The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jessica Schulberg, Patrick Strickland, Shanna B. Tiayon, Sarah Berns, and Madeleine Aggeler.

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1. Kip Kinkel Is Ready to Talk

Jessica Schulberg | HuffPost | June 13, 2021 | 15,200 words

“At 15, he shot and killed his parents, two classmates at his school, and wounded 25 others. He’s been used as the reason to lock kids up for life ever since.”

2. ‘The Foot Soldiers’: A Neo-Nazi Skinhead Gang Terrorized Dallas in the Late 1980s

Patrick Strickland | Dallas Observer | June 9, 2021 | 6,624

“The racist white nationalist movement has deep roots. Some run directly back to Dallas and the violent Confederate Hammerskins.”

3. If We Can Soar: What Birmingham Roller Pigeons Offer the Men of South Central

Shanna B. Tiayon | Pipe Wrench | June 15, 2021 | 6,574 words

“But there’s a deeper story behind what the birds offered them then and still offer today, with men entering their fifth and sixth decade raising Birmingham Rollers. A why shaped by race, place, and gender. A why that traces the plight of Black men in the U.S., landing us squarely in the prevailing systems of inequality that still exist today.”

4. Love and the Burning West

Sarah Berns | Shondaland | June 9, 2021 | 1,667 words

“She nearly died while fighting a fire. All she could think about was the tragedy of dying while still a virgin.”

5. Benji Is One Down Dog

Madeleine Aggeler | Texas Monthly | June 2, 2021 | 1,900 words

The blue heeler “is one of the most famous canines in America, but he hasn’t let it go to his sweet, soft little head.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 06: Model Loulou Robert (L) and Roberto Eggs, President of Louis Vuitton North Europe, take part, along with Dumba (C), a female African elephant, in a ceremony to switch on and unveil the Christmas decorations by luxury brand Louis Vuitton for the Galeries Lafayette department store on November 6, 2012 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, and Paul Kiel, Arno Kopecky, Isaac Würmann, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, and Laura Spinney.

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1. The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax

Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, Paul Kiel | ProPublica | June 8, 2021 | 5,717 words

“ProPublica has obtained a vast cache of IRS information showing how billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett pay little in income tax compared to their massive wealth — sometimes, even nothing.”

2. Three Days in the Theater of Old-Growth Logging and Protest

Arno Kopecky | Hakai Magazine | June 1, 2021 | 6,100

“A drama 150 years in the making is playing out as logging companies and police clash with First Nations and protesters over one of British Columbia’s last remaining stands of unprotected old-growth forest.”

3. The Men in Apartment 4C

Isaac Würmann | Maisonneuve | May 11, 2021 | 5,738 words

“When Isaac Würmann’s relationship began to crumble, he started seeking out examples of queer love elsewhere. It turns out, he didn’t have to look far.”

4. La Cancion de la Nena

Vanessa Angélica Villarreal | Oxford American | June 1, 2021 | 6,937 words

“He sits on the edge of the bed to compose and work through songs, facing an amp, while I curl into his velvet-lined guitar case and listen…I have called up this memory so many times I feel the gauze of fiction starting to overlay its details. But it is a memory so dear, I reanimate it against the heaviness of the present—my father, full of promise and possibility, years before the shell he would become, now shut away in my childhood bedroom in the graying light of ever-closed blinds.”

5. The Elephant Vanishes: How a Circus Family Went on the Run

Laura Spinney | The Guardian | June 8, 2021 | 5,455 words

“Today, many circus elephants in Europe are reaching old age. Campaigners want them placed in specially built sanctuaries, where they can enjoy retirement with their own kind. But their owners insist that for the elephants, being separated from their human “families” would be traumatic.”

Nelly the Elephant Packed Her Trunk … and Went on the Run

Photo by Vyacheslav ProkofyevTASS via Getty Images

Yvonne and George Kludsky grew up as part of circus royalty – fourth- and sixth-generation circus performers respectively. In the big top heyday of the ’50s and ’60s, circus animals were viewed as exciting and glamorous. Things are now very different. Reduced to one elephant named Dumba, keeping her has meant that animal rights activists have been “making the family’s life hell.” So much so that in September 2020 they packed up Dumba, and disappeared. 

In this article for The Guardian, Laura Spinney follows the Kludskys to Spain, where they ended up with their elephant. Spinney shows compassion for both the Kludskys, as they navigate a world where they are no longer welcome, and for Dumba, who has spent most of her life living in a pen the size of two tennis courts. Spinney finds no easy answers as she delves into the complicated issue of whether an animal the Kludskys consider “a daughter” needs, in fact, to be rescued.

While Arnal considers people who make their living from performing animals unfit to look after them, William Kerwich, president of the French union representing animal trainers, insists no one is better qualified to care for an animal than the trainer who has known it all its life. He is deeply suspicious of the do-gooders who set up animal retirement homes paid for by donations from a public who, he suggests, have been duped into thinking that all circus folk are animal torturers. “If there were to be a ban – and we’re not there yet – it is out of the question that our animals should go to a sanctuary where there is no one competent to look after them,” he said. The union, Kerwich told me, was standing squarely behind Yvonne Kruse.

