Category Archives: Nonfiction

Exile in Guyville

For Interview magazine, singer-songwriter Liz Phair talks with author Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose first book, Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America, originally published in 1997, has just been re-released with a new afterword by the author.

The two touch on a variety of topics, from taking risks in your 20s, writing memoir vs. writing fiction (Phair herself is at work on a novel and a book of linked essays), music, motherhood, and the rise in sexism ostensibly ushered in with last year’s presidential election.

PHAIR: I think what we’re seeing politically is the result of people having developed atmospheres around them that make them untouchable, to the point where they don’t feel empathy for people who are in a more vulnerable state.

WURTZEL: I see sexism everywhere, and I think it has to do with that. I’ve begun to blame sexism for everything. I’ve become so overwhelmed by it that, even though I love Bob Dylan, I don’t want to listen to Bob Dylan, because I don’t want to listen to men anymore. I don’t care what men have to say about anything. I only want to pay attention to what women do. I only want to read women. I’ll tell you how intense my feelings about this are: You know The Handmaid’s Tale, the show, which is feminist in its nature? Because men are behind it, I don’t want to watch it. That is the extent to which I am so truly horrified by what is going on.

PHAIR: I have felt that same wave coming through. I’ll try to rent a movie, and every single title is for men, by men, about men, and I’m just like, “Where’s my world? Where’s my zone? Where has it gone?”

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Caity Weaver, Marisa Meltzer, Jiayang Fan, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, and Jeff Maysh.

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How Do You Name a Not-Quite-Fat Ken Doll?

The new lineup of Ken Dolls — seeking to represent a more multicultural, physically diverse populace (read: client base) — landed earlier this week to much fanfare. Some of the reactions were laudatory; some were less so (who can resist a man-bun joke, after all?). Caity Weaver, writing at GQ, got to follow the creative process leading to the new dolls’ release. Through her eyes, we learn how even an attempt to “celebrate diversity” often requires so much semantic and design acrobatics that it’s not very clear who the celebration is for, and who might still be excluded from it. Case in point: the tortured internal discussions at Mattel around what to call the “heavier” version of Barbie’s companion — after they’d already decided not to make him fat (“You don’t want to go too much,” as Ray Cavalluzzi, a Mattel sculptor, put it).

“With Barbie [it was] clear what was offensive with the curvier doll versus what wasn’t,” says Michelle Chidoni, a polished, deftly amiable executive from the global brand communications department. We are sitting in a capacious conference room surrounded by Barbies in fashions so cutting-edge that to describe them would be illegal. But I will reveal to the reader that a great multitude of the outfits are both fabulous and fun. “People [in focus groups] didn’t want to be called ‘plus-size.’ ‘Curvy’ was the clear winner. [But] where ‘curvy’ in the female world of fashion has become something that’s desirable and sexy and positive, the men’s fashion world has not gone there yet.”

Mattel’s constant aim when describing body types is to unearth a marketing term with “a neutral-to-positive association.” They don’t always find it on the first try. Or second. Or third. Initially, in their attempt to recapture the proud spirit of “curvy” for a male doll, the Barbie team borrowed a word from the boys’ clothing industry: “husky.” Focus-group reactions were disastrous.

“‘Husky’ just turned off every guy we talked to,” says Chidoni, shaking her head. “A lot were really traumatized by that—as a child, shopping in a husky section.” “Athletic” was rejected on the notion that athletes can have vastly different body types. “Brawny” didn’t fare much better. And so: “broad.”

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Reunification Will Have to Bridge the DMZ and Massive Technological Gaps

Some physicians in South Korea are working to understand the differences in healthcare across the DMZ and health issues North Korean defectors face, in preparation for eventual reunification — not easy when the medical tools Northern Korean physicians have are so drastically outdated and when support for reunification is dropping in the South. At Undark, Sara Talpos talks to the doctors trying to bridge these gaps.

The practice of medicine is sharply different in the two countries. In North Korea, the focus is on infectious disease and physical trauma, often caused by coal-mining injuries. Doctors learn only the basics of other diseases because specialized medicines and equipment — chemotherapy for cancer, for example — simply aren’t available.

