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Professional writer, editor, napper, and dog-snorgler. Knows you are, but what is she?

Let the Unexpected Expand the Landscape of the Possible

Jia Tolentino and founder and Billie Whitehouse at The New Yorker TechFest in 2016, back when we were allowed to leave our homes and gather in large groups indoors. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

For Interview, Christopher Bollen talks with Jia Tolentino about the decade and a half that has been 2020: COVID-19, the capitalist death cult, melting permafrost, white supremacy, political protest, Danny DeVito. You know, the usual.

I hope ego death becomes a more commonplace experience. I hope the absence of stability and predictability revives our political imagination, helps more of us inhabit the original position when we consider the kind of world that would make us excited and proud to live in.

I always tend toward the idea that discomfort is productive—it is for me—but racial discomfort curdles if it remains centered on whiteness. I’ve wondered if the unproductive idea of colorblindness is shifting to an unproductive idea of white self-analysis. Like, I think there’s some portion of white people who are going from awkwardly saying “African-American” to awkwardly saying “BIPOC,” people who were “taught to treat everyone equally” and are now being taught to verbally negotiate their own whiteness better—but who are still enmeshed in white communities, their affective habits altered a little but their enacted priorities still the same.

I’m also suspicious of the way that Not Being Racist is a project that people seem to be approaching like boot camp. To deepen your understanding of race, of this country, should make you feel like the world is opening up, like you’re dissolving into the immensity of history and the present rather than being more uncomfortably visible to yourself. Reading more Black writers isn’t like taking medicine. People ought to seek out the genuine pleasure of decentering themselves, and read fiction and history alongside these popular anti-racist manuals, and not feel like they need to calibrate their precise degree of guilt and goodness all the time.

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Killer Mike Takes His Allies Where He Finds Them

Rapper Killer Mike, left, and State Representative La Shawn Ford listen as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a meeting with local activist and community members Monday, December 23, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

In 2018, Killer Mike sat down for an interview on NRATV, the former online broadcasting arm of the NRA. Perhaps predictably, the NRA took his quote on school walkouts and used it in a campaign against the March for Our Lives. He’s not sorry, though, and in a wide-ranging interview at GQ, Donovan X. Ramsey finds out why.

Still, the damage was done. Mike doesn’t apologize for sitting down with the NRA, however. He believes, at his core, that Black Americans should find allies wherever they can. “The greatest gift Atlanta has given me is to be able to judge people solely by the content of their character, because all my heroes and villains have always been Black,” he tells me. Mike repeats this a few times throughout the afternoon. He doesn’t say it about the NRA directly, but it speaks to how he measures allies and enemies. “You may start off with Professor X,” he says, “but Magneto got a fucking point.”

As we cruise around, I ask him if he plans on voting for Joe Biden in November. He demurs, asking me if Biden plans on signing H.R. 40, the bill that would establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for Black Americans, before launching into an impassioned monologue:

“I don’t give a shit if Joe Biden the person is moved to the left. I don’t give a shit about liking you or you liking me. What I give a shit about is if your policies are going to benefit me and my community in a way that will help us get a leg up in America. That’s it. Because we deserve a leg up, and I’m not ashamed to say it.

“We fucking deserve it. My great-grandmother, who taught me how to sew a button, was taught how to sew a button because her grandmother was enslaved. The daughter of a slave taught me and encouraged me to write, read, sew buttons, take care of myself. So why the fuck am I going to accept anything? I don’t give a fuck if you kneel in kente cloth. Give a shit. What have you got for me?”

It speaks to the philosophy that undergirds all of Killer Mike’s political ideas and positions. Before anything, Mike is a Black man from the American South who is deeply skeptical of how much a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal power structure built on the evils of capitalism will do to ensure his freedom. So he’s willing to embrace methodologies and tactics from across the political spectrum to see what works.

