The Longreads Blog

Less Work, More Friends, No Consequences

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On our October 11, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Head of Audience Catherine Cusick, Editor-in-Chief Mike Dang, and Essays Editor Sari Botton share what they’ve been reading.

This week, the editors discuss recent stories in The Atlantic, The Cut, and HuffPost.


Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.


0:51 Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore. (Judith Shulevitz, November 2019, The Atlantic)

9:21 Ronan Farrow Depicts a Chilling Cover-up at NBC. (Rebecca Traister, October 11, 2019, The Cut)

11:06 One Night at Mount Sinai. (Lisa Miller, October 15, 2019, The Cut)

16:16 The ‘Glass Floor’ Is Keeping America’s Richest Idiots At The Top. (Michael Hobbes, October 13, 2019, HuffPost)

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo illustration by Omar Marques / SOPA Images via Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Brett Forrest, Lizzie Presser, Ahmet Altan, Lisa Miller, and James K. Williamson.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

Breaking the Family Silence on Alcoholism

Photo by Ozgur Donmaz / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Alicia Lutes | Longreads | October 2019 | 18 minutes (4,426 words)

I remember turning around, but I don’t remember why. It was sometime in 1996 or 1997; maybe 1995? I was small, sitting on the couch in our living room, probably watching a cartoon on the comically large television my father had insisted upon, when something moved me to turn around. When I did, I saw my mother, her rapidly shrinking frame surrounded by the rays of a setting sun, her wafer-thinness outlined in fiery gold, a woman on fire. I watched her through the back porch as she cried on the phone, studying the slight way she swayed, how her emotions physically moved her, and how despite her lessening weight, her body moved so forcefully, the white wine in her glass twinkling in the near-twilight — but never spilling — as she moved. She slugged gulps between sobs and unremembered utterances to who-even-knows. It was tragic and beautiful, the way wine made her anorexic form seem to languish in the misery around her.

It also made her mean.
Read more…

1000 Days of Trump

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

It’s been 1000 days.

I doubt the definitive retrospective on this presidency and administration will ever exist. No one book or story, no matter how long, will be able to cover this kaleidoscopic history — let alone its fallout — in its entirety.

Three months after Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, we shared a collection of longreads from Trump’s first 100 days in office in an attempt to capture a cross-section of some of the early, often breathless stories that came out of that hectic period of adjustment (and refusals to adjust). The month after, we looked back even further, examining his war with the past.

Here are some of the longreads from Trump’s first 1000 days that Longreads editors and contributors chose as some of the best political writing of each year, as well as all the stories about the presidency and the administration that headed up our Top 5 Longreads of the Week emails since Trump’s inauguration.

1. Donald Trump: He Was Made in America (Kirsten West Savali, The Root)

The question is not “Where did Donald Trump come from?” It’s “Where have our so-called allies been?” It is not “Why is he resonating with so many people?” Rather, it’s “How could he not?”

But we already know the answer to that.

“I don’t trust any journalist in the world more that Kirsten West Savali,” Kiese Laymon wrote in 2016, when he picked this story as one of the best political analyses of that year. Written eight months before the election, Laymon singled this piece out for making it clear “to any one willing to listen what this nation was going to do on November 2” — and for anticipating so many clear answers to questions that are somehow still being asked years later.

2. The First White President (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic)

“Few writers have done more to expose the racist truth of the Trump presidency than Ta-Nehisi Coates,” Longreads Founder Mark Armstrong wrote while highlighting this excerpt from We Were Eight Years in Power as some of the best political writing of 2017:

Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

While reading one of its most iconic passages, Longreads editor and writer Danielle Jackson shares how this segment from Coates’ excerpt echoes James Baldwin’s commentary in the 1964 documentary Take This Hammer, on “the creation of a class of pariahs in America.”

3. The Loneliness of Donald Trump (Rebecca Solnit, LitHub)

The opposite of people who drag you down isn’t people who build you up and butter you up. It’s equals who are generous but keep you accountable, true mirrors who reflect back who you are and what you are doing.

Solnit’s Grimm fairy tale was one of our No. 1 story picks for 2017. For another poetic retrospective, read Brit Bennett’s essay on “Trump Time” in Vogue:

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

4. Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway (Michael Kruse, Politico)

He said he was going to bring back the steel mills.

