This week, we’re sharing stories from Elizabeth Van Brocklin, Brian Merchant, Christine Fennessy, Peter Schjeldahl, and Gabriella Paiella.
In this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast, the last editors’ roundtable of 2019, Head of Audience Catherine Cusick, Head of Fact-Checking Matt Giles, and writer Nick Chrastil share what they’ve been reading and working on.
1:01 “Your Honor, Can I Tell The Whole Story?” (Nick Chrastil, December 2019, The Atavist and The Lens)
8:15 “Your Judge Is Your Destiny” (Gabriel Thompson, July 2019, Topic)
19:36 “Inside Wayne LaPierre’s Battle for the N.R.A.” (Danny Hakim, December 18, 2019, The New York Times Magazine)
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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in food writing.
James Beard Award-winning writer and Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
The Chef Who Can Teach Us a Thing or Two About Grit (Julia Bainbridge, Heated)
I tend to agree with most criticisms of using the first-person in profiles: Who cares about the writer? Why the throat-clearing about yourself? Who asked about you when I’m just trying to read about Rihanna? It takes a writer of real skill, and very little vanity, to pull off this first-person trick. I marvel at the way Julia Bainbridge gently, unobtrusively inserts herself into this Heated profile of chef Iliana Regan. In doing so, Bainbridge allows the reader to understand the subject in fuller, more generous terms.
There is a current of melancholy that runs through Bainbridge’s piece, pegged to the release of Regan’s National Book Award-longlisted memoir, Burn the Place; you get the sense that the writer understands her subject intimately. (I should note that Regan’s memoir inspired a number of very fine pieces, including those by Deborah Reid and Helen Rosner. Read those, too.) Certain details — the nervous tug of a sweater, the smell of cigarette smoke and beer wafting from a bar — could’ve read like strained flourishes in a lesser writer’s hands, but Bainbridge uses these observations sparingly, bringing Regan to life. She works carefully, sentence by sentence, with some turns of phrase that stop me dead in my tracks. “The alcohol is gone,” Bainbridge writes at one point, “but the -ism remains.” Bainbridge shows that the first-person, when deployed correctly, can showcase a profile writer’s empathy, not their ego.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in sports writing.
Senior writer at The Athletic.
The Unbreakable Bond (Mina Kimes, ESPN the Magazine)
A beautifully written, wrenching story from one of the best feature writers in America. It’s about football, sure, but it’s actually about a son and the mother who raised him — a mother who was blinded in her late 20s by a bucket of bleach mixed with lye. DeAndre Hopkins was 10 years old at the time. Mina Kimes’ brilliant prose tells an incredible story of resilience and love. It’ll stick with you for quite some time after: If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too.
Jackie MacMullan is the Great Chronicler of Basketball’s Golden Age (Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker)
This isn’t exactly a feature, but to label it simply a Q&A is to sell it short. It’s just a lovely, lovely interview with Jackie MacMullan, one of the all-time greats in sports journalism. Personally, I can’t imagine being a female sportswriter right now without someone like Jackie Mac to look up to, without someone like Jackie Mac paving the way. She opens up about her crazy career path and her issues with access journalism (preach!) in this day and age in the NBA. She also discussed the problems with writers being fans (again, preach!) openly. I loved all of it, and it’s worth sitting down to read. It’s not quite a feature, but you’ll feel you have a good read on the GOAT by the end. (Also, she references her relationship with Celtics great Red Auerbach … who is the person I named my dog after! Bonus points for that.)
2019 Sportsperson of the Year: Megan Rapinoe (Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated)
One of the best stories I read this year came in just under the wire, in SI’s Sportsperson of the Year issue in mid-December. Jenny Vrentas wrote a masterful piece on an athlete I thought I knew quite a bit about. But it became clear as I began reading this that there were layers to Megan Rapinoe I was totally unaware of, layers that made her even more intriguing both as an athlete and person. There’s a care and precision to the reporting and writing of this piece that comes through in each and every word. You can tell it’s important to Jenny that just the fourth unaccompanied woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year have her story told honestly and fairly. And she does just that.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in music writing.
Ericka Blount Danois
An award-winning journalist, writer, editor, and professor, Ericka Blount Danois has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vibe, Spin, The Washington Post, Wax Poetics, The Source, and Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2012. She is the author of Love, Peace, and Soul.