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A Beautiful and Brutal Truth

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 1: Douglas Briscoe, of Oakland, raises his fist from the sunroof of his father Doug Briscoe's SUV as thousands of protesters march down Broadway from Oakland Tech High School to Frank Ogawa Plaza during the fourth day of protests over George Floyd's death by the Minneapolis police in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Parenting young people who need you and think they’re smarter than you and love you and are embarrassed by you and who are filled with energy and whose lives are ruined on a biweekly basis is challenging in the best of times. None of us currently live in the best of times; Black Americans never have. In an essay in the New York Times Magazine — ultimately hopeful but profoundly heartbreaking — the always-excellent Carvell Wallace lets us deep inside his experience of being a Black man parenting Black teenagers in the United States.

I can think of nothing else to do but tell them the truth. “I’ve been seeing these videos my whole life,” I say. “You want to know what my trauma is? It’s this.” It is a sentence that feels reckless, sharp in my mouth. I don’t know why I say it. Maybe just because it’s true. I don’t know if they understand. I don’t know if I do. I only know that it is incredibly sad to admit to your children that you’ve been seeing videos of black men being killed since you were their age and that you haven’t been able to stop it. I only know that I have spent a long time avoiding loving myself so that if I am killed it won’t be that great a loss. I only know that it is hard to show them how to love everyone if you’re not even sure how to love yourself. I know that it is time to tell them the truths that I have been afraid to tell them until now.

They say nothing. The conversation doesn’t end until we’ve handled some logistics. I’m taking them to do laundry tomorrow. What’s our plan for Mother’s Day? Can I help my daughter with her math homework? Of course I can. They tell me they love me.

To be asked for life advice in one moment, and to be told you are a bad parent and have ruined your child’s life the next — this is what parenting is. It is a thing that you do alone, because your kids cannot and must not understand all of what you are living. It is terribly painful that my son thinks I have ruined his life. He’s not entirely wrong. I am a wildly imperfect parent. I have lost my temper, neglected his emotional needs, taken his normal childish behavior as a personal attack. I have made tremendous mistakes. Perhaps the biggest mistake was bringing him into a world where we all have to wear masks, where riot squads assemble in front of our minivan, where the climate is on a collision course with the destruction of the human race, where the encampments of houseless people grow larger and wilder every day, where he can watch himself be murdered over and over again just by clicking a link.

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‘Shots fired. Male on ground, bleeding out.’

BRUNSWICK, GA - MAY 07: American and Confederate flags fly at a residence in the Fancy Bluff neighborhood on May 7, 2020 where Ahmaud Arbery lived in Brunswick, Georgia. Arbery was shot and killed during a confrontation with an armed father and son in the nearby Satilla Shores neighborhood on Feb 23. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

There is nothing I can say about Mitchell S. Jackson‘s Runner’s World article-essay-history-elegy on Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery and the deep-seated racism of “jogging” in America other than: read it. Read it, and feel it, and then do something about it. “But I’m not a runner”? Doesn’t matter. As Jackson well knows and explains, sports are culture are people are us; we are a deeply racist country, which means sports are deeply racist, which means Maud became “fleeing Black criminal” instead getting to be “Black man out for a run.”

On February 23, 2020, a young man out for a run was lynched in Glynn County, Georgia.