“You’re never going to get those steel mills back,” she said.

“But he said he was going to,” I said.

“Yeah, but how’s he going to bring them back?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s what he said, last year, and people voted for him because of it.”

“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”

He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a shit, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.”

He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.

And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.”

“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”

Chris Smith, author of The Daily Show (The Book), contributor to Vanity Fair, and contributing editor at New York Magazine picked Kruse’s story as one of Longreads’ Best of 2017. Longreads Editor in Chief Mike Dang also selected it as an editor’s pick, alongside Adam Davidson’s New Yorker story,Donald Trump’s Worst Deal.”

5. I Walked From Selma To Montgomery (Rahawa Haile, BuzzFeed)

Rahawa Haile’s story on hiking the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail was one of our No. 1 stories for 2018:

On Feb. 9, 2017, 20 days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence as attorney general. The travesty of that sentence, the sinister potential of it more than a year later, fuels my anxiety still. It is the reason why, mere months after returning from the Appalachian Trail, I emailed my father on Feb. 22, 2017, to see if he might be interested in meeting me in Alabama for a thru-hike of sorts. I wanted to walk from Selma to Montgomery — following in the footsteps of the civil rights marchers who had come before me — to protest Jeff Sessions’ entire political career, specifically his most recent and wildly dangerous appointment as the head of the Department of Justice. […] I traveled to Selma, Alabama, because I had to, because no other walk on Earth made sense to me, or my rage, at a time when walking was the only activity for which my despair made a small hollow. And fam, let’s be clear — I did it for us.

6. How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump (Jane Mayer, The New Yorker)

Jane Mayer has written several blockbuster stories on the Trump administration, including this year’s “Fox & Friends” and 2017’s “The Danger of President Pence.” Here was another of our No. 1 stories for 2018:

Jamieson said that, as an academic, she hoped that the public would challenge her arguments. Yet she expressed confidence that unbiased readers would accept her conclusion that it is not just plausible that Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 election—it is “likely that it did.” […]

Her case is based on a growing body of knowledge about the electronic warfare waged by Russian trolls and hackers—whom she terms “discourse saboteurs”—and on five decades’ worth of academic studies about what kinds of persuasion can influence voters, and under what circumstances. Democracies around the world, she told me, have begun to realize that subverting an election doesn’t require tampering with voting machines. Extensive studies of past campaigns, Jamieson said, have demonstrated that “you can affect people, who then change their decision, and that alters the outcome.” She continued, “I’m not arguing that Russians pulled the voting levers. I’m arguing that they persuaded enough people to either vote a certain way or not vote at all.”

7. Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father (Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and David Barstow, The New York Times)

Last year’s ground-breaking investigation into the potentially illegal financial schemes, tax evasions, and grandiose lies employed by the Trump family was one of our No. 1 stories for 2018.

President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud, that greatly increased the fortune he received from his parents, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

Mr. Trump won the presidency proclaiming himself a self-made billionaire, and he has long insisted that his father, the legendary New York City builder Fred C. Trump, provided almost no financial help.

But The Times’s investigation, based on a vast trove of confidential tax returns and financial records, reveals that Mr. Trump received the equivalent today of at least $413 million from his father’s real estate empire, starting when he was a toddler and continuing to this day.

Much of this money came to Mr. Trump because he helped his parents dodge taxes.

8. Hideous Men (E. Jean Carroll, The Cut)

E. Jean Carroll’s excerpt from her memoir, What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal was one of this year’s No. 1 stories:

Which brings me to the other rich boy. Before I discuss him, I must mention that there are two great handicaps to telling you what happened to me in Bergdorf’s: (a) The man I will be talking about denies it, as he has denied accusations of sexual misconduct made by at least 15 credible women, namely, Jessica Leeds, Kristin Anderson, Jill Harth, Cathy Heller, Temple Taggart McDowell, Karena Virginia, Melinda McGillivray, Rachel Crooks, Natasha Stoynoff, Jessica Drake, Ninni Laaksonen, Summer Zervos, Juliet Huddy, Alva Johnson, and Cassandra Searles. (Here’s what the White House said:  “This is a completely false and unrealistic story surfacing 25 years after allegedly taking place and was created simply to make the President look bad.”) And (b) I run the risk of making him more popular by revealing what he did.

