Category Archives: Personal Essay

A Fat Body and a Fat Mind: On Taking Up Space, Unapologetically

ursula the sea witch, from disney's little mermaid

Carmen Maria Machado’s stunning essay in Guernica on the power of women who take up space is an important read for people of any size. Midway through the piece, she describes what happens to self-perception when you live in a world where there’s little representation of your physical self, and what representation there is is mocking or shaming.

Every day, I look for myself in other women’s bodies. This is what happens when you never see yourself in television shows or catalogues or movies—you get hungry. In passersby, I seek out a faithful replica of my own full chest: my plastic-bag stomach pooched over jeans, my milk-carton hips, and my face with its peach-pit cheekbones set in coffee grounds. In this way, I see myself in pieces, mostly, and have to assemble my body in my mind.

It isn’t like my mother and the woman buying the peppers; I’m not disgusted or afraid. I just want to know what I look like to other people. And every so often, I get to see all of those pieces together, and it feels like the reverberations after an orgasm—a low, deep satisfaction.

The beautiful fat woman is across from me on the subway platform, chewing on her nail. She’s trying on really nice shoes in the same store where I am trying on really nice shoes. She’s catching her reflection in a window in the hatched streets of our shared city, and I can’t stop looking at her. Does she resemble me, or do I just hope that because she’s so beautiful? Does that make me vain, or stupid? Why does seeing a woman who might actually look like me make me want to sit down on the pavement and cry?

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The Boundless Possibility and Boundless Boredom of the Open Road

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr, via Unsplash

The idea of the road trip — a person, a car, endless possibility — is beguiling, but the actual act of being on a road trip is decidedly less so. Jacob Hoerger, in The Point, pens an essay on cars, road trips, and how they force us to create our own meaning.

After chatting through the term they’d just finished up and going over plans for the summer that lay ahead, our conversation eventually reached the stage I call “If You See Something, Say Something”; that is, when you reflexively read off every road sign that passes by. “Lakota Motel: American Owned and Operated.” “Welcome to 1880 Town.” “The Gutzon Borglum Experience.” You hope to find some grounds for commentary or questioning—any kind of entry into another communal utterance. Every once in a while I’d slyly check my email on my phone, hoping there’d be something there for me to think about.

These dead hours of a trip put one in an unfamiliar state of suspension: all your lower needs (to borrow from Maslow’s framework) are met. The only thing you have to do is sit there. Yet you are unable to reach any higher capacity, any self-actualization, because all you can do is sit there. Your thoughts fold gently back onto themselves.

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Eating In Public Is a Spectator Sport When You’re Fat

Illustration by Hana Jang (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Being fat means never being allowed to ignore your fatness. After navigating a lifetime of being fat (and ashamed) in the US, Jonatha Kottler moved to the Netherlands and found a whole new universe of exclusion, which she describes in an essay in New York Magazine.

One day, about 12 weeks after blowing up my whole life and moving my family to what seemed like a very hostile environment, my son and I decided we would go to the cinema and see The Great Gatsby to cheer ourselves up and feel less homesick. We did what we sometimes did at home — skipped dinner to have popcorn for dinner instead. Already flummoxed by having to preorder our tickets for assigned seats on a Dutch website (none of these were cinema-hurdles back home where you’d just walk up and buy a ticket), we arrived at the cinema. We bought the largest popcorn (which is in fact a product they sold — we didn’t bring our own trash barrel and ask to have it filled) and settled in to enjoy our treat. I felt a tap on my shoulder, which was strange since I knew a total of three people in the entire country. I spun around, startled, and the Dutch man sitting behind me said, “Are you going to eat all of that? I see why you are so fat.”

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Don’t Call My Daughter Princess. Call Her Madam President.

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Sarah Stankorb | Longreads | February, 2017 | 12 minutes (2,917 words)

 

My daughter Zoe was about 11 months old. Other strange men with silvered brows had referred to her as princess before. I’d read Cinderella Ate My Daughter during my third trimester, and while I deeply feared how the world would subtly limit her options, I usually bit my tongue over the princess thing. But we were on a trip to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and maybe it was thoughts of presidents, or the emotional toll of slipping between the fancy house and its slave quarters, or maybe I was just tired. But I looked at the man who’d just called my daughter princess and said, “Not a princess. She’s going to be president.”