The Empire Strikes Back (Melissa A. Weber, Red Bull Music Academy)
Melissa A. Weber’s roller-coaster ride retrospective on George Clinton, P-Funk, Funkadelic, and various offshoots of everything funky is told with a musician’s attention to detail and a storyteller’s attention to drama. In the end, it’s Clinton’s otherworldly genius and cultural impact that can’t be denied.
How Isaac Hayes Changed Soul Music (Emily Lordi, The New Yorker)
In Emily Lordi’s insightful New Yorker feature, she illustrates how Hayes’s 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul was an exercise in Hayes commanding his own space — musically, sartorially, and physically. The album was both an act of resistance and healing during a time when Hayes was distraught over the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His insistence on being himself remade the record industry, with songs like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which ran for 18 minutes, and “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” which Lordi refers to as an “exercise in the refusal of fear and containment.”
NPR music’s critic and correspondent, previously The Los Angeles Times‘ chief pop music critic, Ann Powers is the author of Good Booty and Weird Like Us, co-author of Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, and co-editor, with Evelyn McDonnell, of the anthology Rock She Wrote
I’ve said it before: A golden age of music writing is scattering its fruits across the wild plains of the Internet. Music writing is a bastard form, journalistically unnecessary, literarily unstable, and so perfectly suitable to a virus-prone, hierarchically unstable intellectual epoch like our own. Trying to pick one or two great pieces from 2019, I fell into a vortex, revisiting instant classics, like The New York Times’ history-making investigative report about the Universal Studios fire that destroyed irreplaceable master recordings, and GQ’s powerful oral history of how sober musicians thrive creatively, and The Ringer’s illuminating trend piece about TikTok, and heartfelt stuff like this memoir in Texas Monthly. However, I had to make a choice. I started thinking about language itself. Music is language, and music encounters language; it conveys more than words can offer, but is also often bound up with them. These five pieces offer insight into this complex relationship.
I Believe I Can Lie (Kimberlé Crenshaw, The Baffler)
In the wake of the edifice-toppling documentary Surviving R. Kelly, law professor and intersectional theorist Crenshaw analyzes the lyrics to Kelly’s answer song, “I Admit,” as an example of the “SOB (Save Our Brotha”) rhetorical strategy also employed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when faced with accusations of sexual harassment.
The Poetic Consequences of K-Pop (Emily Yungmin Yoon, The Paris Review)
This deceptively modest memoir of being seen within the crowd of BTS fans speaks volumes about how pop can literally speak for its audience.
Who’s Billie Eilish? (Meaghan Garvey, The Fader)
On the surface, this appears to be just another profile of an up-and-coming pop star, but this recounting of time spent at home with the teenage oracle of Gen Z goes deeper. Author Meaghan Garvey really listens to her Eilish and her family, and she does the work of letting the singer’s words — in conversation, but also in her journals, which Garvey reads — change her perspective on her art.
A Secret Ingredient in Songs of Summer (Reggie Ugwu, The New York Times)
Over three years of listening, Ugwu identified a three-beat pattern (“boom-ch-boom-chk”) that always got him dancing: rhythm, the basic grammar of pop. This multimedia read follows it from Jamaica to Africa and the U.S., identifying an opportunistic cross-pollination, as he writes, that only benefits our playlists.
Arizona (John Edgar Wideman, The New Yorker)
Trying to find the linguistic key to a 1980s quiet storm classic by R&B lifer Freddie Jackson — “How do you offer a space with your voice that feels real enough for a listener to enter” — the 78-year-old novelist goes to a remarkably raw and poetic place in this piece of short fiction, as he contemplates pleasure, mortality, morality, and the imprisonment of his teenage son for murder the year after the song was released.
Michael A. Gonzales
The Blacklist book columnist for Catapult, cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written articles, essays, and reviews for publications including The Paris Review, Pitchfork, Wax Poetics, Mass Appeal, Complex, Longreads, and The Wire U.K.
How Isaac Hayes Changed Soul Music (Emily Lordi, The New Yorker)
While pop-cult fans know the late Stax Records singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes as the soundtrack innovator who delivered the 1972 classic “Theme from Shaft,” and the voice of the comical Chef on South Park, there was much more to him than funk and laughs. In Emily Lordi’s wonderful New Yorker feature “How Isaac Hayes Changed Soul Music,” she shows us a different side of bald-headed dude who was a friend of Martin Luther King and became very distraught when the civil rights leader was slain in 1968 within blocks of Stax. After mourning for months, Hayes put his anger and grief into making the 1969 psychedelic soul masterwork Hot Buttered Soul. Lordi’s essay presents a stellar portrait of a soul music modernizer.
