it was a theoretical danger to us. As I’ve gotten older, fire has mostly remained a disaster that has happened somewhere else. The fall of 2017, then, felt markedly different: from then on, fire was no longer confined to wilderness. It found its way into cities, to the Pacific coast, to places previously thought as safe. It forced us to wear N95 masks long before the pandemic. It turned our sky orange. It has made us question where in the West, ultimately, is safe from fires — and the effects of climate change. But, as the writers below know, that place does not exist.

Two years ago, Longreads writer Tessa Love published a beautiful braided essay on fire, home, and belonging. We ran it to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, which ignited in Butte County on November 8, 2018, and obliterated the town of Paradise, near Chico, near where Love grew up. The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, killing 85 people and destroying over 18,000 structures.

Love and I had been in the latter stages of editing her piece in October 2019 when fires sparked across Northern California yet again. One of these wildfires, the Kincade Fire, forced my family to evacuate our home in West Sonoma County. I guess this is where I’m supposed to say something like, it felt so surreal to pack up and leave my home while editing this essay on someone else’s experience with wildfire. But the truth is that when my husband and I became experts at packing go bags — and had memorized the zone lines on our local evacuation map — I no longer viewed fire as a mere possibility. It was a given, and something that directly affected our community. It had been the third year in a row that we had either evacuated our home or packed our valuables into our cars just in case, so no, it was not surreal. It was the new normal.

As we approach the anniversary of the Camp Fire, Northern California is recovering from a recent powerful storm. But the threat of fire this year remains, even as November brings cooler temperatures. Because when it comes to fire, there really are no seasons.

At the moment, there’s no shortage of reported features about wildfires; I’ve read some notable pieces recently, like Andrea Stanley on climate trauma and the need for long-term mental health support for communities like Paradise, Zora Thomas on what it’s like to be a hotshot firefighter, and Lauren Markham on how assisted forest migration can help save our trees. I’d also recommend David Ferris on the devastating CZU Lightning Complex, which burned in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties in fall 2020, and its effects on the region’s ancient coast redwoods, which are the tallest living things on the planet. For this reading list, however, I’ve selected six personal essays, including “California Burning,” the story that Love and I worked on together. Each piece uses the spark of fire to explore other themes, whether home and belonging, or idleness, or memory. Read more…

Curator Spotlight: Robert Sanchez on Highlighting Notable Storytelling from City Magazines Across the U.S.

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Related reading: Elaine Godfrey on the death of a local newspaper in Iowa and Nickolas Butler on the power of community journalism in Wisconsin.

Last week, the Black Mountain Institute announced that The Believer, the literary and culture magazine founded in 2003, will publish its final issue in spring 2022. It’s yet another blow to the world of print media, and reminded me of the other dismal headlines I’ve read this month lamenting the decline of small-town newspapers — and the ultimate cost to the communities they serve.

In a time when publications and newsrooms continue to struggle, Robert Sanchez’s tightly curated City Reads account is a beacon on Twitter. City Reads tweets the best writing from city magazines across the U.S., shining a light on local and regional stories that I might otherwise miss. Sanchez is a senior staff writer for 5280, Denver’s award-winning magazine, and has written many longreads we’ve read and enjoyed over the years. I chatted with him via email last week about the process of curation, the importance of amplifying city journalism, and his recent 5280 story on sifting through and reading the 8,500+ letters and postcards mailed to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, demanding justice in the Elijah McClain case. Read more…

Curator Spotlight: Vesna Jaksic Lowe on What It Means To Straddle Multiple Cultures

Passport and travel documents, a watch, an open book, and coins on top of paper maps
Photo by Taryn Elliott

By Cheri Lucas Rowlands

As I gathered stories for my recent reading list on the power of names, Vesna Jaksic Lowe’s newsletter, Immigrant Strong, came to mind. In each issue, Jaksic Lowe recommends excellent writing by and about immigrant writers, and creates a space for stories on identity, belonging, multicultural life, and even the complexities of returning home. 

Since 2009, reading and recommending stories we love has been at the core of Longreads. We also remain inspired by the work of fellow curators, like Jaksic Lowe, who read widely, explore their interests and obsessions, and make it easier for people to find something to read.