He looked at me like I was talking gibberish—he’d just been trying to be nice to a baby—and walked away. I got used to that taken-aback look, because from that point forward, not-a-princess-but-president became my default. By the time we went to Disney World last spring when she was 4, my daughter had heard the message enough times that as park attendants and characters called her princess, my daughter corrected everyone (except Elsa, because evidently one does not mess with the ice queen).

Zoe would sling a hand to her hip and say, “I’m not a princess.” When they’d ask what she is then, she’d reply “President.” Or “Jedi” on a day spent scouring for and failing to find Rey.

Zoe identified with Hillary Clinton from the start. While I was weighing Sanders versus Clinton, my 4-year-old had determined “Hillary is a girl president, like me.” She made up songs about Hillary and developed a granddaughterly deep, unfaltering affection for her.

Meanwhile, I dug Bernie Sanders’ laser focus on economic issues, his willingness to put words to the crush of student debt that weighs on most people of my generation. Hillary Clinton, it seemed, had almost always been there floating in my vague awareness of the political realm. As a young teen, I respected that she used Rodham—and knew zero women in my own life who’d kept their given surnames, or hyphenated them. I certainly didn’t understand why there was so much hubbub over her lack of interest in baking cookies.

My own mother had set my life’s trajectory, firmly pointing me toward college and a career of my choosing. “You don’t need a man for anything,” she asserted, frequently. Marriage, if I wanted it, could wait. Children, if I wanted them, must certainly wait. Mom launched into informal sex education when I was in elementary school to ensure I would understand and have control over my reproductive choices. Who cared if the First Lady didn’t want to be reduced to lurking in kitchens? Neither did my mother and neither did I.

But years on, grown up and with kids of my own, Clinton’s presidential bid felt about two generational steps removed from me. Her nineties positions on feminism and health care, treated as so radical at the time, were an assumed part of my world. My life was evidence of progress. I didn’t need her anymore. Read more…

This Was How Things Ended

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Michael Hobbes | Longreads | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

 

“Wait, so your ex called your boss and tried to get you fired?”

This is me.

Genau.”

This is Andy. We are on a break from German class, 15 minutes between the future tense and the subjunctive. He’s from Baton Rouge and I’m from Seattle, but we’re speaking German, for practice. We are not very good.

“Er ist ein … Fucker,” Andy says. “He told my boss I was reading ebooks at my desk instead of working—which I totally was.”

“So, did you get fired?” I ask.

“No, my boss already knew I was a super shitty employee. But then I called up my ex’s boss and got him fired.” Andy’s former boyfriend is in Amsterdam; he’s a mechanic. A few months ago he told a customer that her car was totaled, bought it off her for a few hundred euros, then sold it the next week for two thousand.

Es ist nicht so gut,” I say, my German failing, as always, to reach the correct level of emphasis. We are both going through breakups. It’s been a week since mine and six since his. This is what we talk about every day, 15 minutes at a time.

Two weeks ago, Andy’s ex visited him here in Berlin. They had dinner, then sex, then Andy asked him to leave, told him he shouldn’t sleep over now that they’re not boyfriends anymore. Three days later, the cops called. His ex is filing charges for attempted murder. He says putting him out on the street in middle of the night in February is an act of violence. Andy has to be in court next week.

Es ist…” I say.

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Writing Our America

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

 

The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.

* * *

I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”

The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,

On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”

Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.

This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?

Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…

A Shot in the Arm

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Josh Roiland | Longreads | February 2017 | 14 minutes (3,710 words)

 

“Who’s sticking today?” the man asked.

He wore tan work boots and rough jeans. He told a friend in the waiting room that he had a couple hours off work and thought he’d stop in for some extra cash. The receptionist told him the names of that day’s phlebotomists. He paused. Sliding a 16-gauge needle into someone’s arm is tricky, and the man reconsidered. Instead of signing in, he announced to the room that he’d come back tomorrow and try his luck.