Further listening: The Daily covers this story in “Corroborating E. Jean Carroll,” which Longreads editors discuss on an episode of the Longreads Podcast, “All Things Being Unequal.”

Working To Live Often Means Giving Up Your Life

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The gig economy and operations like Amazon and Uber demand flexible schedules and constant availability, including weekends, which destroys much opportunity for a set schedule outside of work. In the traditional work force, high salary positions often require long hours and porous boundaries, dissolving the barrier between work and life and eating up the off-time that once contained a social life. Workers pay the price: without schedules that overlap with friends and family, people don’t socialize as much, see their kids, or spouses, or ever relax, and this all takes a heavy toll on society. For The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz examines the many social costs of America’s work-life problem, and what she calls the cult of busyness.

When so many people have long or unreliable work hours, or worse, long and unreliable work hours, the effects ripple far and wide. Families pay the steepest price. Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.

It’s an enlightening but depressing piece, but essential if we are to survive what we have either opted into, or had imposed on us by the job market. Shulevitz compares this American paradigm to the failed Soviet experiment called nepreryvka, meaning the “continuous workweek.”

What makes the changing cadences of labor most nepreryvka-like, however, is that they divide us not just at the micro level, within families and friend groups, but at the macro level, as a polity. Staggered and marathon work hours arguably make the nation materially richer—economists debate the point—but they certainly deprive us of what the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described as a “cultural asset of importance”: an “atmosphere of entire community repose.”

I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity, and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.

As for the children, they’re not off building forts; they’re padding their college applications with extracurricular activities or playing organized sports. A soccer game ought to impose an ethos of not working on a parent, and offer a chance to chat with neighbors and friends. Lately, however, I’ve been seeing more adults checking their email on the sidelines.

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The Reality of Being Sick and Alone

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Diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, Anne Boyer writes a searingly honest piece in The Guardian about the brutal nature of chemotherapy — a potential cure that is so poisonous it can destroy eyesight, speech, and memory. A treatment that also bears huge financial costs and a hidden environmental impact.

Someone once said that choosing chemotherapy is like choosing to jump off a building when someone is holding a gun to your head. You jump out of fear of death, or at least a fear of the painful and ugly version of death that is cancer, or you jump from a desire to live, even if that life will be for the rest of its duration a painful one.

My problem is that I wanted to live millions of dollars’ worth but could never then or now answer why I deserved the extravagance of this existence, why I consented to allow the marketplace to use as its bounty all of my profitable troubles. How many books, to pay back the world for my still existing, would I have to write?

Unceremoniously tipped out of the hospital and left to face the consequences of treatment, Boyer also confronts what cancer means if you don’t have a traditional family unit to offer you care.

It should be no surprise that single women with breast cancer, even adjusting for age, race and income, die of it at up to twice the rate of the married. The death rate gets higher if you are single and poor.

If you are loved outside the enclosure of family, the law doesn’t care how deeply – even with all the unofficialised love in the world enfolding you, if you need to be cared for by others, it must be in stolen slivers of time. As Cara and I sat in the skylit beige of the conference room waiting for the surgeon to arrive, Cara gave me the switchblade she carried in her purse so that I could hold on to it under the table. After all of those theatrical prerequisites, what the surgeon said was what we already knew: I had at least one cancerous tumour, 3.8cm, in my left breast. I handed Cara back her knife damp with sweat. She then went back to work.

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‘I Was Interested in the People Who Are Stuck With These Memories.’

Graffiti on a wall in South Central Los Angeles, 1992. (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)

Victoria Namkung | Longreads | October 2019 | 16 minutes (4,240 words)

On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins went to a local convenience store in South Los Angeles to buy a bottle of orange juice. Owner Soon Ja Du accused the teenage girl of shoplifting, an altercation ensued, and in a split-second captured on video, Du shot Harlins in the back of the head. She died with two dollars in her hand. A jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but against their recommendation, the judge sentenced the Korean-born woman to a $500 fine, probation, and community service.