What ageing elephants need, says Scott Blais, is space, autonomy and the company of other elephants. Blais, who set up a sanctuary in Tennessee in 1995 and another in Brazil in 2016, keeps elephants in a setting as close as possible to conditions in the wild, and says previous owners who have returned to visit their old elephants often marvel at their transformation. It was at the Tennessee sanctuary that workers witnessed the extraordinary reunion of two former circus elephants, Shirley and Jenny, in 1999. The two had spent one season together at a circus when Jenny was a calf. After a separation of more than 20 years, they recognised each other and bent the steel bars of an elephant fence in their eagerness to get close to each other. They became inseparable, and for seven years, until Jenny died in 2006, their relationship was like that of mother and daughter.

Elephants have shown they can retain a bond with humans, too. Joyce Poole recalled her reunion with a wild African elephant after 12 years. When she called out to him, he recognised her voice, walked up to her car window, and “allowed her to touch him”, she said. Elephants also kill humans, in captivity and in their ever-shrinking natural habitat, but these numbers are tiny compared to the numbers of elephants killed by humans each year.

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‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’

Illustratration by Zoë van Dijk

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 115, “The Snitch,” by Jordan Michael Smith.

Jordan Michael Smith | The Atavist | May 2021 | 5 minutes (1,356 words)

 

CHAPTER 1

Carle Schlaff wanted more out of his job. As an FBI agent, he’d spent more than ten years working low-level drug cases in the bureau’s Denver office. He eventually moved up to investigating organized crime—only to be transferred to the violent-crimes squad and made the liaison to a low-security prison called Englewood, in Littleton, Colorado. It was the sort of job that was good for a rookie, not a veteran. “I was kinda pissed,” Schlaff said.

The Atavist is Longreads‘ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in long-form narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a magazine member.

Schlaff was 42, with two kids, an easy smile, and an unpretentious manner. He was the type of FBI agent who read crime novels in his spare time. He’d grown up watching Hawaii Five-0. He wanted to take down mob bosses, catch serial killers, expose international drug cartels.

In August 2002, Schlaff’s luck changed: He learned that a prisoner at Englewood named Scott Kimball knew about a murder plot. Schlaff and a colleague met with Kimball in a small interview room at the prison. Kimball was 36 at the time, a weathered, stocky man who wore a goatee and had a long scar in the center of his forehead. He shared a cell with Steve Ennis, a young drug dealer. Kimball claimed that Ennis had talked about recruiting someone to kill witnesses preparing to testify against him.

“I would be willing to do some undercover work for you guys,” Kimball told Schlaff and his colleague.

If the offer seemed blunt, it was because Kimball already knew how the FBI operated. After being arrested for check fraud in Alaska in 2001, he told authorities that his cellmate, Arnold Wesley Flowers, planned to order the murders of a federal judge and a prosecutor, along with a witness in the case against him. (Flowers was facing fraud charges of his own, according to court records.) The FBI worked with Kimball and an undercover agent to record Flowers organizing the hits with help from his girlfriend. In March 2002, the couple were charged with murder for hire, witness tampering, and attempting to murder federal officials.

There was more: Kimball told the FBI that another Alaska prisoner, Jeremiah Jones, had bragged about murdering Tom Wales, a prominent assistant U.S. attorney shot to death through a window of his Seattle home in October 2001. While it investigated the matter, out of concern for his safety, the FBI transferred Kimball to his native Colorado in April 2002. Now, at Englewood, it seemed that Kimball had yet more valuable intelligence to offer.

Before Schlaff went chasing Kimball’s story, though, he wanted to know what type of person he was dealing with. He didn’t mind so much if someone had committed nonviolent crimes, but he didn’t want to work with an informant who could be easily discredited. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Schlaff asked Kimball.

Kimball admitted that in addition to his crimes in Alaska, he’d committed fraud in Montana and served time there. He excelled at check forgery, Kimball said, but he wanted to go straight. It sounded plausible to Schlaff, who’d reviewed Kimball’s record—he didn’t have any convictions for violent crimes—and had checked for outstanding warrants.

Schlaff scribbled down on a notepad what Kimball told him. After leaving Englewood that day, he made contact with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which were both working the Ennis case. Kimball was soon reactivated as an informant, with Schlaff as his handler. Their goal was to foil the alleged murder plot, and charge Ennis for orchestrating it.

All the pieces were falling into place: This was exactly the kind of case Schlaff had been craving.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long. Incentivized by the promise of reduced sentences, better prison conditions, and financial compensation, criminal informants sometimes offer cops and prosecutors bad information, which can lead to wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. And too often, authorities treat informants as if their lives matter less than the work of law enforcement.

In recent years, there have been efforts to reform the way authorities handle informants. But back when Kimball started working with the FBI, there was less communication among law enforcement agencies and relatively minimal scrutiny of an informant’s history. It was easy to miss the kind of facts from a person’s past that might have made authorities think twice before using them as an informant.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long

Born in Boulder in 1966, Kimball was ten when his parents divorced, after his mother came out as gay. Around that time, according to Kimball and his brother, a neighbor began molesting them. Kimball told me the abuse continued until he was in his teens. The neighbor was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a minor. According to people who knew him as a young man, Kimball seemed haunted by his past. He once tried to end his life but only managed to wound himself—the source of the scar on his forehead.