I’d driven 107 miles from my home in Bangor, Maine to the BPL Plasma Center in Lewiston to collect $50 for having my arm punctured and a liter of my plasma sucked out. The actual donation takes about 35 minutes, but the drive and its attendant wait makes for an eight-hour day. I clocked in for that trip five times this summer.

I’m a professor at the University of Maine. My salary is $52,000, and I am a year away from tenure. But like everyone else in that room, I was desperate for money. Read more…

Not For the Paint of Heart

Photo: Nancy Muller

Mystery brunette and GQ correspondent Taffy Brodesser-Akner rented and rented, until a bad experience with a New Jersey landlord and a fit of financial security convinced her and her husband it was time to commit to homeownership. Now for the hard part: Choosing paint colors without having a complete existential breakdown. Akner details her taupe night of the soul at Curbed:

The only positive experience I can drum up in service of paint colors involves a hotel in Palm Springs. It was called the Saguaro, and outside and inside it was painted in the most pleasing lollipop colors: lavender, purple, lime, orange, yellow. Claude and I sat at the pool and looked up at the colors and I felt them infiltrate my cornea, then my retina, then my brain, then my soul. These were the colors I wanted to look at, but I didn’t think that my house should be a day care center, like my sister said. I couldn’t remember any house where I’d ever noticed the colors, and I didn’t know if that meant that you weren’t supposed to notice the colors, or if it was yet another symptom of how damaged I was, that I couldn’t see the details of what surrounded me when my actual trade was to see the details of what surrounded me. Willful blindness, it’s called, maybe. But maybe it’s just self-protection. I guess that was the toughest part: Was I supposed to have been planning this my whole life?

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From Auditions to Airports: Actor Riz Ahmed on Being Typecast as a Terrorist

Photo by Jon Rawlinson (CC BY 2.0)

In an essay from the book The Good Immigrant (excerpted at the Guardian), The Night Of actor Riz Ahmed describes what life, work, and passing through airports can be like as a British Pakistani.

You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels — never as “just a bloke called Dave”. The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck.

I had so far managed to avoid this in the audition room, but now I faced the same threat at US airports. It didn’t help that The Road to Guantánamo had left my passport stamped with an Axis of Evil world tour — shooting in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran within six months. I spent the flight sweating in defiance of air-conditioning, wondering what would await me.

When I landed, the officer assessing me shared my skin colour. I wondered whether this was a good sign or if he was one of the legendarily patriotic Cuban border officers I had heard about, determined to assess how star-spangled I was with a thumb up the anus.

He looked at my passport, then at me, frowned and drew a big ‘P’ over my immigration card. I immediately thought it stood for Paki.

“Protocol!”

I was led down a long corridor, without explanation, before turning into a side room that felt instantly familiar.

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Feeling Unsafe at Every Size

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Eva Tenuto | Longreads | January 2017 | 22 minutes (5,426 words)

 

I entered the sandwich shop and saw him at the counter, my old high school freshman homeroom teacher, placing his lunch order. I hadn’t seen him since I’d graduated 17 years earlier.

He and I were the only customers. If I got in line, it was clear, there’d be no avoiding him. I’d heard through the small-town-grapevine that he’d been forced to retire early just a year after I graduated, after one brave young woman turned him in for touching her inappropriately. I remember thinking he got what he deserved. But it never occurred to me that I was traumatized by what happened with him until seeing him in person that day made me seize up in a full body rage.

“Well, hello Ms. Tenuto,” he said when he spotted me. That was how he always addressed me, even as a high school freshman. It was only in that moment that I realized the subtlety of the language that had taken my childhood away, that made his power and authority seem to disappear, that created the illusion we were equal, as if we were both adults. “You don’t remember who I am, do you?” he asked. How could he have the nerve to think I might have possibly forgotten? Like nothing had happened between us that would stand to be memorable. But nothing did happen. That’s what I had been telling myself all these years.

“Oh, I remember you,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes. My body started to feel charged, as if my insides were effervescent. I knew this was an important moment and if I didn’t claim it, it would quickly pass me by. Read more…