I don’t know that I’ll ever cross over the threshold into a true or authentic self, that I’ll ever pass as male or feel like a singular entity, rather than split. Being in a female body, being dismissed, patronized and emotionally abused in the ways women so often are, has shaped my understanding of human beings, of the ways we interact and exert control. I don’t want to become what I hate, to embody the monstrousness latent in masculinity, growing an extra layer of tissue separating me from my emotions and impairing my compassion for others in the process. I don’t want to be anything like my father.
A trans man I’ve become friends with describes his psychological state before starting testosterone, the inner chaos that rendered him absent from his own life, and the peace hormones brought him, a newfound balance due even more to neurochemical recalibration than bodily changes. I measure my vanity, my horror at the thought of being lonely and unwanted, against my health, my ability to participate in the world. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop hesitating in the wings, too shy of my own spirit, too afraid and unsure of whether I want to be seen for all of who I am.
Jason Phoebe Rusch, in Entropy, takes readers through an experience of being transgender that’s different from most of the narratives the media focuses on — different and difficult, with conflicting desires and fears that physical transition won’t solve.
Laura Goode | Longreads | January 2017 | 23 minutes (5,818 words)
In the last formal confession I remember having delivered, I sat face-to-face in the room with a priest: the confessional booth and screen, while useful for dramatic staging in mob cinema, has mostly fallen out of the contemporary Catholic architecture. I was 10 or 12, and mostly absorbed the time with meditations on curse words and disobedience to my mother, too skittish to relieve myself of what I knew to be my more impure concerns, those having to do with other people’s private parts. There was nothing remarkable about this last confession, except for my discomfort with its blocking: why did God suppose that I, a young girl, facing this elder male stranger alone, would feel safe enough to truly unburden myself, or to be relieved by such an unburdening? After this event, I gratefully allied myself with my father’s discomfort with the sacrament—he has always felt a license to improvise within the choreography of the sacraments that my more faithful mother eschews—and I would not confess.
I was a senior in high school in suburban Minneapolis in 2002, when The Boston Globe published the sea-changing evidence of rampant sex abuse, and institutional harboring of abusers, within the Catholic church. One shudders to imagine a readier justification to depart from one’s own native faith, and the fact that it arrived in my defiant throes of late adolescence only accelerated my exit out the papal door. Catholicism was guilty of cloaking the wolf, so I would no longer call myself a Catholic. I traipsed off to college prepared to locate and adopt a more unimpeachable moral code, as convinced as any other 18-year-old that I was in possession of some sacred and unique ethical ambition absent from my parents.
Tellingly, since relieving myself of the formal sacrament of reconciliation, I have pursued no dialectical gesture more compulsively than the informal “confession.” Especially in those tender, feckless years that begin adulthood, I have always apprenticed myself to my own peccadillos, constantly working them over in thought, diary and conversation; I am constantly forcing myself to think, write, or speak at least some of the feelings and behaviors that disturb me the most. I am the partygoer forever in pursuit of the inappropriate comment everyone else is thinking. I am the stranger who will tell you the secret she’s never told anyone else; I can keep any secret but my own. Sometimes I inflect it with humor, sometimes rue; here, candor, there, shock value. I fetishize the intimacy of revelation between unlikely interlocutors. I am no evangelist, but O! paradox enamors me. Read more…
The sentencing phase of Emanuel AME Church shooter Dylann Roof’s trial for racially-motivated mass murder is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, January 4th, 2017. The white supremacist’s trial brought together two writers of color—Shani Gilchrist, one of a small group of black reporters in the press room, and Alison Kinney, an Asian-American living in New York—who, prior to the trial, knew each other only from Facebook. Here they write about their experience in Charleston. They write about banding together to get better access to the story; about resisting white supremacy with creative collaboration and strategic silence; about working together to figure out the ethical responsibility of storytelling now—and to find hope and friendship in their conversations.
1. We write:
On June 17, 2015, a Bible study group met at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Their text was Mark 4:16-20, the parable of the sower, a narrative of words scattered, heard, received, or failing, of deep-rooted faith that withstands trouble and persecution. The parishioners welcomed a newcomer, who sat down with them, listened, reflected, and then opened fire.