By early adulthood, Kimball had a long rap sheet. In 1988, he received his first felony conviction for passing bad checks. In another instance, he was charged with running an illegal outfitting business in Montana, helping out-of-staters hunt elk, bear, moose, and deer. Kimball continued to commit nonviolent offenses, the kind that Schlaff later saw on his criminal record. There were other allegations against Kimball, far more unsettling ones, but due to a series of decisions made by law enforcement, finding them would have required some digging.

In June 1993, Kimball married a woman named Larissa Mineer. They moved to Spokane, Washington, and had two sons. Though they divorced in 1997, they maintained a relationship until December 1999, when, Mineer alleged, Kimball raped her at gunpoint. Kimball claimed he hadn’t harmed or threatened Mineer—according to a police report, he said that his ex was trying to sway a custody dispute over their sons in her favor. After Mineer failed a polygraph, the police decided not to file charges. (Polygraphs have been deemed unreliable by the American Psychological Association and the National Academy of Sciences, but law enforcement still use them to quickly ascertain whether someone might be telling the truth.)

In 2000, Kimball landed in prison in Montana, convicted of violating probation, which he’d been serving for a fraud offense. After a year in lockup, Kimball was transferred to a halfway house, but a month later he went on the lam. Mineer alleged that he came back to Washington, broke into her home, and then kidnapped and raped her. This time the Spokane police issued a warrant for his arrest. But when Kimball was picked up for fraud in Alaska in 2001, and then became an FBI informant, the kidnapping and assault charges went away. (The FBI said it did not request that local law enforcement drop the charges.)

As a result, when Schlaff looked up Kimball’s record, none of Mineer’s accusations were on it. The escape from the halfway house was there, but Schlaff wasn’t too worried about that—Kimball had been near the end of his sentence when he’d slipped away. Schlaff spoke to Colton Seale, an FBI special agent in Alaska, who said that Kimball had been helpful in the case against Flowers and his girlfriend. Seale, who is now retired from the FBI, told me that he has no memory of whether he knew about Kimball’s kidnapping and assault charges at the time.

At worst, Schlaff thought, he was working with a petty con artist. “He was a typical wise guy,” Schlaff told me. “He had an answer for everything.” But Kimball wasn’t a child molester or a murderer. He seemed like the type of informant who might be good before a jury.

The truth was something else entirely.

 

Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo shows the aftermath, at east corner of Greenwood Avenue and East Archer Street, of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, US, June 1921. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Victor Luckerson, Tristin Hopper, John Drescher, Steve Shorney, and Pamela Petro.

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1. The Women Who Preserved the Story of the Tulsa Race Massacre

Victor Luckerson | The New Yorker | May 28, 2021 | 2,882 words

“Today, the work done by Parrish in the nineteen-twenties and Gates in the nineteen-nineties forms the bedrock for books, documentaries, and a renewed reparations push that, a century after the massacre, is experiencing a groundswell of support.”

2. Why So Many Children Died at Indian Residential Schools

Tristin Hopper | The Vancouver Sun | May 29, 2021 | 1,700

“This week saw the discovery of something outside Kamloops, B.C., rarely seen in North America, much less in any corner of the developed world: Unmarked and previously forgotten graves, all belonging to children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.”

3. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism

John Drescher | The Assembly | May 30, 2021 | 3,00 words

“UNC-Chapel Hill’s largest journalism-school donor warned against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ hiring. Their divergent views represent a new front in the debate over objectivity and the future of the field.”

4. ‘I Took Part in the Psilocybin Trial and It Changed My Life’

Steve Shorney | The Independent | May 30, 2021 | 5,663 words

“I had seen an alternative reality, another way of being, and knew beyond anything I’d known before that day that life is extraordinary. And in that moment I felt happier, more alive, and more Me than I imagined was possible.”

5. Cooking Backwards

Pamela Petro | Guernica Magazine | May 24, 2021 | 4,044 words

“On becoming a kitchen archivist.”

Zoom Towns — Where Tourists Never Leave

Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

For many, the pandemic has meant barely shuffling from the kitchen to the sofa — but for some people, it’s been an opportunity to move their sofa to a completely different town. With many jobs shifting online, working from home via Zoom has meant no longer being tied to a particular place, so now, as Rachel Levin explains in her article for Outside, “you can work for Pinterest and ski powder.” This chance to “live the dream” in a mountain town has come with a downside — a culture clash. Those looking to move generally have cash — and are drawn to tourist towns occupied by locals making their money in hospitality. It’s a shift that has happened around the world, but in this interesting piece, Levin explores the situation in Lake Tahoe, which has seen a particularly big influx of new residents due to its proximity to the tech industry of San Francisco. So what happens when those who have money and those who don’t live side by side? Levin explores that question with a level head — looking at both sides of the picture.

Nina, a director at a Silicon Valley–based AI company who asked that only her first name be used, moved to the area in October, when she bought her first home just five minutes from Heavenly Ski Resort. She and her husband, newly married thirtysomethings, say they may not be experts at mountain life, but they’re eager to learn. (YouTube has been helpful, she says—it’s where they learned how to rake pine needles.) When she’s not working, Nina is snowboarding with women she met on local Facebook groups. She’s in heaven.

