The Longreads Blog

Help Alice Driver Tell One of the Stories of Our Time

Photo credit: Cambria Harkey

With the support of Longreads, I have spent the past eight months traveling, living with and interviewing migrants in Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. There are some 60 million displaced people worldwide, and they have become the slave labor of the future—a population at risk to human trafficking whose bodies are used for labor ranging from sex work, to packing drugs, to picking coffee.

I interviewed a 13-year-old Guatemalan girl whose leg had been amputated due to violence suffered on the migrant trail, a transgender woman fleeing attempted murder in El Salvador, and indigenous women migrating because they wanted better access to healthcare and sexual and reproductive rights. The reasons people migrate and the violence they suffer are the stories of our time.

Alice Driver

Help support the work of Alice Driver and journalists like her who are telling the stories of our time by contributing to our member drive. You can read the first part of Alice’s series on migration and human trafficking here.

We’re All Mad Here: Weinstein, Women, and the Language of Lunacy

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Laurie Penny | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,709 words)

We’re through the looking glass now. As women all over the world come forward to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, all our old certainties about what was and was not normal are peeling away like dead skin.

It’s not just Hollywood and it’s not just Silicon Valley. It’s not just the White House or Fox News.

It’s everywhere.

It’s happening in the art world and in mainstream political parties. It’s happening in the London radical left and in the Bay Area burner community. It’s happening in academia and in the media and in the legal profession. I recently heard that it was happening in the goddamn Lindy Hop dance scene, which I didn’t even know was a thing. Men with influence and status who have spent years or decades treating their community like an all-you-can-grope sexual-harassment buffet are suddenly being presented with the bill. Names are being named. A lot of women have realized that they were never crazy, that even if they were crazy they were also right all along, and — how shall I put this? — they (we) are pissed.

“It’s like finding out aliens exist,” said a friend of mine last night. He was two gins in and trying to process why he never spoke up, over a twenty-year period, about a mutual friend who is facing public allegations of sexual violence. “Back in the day we’d all heard stories about it, but… well, the people telling them were all a bit crazy. You know, messed up. So nobody believed them.”

I took a sip of tea to calm down, and suggested that perhaps the reason these people were messed up — if they were messed up — was because they had been, you know, sexually assaulted. I reminded him that some of us had always known. I knew. But then, what did I know? I’m just some crazy girl.

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The Doctor Will See You Now

Harri Tahvanainen/Folio Images

Sarah Miller | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,614 words)

 

I was at the eye doctor’s Monday and my phone rang, which is unusual. It was my mother’s cell phone number, even more unusual. I didn’t answer, because the eye doctor was just about to put in dilating drops. “I think my uncle just died,” I said, and realizing that sounded weird, added: “I’m pretty sure that’s what that phone call was, because my mother never calls me, and he just had a stroke and was about to die, so.”

Before the eye doctor could respond, I continued, “It’s not that big a deal, because he was a jerk and no one ever talked to him. Except some lady he was sort of with. Sort of. But they weren’t having sex, because he couldn’t breathe that well anymore.”

My eye doctor is Mormon and maybe 62. His office is in a shopping center in Grass Valley, a former gold-mining turned pot-growing town between Tahoe and Sacramento, with long summers and a short winter that’s getting shorter. I have heard there are a lot of Mormons here but he’s one of only two I know. The other one is extremely lapsed. My eye doctor is not lapsed. He was wearing an aggressively dorky short-sleeved button down shirt, as if to head off at the pass the hoards of women certain to hit on him that day.

I sensed I was barking up the wrong tree by telling my 62-year-old Mormon eye doctor that my mom’s brother had just died and that he was a jerk whose breathing problems had prevented him from having sex. He stepped back, holding the drops like he might hold a cocktail, if he drank. His wedding ring was stainless steel and enormous, like his wife had their sub-zero refrigerator melted down to make it. He cleared his throat. “Do you want to call your mother back?”

“You can put those drops in first,” I said. “I might as well get it over with.”