Harlins’ murder, which occurred two weeks after the beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, was a major contributing factor to the city’s 1992 uprising—LA’s deadliest year—which resulted in 63 deaths, thousands of injuries, and more than 800 million in material losses. By the end of the unrest, known as Saigu among Koreans, rioters had looted, set fire, and damaged more than 2,200 Korean-owned businesses.

Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, based on the murder of Harlins, is an empathetic and nuanced portrayal of two southern California families forever connected by violence and tragedy. Set in present-day Los Angeles, the novel is centered on Korean American Grace Park, a naïve and dutiful daughter who lives and works in the Valley with her secret-keeping parents, and Shawn Matthews, an African American ex-con whose sister was murdered by a Korean grocery store owner.

A new shocking crime sends the Parks and Matthews on a collision course to face their shared history against the backdrop of an already tense city on the cusp of more racial violence. Taut and razor-sharp, Your House Will Pay masterfully examines themes of racism, revenge, incarceration, grief, shame, injustice, and social movements. Read more…

Unearthing the Story: An Interview with Peter Hessler

Penguin Press

In the fall of 2011, Peter Hessler arrived in Egypt, with his family — twin toddlers, and his wife, the writer Leslie Chang. The two had met in China, where Hessler first landed as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, details his two years teaching English. Two other books, Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China and Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory, followed. After leaving China in 2007, the family settled in southwestern Colorado, where they are now based. A few years later, they decided to wipe the slate clean and move to Egypt. But just as they planning their move, the Egyptian Arab Spring started, sending the country down the chaotic path it has followed until today.

Hessler’s latest book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, chronicles both the revolution itself, and the lives of the people they met during their five years in Cairo. It’s a deep look at what is, in some ways, the oldest country in the world, and it bears the hallmarks of Hessler’s work: vivid scenes, elegant narrative arcs, and a long lens that examines the links and gaps between Egypt’s troubled present and its ancient past.

Today, Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He won a National Magazine Award for his 2007 National Geographic story, “Instant Cities,” and in 2006, Oracle Bones was a National Book Award finalist. In 2011 he was named a MacArthur Fellow. After leaving Egypt, his family returned to Colorado again, before decamping this year for another stint in China, where Hessler plans to teach at Sichuan University, 20 years after he first taught at Fuling Teachers College. Frank Bures spoke to him about the value of language, learning from John McPhee, and what your garbage man can teach you.

***

Frank Bures: You built your career writing about China, but how did you start writing in the first place?

Peter Hessler: My first interest was in 10th grade. I had an English teacher in high school who thought that I had some talent at it, and encouraged me. She was the one who made me think seriously about becoming a writer. That was one of the reasons I ended up at Princeton, because they had a good creative writing program. I was encouraged there by Russell Banks, who was my teacher and a thesis advisor, and also John McPhee.

I originally was interested in fiction. I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication. Later, after I took McPhee’s class, I started doing a little freelancing. In grad school overseas I started shifting towards nonfiction, partly because I couldn’t sell short stories. It was hard to publish them, whereas I could publish my travel pieces and essays and get paid for them, and that was encouraging. But I was still unsure when I joined the Peace Corps at age 27. I’d published a lot of travel pieces, but I’d never held a job in journalism, and the kind of stuff I published wasn’t enough for me to support myself.

I didn’t do journalism in high school, didn’t work for a paper or anything, and at Princeton I never published a word in a college publication.

FB: What kind of travel pieces had you done?

PH: The New York Times used to have these essays. The first one I wrote for them was about taking the Trans-Siberian train. Because after I finished grad school at Oxford I traveled for six months, and I consciously researched stories along the way, thinking that when I got home I would write pieces, and possibly write a travel book. I wrote the train essay, and just sent it to a name on the masthead at the Times, and by some miracle they read it and published it. After that I started doing some stuff for them as a freelancer.

FB: When did you start thinking about books?

PH: When I joined the Peace Corps, I wanted to learn Chinese and become a better writer. But I didn’t think I was going to write a book about that experience. I felt I was too young, and I really was. I didn’t have the maturity to write a book, nor did I really have the material at that point. But I did take a lot of notes. It was my way of processing what was going on. I would write about experiences I had, or encounters with people, things on campus, but just in a diary format. And I tracked a lot of my students’ writing because they were such beautiful writers, and I thought they were fascinating people.