But like other newcomers, she and her husband have sensed a little resentment. She recalls the time a check-out woman at a grocery store in Stateline, Nevada, gave her and her husband one look and said, “Oh, you’re not going to last a winter.” She admits to skirting around the fact that they moved during the pandemic in casual conversations with locals. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not the bad tech people,’” she says. Another source told me, “There’s a lot of negative feelings about people like us.” Most Bay Area transplants I spoke with similarly requested anonymity, and many more declined to be interviewed. (So did many longtime locals. “Sorry, it’s a touchy subject,” one told me.) The newcomers just want to quietly slip in and fit in. 

Not everyone has that option, though. If you’re not white, like 82 percent of people in Truckee, you stand out, says Grace (not her real name), who is Korean-American and moved into her longtime second home last spring before the boom. Being Asian American “is like a big ‘Bay Area’ sign pointing at my head,” she says. She was disgusted by the “Kung flu” comments and other casually racist quips she saw on Facebook and deeply disturbed by the time she was fake sneezed on at the Safeway. She and her family moved back to San Francisco full-time by the fall: “I needed to be with my people,” she says.

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‘Every Single Person Migrating Has a Story’: Caitlin Dwyer on the Emotional Underlayers of Family Separation

Photos and artwork courtesy of Wafa Almaktari. Illustration by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

For couples and families separated by borders, financial circumstances, and national policies beyond their control, their relationships remain in limbo. As people spend months and often many years physically apart — not knowing when or if they’ll see their loved ones again — love can take on a new shape: It might evolve into pain, or defiance, or patience.

Caitlin Dwyer

“Perhaps a cross-border relationship is less about cathartic reunion than the slow, patient intention to help someone else find joy,” Caitlin Dwyer writes in “The State of Waiting,” her new Longreads essay about a Yemeni couple — and their long-haul love — in the shadow of war and immigration policy.

Dwyer, a writer in Portland, Oregon, produces and hosts Many Roads to Here, a podcast on migration and identity in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the U.S. tell their own stories. I last worked with Dwyer in 2019 on a story called “Shared Breath,” in which she beautifully explored the intimate, unique connections between organ recipients and donor families.

In “The State of Waiting,” she brings this same empathy and care to the relationship between Wafa, a young Yemeni woman in Portland, and her husband Moutaz, who lives in Sana’a, Wafa’s hometown (and the largest city in Yemen). I asked Dwyer about her reporting and writing process for this story, which we published last week.

* * *

I love that this isn’t the usual piece on U.S. immigration. Can you talk more about your approach?

I think so many pieces on immigration feel abstract. Immigration articles often talk about people sort of en masse, reporting on a caravan from Central America or a trend in migration. It’s not that those big picture stories are wrong, but they feel impersonal. So much of our conversation in this country around immigration revolves around policy, and politics, that it’s easy to forget that every single person migrating has a story. People are only abstract when seen from this very wide lens — and seeing people as trends or abstractions or representations of policy dehumanizes them. I wanted in this piece to really focus on one story, a close-up on the emotional impacts of family separation. It’s impossible to dehumanize someone or put them in a political box when you’re hearing about their wedding and all the giddiness of young love. We can all relate to that.

Read stories from other Longreads writers, like Alice Driver and Gabriel Thompson, who also approach the topics of migration and immigration with care.

What drew you to Wafa, the main subject in your story?

It’s impossible to dehumanize someone or put them in a political box when you’re hearing about their wedding and all the giddiness of young love.

Originally I was going to interview Wafa for an entirely different project. I volunteer with a group called The Immigrant Story and she was going to be our first foray into podcasting; the executive director set up a meeting for us to chat. The podcast (which never happened) was just going to be about her immigration story. We met in a classroom at Portland State University, and she was really hesitant at first. I think she wanted to figure out what my intentions were. But a couple of minutes in, she mentioned this secret boyfriend back in Yemen, and her demeanor totally changed. She couldn’t stop talking about him. Her face lit up, her gestures got more expansive. I realized he was the story. We spent the next two hours talking about their relationship. I got all the juicy details of their first dates, her wedding planning … I thought we were going to be talking about serious issues, and instead we’re talking wedding cake and makeup artists — but with this very serious and unavoidable overlayer of civil war. It surprised me, and I realized how many stories about immigration are just framed as tragedies, without the tenderness and hope of real life. Wafa had this great vivacity and excitement for the normal stuff of young romance, and the horribleness of her situation didn’t negate her love. The two coexisted. That really interested me.

As I got to know her, I realized what a remarkable person Wafa is. She’s this bold, brassy sort of person, presents herself as very sassy and unafraid, but she has this deep well of vulnerability because of all that she’s gone through. And she loves to talk, which made my job easier.

What challenges did you face during your reporting?

I realized how many stories about immigration are just framed as tragedies, without the tenderness and hope of real life.

Communicating with folks in a war zone was definitely the most difficult part. Wafa has gone to Yemen twice during the reporting. The first time I met her, she was a senior in college; she flew back to Yemen after we met and I didn’t hear from her for a year. When she came back to Oregon we finally reconnected, but then she flew to Yemen again for another six months. The internet connections are very unreliable there, and it was often hard to communicate with her and Moutaz (her husband). I think also when they are together, they (understandably) just want to focus on surviving and on each other and not worry about some random writer back in the U.S. — so I just had these large gaps where I didn’t know what was going on with them, and then I had to catch up later.