Ko laughs when I tell him I’ve heard North Korean X-ray images are so poor that a South Korean doctor wouldn’t be able to understand them. “Yes, that’s true,” he says, sipping a cup of coffee. We’re meeting at Steff Hotdog, a fast-food restaurant located, somewhat improbably, inside Anam Hospital. “That’s because they don’t have X-ray film.” Instead, the doctor takes the patient into a dark room, where the patient stands between the X-ray machine and a translucent screen. Ko borrows my pen to illustrate. His doctor sits hunched over on a stool like Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

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How One Porn Mogul Made His Fortune and Ruined Everything

Despite riches, power, and respect, some people are never satisfied. A poor North Carolina kid named Michael Thevis turned paperback smut and peep show machines into a million-dollar empire, and he shaped America’s porn industry right as laws started to relax around the ownership and production of sexually explicit material. When Thevis crossed into arson, threats, and murder, he brought himself down for good. At The Daily Beast, crime journalist Jeff Maysh gets access to Thevis’ diaries and letters to tell the full story of “The Scarface of Sex” for the first time.

Rival peep machine manufacturers emerged, included those run by Leon and Mike Sokolic, Art Sanders, and Bill Walters. Before now, the most Thevis had ever done to intimidate a rival was let off a stink bomb at a store in Baltimore. Not all competitors rolled over so easily. Nat Bailen, who manufactured a peep show machine for cartoons, started to sell his units to sex-shop owners who used them for porn. In 1970, a customer named Harry Mooney in Michigan asked to lease 50 machines from Thevis—an order so large he couldn’t meet it in time. Instead, Mooney bought his machines outright from Nat Bailen. As he would do so often, Thevis turned to Underhill.

“Something,” Thevis told him, “has to be done with Bailen.”

On April 26, 1970, Underhill drove from Atlanta to Louisville in his yellow station wagon, where he met a paid accomplice, Clifford “Sam” Wilson. In the dead of night, they broke into Bailen’s factory, carrying burglary tools and five-gallon containers of gasoline. They built a bonfire using his furniture and paperwork. When Wilson found some paint cans, he told Underhill, “Let’s really screw this guy,” and poured paint over the desks and carpets. There were four-foot-tall flames licking at the windows by the time the goons fled. Reeking of gasoline, Underhill found a pay phone at the Kentucky Turnpike, and called Thevis at the Central Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

“Veni vidi vici,” Underhill said—I came, I saw, I conquered.

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Immoral or Merciful? Canadian Doctors Divided on Medically Assisted Death

Before assisted suicide was legal in Canada, there was a secret society devoted to helping Canadians end their lives on their own terms. As Nicholas Hune-Brown reports at Toronto Life, even though medically assisted death has been legal in Canada for a year, it remains controversial. Although some palliative care doctors — who believe in providing physical and psychological comforts to patients, but not in hastening death — are vehemently opposed to what they view as an immoral act, other doctors are slowly coming to terms with the patient’s new right to die in cases where death is “reasonably foreseeable.”

In April 2016, four months after his diagnosis, Jack went to the hospital with pneumonia. When he got out two weeks later, he needed a feeding tube and a suction machine for his saliva. He could no longer look after himself, so he moved in with April, her partner, Robert, and their two-year-old daughter, in Smiths Falls, Ontario. The man who had always been a blur of activity suddenly needed his daughter to help him out of bed. The professional smooth talker had trouble speaking, a single sentence sometimes stretching out over excruciating minutes as he struggled for breath. On more than one night, he’d begin to choke, and April would have to call an ambulance to help clear the mucus building up in his throat, watching helplessly as a look of utter horror spread across her father’s face. When she took him to the bathroom each morning, he would say the same thing: “I want to die.”

Since Jack Poelstra, Gerald Ashe has overseen nine more deaths. He’s been there as Canadian families have invented new rituals for a new way of dying—reading poetry and listening to favourite pieces of music, watching as family members have taken turns giving their final hugs and kisses. When I asked Ashe if he was ever upset by the process, if it ever felt like a burden, he thought for a moment. “You know, I think I’m a pretty sensitive guy,” he began. “But I don’t feel upset about it.” The patients had been so sure, so appreciative. The families were so relieved. To Ashe, it was clear that it was something that needed to be done, and he was glad that he was able to do it with care and empathy.