Of the twelve parishioners, three survived: Felicia Sanders, her little granddaughter, and Polly Sheppard. Nine died: their names were the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel W. Lance, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson.
A year-and-a-half later, at Charleston’s J. Waties Waring Judicial Center (named for the civil rights judge who first declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional), the two of us, Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney, would briefly note the scripture. We were at the courthouse, listening for the most incidental revelation, not only on the trial of Dylann Storm Roof, who would be found guilty on 33 counts of federal hate crimes, including hate crimes resulting in death, but also on the national crisis of bigotry and empathy. From the courtroom arguments and testimony, we gleaned bits of procedure, too: when Judge Gergel told the counsel for defense and prosecution to reach a resolution on the evidence, “I would direct you two to sit down together today and see what y’all can work out.”
We heard it as a directive to the nation, and to us—two writers who’d met through a Facebook group, whose prior interactions were limited to reading each other’s work there—sitting down together for the first time in real life, in coffee shops and in the courtroom, to work it out. We’d already found that we were both people who knew within five minutes if we were going to like someone, both people with loquacious, goofy senses of humor that masked our shyness. As writers on race, social justice, and culture, we were also figuring out how to participate in our country’s post-election dialogue. Some of the people we’re supposed to interview and interact with pose dangerous threats to us—although the invitations and threats we receive are not commensurate, as Shani is black, and Alison is Asian-American.
Another random moment: on the day before opening statements, Roof, who’d chosen to self-represent, reinstated his attorneys. While the courtroom deputy, Eunice Ravenel-Bright, a dark-skinned woman with a serious face whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Ravenel, readied a Bible for him to swear upon, he stood up casually, unshackled, as he’d remain for the duration, and started to make his way to the podium. There was almost a sideways swagger to his walk. Mrs. Ravenel’s body stiffened. The consummate professional, she said what sounded like, “No, Mr. Roof. You wait. Will the U.S. Marshal accompany the defendant to the podium?” But what the entire gallery heard in their heads was probably more like, “Hell no. Don’t get near me or my judge without someone with you who can legally knock you on your ass if you even look at me funny.”
An accused mass murderer. An entitled, lazy kid who was a proven danger to society. Unshackled and unaccompanied. In a courtroom. It’s an image that does not set right. An image that shatters the illusion of safety: safety depends here not on the law, but on rebuke, minding, and vigilance—not by the marshals, but by the person subject to the greatest threat. Read more…
It was my birthday. I don’t mark the date with any kind of mental memorial anymore, or throw overly earnest celebrations like I did the year after, when I was still raw and grieving and thought that maybe, if I had all my closest friends clustered in my living room, decked out in silky dresses and party hats, I could erase what had happened the year before.
It’s been ten years. I’ve learned to compartmentalize. I focus on trivial things on my birthdays instead—Did I pick a bar too far afield? How many people will show up? And yet. I still obsess. I turn that night over and over in my mind, needing to examine it from every single angle, every single perspective. Tell it in a thousand different ways, and then again. I’m still trying to control the narrative. I’m still trying to understand.
I was the kind of girl who wrote about everything, liked to catalogue crucial moments in a manner more poetic than the actual event. I kept hardbound journals hidden under my mattress, maintained an OpenDiary from eighth grade until the year after I graduated college, when the site finally shut down and I downloaded thousands of entries into a .txt file that lives on the desktop of my computer. I told myself, if it sounded artful, then the suffering was worth it. Even then, I don’t think I really believed that, but I wanted to. Read more…
Derrick Harriell wrote a piece on Chicago State that challenged my understanding of what’s possible with form and content in the long lyric essay. The piece narrativizes educational place and the journey of learning in a beautiful black place that’s trying to survive.
Mira Ptacin Writer whose work has appeared in NPR, New York Magazine, Guernica, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tin House, The Rumpus, and more. Author of the memoir Poor Your Soul, and teacher of memoir to women at the Maine Correctional Center.
