Category Archives: Personal Essay

Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces

Minda Honey | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,986 words)

“And sometimes you meet yourself back where you started, but stronger.”
—Yrsa Daley-Ward

I sat alone at a picnic table sipping a hot can of beer in Sequoia National Park under the stingy shade of a nearby tree. I was surrounded by families. White families. Sequoia was the first of four national parks I had planned to visit on my summer road trip from Southern California to a writer’s retreat in Lake Tahoe, and from Lake Tahoe to my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky. I needed to get out and away. I’d just completed two years as a POC in an MFA program. Two years in classrooms at long tables surrounded by faces as white as the paper we printed our work on. I felt like the black text on that paper, forcefully marching across the landscape of my peers’ white lives.

I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.

It was July, the busiest time of year for the National Park Services. A narrow road ran past my campsite and the gravel grumbled in protest at the occasional passing car. No one bothered me. No one acknowledged me. I was just a lone Black woman day-drinking at a picnic table. I’d drained three cans with no buzz before realizing it was only 3% alcohol. It would do nothing to calm my anxiety about spending my first night in a tent alone.

The only other Black person I’d seen at the park was with his white wife and their children. As they ushered their brood onto the path that led to the giant sequoias, I heard him speak and suspected he was African. I’m not sure if he saw me, if he was tallying Black bodies like I was. Read more…

Leave Them Alone! A Reading List On Celebrity and Privacy

I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangerswith a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.

This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?

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Moved by Kim

Seth Davis Branitz | Longreads | March, 2017 | 16 minutes (4,085 words)

 

My parents had said it aloud many times, and I had shushed them.

I was guilty of sometimes thinking it.

“Just kill yourself, or get killed quickly, and end all the mayhem.”

My older brother had been barely surviving on a destructive path for so long that sometimes I wished he would just finish it off already.

Really. It just sometimes seemed the easier way for him, and for all of us.

I had no idea how much worse his death would actually make things—how alone his death would leave me, as it hastened the additional deaths that would leave me the only remaining member of my family. Read more…

How a Story Becomes a ‘Hopeful Thing’: George Saunders on His Writing Process

George Saunders

At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”

If you love George Saunders, check out the Anton Chekhov-George Saunders Humanity Kit and see what it’s like to take a literature course with Mr. Saunders, for yourself.

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.

The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.

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The Roots of Cowboy Music: ‘This Is the Music We Made. This Is the Land We Made.’

At MTV News, Oakland writer Carvell Wallace travels to Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and reflects on what it means to be black and American.

I think about the American government sending armies to wipe out the nations that had thrived here for millennia, warring with them for generations, committing atrocities that most Americans have never heard about in order to clear out the West so that rough-hewn men, gallant cowboys and lion-hearted ranchers, could homestead their land and claim their stake. Grow their cattle and bequeath land to their families. So they could watch life raising itself from the earth and contemplate the miracle of it all as they gazed into the heavens. And compose terse and delicate verses about how marvelous it all is.

I thought I had come to Elko to wallow in the melancholy of the cowboy poet, but really, it was just another chance to see if I could belong in my own country. And the results were inconclusive. When I walked through that lobby, nodding awkward hellos to people whose glances lingered just a little longer on me than maybe they would have otherwise, I felt foreign.

But when I sat with Flemons and Farrow and we traced the roots of cowboy music all the way back to our great-grandparents and the songs they sang, songs that they had probably learned from their parents, who would have been born into slavery, I didn’t just feel like I had a right to be here. I felt like I belonged here. Like this was my home as much as it was anyone else’s. I was reminded that people like me don’t pick up guitars and scratch out anguished rambling songs because we want to be white. We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones. This is the music we made. This is the land we made.

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Godwin’s Law, Trump’s Era

Game Over, Bilbao 2014 by Denis Bocquet

There’s an internet adage — Godwin’s Law — stating that once you’ve made a Nazi analogy you’ve lost the argument. This short post on The Nib gathers the work of five Jewish cartoonists who address the validity of Nazi analogies in our current political climate.

Godwin's Law by cartoonist Matt Lubchansky

Godwin’s Law by cartoonist Matt Lubchansky

I’d argue that when we invoke Godwin’s Law, we all lose.

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The Restless Ghosts of Baiersdorf

Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | March 2017 | 25 minutes (6,248 words)

 

David Birnbaum got off the train in Baiersdorf. The Bavarian village 12 miles north of Nuremberg as the crow flies made a pleasant, pastoral impression. Green fields surrounded the railroad station, and men in leather trousers stood in front of traditional timbered houses.

In 2000, Birnbaum, a corporate business development manager, had come all the way from Rechovot, Israel. He had never heard of Baiersdorf until he looked at one of his family trees. His great-great-grandfather, the renowned numismatist Abraham Merzbacher, was born there in 1812, as was another famous relative, the mountaineer and explorer Gottfried Merzbacher. In the first half of the 19th century, the era in which the two men were born, almost one third of Baiersdorf’s 1,400 residents was Jewish.