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Roxane Gay on the Final Frontier: Acceptance for Every Female Body

At Elle, Marisa Meltzer profiles Roxane Gay as the prolific author prepares to go on tour to support Hunger, a book she calls “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” In it, Gay reflects on what it’s like to live in a world that does not accommodate her body and how she “turned to food for numbness and protection” after being gang raped as a child.

“Hunger is not a story of triumph. Rather, it tackles the question of what it’s really like to live in a fat body—”and not Lane Bryant fat,” Gay says. “What is it like to be fat-fat? We don’t see that narrative.”

If there’s a through line to her writing, she says it’s exposing the unreasonable standards to which women are held, both by society and by each other, a reality Gay finds exhausting. “I think that I write about women’s lives in ways that allow people to be seen, and allow people to think about the world they are living in and the politics of this world without feeling like they are being judged or shamed for being imperfect,” she says.

The female body, in all shapes, Gay says, is a “final frontier, along with disability, that people can openly mock and demean and get away with treating with utter disregard.” The only possible solution she sees is “a huge amount of empathy. Kindness,” she says. “And people minding their own goddamn business.” Whether or not most readers relate to the statistics of Gay’s body, few will be able to finish her book without gaining a deeper understanding of her reality. “I don’t have a fantasy of a thin woman waiting to come out,” Gay says. “My fantasy would be to be able to walk down the street without being yelled at by someone. To walk through an airport without having someone point at me.” This is the true shock of Gay’s book—it is not the revelation of her actual weight, though how many of us, of any shape or size, would have the guts to put that on paper? It is the far deeper reveal: that a woman so accomplished, so seemingly fierce—in some circles, so revered—has been forced to “fantasize” about something so fundamental. “I don’t delude myself into thinking that if and when I reach [a certain] size, all my problems will be gone. Many of them would be different. At least I’d feel better in my body, better leaving my house,” she says. “My dreams have really become sad at this point—human dignity dreams.”

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Race in America Has Never Been an Either-Or Proposition

In an essay in Harper’s, Zadie Smith examines Jordan Peele’s film Get Out, and Dana Schutz’s painting Emmett Till — recently exhibited at the Whitney, despite claims that a white artist should not be allowed to profit from black suffering — and the impossibility of ever drawing a hard and fast line between “black” and “white.”

Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern? Their grandmother—raised on a postcolonial island, in extreme poverty, descended from slaves—knew black suffering intimately. But her grandchildren look white. Are they? If they are, shouldn’t white people like my children concern themselves with the suffering of Emmett Till? Is making art a form of concern? Does it matter which form the concern takes? Could they be painters of occasional black subjects? (Dana Schutz paints many subjects.) Or must their concern take a different form: civil rights law, public-school teaching? If they ignore the warnings of the letter and take black suffering as their subject in a work of art, what should be the consequence? If their painting turns out to be a not especially distinguished expression of or engagement with their supposed concern, must it be removed from wherever it hangs? Destroyed? To what purpose?

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Highway Robbery: How the Port Trucking Industry is Rigged Against Drivers

Did you know that your Ralph Lauren polo shirt was driven to the warehouse by an indentured servant? At USA Today, Brett Murphy reports on how port truckers — required to lease their trucks from their companies — are working for pennies (or less) each week as they struggle to drive enough hours to appease their bosses and the public’s insatiable demand for merchandise from big chains like Target, Ralph Lauren, and The Home Depot. If a driver fails to log enough hours, falls behind, gets sick, or collapses from exhaustion, the company seizes their truck and they forfeit everything they’ve paid toward its purchase.

Samuel Talavera Jr. did everything his bosses asked.

Most days, the trucker would drive more than 16 hours straight hauling LG dishwashers and Kumho tires to warehouses around Los Angeles, on their way to retail stores nationwide.

He rarely went home to his family. At night, he crawled into the back of his cab and slept in the company parking lot.

