Denis Diderot’s incarceration at Vincennes took place exactly halfway through his seventy years on earth. Prison became the dramatic pause that gave shape and meaning to both sides of his life. Before prison, Diderot had been a journeyman translator, the editor of an unpublished encyclopedia, and a relatively unknown author of clandestine works of heterodoxy; on the day that he walked out of Vincennes, he was forever branded as one of the most dangerous evangelists of freethinking and atheism in the country.
During Diderot’s three-month imprisonment, his jailer the Count d’Argenson and the count’s brother the marquis had looked on with amusement while this “insolent” philosophe had bowed and scraped before the authority of the state. In a diary entry from October 1749, the marquis related with glee how his brother the count had supposedly broken Diderot’s will. Solitary confinement and the prospect of a cold winter had succeeded where the police’s warnings had failed; in the end, the once-cheeky writer had not only begged for forgiveness, but his “weak mind,” “damaged imagination,” and “senseless brilliance” had been subdued. Diderot’s days as a writer of “entertaining but amoral books,” it seemed, were over. Read more…
When I walked into the neurologist’s office in 2013 with C., it should have been apparent that something was very wrong with me. I struggled to keep open my eyes, not because of exhaustion but because of the weakness of my muscles. If you lifted my arm, it would immediately flop back down again as though boneless. My body frequently broke out into inexplicable sweats and chills. On top of all that, I had been experiencing delusions for approximately ten months that year. My psychiatrist suspected anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, made famous by Susannah Cahalan’s memoir, Brain on Fire: My Months of Madness, but that did not explain everything that was wrong with me, including the peripheral neuropathy that attacked my hands and feet, my “idiopathic fainting,” or the extreme weight loss that caused suspicions of cancer—and so I was referred to this neurologist, who was described by my psychiatrist as “smart” and “good in her field.”
“I don’t think you have anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, based on your chart,” she said brusquely while C. and I sat in matching chairs that faced her examination table. “I’m doing this as a favor to your psychiatrist.” And then she added, “Someday, we’ll be able to trace all mental illnesses to autoimmune disorders. But we’re not there yet.”
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I had never been prior to 2017, my friend and fellow writer Porochista insisted that we visit the pilgrimage site of Chimayó. “You’ll be able to write something amazing about it,” she said. We were in the IV room of an integrative healthcare clinic when she said this, facing each other in enormous leather chairs with oxygen tubes in our noses and IV needles taped to our veins.
“Hey guys,” reads the email that has just popped up in my inbox, “Benoit is a little hungry so can we meet at Samurai Mama around the corner from Eclectic Collectibles first?” I’m in Williamsburg; it’s a Sunday afternoon in August, the weekend before the start of the US Open. I am supposed to be shopping with the professional French tennis player Benoit Paire, age 29, currently ranked 52 in the world by the ATP. He is interested in showing me who he really is—off the court, no tennis talk—and we have agreed to meet at a vintage taxidermy boutique because Paire, when not traveling around the world for work 10 months out of the year, has an apartment in Geneva he still needs to decorate. Read more…
My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.
It was an afternoon in June, the day before her first birthday. I perched on the shelter’s threadbare love seat, holding up an old digital camera to capture her first steps. Mia’s tangled hair and thinly striped onesie contrasted with the determination in her brown eyes as she flexed and curled her toes for balance. From behind the camera, I took in the folds of her ankles, the rolls of her thighs, and the roundness of her belly. She babbled as she made her way toward me, barefoot across the tiled floor. Years of dirt were etched into that floor. As hard as I scrubbed, I could never get it clean.
It was the final week of our ninety-day stay in a cabin unit on the north side of town, allotted by the housing authority for those without a home. Next, we’d move into transitional housing—an old, run-down apartment complex with cement floors that doubled as a halfway house. However temporary, I had done my best to make the cabin a home for my daughter. I’d placed a yellow sheet over the love seat not only to warm the looming white walls and gray floors, but to offer something bright and cheerful during a dark time.
What follows is the prologue to David Treuer’s new book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, in which he explains what drove him to write it. That book is the one referenced throughout.
This book tells the story of what Indians in the United States have been up to in the 128 years that have elapsed since the 1890 massacre of at least 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota: what we’ve done, what’s happened to us, what our lives have been like.* It is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than Indian death. That we even have lives — that Indians have been living in, have been shaped by, and in turn have shaped the modern world — is news to most people. The usual story told about us — or rather, about “the Indian” — is one of diminution and death, beginning in untrammeled freedom and communion with the earth and ending on reservations, which are seen as nothing more than basins of perpetual suffering. Wounded Knee has come to stand in for much of that history. In the American imagination and, as a result, in the written record, the massacre at Wounded Knee almost overnight assumed a significance far beyond the sheer number of lives lost. It became a touchstone of Indian suffering, a benchmark of American brutality, and a symbol of the end of Indian life, the end of the frontier, and the beginning of modern America. Wounded Knee, in other words, stands for an end, and a beginning.
What were the actual circumstances of this event that has taken on so much symbolic weight? Read more…
The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.
For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter using hashtag #Longreads. It’s a nightly thing: Before sitting down to write (currently working on a spec screenplay — an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma set in suburbs of Mumbai), I look around for a story, read it, then share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether I am able to write something or not.
Starting with David Gates’s “Texas” from The New Yorker, to Laura Adamczyk’s “Too Much a Child” from Lit Hub, I posted 288 stories in 2018. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most, in random order: Read more…
What becometh a woman best, and first of all? Silence. What second? Silence. What third? Silence. What fourth? Silence. Yea, if a man should aske me till Domes daie I would still crie silence, silence.
—Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560
For women, silence within the world of judicial punishment has its own complex history. It’s less recorded than that of men, and fragmented. Details must be teased out of obscurity and can be distorted by what is absent. Often, there are more questions than answers for punishment that amounts to silencing on top of silence, since women have long been expected to govern their tongue.
In colonial America this presumption of silence was reinforced by women’s subordinate place in society, and bolstered by centuries of English common law. No woman had the right to vote and once she married — in an age when most women married — she became subject to the law of coverture, which meant that she not only became dependent on her husband but, as William Blackstone in his eighteenth-century work, Commentaries on the Laws of England, explains: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing, and is therefore called in our law — French, a femme covert… under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture.” Read more…
Chris Power | A story from the collection Mothers | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | January 2019 | 25 minutes (5,051 words)
Several months ago, while travelling in Sweden, I experienced something I have given up trying to explain. In fact, since it happened I have tried to push it as far from my mind as possible. But yesterday afternoon, searching for an errant set of keys, I found, nestled deep in a coat pocket, an acorn that I plucked from its cap in the forest beneath the fortress of Stenshuvud. Then it was smooth and green, but now it is tawny, and ribbed like a little barrel. You wouldn’t know it was the same acorn I picked on a whim, but holding it I felt again the compulsion that propelled me, at the end of that strange day, into the burial chamber at Haväng.
It was the end of September. I was attending a three-day conference in Lund. It finished early on a Friday afternoon, and with the weekend ahead of me, and nothing to hurry back to London for, I elected to stay. My colleagues recommended some sites – Iron and Stone Age, neither era of particular interest to me, but I thought why not. The only one I had heard of was Ale’s Stones, Sweden’s Stonehenge, built on a clifftop above the Baltic in the shape of a great ship.
I had presented a paper at the conference, ‘Digging Deeper: On the Aetiology of Archaeological Belief.’ It was good work, and I was excited about the presentation, but the few people who turned up lacked the ability to grasp even the simplest of the points I was making. It was a blessing when it was all over and I could leave Lund. I needed some time away from people.