David Birnbaum’s relatives had left Baiersdorf for various reasons and in all directions. Abraham Merzbacher went to study in Munich. He became a banker and collected one of the largest private Jewish libraries in the world. Gottfried Merzbacher caught wanderlust. He went to explore Central Asia’s Tian Shan mountains, indulging in nature’s “wondrously sweet, flowery alpine valleys… wild gorges… rock chains of unprecedented boldness.” Later, a glacial lake there was named after him. In his expedition “sketches” (available only in German) Merzbacher also wrote that in the magic of this “unworldly solitude (…) the struggles and passions caused by the contrast of people’s real or perceived interests appeared surreal, like phantoms.”

David Birnbaum knocked at the town hall in Baiersdorf’s neat main square. He expected to unearth information about his family by looking at 300- or 400-year-old tax records at the town’s archive, as he had done in other places in Germany. A clerk said that the archive was a complete mess; no way that he’d find anything there. Normally, the clerk disclosed, they don’t even let people go to the Jewish cemetery unescorted. But since Birnbaum had come all the way from Israel and only had a few hours, he could take the big iron key and go to the cemetery which was, unlike other Jewish cemeteries, located right in the center of town. Read more…

On Bearing Witness: Saving Chickens, Saving Myself

At Catapult, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee reflects on seeing and “being seen” — the silent gift of bearing witness to one another and individual suffering as a way of offering comfort and hope.

Last year, I watched a young woman meander toward the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge every five steps. I asked her if she was enjoying her Christmas Eve—and did she see the seals below in the water?

She smiled. I was not sure it was a real smile. But she did not venture toward the edge again. I know this, because I followed her at a distance to the other side.

In years past, I would have looked the other way. I would have thought it was not my business. In years past, I was that young girl. But my aunt kept me in her line of sight. She didn’t tell me to keep walking, I just did. And I knew she was behind me the entire time.

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‘I felt dirty, a lesser person somehow than when I had left a week before.’

Rafia Zakaria᾿s essay in The Baffler on flying while Muslim is an important read that exposes a long list of things that most white, non-Muslim Americans never have to think about while traveling — what language they’re speaking, what books they’re reading, or who’s sending them text messages.

After landing in Boston, I put away my book and took out my customs form and my passport, my courage and my patience. As our herd of hopeful entrants was separated—as it always is between U.S. passport holders and Legal Permanent Residents, and the lesser “everyone else”—I reminded myself that I was the less vulnerable. The white and real American couple in front of me considered their dinner options. I sweated and deleted all the texts from my family members, every one of them having a Muslim name.

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Follow the Oil Trail and You’ll Find the Girls

Riayn Fergins | Longreads | March 2017 | 14 minutes (2,400 words)

 

Duluth, Minnesota was dank and barren. Ice and mounted snow covered Lake Superior, save for scattered pools of howling waves. I picked this time because the ships weren’t in and wouldn’t be for several weeks. It was, for the moment, safe to stand by that great lake and speak on the silent affliction it routinely ushers to Duluth’s shores—the very same affliction that will spread across four states and infect each Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. I was there to meet Sarah Curtiss, an esteemed Anishinaabe activist at Men As Peacemakers, who’d agreed to an on-camera interview to discuss the predatory violence on this lake and other locations throughout Indian Country, such as oil fields and pipeline camps, that threaten the lives and bodies of Indigenous women on a daily basis. She wasn’t my first documentary interview on this subject, yet my hair raised in anticipation of absorbing more horrific accounts and the immense responsibility of honoring her every word.

Curtiss shook my hand and sighed. Her exhale eased my nerves. “You wouldn’t believe some of the questions I’ve been asked,” she said. “I once had this woman, a reporter, say ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re Indian?’”

Curtiss is astute, so I would not put it past her to pop this icebreaker as a litmus quiz for non-people of color documentarians (or journalists), but for me that morning it was an invitation to an honest interview built on trust in our convergent, but different, American experiences as “other.” Her last name, Curtiss, her milk complexion and loose auburn curls were more Anglo than Disney’s Pocahontas, but questioning her blood quantum never crossed my mind. How could it? Being of color, I’d long resigned myself to what most American minorities from families spanning the skin color spectrum know: If one of the three race-defining elements (skin color, features, hair texture) is off stereotype, “Are you sure?” or “What else are you?” looms over every discussion with the uninitiated. But, Curtiss and I were initiated.

We met on a February morning as if we were sorority sisters from distant chapters executing an exclusive greeting in the form of her sigh that said, Thank God I don’t have to explain myself to you. It was unexpected, but I was grateful. We discussed her advocacy in the fight against the epidemic of missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women plaguing North America; the crisis that led her to divulge, “I do not go a month without someone I have a personal connection to passing away.” More specifically, she spoke of her prominent role combating trafficking on Lake Superior ships that pass through Minnesota’s Duluth Port—the reason for my sojourn to the frigid Midwest.

On a 17-degree day with sharp winds blistering her hands and cheeks, Curtiss stood beside the great lake that keeps sweeping away her stolen sisters. She detailed injustices against many Native women who live unrecognized lives, invisible to all but those who mean them harm—demeaning, brutal harm—and introduced me to invisibility as a handicap, rather than a privilege of gods. Read more…