For all of that, he took home as little as 67 cents a week.

Then, in October 2013, the truck he leased from his employer, QTS, broke down.

When Talavera could not afford repairs, the company fired him and seized the truck — along with $78,000 he had paid towards owning it.

Talavera was a modern-day indentured servant. And there are hundreds, likely thousands more, still on the road, hauling containers for trucking companies that move goods for America’s most beloved retailers, from Costco to Target to Home Depot.

A yearlong investigation by the USA TODAY Network found that port trucking companies in southern California have spent the past decade forcing drivers to finance their own trucks by taking on debt they could not afford. Companies then used that debt as leverage to extract forced labor and trap drivers in jobs that left them destitute.

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A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant

J.M. Servín| For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as An Undocumented Immigrant | Unnamed Press | translated by Anthony Seidman | March 2017 | 18 minutes (4,894 words) 

The excerpt below is adapted from For Love of the Dollar, in which Mexican novelist and journalist J.M. Servín recalls the 10 years he spent living and working illegally in the United States (with a brief interlude in Ireland). This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical.

The average wage for undocumented workers was six dollars an hour. With a Social Security card, even if it was fake, nobody could avoid paying taxes, unless they paid you under the table. I asked questions of other day laborers, who were often hostile or suspicious, as to how they got hired. Almost all of them were recommended by a family member or someone from their hometown. Those with most experience said that after two years of work, things would improve. The trick was to grin and bear it. Bosses liked inexhaustible workers who kept their mouths shut. No one would investigate anyone else’s experience because they were all identical. And for each poor soul who had a tragedy to share, there was someone else with an even more gruesome Calvary. I lived surrounded by tough types, in a religious sense: Jesuit-like, ready for the most absurd sacrifices as long as they could get a pot to piss in.

I worked my ass off just like them and I never complained because they were the first ones to test me. Working alongside them, each task proved to be a lonely and tough affair, until I proved my mettle and that I wasn’t going to desert my job. They were bent on destroying anyone who threatened their jobs with scheming and other tricks.

Parrot had given me my fake papers, but with my birthdate making me seven years younger. The signatures on the work permit and Social Security card looked as if they had been scrawled by a second grader. All in all, though, the papers seemed passable.

That same Tuesday night, the chef stopped serving a couple of hours earlier than usual; it was around two in the morning on a rather slow shift. I had finished washing a battery of enormous aluminum pots and had hooked them above the stoves. It was the least they expected of me. Nobody complained, but everyone else seemed to work harder. They were oiled up with pride itself. All the while I worked there I barely had the opportunity to size up the dimensions of the kitchen. We were able to move about with ease, but nobody stepped over the boundaries of his workstation. Each to his own, ignoring what was going on elsewhere. Waiters and busboys came down for their orders, and they shouted some praise at us if only to hurry us on, as their tips were at risk.

I remembered when I worked as a butcher at an expensive restaurant in Mexico City, how the waiters would toss us a few bones gathered from their tips. Here, hell no. We should be grateful that they even spoke to us. There was a red-haired waiter of Greek origin who would rush down the stairs each night, get down on one knee, throw us kisses, extending his arms, as if he were on the Broadway stage, all while shouting: “Thank you!” He would respond to our catcalls by inviting us to go out with him. He was always in a good mood, and he called all of us Pepes. One of the cooks gave him the nickname Puputo. It was the only word in Spanish that he understood.

Upon finishing my job, I went to the changing area. The Puerto Rican was there asking if anyone wanted to wash the shelves in the refrigerator the size of a guestroom on the rooftop, in order to place the meat, vegetables, and rest of the food that they had used during the day. Afterward, the volunteer would have to gather all the work uniforms, separate them, and then bring them up to the truck for linen service. The guy in charge of this hadn’t shown up. He started his shift when Parrot did. No one answered. They continued to quickly change, ready to get home. I raised my hand, and without glancing around to see if anyone else would do it, I received the extra pay, and I went to the restaurant to get to work.

I had to go up the stairs. The kitchen was in the basement of a twenty-three-story building. I finished almost three hours later, drugged from exhaustion. Read more…