Then with six months to go, we got Internet for the first time, and I got back in touch with people. If it had been any earlier, it probably would’ve been a distraction, but at that point it was good to start thinking about the future.

He said, ‘It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.’

I had written to John McPhee throughout my time there, and he had written back often. But now we were on email, and I remember writing to him because I was thinking about applying for journalism jobs, and applying for an internship at Newsweek in Beijing. John wrote me a long letter, telling me: “You should write a book about Fuling.” Because he’d read these letters. He said, “It’s there. It’s in you. You just need to do it.”

That was a powerful moment, because I hadn’t thought about it. Once I got that email and started thinking, it immediately made sense. When I went back through all my notes in my diaries, I realized, “I’ve really got a lot of stuff here.” But I could also see what I needed: more detailed descriptions of the landscape, and some deeper observation of the community and of the city.

FB: Did you write the book then?

PH: No, I didn’t write the book until I left. I went back to my parents’ home in Missouri, and I decided I would take about half a year. I was 29 years old and I had never held a job. I had college debt, so I felt a lot of pressure. I was applying for journalism jobs at the same time, sending out resumes to The New York Times, Washington Post, and Time, pretty much anybody who had a China bureau, and I got form rejections across the board.

When I finished the book, I sent a resume to Amazon, because they had sent me a recruiting thing when I was in Fuling. I had no idea what it was. I guess my life could’ve been pretty different. I sent them a resume, but they never wrote back.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else. After a couple weeks of this sort of thinking, I finally sent the book out to agents, and a couple of agents were interested. I went to New York and met with them, and I ended up signing with a young agent named William Clark. He sold the book to HarperCollins, and it happened very quickly. It wouldn’t be considered a big advance, but it was enough to pay off all my college loans, and suddenly I realized, “I can just go back to China on my own. I don’t need a job. I’ll just go and figure it out.” And that’s where Oracle Bones starts, in that I was just showing up, and I had a part-time assistant position at The Wall Street Journal, for $500 a month, and that gave me a base.

I was so depressed by that point. I had completely lost all perspective. I just wanted to get rid of the thing and put it behind me and do something else.

It took a while for River Town to come out, because I took a long time editing it. But there was a lot of stuff going on that year and people were starting to get interested in China. So I very quickly had a lot of work. After about a year I got a break with National Geographic and The New Yorker. I was on the ground there for just a little more than a year when I sold my first story to The New Yorker in 2000. Then a week later I sold my second story to them, and we were pretty much off and running.

FB: It was a great time to be writing about China.

PH: Yeah, I was very lucky. I was at the right place in the right time. But it did take some faith, because it was very discouraging earlier, when I was rejected for those jobs and living at my parents’ house. I didn’t grow up with any money, so I couldn’t rely on anything else. And the college debt weighed on me.

FB: Was there anything you learned from John McPhee that influenced the way you write, or think about writing?

PH: There were huge numbers of things that I learned from him. There’s technical stuff. Probably one of the best examples is a “set piece.” He’d teach us that in his course, and show us an example from his writing. It’s something, actually, that a lot of journalists don’t learn, because you only do it in long-form writing, but it makes you think differently about the structure and organization, and that was a really useful lesson to have as a young writer. The example he gave came from his Alaska book, where he’s on his trip through the Alaska back country, and they see a bear. The thing shifts to maybe 1,000 or 1,500 words about bears, and it’s no longer in his experience. It talks about the nature of bears, things they do, and their size. There’s all this, of course beautifully written, but it’s a way of getting background information in an interesting way. It also allows you to step away so the voice doesn’t get stale.

McPhee had a lot of technical lessons, but I think the most important thing was the deeper ways of thinking about writing. One of them, for me, was that you can do fascinating creative writing as a nonfiction writer. I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing. My parents didn’t get The New Yorker, so I didn’t realize there were these other ways of writing nonfiction, and that it could be just as dynamic and fascinating as fiction, and just as artistic.

FB: How did you and Leslie choose Egypt?