His name was Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, called “Quez” by his beloveds and “Maud” by most others. And what I want you know about Maud is that he had a gift for impressions and a special knack for mimicking Martin Lawrence. What I want you to know about Maud is that he was fond of sweets and requested his mother’s fudge cake for the birthday parties he often shared with his big sister. What I want you to know about Maud is that he signed the cards he bought for his mother “Baby Boy.” What I want you to know about Maud is that he and his brother would don the helmets they used for go-carting and go heads-up on their trampoline, and that he never backed down from his big brother. What I want you to know about Maud is that he jammed his pinkie playing hoop in high school and instead of getting it treated like Jasmine advised, he let it heal on its own—forever crooked. What I want you know about Maud is that he didn’t like seeing his day-ones whining, that when they did, he’d chide, “Don’t cry about it, man. Do what you gotta do to handle your business.” What I want you to know about Maud is that Shenice told me he sometimes recorded their conversations so he could listen to her voice when they were apart. What you should know about Maud is that he adored his nephews Marcus III and Micah Arbery, that when they were colicky as babies, he’d take them for long walks in their stroller until they calmed. What you should know about Maud is that when a college friend asked Jasmine which parent she’d call first if ever in serious trouble, she said neither, that she’d call him. What I want you to know about Maud is that he was an avid connoisseur of the McChicken sandwich with cheese. What I want you know about Maud is that he and Keem were so close that the universe coerced each of them into breaking a foot on the same damn day in separate freak weight-room accidents, and that when they were getting treated in the trainer’s office, Maud joked about it. You should know that Maud dreamed of a career as an electrician and of owning a construction company. You should know that Maud gushed often of his desire to be a great husband and father. You should know that he told his boys that he wanted them all to buy a huge plot of land, build houses on it, and live in a gated community with their families. You should know that Maud never flew on a plane, but wanderlusted for trips to Jamaica, Japan, Africa. What you must know about Maud was that when Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan stalked and murdered him less than three months shy of his 26th birthday, he left behind his mother Wanda, his father Marcus Sr., his brother Buck, his sister Jasmine, his maternal grandmother Ella, his nephews, six uncles, 10 aunts, a host of cousins, all of whom are unimaginably, irrevocably, incontrovertibly, poorer from his absence.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was more than a viral video. He was more than a hashtag or a name on a list of tragic victims. He was more than an article or an essay or posthumous profile. He was more than a headline or an op-ed or a news package or the news cycle. He was more than a retweet or shared post. He, doubtless, was more than our likes or emoji tears or hearts or praying hands. He was more than an R.I.P. t-shirt or placard. He was more than an autopsy or a transcript or a police report or a live-streamed hearing. He, for damn sure, was more than the latest reason for your liberal white friend’s ephemeral outrage. He was more than a rally or a march. He was more than a symbol, more than a movement, more than a cause. He. Was. Loved.

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Godspeed Your Journey to the Great PlayPlace In the Sky

Ronald McDonald Balloon in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York City, New York (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Everyone needs a break now and then, to recoup the energy needed to fight the good fight.* If you need one, spend a few minutes of your day reading Liz Duck-Chong‘s essay on the demise of Ronald McDonald in Meanjin.

This narrative weaving became the primary role of Ronald, a clown fundamentally created to sell junk food to children and going on to break down the line between fiction and fact, his painted face promising to bypass the uncanny valley entirely. Not alone in his task, he was joined by a cast including fan favourites Grimace, The Hamburglar, and Birdie the Early Bird, but also The Happy Meal Gang, Mayor McCheese, Fry Kids, The Professor, Vulture and a character literally named ‘Iam Hungry’. For nearly 40 years this cast padded out McDonald’s’ worldwide ad campaigns, most famously in the fictional utopia McDonaldsland, and yet no-one quite worked magic like the king clown himself.

Unlike the denizens of greater McDonalds-land, and indeed the messy world of food mascots at large, Ronald’s position as salesperson, clown and (debatably) man, placed him in a league of his own. When Ruth Shalit talked to Anh Nguyen of General Mills about the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, he revealed ‘he’s not a salesman who tries to sell you the product. He’s more like your best friend. A friend who interacts with you to try the product.’ But with Ronald also holding a position of corporate authority, we are expected not only to know and love him, but also to trust him. It’s in this halfway state, simultaneously not human but more than just a corporate cipher that Ronald’s true power is recognised.

But times change.

