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Calling All Writers: Pitch Us Your Essays

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We love sharing and celebrating our favorite longform stories, but we also love publishing them. Longreads is proud to have assigned and edited many award-winning pieces over the years; we’ve won a Pushcart Prize and have had numerous inclusions and notable mentions in the Best American and Year’s Best Sports series. We’re actively soliciting essays and criticism for the coming year. Submit your best drafts, pitch us your ideas, and help us to showcase more unforgettable writing in 2022. All styles are welcome, and no topic is off-limits; tell us why your story should be told. 

Whether you’re an established writer or just starting to put pen to paper, we want to hear from you — we support all experience levels;  you’ll work with an editor to sharpen your piece. Take a look at our Submissions page and browse some of our past pieces: we’ve covered a wide range of topics, and are always searching for thoughtful writing and surprising arguments. We seek pieces with fresh perspectives and original angles.  

Essays are usually between 2,000 and 6,000 words but can be longer. Rates start at $500 USD for first-time contributors — but that, too, can vary, depending on the reporting and research the piece demands. If your piece is accepted, an editor will work with you on an offer. 

We primarily publish three types of nonfiction:

  • Critical Essay: Your interpretation and evaluation of a cultural text or social dynamic. Examples include a popular series evaluating Disney films, Deconstructing Disney, and a column exploring female antiheroes in the Golden Age of television. For these submissions, please include examples of any other critical work you’ve published along with your pitch, if available.

A few tips for your essay pitch to hello@longreads.com:

  • We receive many pitches each day. To stand out, be sure to include the type of submission (“Personal Essay,” “Reported Essay,” “Critical Essay”) in your email subject line.
  • Tell us why you want to write about this topic/theme. What excites you about it? Why are you best suited to write this? Why is it the right time to publish this essay?
  • We love a clever angle. Tell us why your idea is unique.
  • If you’re pitching a reported essay, tell us who you plan to interview (or who you’ve already spoken with), and how you’ll attain that access. Tell us what research you’ve done or will do. (We fact-check all reported essays.)
  • If you haven’t worked with us before, share a few clips that give us a sense of your writing style and voice, or a writing sample that you’re proud of.

Get in touch at hello@longreads.com if you think you have an essay for us. We are a small team so can’t get back to everyone, but you will hear from us if we are interested in your submission. We look forward to hearing from you!

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Rapper Drakeo the Ruler on stage in Los Angeles.
SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 12: Drakeo the Ruler performs at 2021 Rolling Loud Los Angeles at NOS Events Center on December 12, 2021 in San Bernardino, California. (Photo by Timothy Norris/WireImage)

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Anatomy of a Murder Confession

Maurice Chammah | The Marshall Project and Dallas Morning News | January 18th, 2022 | 6,600 Words

“They put us together…and tell us that we can do whatever we want, as long as we solve cases.” That’s what James Holland, a Texas Ranger and media-dubbed “serial killer whisperer,” once said about the Rangers’ work on unsolved murders. The person he said it to was James Driskill, a suspect in a cold case, and Holland wasn’t kidding: To pin the murder on Driskill, the Rangers used hypnosis, deception, a “hypothetical” confession, and other investigative methods criticized by criminal justice experts and advocates as dramatically increasing the risk of convicting an innocent person. Which is exactly what Driskill, now serving a prison sentence, and his legal team say happened to him. Maurice Chammah’s story about Holland’s questionable techniques, which aren’t isolated to Driskill’s case, is as jaw-dropping as it is expertly crafted. —SD

2. The Assassination of Drakeo the Ruler

Jeff Weiss | Los Angeles Magazine | January 13th, 2022 | 6,842 words

The heyday of hip-hop magazines like XXL and Rap Pages might be behind us, but there’s still a cadre of thoughtful, incisive journalists chronicling the culture in a way that transcends the usual artist profiles and album reviews. One of my favorites of the past few years has been Weiss, who has become an ardent keeper of the L.A. flame, creating compelling portraits of hometown heroes like 03 Greedo — and here his gifts are on full display, though they’re the sour fruit of a tragedy. In December, when Los Angeles rapper Drakeo the Ruler was ambushed backstage at a music festival and fatally stabbed, Weiss was feet away. The two had kindled a relationship over the years, one that had begun under the auspices of journalism but evolved into friendship; now, over the course of nearly 7,000 words, Weiss braids together Drakeo’s all-too-short life with his own journey of grief. Proximal but never predatory, it peels back the myth to reveal a young man who sought to put his sprawling city on his back, even though it meant a collision course with a grisly fate. This isn’t music journalism; it’s human journalism. —PR

3. The Day My Wartime Cat Went Missing

Rasha Elass | New Lines | January 14, 2022 | 6,368 words

In this unexpected essay about living in wartime Syria, Rasha Elass writes about her adventures over the past decade with her two cats, Pumpkin and Gremlin, whom she adopted as kittens in Abu Dhabi. In 2010, before the Arab Spring, Elass goes to Damascus, where she was born, in the hope of connecting more deeply to the place of her birth. Conflict and civil war, however, make this impossible; Elass describes day-to-day life in the capital as both a resident and a journalist: the mortar attacks and the bombs, the hostile checkpoints and the dangers of reporting in rebel-controlled areas. But through it all, Pumpkin and Gremlin are there — watchful witnesses, beloved companions — as cats are. “When the war starts the cats will continue to soften the rough edges of the humans around them, even those who become agitated and brandish Kalashnikovs.” You don’t need to love cats to enjoy this essay, but if you do, you’ll certainly understand the bond Elass has with hers. —CLR

4. I Got Sober in the Pandemic. It Saved My Life.

Danielle Tcholakian | Jezebel | January 19th, 2022 | 2,371

Here at home, we would have a couple beers and probably a glass of wine every evening during that first year of the pandemic. We drank to have something to look forward to. (Well, at least there is a cold amber ale or two — or three — awaiting me at the end of yet another long day.) We drank to avoid the reality of the case and death counts here and elsewhere. We joked about it, a dark humor that helped justify and enable our choice of coping mechanism. But as Danielle Tcholakian recounts in her brave and poignant essay at Jezebel, alcohol became a weighted blanket that suppressed not fear, not self-loathing, nor the world at large, but a necessary perspective shift — one that life with less alcohol, or in Tcholakian’s case abstinence — could bring. Tcholakian’s piece recounts deep, dangerous depression. That’s where our experiences diverge, though the evolution in mindset she describes so well is something I recognize. “Maladaptive behaviors create what I imagine to be rutted little canals in our wiring, like scratched up dive bar tables…But over and over, pushing forward through these feelings that I previously would’ve poured alcohol over got me to a place I couldn’t have understood.” This piece is clear and deeply compelling: While we all experience and respond to the world and its stressors in different ways, we all feel scared and helpless at times. In being so vulnerable, Tcholakian reminds us of the most important thing, so often forgotten while we snuggle with the black dog: we are not alone. —KS

5. The Undoing of Joss Whedon

Lila Shapiro | Vulture | January 17th, 2022 | 8,989 words

The ’90s were a different era — a time before Netflix binging — when a whole agonizing week passed between each episode of your favorite show. Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on Fridays at 7 p.m., and I was either ready on the sofa or scrambling to record it on VHS tape. I loved it! To me, Buffy was a symbol of “girl power” (a beloved ’90s phrase), a young blonde woman finally playing the hero rather than the victim. Lila Shapiro, however, writes that the show can be interpreted differently: “the titillating tale of a woman in leather pants who is brutalized by monsters.” Disconcerting for me to consider, but in line with the recent revelations about Joss Whedon, Buffy‘s creator.