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Mexico’s Manufacturing Sector Will Survive With or Without America

AP Photo/Ivan Pierre Aguirre

In the late 1960s, Jaime Bermúdez Cuarón, an engineer from a wealthy family, decided to build factories on his cotton fields in northern Mexico. Over time, he, low wages and trade agreements helped turn Juárez into a city of 400 factories that employ 300,000 people, and gave rise to similar industrial areas along the border. People call Cuarón the godfather of Mexico’s manufacturing sector.

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter tells Cuarón’s story and the way American manufacturers came to rely so heavily on Mexico’s factories, called maquiladoras, to build everything from medical devices to car parts. Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever made,” but Juárez’s industries are starting to rely less on America as they used to, so Cuarón believes Mexico will fare well despite president Trump’s loco rhetoric about border walls and NAFTA.

Martinez says the city is undergoing perhaps one of the most uncertain periods in its history. And that largely has to do with a man to the north.

Maquiladoras haven’t been a direct topic of the recent Nafta negotiations, but the industry is in the crosshairs of the administration, whose trade delegation argues that Mexico’s low wages and poor working conditions create unfair competition for American business. Even the slightest upward adjustment to wages in the maquiladoras or tweak in labor laws could threaten the industry’s advantages. But Juárez has strengths it lacked even a few years ago. Companies around the world are constantly prowling for lower production costs, and it’s now cheaper to hire a worker in Mexico than in China. In 2000, Chinese workers earned half of what Mexican workers did, adjusted for productivity. By 2014, Mexico’s adjusted labor costs were 9 percent lower than China’s, according to an analysis by the Boston Consulting Group.

For decades almost every maquiladora in Juárez was owned by a U.S. company. Today the figure is 63 percent. Japanese companies own 8 percent, German companies 7 percent. Other owners are from China, France, South Korea, Malaysia, Sweden, and Taiwan, according to María Teresa Delgado, president of Index Ciudad Juárez, a trade group that represents the maquiladora industry. “The Trump experience, it really opened our eyes,” she says. “At first we were all kind of nervous because we thought the world would come to an end. But there is a bright side to every dark side, and that’s what we found out. … We’re more global than we were a few years ago.”

 

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Where Do We Go From Here?

Donald Bowers / Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

Felling a man of Harvey Weinstein’s stature was undoubtedly going to create aftershocks. It must help that the actresses coming forward with accusations against him are famous, people we recognize, people we believe we love even if we don’t actually know them. It helps us to care about them and, as female crew members afraid to come forward about their own abuse told The Hollywood Reporter, it helps the actresses:

“We don’t have the power that Rose McGowan or Angelina Jolie has,” says one female below-the-liner, and others agree that it is a lot easier for a production to replace a woman on the crew than it is to lose a bankable actor or director.

The female crew members told THR they’re afraid to come forward, lest a producer deem them “a liability” or “a troublemaker.” It’s not the men who abuse that are liabilities, it’s the women who would be so inconvenient as to not shut up and take it. One crew member says what many of us know about human resources departments: “Human resources is not there for us; it’s there for the company. To protect it from a liability.” Again, here, the liability is the person who tells the truth, not the person who behaves wrongly.

Still, since the New York Times and the New Yorker published their Weinstein exposés, less famous women have revealed abuse by powerful men. Men have followed with apologies. (The best one came from Ryan Gosling, who said he was disappointed in himself for not knowing about Weinstein’s treatment of women sooner — we’ll come back to this.) Kim Masters was finally able to get an outlet to publish a piece she’d been doggedly working on for months, in which a producer on the Amazon show The Man in the High Castle came forward to report harassment by a top Amazon executive, who has since resigned.

The #MeToo campaign on social media — originally created by a black woman activist, Tarana Burke, 10 years ago and popularized in the wake of Weinstein by actress Alyssa Milano and others — brought out even more stories beyond the entertainment industry. The #MeToo campaign also seems to have been eye-opening for a lot of men. Maybe you think we should be pleased about this, but I feel more like Alexandra Petri, who wrote in the Washington Post, “I am sick of having to suffer so that a man can grow.”