For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway (Tari Ngangura, Catapult)
One of the coolest things about original essay sites like Catapult and Longreads are the abundance of music related pieces that double as personal essays. In August, writer Tari Ngangura, published her piece For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway, that began as a coming of age in 1999, the same year she bought and embraced Meshell Ndegeocello’s brilliant Bitter album. In the two decades since its release, the disc has served as a soundtrack and solace through various of Ngangura’s relationships. Her writing is poetic, probing and precise, and made this Bitter aficionado quite blissful.
The Ryan Adams Allegations Are the Tip of an Indie-Music Iceberg (Laura Snapes, The Guardian)
Two music stories from earlier this year are standouts to me. First is a piece by The Guardian’s deputy music editor Laura Snapes, published on Valentine’s Day. “The Ryan Adams Allegations Are The Tip Of An Indie-Music Iceberg” is not the most wieldy of titles, but the writing is crisp and incisive. Snapes speaks of a chronic indie rock condition, which reinforces and promotes misogyny even as it feigns enlightenment. “The industry has been slower to reckon with its abusers post-#MeToo than other art forms,” Snapes writes, “partly because it is built on a generally permissive culture of excess and blurred lines between work and leisure — but also because the myth of the unbridled male genius remains at its core.” Go read it. Practically every line is a pull quote.
Before & After ‘The B-52’s’ (Christopher Wiengarten, The New York Times)
On July 15, Christopher Wiengarten gave us an entire weekend’s worth of reading and listening, thanks to “Before & After ‘The B-52s’.” The Times has done this type of thing before, like with 2014s dazzling, multi-media longread “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie.” But this new one is pure Technicolor. I freely admit my own biases here ― not just because I’m helping the Bs write their first official biography — but because I’m a sucker for context, precedent, and insight. Wiengarten shows us, not just what might have been the musical parents for any given B-52s song, but what those songs subsequently inspired. Great music often leads to great music, and these stepping stones always lead to a life better-lived.
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Carlos A. Ball | an excerpt adapted from The Queering of Corporate America: How Big Business Went from LGBTQ Adversary to Ally | Beacon Press | 2019 | 23 minutes (6,272 words)
In the years following the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ rights supporters chose corporations as targets for activism. At the time, some corporations had explicit anti-LGBTQ policies and practices for everyone to see. In 1970, for example, a Los Angeles bank made clear in its job application forms that it would not hire alcoholics, drug users, or “homosexuals.” At around the same time, the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, the largest private employer in California, announced that it would not hire open “homosexuals,” because doing so would “disregard commonly accepted standards of conduct, morality, or life-styles.” Until 1978, the Coors Brewing Company routinely asked job applicants, while attached to lie detector machines, whether they had engaged in same-sex sexual conduct and denied them jobs if they had. (The company’s testers also inquired whether applicants were thieves or communists.)
One reason why post-Stonewall LGBTQ activism focused on large corporations was that the firms’ interests in promoting and protecting their brands made them particularly sensitive to the negative publicity that came with exposing discrimination. Large corporations spend millions of dollars every year developing and marketing their brands and are, as a result, highly sensitive to criticisms that might tarnish those brands. Interestingly, the need to protect corporate brands from negative publicity made companies more willing to change explicit anti-LGBTQ policies than government entities. Indeed, it was more likely, during the 1970s and into the 1980s, that a large corporation targeted by queer activists would cease explicitly discriminating against sexual minorities than, for example, a government agency would stop discriminating against queer people or, just as important, a state or local legislative body would adopt sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws. To enact such laws, queer activists had to persuade a majority of elected officials in a given jurisdiction to support adding sexual minorities to civil rights laws; outside of a few liberal municipalities, this was an extremely difficult task for the embryonic LGBTQ rights movement to accomplish in the years following Stonewall.
Additionally, the fact that corporate America had tens of thousands of LGBTQ employees (most of whom were, admittedly, firmly in the closet) made corporate workplaces obvious and natural targets of LGBTQ rights activism. Whether they knew it or not, corporate leaders and heterosexual co-employees were already working alongside sexual minorities and transgender individuals, in many cases developing the cooperative bonds, mutual trust, and even lasting friendships that the pursuit of common objectives, including corporate ones, frequently engenders. In this sense, LGBTQ individuals, as a group, were not outsiders and “strange others” to corporate America; instead, they were integral members of corporate workplaces. And many of them were likely to come out of the closet and share the joys and challenges of their personal lives with their fellow workers (as heterosexual employees did all the time) if they could be guaranteed a modicum of job security and protection against discrimination. Read more…
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in investigative reporting.