Shapiro has carried out extraordinary research for this article, interviewing Whedon’s former colleagues and lovers, as well as Whedon himself. Once a god to his fans, public revelations from his ex-wife and former cast detailing affairs with young actresses and casual cruelty have led to his fall. People are conflicted about whether he was merely difficult or crossed the line into abuse, and Shapiro finds no clear answers. Whedon is keen to deflect blame, claiming that, with regard to affairs with cast members, “He felt he ‘had’ to sleep with them, that he was ‘powerless’ to resist.” An uncomfortable and frustrating read — which may tarnish some childhood memories — but a brilliant exploration into the ruin of Whedon’s reputation. —CW

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Men waiting in line at Porta-potty
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Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. No Escape From Guantánamo*

Abigail Hauslohner | The Washington Post | January 7, 2022 | 3,700 Words

The United States began detaining men at Guantánamo Bay 20 years ago this week. Nearly 800 prisoners have spent time in the facility’s cells; today 39 men still remain behind bars there, 27 of whom have never been charged with a crime. This haunting, must-read story is about men who’ve been released and resettled in third countries — a Tunisian in Slovakia, for instance, and a Yemeni in Serbia. Abigail Hauslohner describes them as “the discarded men of one of America’s darkest chapters.” After enduring torture and other horrors at Guantánamo, they’ve been forced to live hundreds or thousands of miles from any family or friends. They face persecution and poverty, as well as the lingering effects of trauma. If they can rely on anything, it’s each other. “They trade advice, news and jokes in text-message chains,” Hauslohner writes. “And when things get bad, they call each other.” —SD

* Subscription required. (Note: the vast majority of the pieces we recommend are free to read online. Occasionally, we will share a story that requires a subscription when we strongly believe that piece is worth your time.)

2. The Gentrification of Consciousness

Roberto Lovato | Alta | January 4, 2022 | 5,279 words

For Alta, Roberto Lovato reports on the coming psychedelic therapy wave, led by Silicon Valley companies and investors who view psychoactive substances like mushrooms as the next disruptive technology. Treatment, however, is pricey: one session of guided ketamine therapy can cost as much as $2000. An analysis Lovato cites found that Black, Latinx, and Asian people have also been severely underrepresented in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy studies over the past 25 years. So who exactly will have access to these powerful medicines and experiences? Who will lead psychedelic policy reform? And how will this “psychedelic renaissance” play out in a place like San Francisco’s Mission District, which was once a center for psychedelic culture, and a majority Latino and non-white neighborhood before the techies drove them out? Lovato, who grew up in the Mission, weaves some of the neighborhood’s history with that of his own, and explains that people in this community, like the elders who came before them, have been exploring altered states of consciousness through sacred, mind-altering medicinas in underground and community-based spaces for a long time. This is a powerful, moving, yet sobering read on the tech-fueled psychedelic-industrial complex, spiritual extractivism (the mining of Indigenous tradition, ritual, and wisdom for profit), and the psychedelic underground. —CLR

3. On Mistaking Whales

Bathsheba Demuth | Granta | November 18th, 2021 | 4,746

“In the time and place where I was born, we were taught that the right way to consume a whale is with your eyes,” writes environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth. As she looks at the history of whaling in Russia, she considers the many ways in which whales have served humans in providing food, employment, and even housing. “I approach one house by crawling on my belly to peer down. In the dimness, the pale heavy brow of a whale’s skull holds back the earth. A bone wall. The people who lived here lived in the heads of whales.” Later, in speaking about her work to American audiences, she encounters rigid opposition to eating whales, from those who feel themselves superior partly because they hunt for food only at the grocery store. Demuth’s essay eloquently reminds us that reality is far more complicated than black and white; all of us inflict damage on the earth and on wildlife, in our own ways. “Here whales have been homes. A practical space, shelter and host to meals and births and deaths. Host to the least abstract kinds of love. Familial, romantic, parental. Here whales have made those intimacies, by giving people the capacity to live.” —KS

4. How the Speed of Climate Change is Unbalancing the Insect World

Oliver Milman | The Guardian | January 11, 2022 | 3,092 words

On New Year’s Day, I went for a walk in a local park and was struck by how much I was sweating in my huge coat. My lack of fitness was not the only culprit; it felt like a warm spring day in the middle of winter, an illusion rendered complete by a confused bumblebee buzzing past me. Oliver Milman provides an explanation for the unexpected bee in quoting Simon Potts, a bee expert: “There’s good evidence here in the UK that under climate change things are warming up early, so we’re got all these bees coming out early but not the flowers…” Bees are not the only insects suffering; early springs are unsettling the established life cycle of many insects. Even when rising temperatures benefit an insect population, it is not positive. In 2020, East Africa suffered its worst plague of locusts in decades. This fascinating and concerning essay reminds us that the disruption of these tiny insects is a crucial part of a very big problem. —CW

5. The Secret MVP of Sports? The Port-a-Potty

Ryan Hockensmith | ESPN | January 5, 2022 | 4,311 words

There’s nothing quite like it. You’re out an outdoor event when nature calls; looking around, your heart sinks when see that your only option is a flimsy plastic shed, behind the door of which untold horrors lurk. Odd as it is, though, you might fear that prospect a bit less after reading Hockensmith’s breezy tour through the history and importance of port-o-potties (and, crucially, the professional maintenance thereof). Whether following a crew of Buffalo sanitation workers undertaking a frenzied early-game half-suck in the parking lots around the Bills’ stadium or speaking with academics about the future of equitable sanitation, the piece never strays from its founding charm. By the time you’re finished, you may not be ready to leave indoor plumbing behind, but you’ll have a newfound equanimity the next time you do have to hazard a trip to the Box of Uncertainty. (Not always, though; as Hockensmith knowingly writes, Sometimes the cost of having to hold it isn’t as bad as the price of getting to go.) And no matter how much pre-gaming you’ve done, I promise you this: you’ll never try to run across the roof of one. —PR

Ten Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2022

"The words 'short story' picked out on a grungy old typewriter."

The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Throughout the year, Pravesh Bhardwaj posts his favorite short stories on Twitter, and then in January, we get to share his favorites with you to enjoy in the year ahead.

***

Starting with Kevin Barry’s “That Old Country Music” from Electric Lit to Aleksandar Hemon’s “Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls” from The Baffler, I posted 276 stories in 2021. Here are the ten I most enjoyed reading.

“Prophets” by Brandon Taylor (Joyland)

Brandon Taylor’s Real Life was shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2020. He followed it with the short story collection Filthy Animals, published in June, 2021. The following story is set in the world of academia — Brandon Taylor’s Macondo.