PH: There are a couple things. We wanted something different from China. We wanted a different kind of challenge, and something that would give us a new perspective. We wanted to study a language that would be fascinating and rich. I like the idea of a place with a long history, and especially with ancient history because I like archeology. But we also needed it to be a place that would interest The New Yorker. I couldn’t go to Portugal, right? I mean, how many stories about Portugal are you going to write for The New Yorker? I had to be able to support my family.

We thought about India, but I didn’t like the way that there wasn’t one language that unified it, and it seemed like maybe it was too close to China in some sense. So we eventually settled on the Middle East. It was going to be Damascus or Cairo, because those are good places to study Arabic. We were leaning toward Damascus for a while, but once the Arab Spring started it was clear that Cairo was the place. But we’d never been there. We showed up in Cairo with these kids, and neither Leslie nor I had ever been to Egypt.


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FB: Having kids myself, I can’t imagine a move like that.

PH: When I look back, it’s totally crazy. Leslie and I, maybe we’re delusional or something, but we’re also pretty calm people. It helps, too, if you’re doing this with somebody else who’s totally on board. It was definitely a hard first year. I mean, I think the whole thing was hard, because it’s hard with little kids to do something like that, and it’s hard to be in the midst of this chaotic political period. It was very intense. But it’s an engaging place. The people are likable, even though Egypt has problems on a level that we had not experienced in China. There’s serious dysfunction in many aspects of Egyptian society. But it was a phenomenal experience, and I was also fortunate in that I did get to know individuals who brought some light to what was going on, and not just in the sense of understanding. They were engaging, positive people that I liked to spend time with. Sayyid, and Manu and Rifaat, our teacher. We loved it.

FB: What’s your feeling about the importance of learning the language of a place where you’re writing about or living?

PH: To me, it was fundamental. I’m not interested in writing in-depth about a place where I’m not at least doing my best to learn the language. In Egypt I didn’t become fluent like I was in Chinese, but I was very conversant, comfortable with somebody like Sayyid. I could spend a lot of time with him and his family and understand what’s going on, and that was really important to me.

FB: With Egyptian Arabic, what did you learn about Egypt that you wouldn’t have learned without that?

PH: There’s the deep religious nature of the language, and the impact of religion on the language itself. It’s fundamental to that language. I think that that’s pretty rare in the world. There aren’t that many cultures where you have the religion so deeply embedded in the language. It’s a huge part of what you’re saying when you’re using these terms all the time.

I had always been so focused on fiction that I was kind of turned off by the newspaper style of writing.

The language also makes you think a lot about the Pharaonic world, and the ways in which it lasted or didn’t last. There are remarkably few Pharaonic words in Egyptian Arabic. It’s quite striking. There are probably more Turkic words than there are Pharaonic words. But it’s also striking that a lot of those Pharaonic words are very foundational, like the vocabulary for agriculture has a lot of Pharaonic stuff in it, and the word for women, the word for water, the word for land, the Nile, the river. These are things that have deep roots, and those survived the adoption of Arabic.

FB: I love how in both The Buried and Oracle Bones, you’re writing about the distant past and the present, and finding connections and divergences. Do you think that was one of the reasons that you were attracted to Egypt?

PH: I definitely liked the idea of this place with an incredibly rich ancient history. I think there are always some people who say, “Well, that’s not really relevant to what’s going on today.” But I don’t believe it disappears. There are too many echoes that you can see. Also, it’s not just whether things stay the same. I’m not saying that everything is static, but more what I’m saying is that the ancient Egyptians were brilliant politicians, and a lot of what they did politically we see echoes of. For example, their use of nostalgia. Even 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, they were already writing nostalgically about the past, and the perfect political world of the past. That’s an effective political strategy. It’s what Trump does now. People do this all over the world.

FB: What’s your sense of the difference between how people in China and Egypt relate to that distant past?

PH: It was a huge difference. The Chinese are much more comfortable with it, and there are a couple reasons for this. The main one, of course, is they see their history as an unbroken line. It’s a very powerful thing to have that link. Egypt does not have that. The other huge difference is that the last Egyptian to declare himself Pharaoh was somewhere in the second century BC, and from that point until 1952. there was not a single Egyptian leader.

FB: What was the biggest challenge as a writer in Egypt?

PH: It was getting enough language, and being able to do that while the revolution was going on and while I had small children. I couldn’t study all the time the way I had in Fuling. In Egypt I was having to go report on stuff, and I had kids to take care of.