As our communal tastes have changed from the days of plastic cheese and packet-mix milkshakes, so have our appetites for how they are sold to us. Once the love-language of a brand to its audience, the place of a modern mascot has never been less sure-footed. Brands of today no longer hope to speak to us through an external force, as our friends and companions, but instead directly to us, bypassing the need for an interpreter or idol entirely.

Our interactions with companies today aren’t just a search for a product, but a method and ideal of living as well; only money stands in the way of being granted access to a mode of being.

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* FYI white folks, we get fewer breaks.

If You Love the Music of the Carter Family, Thank Leslie Riddle

British singer and songwriter Yola (Yola Carter) performs at Afas Live, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 12th November 2019. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Mainstream country music isn’t overwhelmingly white because whiteness is innate to country music, it’s white because — just like any other overwhelmingly white system — it was purposefully constructed to be that way. In Rolling Stone, Elamin Abdelmahmoud digs into the history and talks to the Black artists who are breaking down those artificial constructs to redefine what country music is.

Ralph Peer was the beginning of the business of country music. Working for a struggling record company in the 1920s, the white record executive went to the American South with the sole purpose of finding competition for Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, a black woman. In the South, he was convinced to record Fiddlin’ John Carson, in what became recognized as the first commercial country-music recording, “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane.” Peer took credit for inventing something he called “hillbilly music” — what country was known as until after the Second World War.

But if that sounds a little too tidy, it is. Peer’s greatest contribution was as an innovator of the genre as a commercial tool: He found that by marketing hillbilly records to white audiences, and “race records” to black audiences, he could sell more records. It didn’t matter that what he found in the South were white and black musicians recording the same songs and playing the same music with the same instruments. It didn’t matter that the boundaries between genres didn’t exist. It didn’t matter that black musicians were teaching white musicians the art of the string band, and the white musicians were learning fast. For Peer, the label became the tool to sell the record. Then the sell became the story.

I mention one of country music’s foundational groups — the Carter Family, a Peer discovery. “Yes, but A.P. Carter didn’t know how to write music,” she says. “So who did he take with him to gather the songs? Lesley Riddle, who could take them to black churches.”

Riddle was instrumental to the success of the Carter Family, memorizing melodies while Carter transcribed lyrics. Today, the Carters are in the pantheon of country, but there’s a good chance the last paragraph was the first time you’ve heard Lesley Riddle’s name.

The image starts to come together pretty quickly. First, you exclude black people from the festivals. Then write them out by not recording them. And pretty soon, “you have this manufactured image of country music being white and being poor.”

“But when a narrative is that clean,” Giddens warns, “somebody wrote it.”

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Rout the Racism From Your Very Bones

We don't need to republish another image of a traumatized Black body or a posturing white policeman, so please enjoy this glorious dancer from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater instead. (Munich, Germany, 2014. Photo by Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images.)

Trauma lives in and impacts the physical body. So does hate and white supremacy. Theater director Sarah Bellamy has spent a lifetime observing bodies and how what’s inside manifests itself physically. In this excellent, impassioned essay at the Paris Review, she implores us to pay attention to the ways racism is expressed in even the smallest physical actions and reactions — actions and reactions that seem involuntary but can be deadly, and that can be understood, interrogated, and changed.

As a stage director I am trained to watch how people move and to interpret meaning—to read their bodies. As an American I am also trained to read bodies and see race. And, like looking through a pair of binoculars, these two lenses perfectly aligned in the moment after Ahmaud fell, magnifying the embodiment of white supremacy in his murderer. The way that man bore up. The way he turned and walked back to his truck, to his father, a shotgun slung low in his hand. It was in his shoulders, his jaw, his waist, his hips. I saw it come over him and I saw him stand up in it and move with it and, though he didn’t say the words, they were all over him: Take that, nigger. I realized I was watching thousands of white men throughout American history standing over a broken Black body, their breath ragged, adrenaline cresting, spent, feeling legitimated by the proof of their violence. It is more than a rash decision; their bodies betray an assumptive birthright. Their bodies firm up and swagger into a ritualistic circle of savagery. It is a possession.