The famous black writer was in town to give a reading, and Coleman was not sure if he would go. He had known the famous black writer for a few years, but only indirectly. They had many friends in common and had gone to the same university, though years apart. The famous black writer had a kind of totally useless fame, which was to say that he was notable among a small group of people interested in highly experimental fiction that was really memoir but also a poem. The famous black writer had built a reputation for pyrotechnic readings that sometimes included slideshows of brutalized slave bodies and sometimes involved moan-singing. Coleman had watched videos of the famous black writer and had felt a nauseating secondhand embarrassment, thinking Is this how people see me?

The famous black writer was handsome—tall, with striking bone structure, and a real classic elegance. He looked like an adult, like a finished version of an expensive product. His hair was quite architectural. The night of the reading, he wore a mohair coat and slim-cut, all-black ensemble right out of a photograph from the 1950s.

“Muscle” by Daniyal Mueenuddin (The New Yorker)

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a sensational debut collection of short stories. Since reading it, I have been looking forward to his next work. The following story appeared in The New Yorker.

Back in the nineteen-fifties, when old Mian Abdullah Abdalah rose to serve as Pakistan’s Federal Secretary Establishment, a knee-bending district administration metalled the road leading from the Cawnapur railway station to his Dunyapur estate. They also pushed out a telephone line to his farmhouse, the first phone on any farm in the district. Even now, thirty years later, there was no other line nearby. A single wire ran many forlorn miles from Cawnapur city through the flat tan landscape of South Punjab, there on the edge of the Great Indian Desert, then alongside the packed-dirt farm tracks laid out in geometric lines, and finally entered the grounds of a small, handsome residence built in the style of a British colonial dak bungalow.

Now, for the second time in a month, the Chandios had stolen a section of the telephone wire, which served for all the area as a symbol of the Dunyapur estate’s preëminence. The Chandio village sat far from the road at the back end of the estate, buried in an expanse of reeds and derelict land, dunes that had never been cleared. Testing Mian Abdalah’s grandson, Sohel, who had returned from college in America six months earlier and moved onto the estate, they had been amusing themselves and bearding him by cutting out lengths of the wire that passed near their village and selling them for copper somewhere across the Indus.

“The Great Escape” by Hilma Wolitzer (Electric Lit)

The current pandemic has changed our lives; I am one of those who felt that 2021 was tougher than 2020. Hilma Wolitzer’s story, published in her collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket tells a tender but sweeping story of a decades-long marriage.

I used to look at Howard first thing in the morning to see if he was awake, too, and if he wanted to get something going before one of the kids crashed into the room and plopped down between us like an Amish bundling board. Lately, though, with the children long grown and gone to their own marriage beds, I found myself glancing over to see if Howard was still alive, holding my breath while I watched for the shallow rise and fall of his, the way I had once watched for a promising rise in the bedclothes.

Whenever I saw that he was breathing and that the weather waited just behind the blinds to be let in, I felt an irrational surge of happiness. Another day! And then another and another and another. Breakfast, vitamins, bills, argument, blood pressure pills, lunch, doctor, cholesterol medicine, the telephone, supper, TV, sleeping pills, sleep, waking. It seemed as if it would all go on forever in that exquisitely boring and beautiful way. But of course it wouldn’t; everyone knows that.

“Witness” by Jamel Brinkley (Lithub)

This story was selected as an O. Henry Prize winner in 2021.

My sister threw upon the door so that it banged against the little console table she kept by the entrance. “Silas,” she said breathlessly, before even removing her coat, “I have to tell you something.” Which was enough to make me feel trapped, as though the words out of her mouth were expanding and filling up the space in her tiny apartment. I told her to calm down and apologized, and then I began making excuses for myself. I had assumed she would be angry at me because of the previous night, so I was primed for what she might say when she got home from work.

“Don’t be so defensive,” Bernice said. “I’m not talking about that.” She tapped my legs so I would move them and then plopped down next to me on the love seat. The chill from outside clung to her body. I saved my reformatted CV, set my laptop on the floor, and listened.

The man who sang out of tune had been waiting for her again. He had started standing near the card shop on Amsterdam Avenue during her lunch hour two weeks earlier, and she had quickly noticed his repeated presence. As she passed him that afternoon, he faced her directly and gave her a meaningful look, which was more than he had ever done before. “But all he did after that was keep belting it out in that terrible voice,” she told me. “A sentimental song, you know? The sweetness of making love in the morning.” Even though he was thin and light skinned and wore those big, clunky headphones—“ Not my type at all,” she said—Bernice did find him somewhat handsome. But since he didn’t say anything, she just went inside the shop.

“The Wind” by Lauren Groff (The New Yorker)

Lauren Groff had a lovely novella What’s the Time, Mr.Wolf? published in The New Yorker as well, but this story is special and carries a punch.

Pretend, the mother had said when she crept to her daughter’s room in the night, that tomorrow is just an ordinary day.

So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside on the porch. The dog thumped his tail against the doghouse in the cold yard but was old and did not get up. The children’s breath hovered low and white as they walked down to the bus stop, a strange presence trailing them in the road.

When they stopped by the mailbox, the younger brother said in a very small voice, Is she dead?

The older boy hissed, Shut up, you’ll wake him, and all three looked at the house hunched up on the hill in the chilly dark, the green siding half installed last summer, the broken front window covered with cardboard.

The sister touched the little one’s head and said, whispering, No, no, don’t worry, she’s alive. I heard her go out to feed the sheep, and then she left for work. The boy leaned like a cat into her hand.

He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.

“Forty-Two” by Lisa Taddeo (New England Review)

Lisa Taddeo won her first Pushcart Prize for this story. Her novel Animal was published in 2021.

In a small wooden box at her nightstand she kept a special reserve of six joints meticulously rolled, because the last time she’d slept with someone on the regular he’d been twenty-seven and having good pot at your house means one extra reason for the guy to come over, besides a good mattress and good coffee and great products in a clean bathroom. At home your towels smell like ancient noodles. But at Joan’s the rugs are free of hair and dried-up snot. The sink smells like lemon. The maid folds your boxers. Sleeping with an older woman is like having a weekend vacation home.

“A Dangerous Creature” by Mary Morris (Narrative Magazine)

Mary Morris’ story is one of heartache and loss, about a family and their newly found rescue dog.

The dog is a rescue. He was dumped from a moving car right in front of Dr. Katz’s office. Pete, the vet technician, was on the stoop, smoking a cigarette, when it happened. Dropped like a sack of potatoes, Pete told Dr. Katz. Pete picked up the dog—a mangy black-and-white with deep dark eyes—and brought him to Dr. Katz, who was finishing up a Rottweiler with glass in its paw. The dog is a mongrel—a Lab and something-else mix. Maybe shepherd or border collie. Dr. Katz isn’t sure. A gentle dog. About two years old. He is mostly white but with a black tail and black patches, including one that encircles his left eye. The minute Roger Katz lays eyes on the dog he knows he’ll call him Pirate.

Roger wasn’t planning on adopting a dog. It’s kind of a joke among his wife, children, friends, and extended family. The cobbler’s family has no shoes. The Katz family has no pets. They’d had the occasional fish and hamster—none of which had survived very long in that household. But never a cat and never a dog. In fact, Roger’s name is a bit of a joke for his line of work. Katz Animal Care. Danny, his middle child, had thought up the motto: “We do dogs. And Katz too.” But the family itself has never had either of these as a pet.