FB: In Oracle Bones you say that in writing narrative nonfiction stories, you’re collecting fragments and organizing them into stories. Some of your stories have arcs that span years. How do you know when a fragment, or something that you’ve collected, is part of that story?

PH: It’s an instinct you develop over time. It took me a while to get there, but by the time I left China I had a pretty good sense of this. When I was in Colorado, for example, and I was reporting on the uranium industry in my corner of the state, and I ran into a town where everybody was telling me to talk to the pharmacist, because he knew everything. That confused me, because why would a pharmacist be somebody who knows a lot? Then I talked to him and realized, well, there’s no medic, there’s no hospital anywhere near here, so he’s basically like a doctor.

I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start.

He also mentioned the story of some loner in town who died and left him half a million dollars, and at that point my instinct kicked in and I thought, “There’s something going on here.” So I left him out of the uranium story, with the idea that I was going to pursue this. I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I thought there was something there. You get those instincts over years of writing stories and books. The same thing in Egypt when the garbageman, Sayyid, kept bringing me stuff from the neighborhood and he knww so much about people.

FB: Do you typically start with an idea?

PH: It’s usually either a person or a place. It’s almost never an idea. I don’t start with themes or issues. Partly that’s my instinct, but partly it’s also deliberate because I feel like when you start with an issue or a theme, maybe you’re dehumanizing people from the start. Maybe you’re fitting them into a larger narrative or idea that isn’t appropriate. So I tend to start either with a place or a person, and then the issues and the themes are secondary. They come in as I get to know the person or the place.

So I get to know Sayyid. Then I start to learn about him. Then that leads me into the informality of Cairo and the self-organization of those communities. Then it also leads me into gender relations, because I start to get to see how him and his wife interact. It leads me to issues of education, because I realize that this incredibly intelligent person is illiterate, and I get to know what his children are doing in school, and educate me in new perspectives. But it all starts with him.

FB: And now you guys are going back to China. Where are you going to be?

PH: We’re going to Chengdu. I’m going to teach for a year at Sichuan University. It’s been 20 years since I taught in Fuling.

FB: Is Chengdu near Fuling?

PH: It’s close. I wanted to teach in Fuling, but I wasn’t allowed for political reasons. I could do it in Chengdu. I’ll also be tracking down my former students and seeing what they’re up to, and revisiting Fuling.

FB: Are you going to write a sequel to River Town?

PH: I suspect some kind of follow-up book. But, I don’t know. I always wait until I’m into it before I really know what form it’s going to take. I do want to build on that experience, and I want to try to write something about how this place has changed and what it feels like on the ground, both for the people involved and for me as an observer. I’m also interested in my former students, who were a remarkable generation, because they were born around the time that Mao died, and they grew up with the changes. I’m curious to know more about their perspective on what they’ve seen and what they’ve lived through, because they’re middle-aged now.

FB: Is your plan to be there for a year?

PH: Right now, I think we’ll be there for five years. I’ll do one year of teaching, and then transition to writing full-time and reporting. Leslie is finishing her Egypt book, and then she’ll transition to writing. We also want our children to learn Chinese.

FB: How did you guys meet?

PH: I was working at The Wall Street Journal as an assistant, and she was a journalist, or a correspondent for them in China. I was the lowest guy on The Journal totem pole, and she had a real job, back in ’99. But we didn’t date then. We were in the same circle of friends, and then in 2003 we started dating.

FB: Can you say what Leslie’s Egypt book is about?

PH: It’s about women factory workers in Egypt. She reported on the factory in Alexandria. She has really good stuff, and she’s partway through it now.

FB: That will sit nicely on the shelf next to Factory Girls.

I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it.

PH: I think the two books will be interesting. My book and her book also will be interesting because we’re looking at Egypt from slightly different angles. There are some cross-themes, and it was fun to have these projects being researched at the same time. It helps, I think, both of us to have all these conversations while we’re doing research.

FB: Do you guys read each other’s work, like Joan Didion and John Dunne?