I nominate this sharp-eyed and insightful piece not only because it brilliantly gave us a taste of Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection, but it gives it its proper place in the family tree of nature-writers by blowing “nature-dude” writing out of the water. Devers shows readers how important and triumphantly Bennett’s penmanship is, even in its simplicity: how even writing about the goings-on in the microcosm of a kitchen can dip into great depths to the mind and soul.
The right essay can turn an object or memory that I’d previously found mundane into the stuff of gripping narrative. Such is the case here, as Rouzard’s essay opens with descriptions of AOL dial-up in the mid-1990s before segueing into a capsule history of social media, and then extending into broader questions of identity and the sacred. It neatly parallels its author’s life with broader societal questions, keeping the two in perfect balance, and leaving me with a greater sense of both–I can’t ask a great essay to do more than that.
The Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the United Church of Christ is a wife, a mother, a lesbian, a former college professor (I took her class at Warren Wilson College), and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. In this piece, Jasmine takes a road trip across the Deep South to visit Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the occasion of its very first Pride parade. People like Jasmine do the work that all Americans need, whether they accept it or not. In her peaceful, dignified but impassioned manner, she fights for equality for all Americans. That she happens to be a damn fine storyteller is just icing on the deep-fried cake.
George Blecher paints a wonderful portrait of the diner he loves the most. He also gives a great bit of history about the rise of the diner in New York City. I grew up in New Jersey, which has its own brilliant and thriving diner culture but I lived in New York for many years. The old diner joints there are just as important as George says. Here in my newer home in Los Angeles, a city I love, I’ve got a few diners I can depend on: in Silverlake, Sunset Junction Coffee Shop; in Los Feliz, House of Pies; and more scattered around town. And in Manhattan, at 100th and Broadway, George has the Metro – for now.
Emily Gould Half of the Coffee House Press imprint and e-bookstore Emily Books, and the author, most recently, of the novel Friendship.
This year I started teaching writing workshop classes for the first time, and a lot of students want to learn how to do exactly what Sarah Resnick does here–and so do I! Addressed to a relative with a longstanding heroin habit, as well as a host of other problems, Resnick’s essay goes down several different paths, ultimately illuminating a lot of what’s circuitous and maddening about addiction and recovery as they’re currently understood in America, and how harm reduction programs work. The essay’s idiosyncratic, personal approach makes it more convincing than a straightforward argument for a new understanding of addiction could be. Reading it is memorable the way an experience is.
Owen publishes her essays about parenthood via newsletter as well as on Medium. She’s a journalist with expertise in publishing, tech and the business of journalism, and she brings the same kind of skepticism about received wisdom and eye for detail to her observations about children and parenting culture as she does to her other work. In this one, she takes on the hardest question of all — whether having children could be a mistake, whether parents can allow themselves to think it might have been. She writes about ambition so well. I will always remember the line here about lying on a couch reading in a beautiful house.
Porochista Khakpour Author of the forthcoming memoir, Sick (Harper Perennial, August 2017) and the novels The Last Illusion, and Sons & Other Flammable Objects, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, Elle, Spin, Slate, and many other publications around the world.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has become my favorite writer of my generation since I first read her writing about Dave Chappelle in The Believer several years ago (it was a National Magazine Award finalist, collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading as well as The Believer’s anthology Read Harder). Since then I’ve been a fan of every piece of hers and this chronicle of traveling to the home of James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France is no exception. (It’s a highlight of what I consider one of the best books of the year, the Jesmyn Ward-edited The First This Time). Ghansah writes about Baldwin from all different angles and with every emotion, braided with her own issues of identity. The result is a hard, rough, beautiful diamond of piece, pushed to brilliance from considerable pressure. Ghansah is perhaps one of the only writers we have today who can live up to Baldwin in so many shades of style and substance.