“The Hospital Where” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Longreads)

Nana Kwame Adjei-Breynah’s story about a father and his writer son is a part of his celebrated collection Friday Black.

“What are you looking for?” said a woman who I hoped knew I was already lost and scared. She stood in front of me in purple scrubs and colorful nurse-type shoes. Her brown hair was spun into something that let everyone know she was very busy and hadn’t slept in a long time. The tone of her voice, spiced with the Bronx, said I was one of many inconveniences in her life.

“I’m looking for my dad; he just came through here a second ago.”

“Is that all?” She tapped her clipboard with a pen. “What department?” I had no idea what department my father was looking for, so I told her the truth about that. “Well, I don’t know how you don’t know, but —” She was about to take great pleasure in telling me that I was in this situation due to my own incompetence and that even though she could not help me, she herself was very competent. I walked away from her before she could finish.

“Unread Messages” by Sally Rooney (The New Yorker)

Sally Rooney won an O. Henry Prize for this story in 2021. Her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You was published last year.

At twenty past twelve on a Wednesday afternoon, a woman sat behind a desk in a shared office in Dublin city center, scrolling through a text document. She had very dark hair, swept back loosely into a tortoiseshell clasp, and she was wearing a dark-gray sweater tucked into black cigarette trousers. Using the soft, greasy roller on her computer mouse she skimmed over the document, eyes flicking back and forth across narrow columns of text, and occasionally she stopped, clicked, and inserted or deleted characters. Most frequently she was inserting two full stops into the name “WH Auden,” in order to standardize its appearance as “W. H. Auden.” When she reached the end of the document, she opened a search command, selected the Match Case option, and entered “WH.” No matches appeared. She scrolled back up to the top of the document, words and paragraphs flying past illegibly, and then, apparently satisfied, saved her work and closed the file.

At one o’clock she told her colleagues she was going to lunch, and they smiled and waved at her from behind their monitors. Pulling on a jacket, she walked to a café near the office and sat at a table by the window, holding a sandwich in one hand and a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov” in the other. At twenty to two, she looked up to observe a tall, fair-haired man entering the café. He was wearing a suit and tie, with a plastic lanyard around his neck, and was speaking into his phone. Yeah, he said, I was told Tuesday, but I’ll call back and check that for you. When he saw the woman seated by the window, his face changed, and he quickly lifted his free hand, mouthing the word Hey. Into the phone, he continued, I don’t think you were copied on that, no. Looking at the woman, he pointed to the phone impatiently and made a talking gesture with his hand. She smiled, toying with the corner of a page in her book. Right, right, the man said. Listen, I’m actually out of the office now, but I’ll do that when I get back in. Yeah. Good, good, good to talk to you.

“Shanghai Murmur” by Te-Ping Chen (The Atlantic)

Te-Ping Chen’s debut collection In Land of Big Numbers was included in Barrack Obama’s favorite reads of 2021. This story is about a flower shop assistant’s involvement with a professional who has a fountain pen that costs more than the assistant’s yearly salary.

The man who lived upstairs had died, and it had taken the other tenants days to notice, days in which the sweetly putrid scent thickened and residents tried to avoid his part of the hall, palms tenting their noses as they came and left. At last someone sent for the building manager, who summoned his unemployed cousin to break the lock and paid him 100 yuan to carry the body down the three flights of stairs.

There was a squabble as the residents who inhabited the adjoining rooms argued that they should have their rent lowered; the death was bad luck. Xiaolei stood listening as the building manager shouted them down. She felt sorry for the man who had died, whom she recalled as middle-aged, with tired, deep-set eyes, a chain-smoker who’d worked at the local post office. She supposed that if she ever asphyxiated or was stabbed overnight, the same thing would happen to her.

***

Be sure to check out Pravesh Bhardwaj‘s story picks from 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. The Radicalization of J.D. Vance

Simon van Zuylen-Wood | The Washington Post Magazine | January 4, 2022 | 6,044 words

Five years ago, J.D. Vance was enjoying the success of his acclaimed 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Today, he’s running for Senate in his home state of Ohio, bankrolled by tech-con icon Peter Thiel, and competing with Ted Cruz to tweet the most abrasive MAGA platitudes. How we ended up here isn’t the primary goal of van Zuylen-Wood’s intellectually driven feature, though; instead, it’s an attempt to answer the question of where “here” actually is. Watching Vance preen for prospective voters and explain his equivocations is maddening, sure, but it allows van Zuylen-Wood to tease apart the philosophical paradox at the heart of Vance’s attempted makeover. “Vance’s media strategy seems to be that by playing Don Jr. on the Internet, he can push for more substantive populism in real life,” he writes. “The success of that tactic may depend on how far removed he truly seems from the Brookings Institution-to-Netflix pipeline he was riding until recently.” Inside (beltway) baseball? Perhaps. A crucial preview of the next few years of so-called culture wars? Definitely. Don’t say you weren’t warned. —PR

2. This Isn’t the California I Married

Elizabeth Weil | The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica | January 3, 2022 | 6,115 words

I recently drove up the Pacific Coast, from Venice Beach to the Bay Area. It took 10 hours to get home, but it didn’t feel long, even with a 3-year-old in the back seat. We drove up Malibu’s coast in relentless rain before dawn, watched the sun rise in Santa Barbara, spotted rainbows against green hills near San Luis Obispo, and felt the sun on our faces as we reached San Jose. But for every beautiful bit of coastline and landscape I saw out of the window that day were sights I did not see, nor wanted to think about: the drought-stricken reservoirs, the scorched old-growth forests, the lands scarred by the one-two punch of fire and torrential rain. Yet, despite California’s climate crisis, there’s still no place in the U.S. I’d rather live. I was reminded of this road trip as I read Elizabeth Weil’s poignant, eye-opening piece on the state’s wildfire problem, and what it means to live in California now. “Did choosing to stay here mean a life defined by worry, vigilance and loss?” she asks. Weil also speaks with climate futurist Alex Steffen, who explains we’re living in trans-apocalyptic times: “We have this idea that the world is either normal and in continuity with what we’ve expected, or it’s the apocalypse, it’s the end of everything — and neither are true.” Yes, the world’s in bad shape, and loss and grief are inevitable, he tells her, but it still might be possible to build a better future. It’s a bleak but necessary read, and a call for us to wake up, to recognize that the California we once knew is gone, and to face the world as it exists. —CLR

3. How Plastic Liberated and Entombed Us

Jeannette Cooperman | The Common Reader | Dec. 29, 2021 | 5,500 words

To say that we’re losing the war on plastic is to flatter ourselves with a lie. The fact is that we’re not even fighting it. As Jeannette Cooperman details in this lyrical essay, humans are addicted to plastic despite knowing — despite always knowing — that the stuff is dangerous. “Is it self-hatred, to embrace with abandon a substance you know to be cheap, tacky, often garish, and entirely synthetic?” Cooperman asks. “A substance that, when made into a bag, had to be imprinted with warnings, lest a child think it a toy and suffocate?” Weaving history and philosophy, poetry and science, Cooperman offers insight into how and why we got to this point. Her essay is also an elegy for the natural world and our appreciation of it. “We try so hard to fake beauty, just so it will last longer,” she writes. “We miss nature’s point.” It’s hard to read this piece without looking up, taking stock, and wishing for a war. —SD