PH: Pretty late in the game. We don’t do it as we’re working. I’ve never wanted feedback from anybody while I’m writing, because I add in stuff a lot while I’m going, and I want to be the one to shape it. Actually, for this last book, she didn’t read it until pretty late in the process because I think she was feeling a lot of pressure for her book and trying to get it going, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to throw it on to her. She needed to focus on her thing, but I think that was a little bit of an unusual time, just part of the whole challenge of doing these projects with young children. We’re both very supportive, and it helps a lot in terms of the reporting, because each of us is learning things that help the other person.

FB: With two writers in the family, how do you balance your life and work?

PH: I guess that develops kind of naturally. It’s all we ever knew together, because both of us were writing from the time we met. The hardest thing about having two writers is probably financial, and lack of stability. Neither of us have a steady paycheck, but we had kids so late, and then both of us had the good fortune to start in China, which was a good place to get established. Though we would never write together. We have no interest in that. We are not a team of writers. It’s an individual sport, like running.

***

Frank Bures is the author of The Geography of Madness and editor of Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology. He writes about travel, culture, language, science, outdoors, narrative, and belief for publications such as Harper’sAeonLapham’s QuarterlyThe Washington Post MagazineOutside, and the Best American Travel Writing

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

The Great Fiber-Optic Fraudster of Alaska

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Why secure actual signatures from partners on multi-million dollar contracts to install fiber-optic cable at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean when you can just forge them? At Bloomberg Businessweek, Austin Carr reports on scam-artist extraordinaire Elizabeth Pierce, the former CEO of Quintillion Subsea Holdings LLC. Pierce created fictitious contracts to fund an Anchorage telecom startup, fleecing investors for a billion dollars before getting caught.

Arctic fiber has been an entrepreneurial fantasy for decades. Soaring demand for broadband helped drive companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.com, to spend tons on high-speed underwater cables that keep customers watching Netflix and YouTube with minimal delay. But many of those lines run in parallel in the Atlantic and Pacific along well-established ocean routes, leaving the world’s internet vulnerable to earthquakes, sabotage, and other disasters both natural and human-made. A trans-Arctic route would help protect against that while offering a more direct path, potentially making internet speeds much faster.

Pierce scribbled her first forged signatures on contracts with the Matanuska Telephone Association, which services south-central Alaskan towns such as Wasilla, in May and June 2015. Although Matanuska CEO Greg Berberich had been reluctant to strike a deal, Pierce assured her investors in New York in an email that Berberich was “nervous but very committed.” The next day she uploaded a contract, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with what looked like Berberich’s signature to a personal Google Drive account she shared with Murphy, the CIP managing director. Pierce also said she was close to locking in another gigantic sale with the nonprofit Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative, whose customers include residents of remote Inupiat communities and the city of Utqiagvik. Soon she sent Murphy a contract with a phony version of the Arctic Slope CEO’s signature, too.

Pierce executed similar deceptions at least eight times, and the fraudulent contracts totaled more than $1 billion, according to court filings. Sometimes she completely fabricated deals; other times she negotiated real contracts, then changed key pages with more favorable terms.

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Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo-Hoo

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

Christy Lynch | Longreads | October 2019 | 17 minutes (4,584 words)

 

On my 27th birthday, I had a fever dream about Disney World. It was my third day feeling sick, and I was floating on the edge of sleep, swimming through a blur of mouse ears and castle spires. I thought I heard the clap of fireworks, and my eyes blinked against a flash of sunlight. I woke up looking around for a shower of gold sparks but saw only the crooked towers of repurposed liquor store boxes spread across my new bedroom, slicing up the morning light.

Two months earlier, my previous apartment complex went the way of New Nashville — when an investor installs energy-efficient toilets, doubles the rent, and forces out all the tenants. In the four years I’d lived in Nashville, rent across the city had exploded. Now anything comparable to my two-bedroom, no-dishwasher takeout box of an apartment cost 60 percent of my monthly take-home pay. I got a real estate agent and started looking at properties for sale on the outskirts of town.

The day before my birthday, I closed on a small condo with an HVAC unit older than I was. My real estate agent brought champagne to the title company’s office, and I signed my name to a stack of contracts until my ring finger went numb. Afterward she handed me the key to my new house, and I drove to my next appointment: the gynecologist, to find out why it burned when I peed.
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