I received a late-night email this week from someone who crossed a line with me 13 years ago. He wrote that he “struggled for a while tonight” with the email, which made me laugh, that he thought I should care that he “struggled” for a few hours that night, after 13 years. But of course he thought that. His whole email was about him. He wasn’t sure if he had done anything wrong, but thought maybe he had. He appeared to not remember that 10 years ago, I had written him an email of my own, telling him how his violation had hurt me. He had dismissed it then, telling me — a college student who had worked up a tremendous amount of courage to even write him that email — that I was overreacting. Hysterical woman, your feelings are incorrect. He wants forgiveness now, but can’t be bothered to go through his email and see that I told him, a decade ago, exactly what he did wrong and how it hurt me.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jane Mayer, David Zax, Christopher Glazek, Farah Stockman, and Alex Mar.

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The Dream of a Perfect Android

A robot produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories on display at the Science Museum in London. (Ben Stansall /AFP/Getty Images)

Hiroshi Ishi­guro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by his family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishi­guro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishi­guro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.

He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other ­people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.

“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”

In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.

“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”

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Judging Books By Their Covers

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad / Collage by Richard Kehl/Getty

Jason Diamond | Longreads | October 2017 | 19 minutes (4,639 words)

I had two wardrobes growing up: The first, at my father’s house, was made up of Air Jordans, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. At my mother’s house I had no-name brands, sneakers that were worn until they were falling apart, and second-hand shirts and sweaters that we’d pick up at the local Goodwill. That was life living under two different roofs of divorced parents in different economic brackets. My father had everything, my mother had very little. My father took us to the mall to buy things, my mother, more often than not, to thrift stores. Malls, where everything was laid out perfectly, were places to be seen carrying shopping bags; thrift stores, meanwhile, were intimate and offered more adventure. At some point, despite kids making fun of me for my shabby clothes, I grew to like the second-hand places more; you never knew what you would find. As I got older, I still shopped at thrift stores out of financial necessity, but it was also an aesthetic choice.

When I think back on the things I found in thrift stores as a teenager, my mind flashes to the jerseys of former Chicago Bulls who played during the first-half of the team’s dynasty run in the 1990s (#54 Horace Grant, #10 B.J. Armstrong), electronics no more than a decade old that were already considered obsolete, and countless copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Like a prospector, I spent my high school years combing through Abercrombie & Fitch shirts worn by the kinds of kids I tried to avoid, strings of used Christmas lights, power suits I considered wearing as a David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Halloween costume, and other things people didn’t want or need anymore, all to find one tiny morsel of gold. Those little nuggets included an “Aloha Mr. Hand” Beastie Boys ringer T-shirt when I was 14 at a Salvation Army, an autographed picture of Tim Allen that I taped up in my locker as a joke, a sealed vinyl copy of Let it Be by The Replacements, and a Mies van der Rohe-designed Barcelona chair for $40. In my trash heap of a college apartment, I played video games and spilled beer on this pricey piece of designer furniture. I assume my roommates threw it out after I left.

I’ve always gravitated towards older things. I didn’t want to wear anything brand new from The Gap or “No Fear” shirts like my classmates did, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by items people didn’t want anymore. I preferred the old VHS players that went out when DVD players came in. Cassette tapes, old copies of National Geographic and Esquire, along with other relics, served as an education of sorts. They were things I saw as a small child but hadn’t been allowed to touch or own. I’d look at old furniture and notice hand-carved signatures in the wood, a sign that somebody had made it — it wasn’t some mass-produced lump of particle board.

Then there were the books. High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. Both invaluable curriculums, but second-hand books allowed me an opportunity to design my own for about 25 cents a lesson, or five for a dollar. The covers made me feel like I was in a dusty little art gallery: The Modernist designs of Alvin Lustig for New Directions; the iconic, handsome, orange Penguin paperbacks; the seedy, sexy characters of 1950s pulp fiction.