4. The Long Afterlife of a Terrible Crime

Ryan Katz | The New Yorker | January 3rd, 2022 | 4058 words

Regina Alexander’s mother Elizabeth was murdered in 1971 by the McCrary family, just two months after Regina was born. The McCrarys were ramblers, linked to the murders of at least 10 other women. Decades later, when Regina comments on a blog post about the killings, she unwittingly starts a conversation among the friends and families of the victims, one that would eventually include replies from ensuing generations of the McCrary family. Ryan Katz’s New Yorker story examines the horrific, insidious toll that violent crime exacts on the follow-on generations of both killer and victim, those who, because of their family ties, are forced to pay for the crimes for the rest of their lives. —KS

5. Fall Risk

Madeleine Watts | The Believer | March 25, 2020 | 5746 words

Madeleine Watts’ essay was published in March 2020, but the dis-ease she describes from unexplained fainting episodes is very relatable as the pandemic endures. As she examines her life and experiences leading up to and after being declared “weak with no known cause,” Watts suggests that “Our bodies are the containers for our thoughts…” It’s only by considering life stresses in hindsight (terminal family illnesses, immigration concerns, and fear for her own health) that it becomes easy to see why her body would suddenly shut down from sheer overload: “…the body sometimes articulates things that the mind cannot.” —KS

Calling All Writers: Pitch Us Your Reading Lists

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Seeing readers cheer for the authors we honored in last month’s Best of 2021 series reminded us that curating excellent writing has a positive influence — on readers and writers. As we said in a recent thread compiling the year’s reading lists, curiosity, curation, and community remain at the core of Longreads in 2022. Our end-of-year lists, particularly our readers’ favorites, also confirmed that your recommendations and insights elevate the work that we do, each and every week.

In this spirit, we’re seeking new contributors to Longreads and invite you to pitch us your reading list ideas. We pay USD$350 per reading list. Please read our updated submissions page, and browse our reading lists to see what we’ve published over the years. Curation is at the heart of this format, but our favorite lists have many of the elements of our best commissioned stories: a strong voice, a fresh and unexpected angle, and sharp and thoughtful commentary.


A few tips for your reading list pitch to hello@longreads.com:

  • We receive many pitches and submissions each day. To stand out, be sure to include “Reading List” in your email subject line, as well as a bit of context about the topic you’d like to explore in your list.
  • Tell us why you want to dive deep into the topic/theme. What excites you about it? Why are you best suited to write this? Why is it the right time to publish this list?
  • Already done some reading on the topic? Bonus points for including links to stories in your pitch. We want to get an idea of what and where you’re reading.
  • If you haven’t worked with us before, share a few clips that give us a sense of your writing style and voice, or a writing sample that you’re proud of.
  • As you can see from our editors’ picks, we share must-read stories from established writers and outlets, but we also highlight stories from smaller magazines, regional and international publications, up-and-coming journalists, and writers of color and from underrepresented communities. Be sure that your pitch includes a diverse mix of publishers and writers.

Get in touch at hello@longreads.com if you think you have a piece for us. We look forward to hearing from you and working with more writers and curators this year!

The Easter Island Schoolteacher Who Sparked a Revolution

Illustration by Sally Deng for The Atavist Magazine

Mike Damiano | The Atavist Magazine | December 2021 | 8 minutes (2,379 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 122, “We Wish to Be Able to Sing,” written by Mike Damiano and illustrated by Sally Deng.


SECRET

TO: VALPARAISO

FROM: EASTER

… THE SUBVERSIVE MOVEMENT IS MUCH MORE SERIOUS AND GRAVE THAN BELIEVED ON THE CONTINENT … THE SCHOOLTEACHER IS PREPARED TO GIVE HIS LIFE TO WIN FREEDOM … TO AVOID FATAL CONSEQUENCES URGENTLY SEND A SHIP TO RESTORE ORDER


Chapter One

The Atavist, our sister publication, publishes one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a member.

No one in the Rapu household could sleep. It was early March 1955, and in the family’s three-room home in the hills above the village of Hanga Roa, Reina Haoa busied herself sewing clothes. Her husband, Elías, paced. The couple’s four eldest boys—Alfonso, Carlos, Sergio, and Rafael—huddled together in the living room watching their parents worry. There was not much to say. In the morning, 12-year-old Alfonso would leave Easter Island on a cargo ship called the Pinto. He would travel to the port city of Valparaíso, Chile. His parents could not tell him when he’d return home or when he might see them again, because they did not know. They also could not tell him much about where he was going. Neither of them had seen land beyond Easter Island’s shores.

The Pinto came once a year to deliver basic supplies: soap, flour, sugar, fabric. For the Rapanui, the annual arrival was bittersweet. Though other ships occasionally visited the island, they brought few if any of the necessities needed to sustain life. By the time the Pinto came in late summer, the pantries of Rapanui families were bare. Construction projects had stalled for lack of materials. The Pinto, the Rapanui’s only regular physical contact with the outside world, brought relief.

But for many, the ship’s arrival also provoked a simmering sense of dread. Along with supplies, the Pinto brought disease. Each year, in the weeks after the ship unloaded, kokongo—a catchall term for whatever germs the Chilean sailors were carrying—swept through Hanga Roa. It was common for kokongo to infect as much as half the population. By the time it abated, it usually had left several families grieving.

There was no one to complain to about these epidemics, at least no one who would listen. For several decades, the authorities on Easter Island had been foreigners who represented their own interests by keeping the Rapanui under their thumb. In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast, centered on Hanga Roa. A network of fences known as the Wall, built by Rapanui men for menial wages, kept them there. Passage beyond the Wall—to visit ancestral lands, to explore or cultivate the countryside, or to leave the island entirely—was only possible with written permission from the island’s governor.

Over the decades, some Rapanui managed to leave the island, usually by taking jobs on the mainland with the Chilean military. Others resorted to more desperate measures. Some built rafts and set off over the horizon for Tahiti. A few of them made it, navigating the thousands of miles of ocean between Easter Island and French Polynesia by the stars. But the great majority—dozens of men—vanished in the vast Pacific.

Reina and Elías were born within the Wall, like their parents before them and their children after. There had been no way for them to leave. Their family grew almost every year, until Alfonso was the eldest of 11. He played soccer with friends and attended school most days. Like other young Rapanui children, he also spent long hours on his family’s plot of land, cultivating taro and sweet potatoes. Since there was no running water in Hanga Roa—and no ponds, streams, or lakes—the Rapu family collected rainwater in a cistern. It sometimes fell to Alfonso to skim the dead bugs and mold off the water’s surface.

There were other things—more brutal ones—that Alfonso accepted as normal at the time but would haunt him later. At the schoolhouse, nuns who delivered lessons in Spanish, a language their students barely understood, punished children with canes. At home, Elías was a menace. He chased Reina through the house and hit her. The children usually cowered; when they tried to intervene, Elías struck them. Domestic violence was endemic in Hanga Roa. A peaceful home was the outlier.