Long-form journalist and translator based in Mexico City.
Stories About My Brother (Prachi Gupta, Jezebel)
Gupta investigates her brother’s death with tenderness and intimacy, providing us with a rare glimpse into the way toxic masculinity affects men. She recounts childhood memories of her brother Yush and his evolving views on power and masculinity, which have been shaped by his family and his mostly white classmates and peers. As Gupta grows up, she embraces feminism, which her brother defines as a “female supremacy movement,” and from that point on, their relationship deteriorates. Gupta, haunted by her brother’s death, digs deep to push through the pain of mourning and discover the cause. When she interviews Yush’s friends, they reveal that he had deep-seated insecurities about his height which led him to seek out limb-lengthening surgery. Yush believed that being taller would make him richer and more successful. Instead, he died of a pulmonary embolism, one of the side risks of the limb-lengthening surgery. Gupta’s work is personal, revelatory, shocking and provides insight into an area where we need more work: the ways in which conventional ideas of masculinity and power harm men.
The Death and Life of Frankie Madrid (Valeria Fernández, California Sunday)
I am drawn to investigations that harness the power of one story to illuminate the situation of a whole group — in this case, the lives of young, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Fernández writes poetically about the death and life of Frankie Madrid, an undocumented teen who arrived in the U.S. with his mom when he was either 4 or 6 months old. Fernandéz begins the story with Frankie’s death — he committed suicide after being deported to Mexico — and then works her way back in time, investigating the cause of his suicide, his relationship with his mother and the difficulties of daily life while being undocumented. Via Frankie’s story, we begin to understand the pressures that undocumented kids face and to question the increasingly inhumane U.S. immigration policies and practices that played a role in his suicide.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profiles.
Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing about arts, pop culture, feminism, mental health, and why we should all be nicer to Lindsay Lohan has appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines. She is currently working on a book about the band Cub to be published by Invisible Publishing.
Celine Dion is Everywhere (Suzannah Showler, The Walrus)
Alanis Morissette Isn’t Angry Anymore (Rachel Syme, New York Times Magazine)
Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair (Jessica Hopper with Sasha Geffen and Jenn Pelly,Vanity Fair and Epic Magazine)
I didn’t set out to consciously have a theme for my picks, but these three stories all feature female musical pioneers from Celine Dion to Alanis Morissette to Sarah McLachlan. They are also all, like me, Canadian. Who knew I was so patriotic? These women have been mocked and misunderstood at many points in their careers so it is nice to see them celebrated in these great pieces. Today’s Taylors and Selenas could definitely learn a thing or two from them (these are serious #squadgoals to have, ladies).
“Celine Dion is Everywhere” by Suzannah Showler examines Celine Dion, the Celinassance, and why it took the world so long to catch on to Dion’s cool. The Canadian singer has released 12 studio albums in English (27 in total), sold over 200 million albums, and has been performing for over 39 years. While she’s always been known for her good pipes, being cool, well, not so much. Showler travels to Las Vegas to not only see the singer in concert during the final days of her Celine residency, but also to interview Celine Dion impersonators whose hearts went on for her long before the internet’s did. Showler tells the fascinating history of Dion, tracing the Canadian singer’s rise from Québec to her recent Las Vegas residency, something Showler credits Dion with making cool again (think less Barry Manilow and more Britney Spears). Dion’s first Vegas stint was the highest grossing concert residency ever, earning the equivalent of $610 million (Canadian), and her recent Vegas concerts were the second highest grossing residency. Showler makes the case that Celine has always been cool and along the way brings up questions of identity, impersonation, illusion, and just what it means to be a fan. Also, the story about the bronze replica of Dion’s husband’s hand will haunt your dreams.
In “Alanis Morissette Isn’t Angry Anymore. But Jagged Little Pill Rages On” writer Rachel Syme uses both the 25th anniversary of the album and its recent Broadway adaptation as an opportunity to talk about its influence and the Canadian singer’s place in pop culture. Syme takes us back to 1995 when the album was released and Morissette was both celebrated and criticized. She topped the charts, but male critics and journalists never trusted that she got there on her own talent. For some Jagged Little Pill is the most feminist album of the ’90s, for others it’s an album that may have resonated with them at a particular point in their lives, but now just seems dated and not actually that good (these people should have rain on their wedding day always).