White folks, you must dig into your embodied racism, even—especially—if you think it’s not there. And this is not just to shift what you say and how you shape your arguments, questions, Facebook posts, tweets. It’s not about performing your wokeness. This isn’t about what you say—it’s about how you act; how your body might be predisposed to rely on a racial inheritance that endangers the lives of others. What’s in your guts, in your muscles, in your blood? What are you carrying dormant in your body that springs up when confronted with Black joy, Black power, Black brilliance, Black Blackness in the world? How can you train your bodies to respond differently when you are triggered, when you’re in fight-or-flight mode? How can I help you stop yourselves from killing us?

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The PTSD of Everyday Life

Comedians Keith and Kenny Lucas met Kaizen Crossen in their Newark, New Jersey, housing project. He was their friend and their protector. They left Newark, he didn’t. They found career and financial success, he found guns and drugs, and eventually ended up in jail for murder. But in the end, they’re two sides of a coin: the mental and physical toll of life in a white supremacist state is unavoidable for Black Americans, even if it manifests differently for different people. In Vulture, the Lucas Brothers tell Crossen’s — and their — story.

It would appear that we and Kaizen were worlds apart as we sat on the manicured lawns at our college debating Kantian metaphysics with privileged students from all walks of life, while Kaizen braved the harsh winters of Newark in search of money for his growing family. On the inside, however, we all suffered from acute post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of growing up in a war-torn inner city. We were both exposed to violence, which had an insidious impact on our psychological health. According to the National Institutes of Health, “inner-city students that experience violence are more likely to be depressed, to contemplate suicide, and to abuse substances.” Our issues with depression, suicide, and substance abuse materialized during our time in law school, at Duke and NYU; Kaizen’s did on the streets of Newark.

We started recognizing the hypocritical, often absurd, duality of our legal system. Whites create, interpret, and enforce the law. Those who violate the law are deemed criminals — fair enough. Whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates. Yet somehow blacks are arrested at disproportionately higher rates for the use and distribution of drugs. How is that possible? It’s only possible if black criminality is embedded in the premise of our robust legal system. If “blackness” is the crime, then mass incarceration, generational poverty, segregation, and police brutality necessarily follow.

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Strong Writer-Editor Partnerships Create the Best Stories, As This Extended Bus Metaphor Will Prove

longreads member drive

Editors don’t make stories better because we’re pedantic about grammar and sentence structure (although we are) or because we’re better writers (we’re not) or because we have some kind of special insight into what people want to read (we wish). Editors make stories better because we free writers: to experiment, to push boundaries, to explore the limits of their topics. Editors give writers the support they need to take risks, and risks lead to more interesting, thought-provoking stories.

A good story takes you on a journey. Think of it like being on a bus tour. No, really; stay with me here.

The writer is the guide driving the tour bus, taking you past the key sights and using color commentary to explain how they’re linked and to give you context and insight. The reader — you — are sitting on the bus, sometimes listening closely, sometimes lost in thoughts inspired by the trip. And the editor is the person in the passenger seat, keeping track of the time, checking the map so we don’t miss any exits, turning on the A/C when the bus gets stuffy and off again when it gets too chilly, making a note of that interesting new building on the side of the road.

(In case you’re wondering, we’re on a double-decker bus here, because that’s obviously the most fun kind of bus.)

A good tour guide needs to be engaging and in-the-moment, or the tour’s boring. They need to describe things to the passengers in interesting and accessible and fresh ways, and make sure passengers get the detail necessary to understand what they’re seeing. That is, they need to be focused and present. But they can’t be focused if they’re thinking about whether their new anecdote is landing, or about whether a stop has gotten boring and should be removed from the tour. And they can’t be present if they have to worry about logistics — how to deal with a detour or how much gas is left or what that weird clanking noise is. They need someone in the passenger seat taking care of all that. That person — the editor — takes the notes that enable the tour guide to do their thing and helps them hone their delivery for the next group.