It’s also hard to verify information about Yemen, other than through large official sources like the U.N. At this point, there isn’t a lot of on-the-ground reporting in English on the conflict. I was lucky enough to get in touch with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, which studies and writes on policy and conflict in the region. They really helped with finding the contextual resources I needed.

This essay, like your last piece for us that explored how donated organs affect a person’s sense of self, is meditative in parts: You pause to reflect on larger themes that emerge from the story. How did the shape of this piece come about?

I’m interested in slowness. That’s a weird thing to say, perhaps, but the pace of a story — writing it, reading it, thinking it through — really matters to me.

What interests me more is what the facts cohere into, what webbing and connections they create: the emotional and psychological underlayers.

When I went to journalism school, I was really frustrated by the restrictiveness of news writing. On deadline, we couldn’t really do storytelling that got deeply into human emotion and descriptive scene-making. It was just facts. I respect traditional journalism, but in my own writing, I always wanted to slow down and take a second look at every article. Situations always seemed so much more complex and nuanced than could be covered in a quick feature. I think maybe I just fear getting things wrong, and I know that if I slow down, I have a better chance of not messing up. I worry about leaving out some essential angle. This is true in my daily life, too — I’m always the friend who asks, but what about this factor, doesn’t that make it more complicated? I’m sure it’s annoying sometimes, but I can’t help it.

That tendency comes from a real respect for the people I’m writing about. I want to honor their stories, and if I rush, I’m possibly going to miss something. (I’m not trying to malign traditional journalism here, only to own my own capabilities and weaknesses). My personality is that of an observer. I’m kind of shy, so I’ve learned to get a lot of information by watching and listening. I don’t jump in and ask a million questions. I pay attention. I’m comfortable with long silences — because people jump in to fill them, and you get a lot of really interesting material that way. But that method takes time.

When I’m writing a piece like “The State of Waiting,” I can see right away that the facts alone are pretty dramatic and make a good story: long-distance love, war, separation. Boom. What interests me more is what the facts cohere into, what webbing and connections they create: the emotional and psychological underlayers. That larger, more interesting story for me emerges as I write. Sometimes I figure that underlayer out by writing these more meditative sections; as I write them, they help me make sense of the facts.

That’s one way past politics and dehumanization, and toward empathy, it seems to me.

The meditations also help me check myself, to make sure I’m not off-base with my assumptions and biases. In this piece that was really important to me, as a white American writing about Muslim immigrants. I was constantly questioning the narrative in my head and asking, where is this story coming from? I wanted the emotional and thematic content to emerge from Wafa and Moutaz, not from some preconceived notions I’d developed in my head about them. The meditations function almost like a break: They slow me down, help me work through the material and examine my assumptions.

If the writing ends up decent, and the section helps the reader to do the same thing — slow down, sink into their assumptions, make an emotional connection to the story — I keep those sections. I want the reading experience to be slow-ish, too, because my goal in writing these pieces is to tell a full human story. That can’t be done at top speed. We don’t feel a lot when we rush. Again, it comes back to complexity and nuance. Immigration stories — actually, all stories — are complicated and messy. If we go slow, pause, reflect, we have a chance to go beyond what we were sure was true at the start. We get to revise our thinking as we read. That’s one way past politics and dehumanization, and toward empathy, it seems to me.

Seeing real change from a shift in immigration policy is a slow process. But has the Biden administration given Wafa and Moutaz any more hope? From the stories you’ve told through your podcast, how do you think people cope with the uncertainty, with this state of waiting, for an indefinite length of time?

I do think Wafa and Moutaz feel more hope now. With the travel ban lifted, there is a chance that Moutaz’s application can move through the system, though I believe it’s pretty backlogged right now after the pause on visa processing for four years. More simply there’s just a shift in rhetoric. We had an administration that didn’t speak well of immigrant communities and tried to deter immigration; that was part of their policy agenda. Now we have an administration whose rhetoric is different, and the language coming from the top levels of government has a profound effect not only on policy, but on people’s hopes and actions. If there’s a chance that Moutaz’s application can move, they’re willing to wait. If there’s no hope, well, you start to look for other options, because you can’t just sit still forever and hope the nations of the world align with your personal family plans. You have to act to protect the people you love.

If there’s no hope, well, you start to look for other options, because you can’t just sit still forever and hope the nations of the world align with your personal family plans.

I think uncertainty is pretty devastating. The world just went through a pandemic year of profound uncertainty, and look what it did to everyone. We’re a mess, mentally. Uncertainty generally is a difficult place to live, and so you have to find ways to cope. For some people, that’s finding other ways to ground yourself and make things feel less unstable (that’s Moutaz). That might mean choosing to ignore situations that scare or further unsettle us, the way he endures daily scares like bombings and armed militia and sort of shrugs it off. For other people, it’s finding ways to take action and change the situation, even in small ways (that’s Wafa). At least then you feel like you’re doing something, you aren’t passive and helpless amid these huge circumstances.

