Category Archives: Writing

Brit Bennett Reflects on Living the Past Year in “Trump Time”

380887 34: A young African American woman listens during a civil rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963 in Washington. (Photo by National Archive/Newsmakers)

On the night Trump was elected president, I sat at home alone feeling winded; just hours earlier, I’d been at a polling site in Bed Stuy where black and brown people, many of them women, smiled and waved and high-fived each other, certain that we’d soon be celebrating a national milestone just like we had eight years before.

Writer Brit Bennett, whose debut novel The Mothers will be adapted for film with actress Kerry Washington as producer, reflects on her experience of reality in the past year since President Trump’s election in a poignant personal essay for Vogue. Back to back scandals, large and small explosions of racial animus, and the whiplash-like event of Trump following the nation’s first black president have “compressed time,” Bennett writes, and have made the author, and her mother, who grew up in Jim Crow-era Louisiana, question the notion of progress.

In Trump Time, the clock moves backward. The feeling that time itself is reversing might be the most unsettling aspect of a most unsettling year. What else is Make America Great Again but a promise to re-create the past? Through his campaign slogan, Trump seizes the emotional power of nostalgia, conjuring a glorious national history and offering it as an alternative to an uncertain future. He creates a fantasy for his base of white Americans but a threat for many others. After all, in what version of the past was America ever great for my family? “The good ol’ days?” my mother always says. “The good ol’ days for who?”

Last September, I traveled with a publicist who is also black to a warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, in order to sign books. As we left Baltimore and headed toward a city that is, according to the latest census, 87 percent white, we began to see red Make America Great Again signs on lawn after lawn. “When I see those signs, I feel the same way as when I see a Confederate flag,” I said. She understood what I meant—that visceral sense of dread. Both symbols represent a racialized nostalgia that, to me, only evokes fear.

I did not realize then that, within the year, those two symbols would collapse into each other.

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Kevin Young Is Ready to Engage the Public with Poetry

(A. Scott/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Kevin Young, the director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of the National Book Award long-listed Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Post-Facts, and Fake News, became poetry editor of The New Yorker just this past March. In this profile of Young in Esquire, he talks about the “great hoax” of race, the musicality and influences of his own work, and his desire to engage the public anew with poetry, which he says can “take us out of ourselves and bring us back a little bit different.”

Young claims Lucille Clifton, Seamus Heaney, and Rita Dove as important influences, and says he sees music as the essence of his art. Though his poems do not lack for depth, they rarely scan as difficult, let alone forbidding. He likes puns, and freely borrows forms from other fields (the blues, fugitive-slave posters, film noir). In college, he told me, he realized that “poetry was not this thing in the atmosphere. You have to look in your backyard. That’s the stuff to write about.” At the time, he’d never read a poem that represented someone like his grandmother. “I remember thinking, If I can get her in a poem, then I’ll have done something.” Young began to look to poetry as a sort of archive, vindicating evidence of “family—blood, adopted, imagined,” to borrow the dedication of Most Way Home. In “Oblivion,” he writes what might be his motto, or maybe a fervent dream: “Nothing // stays lost forever.”

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An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen

Guillaume Souvant / AFP / Getty Images

Catherine Cusick | Longreads | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,200 words)

Viet Thanh Nguyen had just gotten back from a summer in Paris when he received an unexpected phone call from a Chicago number. He didn’t recognize the caller, so he let it ring. Out of curiosity, he texted back, “Who is this?”

The number replied, “It’s the MacArthur Foundation.”

“Oh,” Nguyen thought. “I should call these people back right away.”

Nguyen managed to stand for the first few seconds of the call, but soon had to sit down. He’d just won $625,000, no strings attached, as an unrestricted investment in his creative potential.

Eighteen months earlier, Nguyen had received another life-altering phone call when he won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Since the book’s publication in April 2015, Nguyen’s been no stranger to worldwide recognition: He’s also received a Guggenheim fellowship, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and countless others.

According to the MacArthur Selection Committee, “Nguyen’s body of work not only offers insight into the experiences of refugees past and present, but also poses profound questions about how we might more accurately and conscientiously portray victims and adversaries of other wars.” After writing in obscurity for more than a decade to honor his and others’ war stories — and all refugee stories, Nguyen insists, are war stories — he will now have even more resources to help tilt the world in a more peaceful direction.