There were other horrors, including the constant threat of leprosy. When telltale sores appeared, breaking out on a temple, a forearm, or a bald scalp, the afflicted person was removed from the village and quarantined permanently at the island’s leper colony, at the base of the Terevaka volcano. When Alfonso was a child, his uncle worked at the colony, and sometimes brought him along to help. He got to know the place and the people condemned to live there. One man, Gabriel Hereveri, who had lost both hands and an eyelid to the disease, befriended Alfonso and told him stories of life on the island before the Wall went up, when the Rapanui were still free.

Alfonso had never seriously contemplated a life beyond the island. To the extent that he thought about his future at all, he imagined it taking place within the Wall. But Reina hoped for more. When she learned of a new program for educating Rapanui children in Chile—a humanitarian effort organized by the government—she lobbied her brother, who worked for the Navy, to ask his supervisors for a favor. Could they get her eldest son onto the list?

The supervisors said yes. Reina only found out the night before Alfonso was scheduled to depart on the Pinto.

The next morning, Alfonso and his parents went to Hanga Piko cove, where local fishermen launched their boats. The three gathered by the water’s edge, alongside 11 other children and their parents. Like Alfonso, these children, ranging in age from 12 to 15, were set to depart for Chile. They would be placed in boarding schools or with host families and enter the Chilean education system. They were the second cohort to participate in the program, and their families considered it a privilege.

Alfonso hugged his mother, who was weeping. When he turned to his father, he found that Elías was crying as well, which unsettled him.

Alfonso knew in a technical sense that he would board a ship, that the ship would sail over the horizon, and that he would disembark in a new land. But he had no ability to picture Valparaíso, a modern city of 400,000 people. He could not conceive of a journey of 2,300 miles, the distance to Chile, when the greatest expanse he had ever reckoned with was 14 miles on Easter Island—from the Poike Peninsula in the east to Rano Kau, a volcano, in the west.

Aboard the Pinto, he stood on the aft deck. As the ship shuddered and began motoring east, he kept his eyes fixed on Easter Island. For a couple of hours it receded. Then it disappeared over the horizon. All he could see was water. He broke down and sobbed.

In 1898, a decade after Chile annexed the island, the Rapanui were rounded up and resettled on a few square miles of the western coast.

Valparaíso came into view on the seventh day of the journey. As the Pinto approached, the city seemed to rise up over the ship. One of the busiest and richest ports in the Western hemisphere, Valparaíso buzzed with the activity of industrial cranes, thousands of car and truck engines, and the constant interchange of sailing ships, tankers, and tug boats. Ten-story towers and hulking neocolonial government buildings stood on the flat land at the water’s edge. The rest of the city—wealthy neighborhoods of Victorian houses and poor slums of multi-colored shanties—clung to the coastline’s steep hills, which residents ascended via funiculars.

Alfonso Rapu took in the staggering sight from the Pinto’s deck. He was about to set foot in a new world.

After a train ride over the foothills of the Andes, he arrived at a boarding school in downtown Santiago de Chile, a dense urban hub that was home to the president’s sprawling mansion and the headquarters of Chile’s banks and copper-mining corporations. The next several months were lonely and difficult. Rapu lived in a dormitory full of bunk beds, which during the week were occupied by children but sat empty on weekends; most students returned home to their families then, leaving Rapu alone. Yet even on weekdays he was isolated. He barely spoke Spanish. When teachers called on him in class, his speech was halting and accented. His classmates snickered and called him indio—Indian—a pejorative for anyone with non-European blood.

A 26-year-old social worker, Guacolda Zamorano, noticed Rapu at the school and worried over him. On weekdays, she checked on him during her breaks. On Friday afternoons, she left him with enough home-cooked meals to feed him through the weekend. Still, Zamorano felt she wasn’t doing enough. In the evenings, at her house in a suburban neighborhood, she talked to her husband, Manuel Nova, about Rapu. The boy needed more help, she said. He needed a home.

Early in the winter of 1955, Zamorano instructed Rapu to pack his things. She told her husband that the boy would be living with them for a while. He stayed for nearly nine years.

Rapu was given his own bedroom, a new wardrobe of chinos, button-downs, and loafers, and a makeshift family. Zamorano became, in every meaningful sense, Rapu’s second mother. She was warmer than Reina, who had always been protective of her children but came from a culture that tended not to shower them with affection. Children were liabilities and laborers; they were expected to fend for themselves and contribute what they could. Rapu had sometimes felt like a piece of property, particularly when his parents loaned him to the neighbors in exchange for an ox. The neighbors used Rapu for a day of labor in their field, while Reina and Elías used the beast to plow theirs. No one thought anything of the arrangement; it seemed like a square deal. But now that Rapu had seen something else—another life, another way to be a child—the memory rankled.

Zamorano tutored him in Spanish, and he made steady progress. Within a few years, he spoke the language fluently. He strove to catch up in other subjects, too. Every morning as he walked to the bus, he added up the numbers on his neighbors’ mailboxes to practice arithmetic. At school he started sitting in the first row of desks, focusing his attention on the teacher to help him ignore his classmates’ taunts, until finally, gratifyingly, they stopped.

As Rapu grew, his station among his classmates changed. By the age of 16, he had transformed; the scrawny child had become tall, muscular, and handsome. He was a capable soccer player and charming, with a winning smile and a quiet sense of humor. He had girlfriends. One summer he befriended the daughters of senator Salvador Allende. He spent afternoons with the Allendes by their pool. Once he even wore the future president’s swimming trunks.

For the first time in his life, Rapu had options, opportunities, and frivolous diversions—he had developed a weakness for orange Fanta. But in the midst of bourgeois bliss, something gnawed at him. He had not forgotten where he came from, and in a cruel way, the more comfortable he became in Santiago, the more distressed he felt whenever he thought of his family back on Easter Island.

One summer day in 1958, Rapu boarded the Pinto again in Valparaíso. He was headed home for his first visit since leaving the island three years earlier. After a weeklong journey, Rapu looked out over Hanga Roa bay as the ship’s crew dropped anchor. In the water below, he saw Rapanui men in white button-front shirts paddling fishing boats out to greet the Pinto’s sailors. This was a Rapanui custom that dated back centuries. When Dutch explorers first happened upon the island, men in canoes greeted them.

Rapu had watched this ritual from shore in his childhood. He knew these men; he had called some of them koro, a term of endearment that means “grandfather” in Rapanui. But now, as they approached the ship, he was startled by their appearance. He remembered them as strong and vital; these men looked hollowed out.

On shore, his parents and siblings greeted him. Reina and Elías looked unchanged, but his brothers and sisters were all new versions of themselves, some taller, some wider, some thinner. He had a week to spend with his family, the time it would take the Pinto to unpack its supplies and load up the annual production of wool from the sheep ranch that foreigners managed in the island’s interior. He spent most of his days with his brothers Carlos, Rafael, and Sergio. They had been his closest allies during his childhood, and he had missed them fiercely. But now that they were reunited, Rapu felt a distance between them that was difficult to bridge. When they asked him what life was like in Santiago, he didn’t know what to say. How could he explain attending soccer matches at Santiago’s 40,000-seat stadium? What could he tell his brothers, who were confined by the Wall, about weekends spent at his host family’s country cottage? What bothered him most, though, was that his brothers thought they were fine, that life on the island didn’t need to change. He had thought the same thing before he left.