I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out. Used copies of this ghostly relic from 1984 are as common in thrift stores as old Barbra Streisand records or Sega Genesis video games. It’s a book I love, which I’ve had on every bookshelf I’ve owned; a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

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Ahead by a Century: A Gord Downie Reading List

Gord Downie performs at WE Day in Toronto in 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

I remember the day in 1987 when my then-boyfriend popped their first EP, “The Tragically Hip” into the cassette player of his dad’s Chrysler Cordoba. When “Last American Exit” came on, I loved it instantly. It’s been on my playlists for 30 years. I’ve seen the Hip at community colleges, hockey rinks, bars, summer festivals, and arenas. I’m part of a swath of Canadians for which the Hip’s music meant good times and Canadian pride; our stories, truths, and landscape writ large in songs with incisive lyrics and driving beats.

Among my favorite Hip songs, “50 Mission Cap” honors Bill Barilko, whose last goal won the 1951 Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That spring, Barilko went missing on a fishing trip and the Leafs failed to win a cup until 1962, the year Barilko’s remains were discovered. Then of course, there’s “Ahead By A Century,” in which Gord asks us to embrace the moment, reminding us that “there’s no dress rehearsal, this is our life.” Part poet, part visionary, part activist, Gord Downie was a dervish on stage, growling those lyrics into the minds of audiences for three decades.

On October 17th, Downie passed away after battling glioblastoma for two years. In his moving tribute, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Downie is that he chose to spend the last two years of his life accelerating his contribution to social justice, working toward a better life for others, toward a better Canada. He used his profile and his songwriting to foster reconciliation between Canada and First Nations people by raising awareness of the atrocities and generational effects of residential schools. For his work, the Assembly of First Nations honored Downie with an eagle feather and a Lakota spirit name — Wicapi Omani — which means, “Man who walks among the stars.”

Here are five pieces about a man who used story and song to share his Canada and, through personal example, inspired and challenged us to be better as a nation.

1. “For Gord: 27 Short Essays About The Tragically Hip, Plus One Poem” (TheBelleJar, BuzzFeed, June 2016)

In this round-up, 28 fans share their earliest memories of The Tragically Hip and how Gord Downie and his lyrics became the soundtrack to important moments in their lives.

2. “Yer Favourites” (Eric Koreen, Hazlitt, August 2016)

After initial die-hard fandom, Eric Koreen gets turned off the Hip for a decade after getting fed up with a small, boorish, white male contingent of the group’s fan base, interested only in hearing the hits in concert — certainly not opening bands with thoughtful, though lesser-known songs. Koreen eventually reconciles the Hip’s dichotomous hold on Canada, in that they “combine the intellectual side of Canadians — that we’re thoughtful, smart people — with that humble, meat-and-potatoes side, too.” Koreen suggests his change of heart came as a direct result of Gord Downie, who he characterizes as someone who could “be frustrated by your country but not disown it; that you can be an intellectual and an everyman at the same time.”

3. “How I Learned to Love the Tragically Hip and Still Be Punk” (Damian Abraham, Vice, August 2016)

Damian Abraham, vocalist for Canadian hardcore punk band Fucked Up, recounts how he turned from lifelong Hip hater to friend of Gord Downie.

I met Gord properly for the first time in the summer of 2010 backstage at a Tegan and Sara/City and Colour concert. Gord was to join Dallas Green onstage to perform the song they did together on the latter’s Bring Me Your Love record, and I had brought my family with me to watch the show. My son was toddling his way around the backstage with us in tow when tumbled out in front of Gord. After helping him up and making sure he was OK, he picked up Holden’s flung and filthy soother and rushed over the sink to wash it. As he handed back the washed pacifier, I told him that he didn’t need to worry about doing that.

“Of course I did,” he responded.

Youthful exuberance can lead to rashness. In my rush to embrace punk and reject all that didn’t fit with my new world view, I ended up throwing out a lot of culture that I was thankfully able to rediscover later. Of all these bands, there are none I am more grateful to have awoken to the greatness of than the Tragically Hip.

4. “On the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and a Shared Legacy” (Michael Barclay, Macleans, August 2016)

Jim Cuddy, of the legendary Canadian band Blue Rodeo, shares stories of times his band and the Hip crossed paths in their early years touring Canada.

We were supposed to be on right before the Hip, but the Eagles inserted some guy whose father owns the Knicks. It was a blues band, and he was terrible. But he had to go on then because it was his plane that the Eagles were flying on.