I think the uncertainty of living across a border can be devastating especially for children. I didn’t write about that situation, but adults can find coping mechanisms; kids really suffer from the state of waiting. They need comfort and care now, not later. My Buddhist tradition would tell me we can all learn to live with uncertainty, to accept it as a fundamental truth of life, but that’s asking a lot of folks who are living apart from their kids.

We can hear Wafa talk in short audio interludes throughout the piece. Can you tell us more about this additional layer in the story? In general, how do you approach storytelling as both a writer and podcaster?

There’s something really powerful about hearing the person’s real voice, unmediated. The podcast I work on (and I should add that Many Roads to Here is a fully collaborative effort with many skilled producers; I’m just one of a team) uses first-person storytelling, so I am intrigued generally by the personal oral narrative. Whenever I write, I automatically filter the story -— pick certain details, put them in a certain order, leave out other details — and I think that hearing the person tell their own story is a wonderful counterpoint to that filter. Multimedia storytelling is also just a great way to keep people’s interest online, especially in a long story (which this one is). You can read, then pause and listen, and read again. The audio offers a break and also adds another voice beside mine to the storytelling, so it’s more of a collaborative effort.

Recording was a delight, because it happened just as Wafa and I had both received the second shot of our COVID-19 vaccines, so we could record in person. We left the windows open in her house (that’s why you can hear traffic in the background) for additional ventilation, but it was the first time I’d seen her in person in a long time. I had asked her to pull out objects that really mattered to her and Moutaz, and she had these amazing stories behind each object that enriched my understanding of their relationship, and of her relationship with Yemen and her culture as she becomes an American.


 
In both podcasting and writing, I try hard to let the storytelling emerge organically from the conversations I’m having with the person. I might arrive at an interview believing I’m there for a particular story, and learn halfway through that this person wants to tell a different story. Sometimes it’s good to let that person just talk, and just be a good listener. What are they really trying to say? What emotions or fears or passions underlie their storytelling or have brought this particular narrative to the forefront, where they’re willing to talk about it with a stranger? I may end up telling the story differently from them, but I always try to honor their intentions in telling it. I’m also pretty transparent with people about the themes and big ideas I’m getting into. Sometimes I check in and say, hey, I’m thinking this story is about the sacrifices we make for love. I asked Wafa that, actually, and she totally agreed, so I knew I was on the right track. 

At the same time, I know that I’m bringing artistry and craft to the table to assemble all these pieces skillfully. Whether that’s cutting audio or writing scenes, I’m always aware that I’m reassembling pieces in a way that appeals to an audience and makes a (hopefully) delightful listening or reading experience. So there’s a certain amount of artifice that automatically goes along with that. I try to balance my responsibility toward my subject with my responsibility to my audience, and that comes down to the craft elements of editing and selecting and cutting. In other words, I think storytelling is a super ethical endeavor. You can’t enter into telling other people’s stories without considering your own self, your tendencies, your biases, and being kind of unrelenting in your self-scrutiny.
 

Read “The State of Waiting”

Even the Steam Had a Shadow

Natasha Pulley | The Kingdoms | May 2021 | 1516 words (6 minutes)

***

1
Londres, 1898 (ninety-three years after Trafalgar)

Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.

He stepped down off the train. That was it, the very first thing he remembered, but the second was something less straightforward. It was the slow, eerie feeling that everything was doing just what it should be, minding its own business, but that at the same time, it was all wrong.

It was early in the morning, and cursedly cold. Vapour hissed on the black engine right above him. Because the platform was only a couple of inches above the tracks, the double pistons of the wheels were level with his waist. He was so close he could hear the water boiling above the furnace. He stepped well away, feeling tight with the certainty it was about to lurch forward.

The train had just come in. The platform was full of people looking slow and stiff from the journey, all moving towards the concourse. The sweet carbon smell of coal smoke was everywhere. Because it was only just light outside, the round lamps of the station gave everything a pale glow, and cast long, hazy shadows; even the steam had a shadow, a shy devil trying to decide whether to be solid or not.

Joe had no idea what he was doing there.

He waited, because railway stations were internationally the same and they were a logical place to get confused, if there was ever a logical place. But nothing came. He couldn’t remember coming here, or going anywhere. He looked down at himself. With a writhe of horror, he found he couldn’t even remember getting dressed. His clothes were unfamiliar. A heavy coat lined with tartan. A plain waistcoat with interesting buttons, stamped with laurel patterns.

Most people have trouble recalling their first memory, because they have to stretch for it, like trying to touch their toes; but Joe didn’t. This was because it was a memory formed a week after his forty-third birthday.

A sign on the wall said that this was platform three. Behind him on the train, a conductor was going along the carriages, saying the same thing again and again, quiet and respectful, because he was having to wake people up in first class.

‘Londres Gare du Roi, all change please, Londres Gare du Roi …’

Joe wondered why the hell the train company was giving London station names in French, and then wondered helplessly why he’d wondered. All the London station names were French. Everyone knew that.

Someone touched his arm and asked in English if he was all right. It made him jump so badly that he twanged the nerve in the back of his skull. White pain shot down his neck.

‘Sorry – could you tell me where we are?’ he asked, and heard how ridiculous it sounded.

The man didn’t seem to think it was extraordinary to find an amnesiac at a railway station. ‘London,’ he said. ‘The Gare du Roi.’