After consistently enjoying Jaksic Lowe’s reading recommendations, I asked if she’d be willing to discuss her work and perspective. In this short Q&A, we talk about her newsletter and curation process, a few of her favorite reads, and her recent trip back home to Croatia — a journey that always stirs up emotions. Read more…

​​’Names Have Power’: A Reading List on Names, Identity, and the Immigrant Experience

Getty Images

In first grade, I had a conversation with two classmates, Beth and Jenn, about our names. Being identical twins, they often came to school in matching outfits. I remember their knit sweaters, green and red, with their full names stitched over their chests: Elizabeth and Jennifer. I liked these names: pretty and all-American. They said their middle names were Marie and Lynn, which were just as common, easy, and palatable.

“My middle name is Ann,” I said reluctantly. “It’s kind of short for another name.” Luckily, they didn’t ask about the other name and moved on to something else. I was relieved. 

I continued to tell people, throughout most of high school, that my middle name was Ann, even though that wasn’t true. It was Anongos — my mother’s maiden name — which was embarrassing to me. I didn’t go by my full first name either. My friends called me Cheri, but my name is Cherilynn: a name that, to this day, is both mine and not mine, and one that I write only on important forms and legal documents.

From an early age, I understood the power of a name: It can shape and define you, reveal who you are, and feel like a part of your skin — or a foreign layer your body rejects. In my 20s, I had grown more comfortable in my skin to be able to say: My middle name is Anongos. But by then, as Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson explains in her essay on being Filipino American, I also knew how American I was — how detached I was from my cultural heritage — and was glad to at least have a connection to my family’s culture through this name.

When I got married in 2012, I wanted to take my husband’s last name as my own and to continue the family tradition of keeping my maiden name as my middle name. When filling out the form before our ceremony, I wrote in Rowlands, which pushed Lucas into the middle and dropped Anongos from my name forever. I was sad to let this part of me go — one I had finally embraced, yet never fully inhabited — but was also open to what a new name would bring. 

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I got the idea for this reading list a few weeks ago, when the flood of 20th-anniversary coverage of 9/11 led me to revisit Osama Shehzad’s essay on getting shit for his name. These essays dive deep into questions of identity, belonging, and the power of names — and shine a light on the immigrant experience in America. Read more…

Death of Writing, Writing of Death: A Reading List on Artificial Intelligence and Language

The other day, I saw a tweet of an obituary, seemingly written by a bot. The obituary’s odd but delightful phrases like “Brenda was an avid collector of dust,” “Brenda was a bird,” “she owed us so many poems,” and “send Brenda more life” were hilarious to some people — send me more life too, please! — while others couldn’t help but wonder: Is this really a bot?

You didn’t have to fall too far down a rabbit hole to learn that the obituary, in fact, was not written by a bot, but a human — writer and comedian Keaton Patti — as part of his book, I Forced a Bot to Write This Book. Some commenters, perhaps proud of their human-sniffing capabilities or just well-versed in real machine-written prose, were quick to point out that there was no way a bot could write this.

This had 20x the feel of a human trying to write a funny thing than a bot

Pretty sure a person wrote this without any technology more complicated than Microsoft word

not a bot! the punchlines are too consistent

For everyone afraid that AI is taking over, the bot said Brenda was a bird…

Try a language generator at Talk to Transformer, an AI demo site.

Even though the obituary was human-generated, it still reminded me of two editors’ picks we recently featured on Longreads — Jason Fagone’s feature “The Jessica Simulation” and Vauhini Vara’s essay “Ghosts” — in which AI-powered prose is a significant (and spooky) part of these stories. Both pieces prominently feature GPT-3, a powerful language generator from research laboratory OpenAI that uses machine learning to create human-like text. In simple terms, you can feed GPT-3 a prompt, and in return, it predicts and attempts to complete what comes next. Its predecessor, GPT-2, was “eerily good” at best, specializing in mediocre poetry; GPT-3, which is 100 times larger and built with 175 billion machine learning parameters, comes closer to crossing the Uncanny Valley than anything, and raises unsettling questions about the role AI will play — or is already playing — in our lives. Read more…