Back in Santiago, Rapu spent long nights awake, staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, worrying about his brothers. As he neared adulthood, he also contemplated his future: which profession to pursue, where to live, what to make of his life. He decided to become a teacher.

As he neared university graduation in the early 1960s, Rapu considered various teaching positions—in Santiago, in the Lakes Region of southern Chile, and even one, offered through a U.S. State Department program, that would provide educational opportunities in the United States. But he could not push from his mind the circumstances of his brothers and the rest of the Rapanui. He had begun to wonder if there was something he could do to help.

He was still considering his options when he returned to Easter Island a second time, in 1962, and made a terrible discovery. The Rapanui community had suffered yet another trauma, and this one struck close to home.

Read the full story at The Atavist

Best of 2021: The Stories We Missed

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. We highlight our favorite stories in our weekly Longreads Top 5, and at year’s end — in what is now a decade-long tradition — we revisit and reflect on the pieces we loved most. Today, though, we’re celebrating some of the best stories we missed. It happens — there’s a lot out there to read, and only a few editors here combing through as much as we can. Thankfully, we’ve got our community of readers (that’s you!) and the authors honored in our Best of 2021 lists to fill in the gaps. 

Nuclear Cats, Vivian Blaxell, Meanjin Quarterly, September 2021

Exceptional essays often form around the connections a writer can make from their particular place in the world. In “Nuclear Cats, Vivian Blaxell connects life experience in legal and health systems with wild and domestic animals, the function of language, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the nature of consciousness…. And its funny. Blaxells voice is addictive!

—Author Briohny Doyle, honored in Best of 2021: Personal Essays

Call Me a Traitor, Kerry Howley, New York, July 20, 2021

Nobody writes more beautifully about the horrors of our world than my New York colleague Kerry Howley. Her story on drone war whistleblower Daniel Hale is the piece I’ll remember most from this year.

—Author Reeves Wiedeman, honored in Best of 2021: Investigative Reporting

High-Rise Syndrome, Sally Wen Mao, The Believer, May 29, 2021

From the piece: “When cats fall out the windows of tall buildings, the worst injuries result from falling out the first to the sixth stories. Cats that fall from higher stories (i.e. the tenth or twentieth floors) sustain less serious injuries. In other words, the closer you are to the ground, the more you reckon with your death, the less time you have to bend your body against the terminal velocity. This is called high-rise syndrome. It is science, not metaphor.“

—Recommended by author Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, honored in Best of 2021: Profiles

He Thought What He Was Doing Was Good for People,’ Chris Outcalt, The Atlantic, August 13, 2021

I generally defer to the expertise of physicians, especially when it comes to the medical decisions made by my elderly parents. Reading this story, I could imagine myself as the protagonist, Marian Simmons, going along, trusting, believing my life was at risk. This story changed my mind by showing me how vulnerable we all are to unnecessary medical procedures in the U.S. health-care system.

—Reader Mya Frazier

Teaching Poetry in the Palestinian Apocalypse, George Abraham, Guernica, September 27, 2021

From the piece: “Maybe it’s not a universal Capital-A-Apocalypse I want to excavate language for, but a lowercase-a-apocalypse that colonialism has imposed on Indigenous and dispossessed peoples since the beginning of the settler project. The tired apocalypse. The assumed apocalypse. An apocalypse that keeps (a notion of) their world alive, at the expense of (a notion of) our own.“

—Recommended by reader Vesna Jaksic Lowe

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

Best of 2021: Readers’ Favorites

A graphic that reads "Longreads Best of 2021. Readers' Favorites"
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. We highlight our favorite stories in our weekly Longreads Top 5, and at year’s end — in what is now a decade-long tradition — we revisit and reflect on the pieces we loved most.

This year we did things a little differently — our editors still considered their top stories, but we also reached out to our readers to see what the Longreads community enjoyed in 2021. So today, we’re delighted to showcase 10 stories from the year that our readers loved — and hear why these pieces stood out to them in their own words.

The Epic Family Feud Behind an Iconic American Weight-Loss Camp for Kids, David Gauvey Herbert, Bloomberg Businessweek, August 2021

Dave Herbert’s piece on Camp Shane is incredible work, and deeply meaningful as a survivor of that weight loss camp. As an amateur writer — I also have to say that the author weaved a number of different issues and concepts using a fantastic narrative form, coupled with a unifying thread that would resonate with any reader.

—Mark Rothenberg

When the Techies Took Over Tahoe, Rachel Levin, Outside, April 2021

I am an American expat living in Australia, and this story gave me the most insightful look at how COVID-19 in the U.S. is impacting work, place, real estate, local culture, and nature — and how the socio-economics pervade everything.

—Tara Johnston

To Protect Me From America, My Parents Changed My Name Without Telling Me, Leslie Nguyen-Okwu, Harper’s Bazaar, May 2021

I loved this essay’s description about “teetering on a tightrope between Asian America and Black America,” and her powerful explanations of coping with the realities of racism and discrimination from a young age.

—Vesna Jaksic Lowe

Kevin Durant and (Possibly) the Greatest Basketball Team of All Time, Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine, June 2021

The question of profile writing is: What fascinates me about this person, and what does it say about myself or the world? The other, especially in sports writing these days is: How can I get enough time and access to get to the core of a character? Anderson manages to obtain one of the deepest and — given the insane shield put around sports stars these days — most unlikely portraits of an NBA star. We see the moody, ingenious, unlikely Kevin Durant in a way he’s never been shown to us before. It’s the piece every sportswriter I know is jealous of.

—Joseph Bien-Kahn

Where There’s Muck There’s Brass: Making Money From Sewage in Kolkata, Amitangshu Acharya, and Sudipto Sanyal, The Economist, January 2021

It’s a story that traverses the very real ecological and sociological issues of our present world — a world at the brink of irreversible damage. Written with poetic articulation, it narrates a well-researched story of the unique wetlands of Kolkata. Despite the imminent urgency of the problems discussed, it still relates an uplifting instance of the human capacity for survival, resourcefulness, and optimism. Beautifully written and moving.

—Reshma Matthew

The Depths She’ll Reach, Xan Rice, Long Lead, November 2021

This profile about freediver Alenka Artnik blew me away. Not only is her story of overcoming grief and mental health challenges inspiring, but it is written in such an evocative way. I’ve never seen a story designed like that either. The video of Alenka diving under the story transfixed me.

—Jenni Blossom

Once Upon a Time in Central Florida, Katherine LaGrave, AFAR, February 2021

This is still a story I think about. After two years filled with so much loss and immeasurable lost time, this feature clung to my heart and made me appreciate how much more time I do have, post-pandemic.

—Sarah Anderson

To Catch a Turtle Thief: Blowing the Lid Off an International Smuggling Operation, Clare Fieseler, The Walrus, November 2021

It’s an age-old problem that isn’t spotlighted much, and wildlife trafficking interlopes with lots of other types of crimes (e.g., drug trade). This was a great article.