Tragically, most double-decker bus tours don’t have editors, so they’re rote and boring and the stops are in the wrong order. But Longreads stories do have editors, which is why Anne Thériault can have fun with the text message dialogues in her “Queens of Infamy” pieces — her editor has his eye on the overall shape of the story. It means Rachel Somerstein can lay her pain bare in “How to Survive a Vivisection,” because her editor is there to make sure that every detail is both checked and handled with the utmost care. It means writers can write, knowing that someone will tell them if a paragraph is unclear or a flight of fancy flutters a little too far, knowing that someone’s making sure facts get checked and typos get found, knowing that their blind spots will be IDed and their strongest ideas brought to the fore.

For the past two years or so, I’ve edited Soraya Roberts‘s culture columns for Longreads. Here’s a selection of the notes I’ve left on her drafts lo these past 24 months:

  • Obviously, we are a shitty country. But is it just us? Is this not a larger Western issue?
  • It feels like a significant gap in the piece to say that “I believe X” rather than laying out the why. It’s important to explain, not least because the simple statement is going to raise hackles and prevent people from engaging with your actual arguments, but also because then you can compare contrast U.S./French actions later on in the piece to really illustrate the ramifications of this understanding of #MeToo.
  • I think you need more of a segue into this quote, and then a little more unpacking; it’ll better set up the final section. I’d put a para break here and then flesh this out a little more.
  • YES.
  • Master’s house, master’s tools, why do we never listen to Audre Lorde.
  • Small potato? Pshaw. You’re at least a medium-sized potato, with a healthy blorp of sour cream.

The push and pull has (I think) resulted in some remarkable criticism from Soraya, and it’s helped me hone my own philosophies and politics, both as an editor and a human being. Supporting our writers like this is a gift. Every day, I get to ride new buses, see new places, hear new voices. I lend my support to every journey, and in turn learn things that I’ll be able to bring to the next trip I get to go on.

Every Longreads story is a partnership between a passionate writer and an equally passionate editor, and always will be. It’s how we best serve our writers and our readers. When writers have that support and freedom, they produce amazing work that we’re privileged to publish for you.

We can only keep doing this with your support. If I may stretch my already-exhausted metaphor: bus tours aren’t free, and neither is publishing the calibre of work we publish (and compensating writers fairly). We don’t put Longreads stories behind a paywall, but we do ask for your help.

Become a member, or give a one-time gift. Click the button. You know what to do.

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The Hate Is Coming From Inside the House

Image from Quote Catalog via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Body positivity, fat activism, intuitive eating: all of these things are meant, in part, to free us from the tyranny of diet culture. But if you’ve spent 50 years living your life according to the Gospel of Jenny Craig — each of those 50 in a world that doesn’t hate fat people any less — it’s hard to keep the self-love switch in the “on” position. In the New York Times, Sarah Miller takes a hard look at her relationship to her body and to body positivity.

I am not saying that no one has accepted her body, that it’s all a lie. I am just saying that I’m pretty sure we haven’t “arrived” anywhere. And why would we have? The material conditions of being a woman have not been altered in any dramatic way, and seem to be getting worse, for everyone. And while there is certainly more of what is called a “celebration” of different shapes, it is rare that those shapes are not proportioned in a fairly universally attractive way.

Even if by some miracle I were to accept being not thin, as I have many times — for five or 10 minutes or three whole days like when I finished Lindy West’s excellent memoir, “Shrill,” and naïvely thought I had finally been cured of my sickness — I would remain the sort of person destined for re-infection.

That person is always prepared for contempt from men who don’t find her physically attractive, and has been on high alert to general woman hatred since she was 4. (Honestly, I pity the women who are not.) At any rate, I’m 50 and I am way too scared of the world to stop dieting.

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