Then the Hip came on and they were on fire. Gord was in a big white outfit, totally drenched. At the side of the stage is Irving Azoff [longtime Eagles manager and former CEO of Ticketmaster and Live Nation] standing there with the Eagles, and he’s looking at Gord telling him to shorten the set, making gestures. It’s making me furious, because I know the Eagles only want to shorten the set so they can get on a plane and fly out, which they can’t do after midnight or something. So Gord’s doing his thing and continues on. Then the Eagles come on and do a miserable set, just sucking the joy out of the whole island. Afterwards I was sitting with Gord backstage and asked, “Didn’t that bug you?” He said, “Pfft, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be playing and have Irving Azoff telling me to shorten my set.”

5. “Gord Downie opens up about battling cancer, says it’s ‘creating something'” (Peter Mansbridge, CBC News, October 2016)

In his first interview after his cancer diagnosis, Gord Downie talks with Peter Mansbridge about living with cancer.

When you see people now, you want to hug and a kiss. Why is that important to you now?

I do. Yeah. That was happening before, though, all this, strangely. My life was changing and I felt that everyone that hung in there with me, all these years, were still there — they didn’t write me off or anything like that. And they could have. So yes, hug and kiss. And my dad, Edgar, definitely kissed on the lips. And me and my brothers taught a lot of men how to do it.

On Identity, Miyazaki, and Japanese Bathhouses

Still from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away

There are countless things to love in Hayao Miyazaki’s body of work — from the lushness of the drawing to the subtle ways in which his films reference and comment on earlier literary texts. What I admire the most, though, is the way his movies typically revolve around a crossing of a threshold between worlds — and how these worlds resist any easy binary split. There’s cruelty and kindness, beauty and horror, reality and fantasy in both. Characters have to make tough ethical decisions and work hard (often through grueling physical labor) before they find any semblance of harmony within (and between) the worlds they occupy.

In her Catapult essay on growing up as a mixed-race child in the U.S. and Japan, Nina Coomes finds inspiration in Miyazaki’s films to come to terms with her own personal narrative — one that resists clear-cut definitions and predictable plot twists just as the stories of the young girls at the center of movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind or Spirited Away. Chihiro, the protagonist of the latter, spends the bulk of the movie in a labyrinthine, monster-and-spirit-frequented bathhouse. In a powerful sequence in her essay, Coomes recounts her own experiences as a kid in Japanese bathhouses, and how her visits there, both before and after her family had moved to the U.S., highlighted her growing doubts about where she belonged and who she truly was.

Born significantly underweight, I had always been a long, spindly child. A bundle of elbows and knees, I was constantly tripping, hitting my head, ambling about like a colt learning to walk. I was, by American standards, painfully thin. By Japanese standards I looked identical to my peers. I knew this because of our annual school trip to the bathhouse, where we would all gather around the steaming tub, our bodies present and accountable, held in front of all—all of us with our skin thinning at the ribs, each vertebrae visibly poking out of our backs. It didn’t matter that I had an American father, or that we spoke a hodgepodge English-Japanese pidgin at home; standing at the bathhouse with my peers, I retained a steadfast assurance in my place among the other children, my bodily equality.

After her move to Chicago — a threshold crossed — things get complicated.

That summer, I frequented bathhouses similar to those in Spirited Away with my mother and sister. One day I stood under a showerhead, rinsing my body of dirt and grime before entering the bath, and noticed that the arc of my stomach was jutting softly from my sternum. I had never seen my stomach before, not from this vantage point, with my chin tucked and hair wet. I had always been concave, a pocket of negative space ballooning between my ribcage and hips. To see my stomach take up space was new and strange. As I stared, water ran into my eyes and questions churned in my head: What was I becoming? Was I becoming an American? Was I not Japanese anymore? Had I ever been Japanese?

A steady, fluttering shame took root in my chest, and I was reminded of the ambiguous existence Chihiro entered into when eating the food of the spirit world. By eating the food of a foreign land, I had lost the ability to recognize my own body.

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