Saunders has always been one of my favorite writers–it’s physically impossible for me to not read a piece by him–but this classic from last summer will be surely studied for decades if not centuries in the future. Trump and his supporters are a perfect match for Saunders, who although a liberal, often sketches the America Trump supporters know well in his fiction. The trademark Saundersian dark absurdism is a perfect fit for taking to the campaign trail and interviewing Trump supporters at rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and California. The result is as funny as it frightening. It’s doubly a punch in the gut to read it now that Trump is, somehow, our president-elect.”Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” Saunders writes, and ends almost prophetically: “But I imagine it that way now.”
Emily Perper Emily Perper is a writer, bookseller and contributing editor at Longreads. In addition to word-work, they’re on the board of The Frederick Center, which provides resources for queer people in central Maryland.
Both of my “best of” personal essay nominations concern the reaches and limits of parenthood. At GQ, novelist Michael Chabon writes about his trip to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where his young son, 13-year-old Abe, catches a glimpse of his future and yearns after his tribe. I’d never presume to understand the intricacies of childrearing, but Chabon treats his son with a blend of kindness and respect we’d all do well to emulate with the young folks in our own lives–taking their desires, ideas and motivations seriously, and fostering their artistic instincts. And Chabon is simply an excellent writer, blending gentle self-deprecation with astute observation. He doesn’t need paragraphs of adjectives to transport the reader to the studios and runways of Paris. You are there, sweating in the French summer. You are there, checking out the throngs of stylish young men loitering outside shows. And you there, beaming (Guardedly! Be cool!) at your son, when he recognizes and is recognized.
Novelist Rufi Thorpe upends traditional discourse around the ponderous/condescending/exhausting query, “Can women have it all?” Instead, she makes a distinction between the selfishness of the artist’s way and motherhood’s requisite selflessness. Beyond her powerful and honest observations, the energy behind her language is distinct and exciting; it’s why I’ll read anything she writes. When I read the line “Children are a hinge that only bends one way,” I gasped.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands Story Wrangler, WordPress.com and Longreads
During the Second World War, John Temple’s parents hid in a basement in Budapest with a French doctor, underneath a home that German soldiers had made their headquarters. After they separated from the doctor, they never reconnected. For the next 70 years, they wondered what had happened to this man who saved their lives. After his parents’ death, Temple turns to the internet to search for this man, known to him only as Dr. Lanusse. This is a touching story about history, family, memory, and — ultimately — a lasting bond between two families, connected by extraordinary circumstances. Read more…
I’m sitting on the examining table at Student Health in Iowa City, digging a nail into the cuticle of my right thumb, waiting for Robin, the physician’s assistant. Over the course of my grad school career, she’s walked me through a half dozen of these STI checks—swabbed my throat and rectum, handled my urine, drawn liters of blood, and sat patiently to answer my many questions.
She opens the door and sighs. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
I hold my breath. My ex-boyfriend, Zac, has been my only partner since the last test a few months back, at the beginning of summer, while I was still in New York City. We both tested negative and always used condoms, but I’m remembering a conversation we had while eating in bed about a guy he’d gone on a couple of dates with a few months earlier. Zac was staring at the TV and fumbling with his hands.
“We were starting to hook up, and he told me that he’s HIV-positive.”
I’d dropped my samosa. “What?”
“No, no, no. He told me before anything happened. He said that him and his boyfriend had a threesome once, and the condom broke.”
A threesome and the condom broke.
I look down at my hand. At this point, I’m digging my nail into my knuckle.
“The good news is the tests came back negative.”
“The bad news is I can’t prescribe you Truvada.”
There is no rational reason for me to think I have HIV. I would have avoided this stress altogether if I weren’t interested in Truvada, a pill approved in 2012 to help prevent the contraction of HIV, also known as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP. I’d heard about the drug at a party in New York and immediately looked it up on my phone. Of the 657 San Francisco residents the study followed for 32 months, zero tested positive for HIV.
“I want to prescribe it,” Robin says, pulling out a prescription pad, “believe me, but the doctor I work under won’t allow it, not until we have the right protocols.” She writes down a name and hands me the paper: “Try Dr. Nisly at River Landing. She runs an LGBT clinic on Tuesday nights.” In the past three years, she’s never referred me to the LGBT clinic, never even mentioned that there was one. As I fold the paper, I remember the first time I met Robin, right after I’d moved to this Midwestern college town from New York. I’d been on guard when she asked if I had sex with men or women or both. “Men,” I said, scanning her face for twitches, her voice for stutters. I waited for a loaded question or curt tone. They never came. Read more…
Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.