Syme’s piece travels back and forth between the past and the present, telling both the history of the album and how the songs are being adapted by writer Diablo Cody for a modern theater-going audience. Syme reminds us of all the obstacles Morissette dealt with when Jagged Little Pill was released. Initially manufactured as the next mall sensation a la Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, this album changed all that. But the backlash was cruel and Morissette was portrayed by the media as the angry female singer, criticized by other female performers and mocked for what many perceived to be manufactured angst. A piece about authenticity and acceptance, Syme also reminds us of the important role Morissette has had in making it okay for women to write about the difficulties and struggles in their lives, and to play four different versions of themselves in a really great video.
My last pick is technically an oral history and not a long form piece of writing, but I can’t even imagine how many interviews this piece required so I am going to include it. Also, it is a fascinating read. “Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair” tells the story of Lilith Fair, the travelling music festival started by Canadian signer Sarah McLachlan in 1997. At a time when radio station staff and record label execs couldn’t wrap their sexist little brains around having more than one woman on their rosters (We already have Sheryl Crow, take a lady hike!), McLachlan launched an ambitious festival that eventually went on to make over 130 stops during its three-year run. Lilith Fair was the opposite of the popular dudecentric festivals of the mid-to-late ’90s where the line ups tended to be over 90 percent male performers (Ladapalooza, anyone?). This history chronicles the challenges of getting female performers and sponsors to sign on, the skeptics who doubted the festival could sell tickets, and the criticism over the festival’s lack of diversity. This is a great look at both the festival’s beginnings and the many performers who played on its stages. Fun fact: Christina Aguilera played the side stage in 1999. (I did not know that until this piece).
While these three pieces really stood out, I must also give an honourable mention to two others. There was no shortage of writing this year devoted to the HBO television show Succession. No more cousin Greg think pieces please, I beg of you. He is like the Park Coke of Succession characters for me. These two stories didn’t mention the words “prestige television” or make a 1500-word case for why Succession is the best show on television. Instead, they focussed on two things I hadn’t paid much attention to while watching the show: impressive sweater collections and food. Carrie Wittmer’s ranking of the best sweaters on Succession for Vulture was funnier than Kendall Roy’s rap (We were supposed to laugh at that, right?) and was also refreshing because it was a fashion piece about the show that didn’t focus on Shiv Roy’s butt in pants. Jenny G. Zhang’s ranking of the show’s dinners by food, ambiance, and power plays illustrates how meals for the Roy family function as “battlefields on which to negotiate power, money and daddy Logan’s love.” Less dusting off of your college copy of King Lear to sound smart when you write about Succession and more of these pieces in 2020 please!
Alexis Okeowo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.
The End of Straight (Gabriel Mac, GQ)
When Longreads asked me to recommend my favorite profile of this year, my mind immediately went to a piece I had read a couple of months prior that had left me devastated and hopeful for weeks afterward. And then I remembered that it actually isn’t a profile. “The End of Straight” in GQ magazine is a personal essay that, as its author Gabriel Mac, a trans man, wrote, began as a reported piece before he realized that the truth of it lay in his own experiences with the subject: gender and queerness and the performance of femininity. I opened the essay at the tail end of a summer in which I had been examining my own experiences of gender, and deciding that I was no longer satisfied with how I had settled for a limited expression of it. Mac is a fellow foreign correspondent, one who has covered similar conflict and human rights stories in an arena still dominated by men, and I was impressed with his honesty about his feelings over losing a certain kind of female-identified attractiveness and privilege. The essay is a startling and moving.meditation on what it can mean to reckon with trauma and fear of the unknown and finally choose yourself. For days and weeks after I read it, I texted friends the link to the essay with my exhilarated conclusion: it is never too late to radically change your life.
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.
Bong Joon-ho’s Dystopia Is Already Here (E. Alex Jung, Vulture)
If there were an award for best opening anecdote, this story would take it. It’s wild, guffaw-inducing, and impossible to forget. It also perfectly sets the tone and terms of E. Alex Jung’s profile of Bong Joon-Ho, director of the celebrated 2019 movie PARASITE. (If you haven’t seen it, run don’t walk.) Bong’s encounter with Harvey Weinstein’s bullying and small-mindedness is a portal into his identity as an artist: What matters to him, why, and how he brings it to bear on his films, all of which are scathing critiques of inequality, capitalism, and power. The rest of Jung’s incisive, rollicking profile situates Bong’s identity in contemporary culture as both vital and iconoclastic. Jung writes: “The hope in Bong’s movies often springs from this longing: to find a little patch of sunlight to call your own, if only for a moment.” The profile leaves readers wishing mightily for Bong to keep finding patches of his own, because the world is richer each time he does.