—Lindsey Reeves

The Epic Battle to Break the Mississippi River Canoe Record, Frank Bures, Outside, November 2021

I loved this story so much. It was a good old-fashioned rip-roaring adventure story, done the way it should be: the biggest, baddest river, a race, a record meant to be broken, petty interpersonal conflict, tension, and terror — all with a dose of redemption at the end. And it was reported from the boats, not after the fact. Great stuff.

—Jason Albert

There Has Been Blood, Diana Hubbell, Eater, August 2021

This piece on the Thailand palm oil industry, and the violence and harassment against local farmers, shows the strengths and courage of ordinary people — who, although vulnerable and underprivileged, refuse to give up on insisting their rights are respected.

—Sutharee Wanna

Best of 2021: Profiles

Text "Longreads Best of 2021: Profiles" in the foreground and a background image of a silhouette of a person's head
All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Now it is the turn of the profile — as we highlight the craft of writing about someone else. These five writers are masterful at providing insights into another’s world. 

The Girl in the Kent State Photo, Patricia McCormick, The Washington Post Magazine, April 19, 2021

On May 4, 1970, Kent State University students gathered on campus to peacefully rally against President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, which would expand U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, a free-spirited teen who hitchhiked around the country to escape a volatile family life in Florida, found herself on the school’s Ohio grounds, drawn to the protests. National Guard troops shot four students dead that day, including a man, Jeffrey Miller, whom Vecchio had been talking to. She dropped to the ground and knelt beside his body — her arms raised, her face full of anguish and horror. McCormick documents her pleas: “‘Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here?’ she remembers crying. ‘Why is no one helping him?’”

Student photographer John Filo snapped a picture of her at that very moment, capturing what would become an iconic image, one that “fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us,” writes Patricia McCormick. Through a dozen phone interviews with Vecchio, who is now 65 and living a quiet retired life, McCormick recounts that fateful day and how the image “hijacked” Vecchio’s life, haunting her even 50 years on. (Her reaction to the video of George Floyd’s last moments shook her to her core.) Affected from “opposite ends of the lens,” Vecchio and Filo are intimately connected to one another through the photo — Vecchio a “human flashpoint” and a symbol of the national conscience, and Filo full of grief and guilt over what the image did to her, despite his winning a Pulitzer for his work. Compassionate and superbly reported, McCormick’s profile hits a nerve, and especially resonates in our time of virality and smartphone-recorded moments of injustice. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

La Cancion de la Nena, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Oxford American, June 1, 2021

In this beautiful piece, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal offers a haunting portrait of her father, Gilberto Villarreal, a virtuoso guitarist and musician, a man who was a “prodigy at the foot of this country, in a place no one ever expects to find someone extraordinary.“ Villarreal recalls the struggles her father endured as a Mexican immigrant trying to be discovered in a music business dominated by white interests and pernicious racism: “What I experienced as poetry came first through the song my father wrote for me when I was two years old, a song whose melody is a turning helix in my blood, another way of speaking my name. It is the rarest gift I have ever received.“ This is a piece steeped in love and admiration for a man and an artist who, despite his many musical skills and achievements, did not consider himself a success. “You might think from my tone that this is a sad story,“ Villarreal writes. “And maybe it is, but it is also a tribute to an unseen life, a long overdue recognition of ordinary genius worn down by circumstance.“ —Krista Stevens

Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on the story from 2021 that impacted her most:

Carina del Valle Schorske’s “Dancing Through New York in a Summer of Joy and Grief“ in The New York Times Magazine was an incredibly rich, historical snapshot of embodiment, grief, vitality, and rebellion in the shared ritual of social dance, specific to Black, Latin, queer, and immigrant communities. From Harlem to Brooklyn and everywhere in between, del Valle Schorske writes a history of social dance as a site of healing after mass tragedy that is part personal essay, part performance theory, part history lesson — an erotics of survival and joy at the end of the world.

What Mike Fanone Can’t Forget, Molly Ball, Time, August 5, 2021

Given the state of the celebrity-industrial complex, the vast majority of profiles you read in any given year are about people you already know. The truly special ones, though, tend to buck convention. And that’s exactly the case with Molly Ball’s riveting portrait of Mike Fanone, the Washington D.C. narcotics officer who drove to the Capitol on January 6 to help defend it against insurrectionists. Sure, you may have seen Fanone on cable news in the aftermath of the riots, may have thought he was a hero or a martyr or a turncoat or anything else — but you didn’t know what he’d gone through that day, let alone who he was. Ball’s scene work and deft reconstruction help bring together the splintered shards of a complicated, imperfect man, one who somehow both validates and punctures whatever assumptions you had. “He’s not asking to be called a hero — he just wants us to remember what his sacrifice was for,” she writes. “Fanone believes we can’t keep trying to outrun this thing; we’ve got to turn around and face it, defeat it once and for all. That if all we do is turn away and hope it fades, it will just keep getting stronger until it comes back to kill us all.” Once upon a time, that may have sounded overwrought. Today, it’s all too real. —Peter Rubin 

Stop Hustling Black Death, Imani Perry, New York, May 24, 2021

What happens when the worst day of your life animates a social movement over which you have no control? This question is the engine of Imani Perry’s profile of Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, killed by police in 2014. Samaria was anguished, and she wanted justice. But she didn’t want to be told how to act, or to see “leaders” she didn’t know speaking for her — much less making money off her son’s death. In Perry’s hands, Samaria’s story is a window into the growing pains of Black Lives Matter. If readers are uncomfortable with what they see, that’s the point: We can’t look away from the truth, Perry says, just because it’s messy. “We have lost a great deal of history by relying upon a neat consensus narrative,” she writes. “If we’re not careful, we run the risk of letting that become the story of today as well.” —Seyward Darby

The opening lines of another profile by Imani Perry, which author Becca Andrews chose as her favorite lede of the year:

“I knew from the beginning that I would not meet Gayl Jones.

Or see a recent photograph of her. Or ask her any questions. What does it feel like, 46 years after the first, to have a new novel coming out? Why did you step out of view? Did it make you a more honest writer? Did it serve your soul? I would not get answers. I would not be able to charm her into laughter. I know she is brilliant, obscure, irascible. I imagine her smile is still wry. But does she still wear her head wrapped in 2021? Is she still adept at putting a nosy questioner in her place?“

“She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared,“ The New York Times Magazine

Benji Is One Down Dog, Madeleine Aggeler, Texas Monthly, June 2, 2021

This piece brought a smile to my face and delight to my heart. For even in the age of the Instagram-famous pet, it’s not often we get a proper pooch profile. Benji the dog is a George Clooney lookalike who “prefers to greet the world au naturel whenever possible,” writes Madeleine Aggeler. He is “confident that wherever he goes, everyone will be thrilled to meet him,” and he is right — they are: Benji is “one of the most famous dogs in America right now.” A worthy profile subject, indeed. His is an interesting story: His owner, the YouTube yoga instructor Adriene Mishler, was the champion of COVID lockdowns, with her online exercise classes becoming incredibly popular. Benji was a part of this, making cameos on camera that brought joy to Adriene’s viewers. Written with great creativity and humor, Aggeler’s article shows us why Benji is such a scene-stealer. — Carolyn Wells

Explore our Best of 2021 collection