I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.
I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything. Read more…
How am I a white supremacist? Well, I was born and raised in the United States of America, a country built by slave labor on stolen land, and every privilege I’ve ever enjoyed has come at the expense of someone else’s oppression. The education I received was white supremacist education, from its demand that I learn to write and speak “proper English” to its reliance on a literary, scientific, and artistic canon comprised of and curated almost exclusively by white men. My aesthetic tastes are permeated with subtle coding that extends subconscious preference to those who look like me and communicate themselves in a way I can identify with. I have interjected my unwanted, unwarranted opinion into conversations that are out of my lane, and I have chosen to look the other way rather than confront instances of racism because of cowardice, complacency, and a misplaced sense of politeness. The very foundations of my way of life are in white supremacy, and the list of microaggressions I have committed, and will no doubt continue to commit in spite of my “good intentions” for as long as I’m alive, is virtually endless.
Earlier this year, Emily Pothast penned a candid, introspective, and challenging essay in The Establishment exploring the ramifications of growing up in a culture saturated with racism. A good read when it was published in May, it has a renewed timeliness in light of last week’s US presidental election and the ensuing conversations about the impact of race and racism.
When I woke up on January 1st of 2012, I resolved not to drown. At 24 years old, I still lacked a crucial survival skill that most American children pick up before finishing elementary school.
It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. As a toddler my parents enrolled me in classes at a local YMCA; while I did develop an electromagnetic poolside grip, I did not successfully learn to swim. Later, I took a few lessons at a neighbor’s pool until those ended abruptly following rumors that another neighbor was threatening to alert the authorities to the unlicensed swimming business. In high school, during a harrowing water-treading test, my gym teacher hovered nervously over me as I flailed my gangly limbs to keep my face just above the water’s surface, and when I looked up I saw in his eyes my own terror reflected back. Knowing that he wouldn’t want to be responsible for a kid drowning in his gym class, I was certain he’d happily let me switch to the more terrestrial bowling/tennis/golf PE track that term. After high school I went to a college that had a somewhat absurd but rather practical requirement that in order to graduate, you had to be able to swim two pool lengths. I passed by back-floating across; no one seemed to mind that it took me nearly a half hour to “swim” a total of 50 yards.
Being in the water terrified me, evoking the kind of primal fear that our ancestors learned, generally, to heed. But I rarely told anyone; I was too embarrassed to admit I couldn’t swim. Attending an outdoorsy college with more riverside ropes to swing on and cliffs to jump off than I cared for meant that I often found myself in the water hoping and praying that I could thrash my way to some semblance of dry land before swallowing too much water–or before a fate worse than death to my idiotic college-addled brain: to have to be saved from drowning by a peer.
So on New Year’s Day that year, I promised myself one final chance to figure the damn thing out before resigning myself to a lifetime in fear of three quarters of the Earth’s surface. Read more…
At two in the morning in mid-July, I sat cross-legged, my hands full of lichen, waiting for the caribou to come.
It was my second to last summer in Fairbanks, Alaska, and the light outside was what most people associate with dawn. I wore shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. I sat as still as possible. When the small herd started towards me, I looked back at Whitney for reassurance. He stood about twenty feet behind me in the fenced enclosure, hips cocked to one side, his frame lanky and thin despite his baggy pants and sweatshirt. When he smirked at me, something shifted in my chest.
He was just a teenager—19 and about to begin his second year in a private college on the east coast. I was five years older. I felt so much wiser. We were two weeks into the four that we would spend together. The finiteness of those days gave us freedom to be inseparable without losing ourselves in each other. After all, it was impractical—I knew that in two weeks, I would drop him off at the airport, that I would wake up the next morning with an aching chest and an empty bed. But for the short time before he left, I could love him unabashedly and feel no shame.