Joe wasn’t sure why he’d been hoping for something other than what he’d heard the conductor say. He swallowed and looked away. The steam was clearing. There were signs everywhere; for the Colonial Library, the Musée Britannique, the Métro. There was a board not far away that said the Desmoulins line was closed because of the drilling below, and beyond that, elaborate iron gates that led out into the fog.

‘Definitely …

London in England?’ he asked eventually.

‘It is,’ the man said.

‘Oh,’ said Joe.

The train breathed steam again and made the man into a ghost. Through all the bubbling panic, Joe thought he must have been a doctor, because he still didn’t seem surprised. ‘What’s your name?’ the man asked. Either he had a young voice, or he looked older than he was.

‘Joe.’ He had to reach for it, but he did know; that was a thump of a relief. ‘Tournier.’

‘Do you know where you live?’

‘No,’ he said, feeling like he might collapse.

‘Let’s get you to a hospital then,’ the man said.

So the man paid for a cab. Joe expected him to leave it at that, but he came too and said there was no reason why not, since he wasn’t busy. A thousand times in the following months, Joe tried to remember what the man had looked like. He couldn’t, even though he spent the whole cab ride opposite him; all he remembered later was that the man had sat without leaning back, and that something about him seemed foreign, even though he spoke English in the hard straight way that old people did, the belligerent ones who’d always refused to learn French and scowled at you if you tried to call them monsieur.

It was maddening, that little but total failure of observation, because he took in everything else perfectly. The cab was a new one, all fresh leather and smelling of polish that was still waxy to touch. Later, he could even remember how steam had risen from the backs of the horses, and the creak of the wheel springs when they moved from the cobbles outside the station to the smoother-paved way down Rue Euston.

But not the man. It was as though the forgetfulness wasn’t so much an absence of memory, but a shroud that clung to him.

It was as though the forgetfulness wasn’t so much an absence of memory, but a shroud that clung to him.

The road looked familiar and not. Whenever they came to a corner Joe thought he knew, there was a different shop there to the one he’d expected, or no building at all. Other cabs clopped past. Brown fog pawed at the shop windows. The sky was grey. In the background, he wondered if the man wasn’t being kind at all but taking advantage of things somehow, but he couldn’t think what for.

Not far away, monster towers pumped fumes into that gun-metal sky. They were spidered about with gantries and chutes, and in the flues, tiny flames burned. On the side of an enormous silo, he could just make out BLAST FURNACE 5 stamped in white letters in French. Joe swallowed. He knew exactly what they were – steelworks – but at the same time, they filled him with the dream-sense of wrongness that the Métro signs at the station had done. He shut his eyes and tried to chase down what he knew. Steelworks; yes, London was famous for that, that was what London was for. Seven blast furnaces up around Farringdon and Clerkenwell, hauling steel out to the whole Republic. If you bought a postcard of London, it always looked amazing, because of that towering tangle of pipework and coal chutes and chimneys in the middle of it. It was a square mile that had turned everything black with soot: the ruin of St Paul’s, the leaning old buildings round Chancery Lane, everything. That was why London was the Black City.

But all that might as well have come from an encyclopaedia. He didn’t know how he knew it. He didn’t remember walking in those black streets or around the steelworks, or any of it.

‘Did you get off the same train as me?’ he asked the man, hoping that if he focused on one particular thing, he might feel less sick.

‘Yes. It came from Glasgow. We were in the same carriage.’

The man had a clipped way of talking, but his whole body was full of compassion. He looked like he was stopping himself leaning forward and taking Joe’s hands. Joe was glad about that. He would have burst into tears.

He couldn’t remember being on the train. The man tried to tell him things that had been memorable, like the funny snootiness of the conductor and the way the fold-down beds tried to eat you if you didn’t push them down properly, but none of it was there. He confirmed that Joe hadn’t fallen or bumped anything, just started to look disorientated early this morning. It was nine o’clock now.

Joe had to let his head bow. He’d never been scared like it. He opened the window, just to inhale properly. Everything smelled of soot. That was familiar, at least. On the pavements, droves of men in black coats and black hats poured from the iron gates of the Métro stations. They all looked the same. The cab stopped for a minute or so, waiting at a railway crossing. The train was a coal cargo, chuntering towards the steelworks. The whistle howled as the driver tried to scare off some kids on the line; there were ten or twelve, foraging for the bits of coal that fell off the carriages.

‘You’ll be all right,’ the man said quietly. It was the last thing he said; while Joe was seeing the doctor, he vanished. None of the nurses had seen him go, or seen him at all, and Joe started to think he had got himself to the hospital alone, and that the man had been a benign hallucination.

***

Excerpted from Natasha Pulley’s novel The Kingdoms, published by Bloomsbury.

‘The City Just Lied’: Remembering the 1921 Tulsa Massacre

Greenwood Cultural Center

This Memorial Day marks the centennial of one of the worst instances of racist violence in U.S. history. On May 31, 1921, white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, launched a campaign of terror in Greenwood, a prosperous African-American neighborhood nicknamed “Black Wall Street.” The spark of the violence was ugly, and all too familiar: the lie that a white woman had been assaulted by a Black man. It was perpetuated by a local paper, the Tulsa Tribune, which published a story with the headline — or, really, the instruction — “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.”