Danielle A. Jackson
Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.
At 82, Glenda Jackson Commands the Most Powerful Role in Theater (Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine)
I enjoy Parul Sehgal’s criticism, so much so that it would be more accurate to say I’m a student of it. The work of my favorite writers and critics has a generous, teaching spirit. Beyond offering context, it allows the reader to participate, to bring her own experiences to bear, to look on a subject anew. It teaches her how to look. Sehgal’s profile of actress Glenda Jackson on the occasion of a Broadway revival of King Lear appealed to me for its layers upon layers of study — on, among many things, aging, Shakespeare, Brexit, Britain’s intra-War years. Of course, it also works beautifully as character study, illuminating the subject with intricate details of her physicality as a performer, (“You could make a study of the movement of Jackson’s right hand alone,” Sehgal writes), and on the mood and tenor of the subject-reporter relationship. I was taken with the spaces of refusal, where Jackson draws borders around herself. Sehgal’s deft rendering of the words unsaid between the two reminded me how negative space is as essential to a portrait as its main image.
Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian-American writer. Her debut novel YOU EXIST TOO MUCH is forthcoming from Catapult in 2020.
Constance Wu’s Hollywood Destiny (Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker)
I haven’t stopped thinking about Jiayang Fan’s profile of Constance Wu since first I read it in September, along with the larger ideas about representation, assimilation and cross-cultural identity that percolate throughout the piece. Wu’s story is inspiring; she entered acting later in life and worked as a waitress with $40,000 of debt; at the same time, she seems an incredibly challenging person to render on the page, a woman who defies Hollywood norms (Fan describes her as “refreshingly uncircumspect for a celebrity”) and is full of contradictions. she’s a vocal critic of the lack of Asian representation in film and television yet resists the burden of being a representative, not out of a desire to resist stereotypes — “if someone just so happens to fall into stereotypical traits,” says Wu, “it doesn’t mean that we should try to take that part of her away and hide it from the light” — but because artists shouldn’t have to be role models. Her response to success has been rather unconventional; she laments Fresh Off the Boat being renewed for another season, and missing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. Fan brings Wu to life with impeccable physical details — “her face, smooth as the inside of a seashell,” as well as quotes that reveal her rebellious character, including the first one we get in the opening scene, when speaking to her makeup artist: “I feel like you’re making me too pretty.” In Fan’s sharp observations and her fresh and funny descriptions, she brings entire characters to life on the page, including Wu’s acting coach, who Fan describes as having “the soothing voice of a mindfulness-app guide.”
Fan interrupts the piece in delightful ways; at one point she describes an instance of Wu admonishing her for texting during the interview, then speaking directly to Fan’s phone “as if recording an audiobook.” Fan even manages to capture a few rare moments of vulnerability from her subject, observing that Wu speaks of herself in third person when describing her parents’ divorce. In describing Wu’s exploration of her Asian identity through her roles, Fan reflects on her own, seamlessly and quietly entering the piece in integral ways, like mentioning that she recognizes her own mother in Wu’s Fresh Off the Boat character, feels a connection to the “band of outsiders” in Hustlers, and remembers the many occasions of being accused of sounding white and labeled a “banana,” yellow on the outside and white inside. Throughout, Fan asks the question of whether it’s possible to achieve Americanness as a child of immigrants, and if assimilation is the prerequisite.
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We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in business writing.
Articles editor, The Washington Post Magazine
The State With the Highest Suicide Rate Desperately Needs Shrinks (Monte Reel, Bloomberg Businessweek)
This isn’t a traditional business piece — in the sense that it’s not a profile of a kooky founder or a growing industry, or an investigation into corporate wrongdoing, or a capitalist reckoning. It’s a wrenching read about what happens when a job market/industry (in this case, mental health) slowly folds in on itself while demand for that industry’s services and providers grows dramatically. Monte Reel’s profile of the one psychiatrist in eastern Montana (Joan “Mutt” Dickson, whose grit will stick with you) covers so many other pressing American problems: addiction, guns, depression, anxiety, burnout. Reel’s portrait of Dickson’s work — and his mastery of the background forces at play — is a grim-but-captivating look at what the dearth of mental health resources in the rural and mountain West means.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Craig Whitlock, Keren Blankfield, Ash Sanders, C.J. Hauser, and Brian Kevin.