When the dust settled, hundreds of Black residents had been killed. White rioters had looted Black businesses and destroyed Black homes. More than 30 blocks of Tulsa had been reduced to smoldering ruins. As is so often the case in a country where white power structures determine official history, the event soon slid into obscurity. For many decades, when it was recalled at all, it was referred to as a “race riot.” In truth, what happened was a massacre.

The centennial has occasioned widespread coverage of the massacre, much of it excellent. In The New Yorker, writer Victor Luckerson profiles two women who were committed to telling the full story of the violence when it seemed like no one else was:

As the centennial of the race massacre approaches, a raft of documentaries, along with a new thirty-million-dollar museum, are poised to make the story of Greenwood more widely known—and financially lucrative—than it has ever been. But the Black Tulsans who preserved the community’s history risk being forgotten, particularly the women who did the foundational heavy lifting. It’s not just Parrish—Eddie Faye Gates, an Oklahoma native and longtime Tulsa educator, continued Parrish’s work by interviewing massacre survivors more than seventy years later, recording their perspectives in books and video testimonials.

History lessons draw power from their perceived objective authority, but if you drill to the core of almost any narrative you will find a conversation between an interviewer and a subject. In Greenwood, Black women such as Parrish and Gates were the ones having those conversations. Now descendants of both women are working to insure that their legacies are recognized. “She was a Black woman in a patriarchal, racist society, and I think bringing all those elements together tells you exactly how she’s been erased,” Anneliese Bruner, a great-granddaughter of Parrish, said. “It’s convenient to use her work, but not to magnify and amplify her person.”

Luckerson himself is a dedicated chronicler of overlooked Black history: He is working on a book about Greenwood, and he publishes a newsletter, “Run It Back,” that documents his research findings.

In The New York Times Magazine, author Caleb Gayle, a Black Tulsa native, connects past to present, describing how the struggle for racial justice in his city continues. Recently, the last survivors of the 1921 massacre testified before a House subcommittee alongside Tiffany Crutcher, whose twin brother, Terence, was shot and killed in 2016 by Tulsa police:

She had started with hopes that justice would follow her brother’s killing. But it was in the dashing of those hopes that, Crutcher says, her “journey to justice” began. “We in Tulsa, Okla., aren’t going to sit by and say, ‘It is what it is,’” she said at one of the news conferences. The very narrative Crutcher has committed herself to undoing — one that says Black people are inherently bad people — is one that goes back a hundred years in her hometown, when one part of the community destroyed another part of the community, a place whose prosperity and potential belonged to, but was taken from, her ancestors.

Gayle’s article is part of a larger package about the Tulsa massacre, produced by The New York Times. Other components include an infographic revealing the extent of physical damage done during the event, and a visual feature about the excavation of victims’ gravesites.

For more on the centennial, here’s complete coverage from Tulsa World, a local newspaper.

The Lies Told to Speak to a Princess

Photo by Mathieu Polak/Sygma/ Sygma via Getty Images

It was 26 years ago, but I vividly remember the night Princess Diana gave an interview to BBC journalist Martin Bashir. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it — after my parents deemed it a “historical moment.” So I, along with 23 million other Brits (probably not all in paw print pajamas), watched, aghast, as a wide-eyed Princess Diana gave her first-hand account of the soap opera that had been played out in the British tabloid press — the breakdown of her marriage. 

As a child, I never considered how Martin Bashir managed to obtain an interview with arguably the most famous woman in the world. Now the truth has come out, and it’s ugly. This article by John Ware candidly documents how Bashir gained access to Princess Diana through deception and false documents. It’s a disturbing story, and this particular account of it is written by a journalist with direct insight, with Ware also having worked at BBC Panorama — the program that aired the 1995 interview. Published by the BBC themselves, whether as an act of contrition or an attempt at redemption, the piece explores their failings —  ones that led to a “ticking time bomb about public trust” that has “now detonated.”

Asked by Gardam why he had compiled the graphics in the first place, Bashir said it was simply to record and file the information – an implausible reason for getting a graphic designer to work all night, paying him £250 of licence fee payers’ money and getting the documents couriered to Heathrow, when jotting down the details in his notebook would have sufficed.

Nonetheless, however improbable this may seem today, Diana’s letter appears to have reassured management. “All could now relax for Christmas,” said Suter at the time. “We had had a scare, but we had got through it.” But for Earl Spencer, the letter doesn’t exonerate the BBC. “Diana is dealing from a position of having been lied to. She didn’t know that the whole obtaining of the interview was based on a series of falsehoods that led to her being vulnerable to this,” he told me.

However, if management thought that was the end of it, they were mistaken. On 21 March, the Mail on Sunday told Spencer they were investigating how Martin Bashir had been introduced to his sister and secured his scoop interview. In order to convince Spencer of his credentials, the newspaper alleged that Bashir had shown him bogus security service documents about bugging phones at Kensington Palace. Clearly the Mail were on to something, but were wrong about the content of the documents.

Distrustful of the tabloid press, Spencer called the BBC to find out more. Spencer was put on to Hewlett and told him he had introduced Bashir to Diana “on 19 September on the back of extremely serious allegations he had made, against various newspapers, named journalists, named senior figures at St James’s Palace, and unnamed figures in the secret service.”

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