I spoke with Nguyen the day after the MacArthur Foundation announced him, along with 23 other extraordinary recipients, as a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. Read more…

The Genius of the Playboy Interview

Germaine Greer gave an interview to Playboy in 1973 in which she skewered the magazine: "I'm against showing girls as if they were pork chops." (The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Hugh Hefner was a complicated individual whose notions of sexuality and human relationships were at once woke and predatory, who stumbled upon a brilliant idea at a time when American culture was milquetoast. A loss of identity in the 1950s, particularly among men, was palpable for a generation who no longer had a war to fight. It took a magazine that paired the mind and the body, high culture and naked women, to shake the male from his slumber. Read more…

The End of ‘Rolling Stone’ As We Know It

33-year-old editor and publisher Jann Wenner at the 1979 relaunch of 'Look' magazine, which would last only a year. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)

In the end, Jann Wenner was always going to sell Rolling Stone. The current timing is certainly unprompted and a bit of a surprise — Wenner, along with his son Gus, the president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, announced this week the magazine is now open for bids — but there had been indications in recent years that the once groundbreaking magazine would soon be top edited by someone other than Wenner.

Wenner has passed on opportunities to sell Rolling Stone in the past, including an offer of $500 million that he turned down two decades ago. But in 2017, the timing was too good to pass up. This year is the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone‘s founding, and not only is the occasion being marked with an HBO documentary co-directed by Alex Gibney, Knopf is publishing the first major Wenner biography this fall, written by Joe Hagan. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the book.)

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The Mastery and Magic of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Toni Morrison dancing at a disco party in New York City in 1974. "She wasn’t born Toni Morrison. She had to become that person," writes Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in her 2015 New York Times Magazine cover story on the author. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Cashawn Thompson created the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic on Twitter in 2013 to draw attention to the accomplishments and resilience of black women in the public eye like Michelle Obama. With T-shirts, tote bags, videos, and news headlines, #BlackGirlMagic soon went viral. Like “(To Be) Young, Gifted, and Black,” a song written by Nina Simone, and “Black Lives Matter,” the affirmation “Black Girls Are Magic” creates positive associations with blackness and reconstitutes its possibilities. “Say it loud!” James Brown sang in his 1968 song “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In other words, let us not cower — let us like ourselves.

Affirmations like #BlackGirlMagic are important corrective tools, especially now, with a president in office who weaponizes language to stir up policies that are hurtful for communities of color. Still, I worry that a focus on black women’s extraordinariness obscures the unfairness of what we overcome. I wonder if, along with a litany of archetypes that have lingered in the public imagination, #BlackGirlMagic fortifies an idea that black women can endure anything, that we don’t need protecting.

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Confronting Wealth and Class Privilege as a Black Professor at a White College

(Clarence Gatson/Gado/Getty Images)

In an essay rich with lyricism and brutal honesty, Kiese Laymon tells the story of his early years teaching at an elite liberal arts college in New York. When a new friend is arrested on a parole violation, the author learns to see class differences and power dynamics in a new way.

Brown, the first person I met in Poughkeepsie, was a felon because he was black, scared, desperate, and guilty. I was black, scared, desperate, and guilty but I came from folks with a bit more money than Brown. Though I wasn’t the grandchild of grandparents who passed money or land down to my parents, I was a child of what folks called “the black middle class.” My mama was one paycheck away from asking Grandmama or me for money neither of us had the week before payday.

There was no wealth in my family of black middle class women. There were only paydays.

I knew that my student Cole, a dealer of everything from weed to cocaine, could be a college graduate, college professor, college trustee in spite of being scared, desperate, and guilty because he was a white child of wealthy parents. Cole could literally become president of all kinds of American things, or president of nothing. Either way, he’d be fine. He wouldn’t be free, but materially, Cole would never suffer.

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It Takes a Village: A ‘Village Voice’ Reading List

(Drew Angerer / Getty)

Say goodbye to those red sidewalk boxes — and a slice of American literary greatness. Since 1955, the Village Voice has been a ubiquitous part of New York City culture. In a half century it was transformed from a counterculture rag to a longform powerhouse rooted in the character and the color of the city.

This week, the current owners of the Voice announced the end of the era: The free print edition of the paper is finished. Once available on every street corner, it will now be online only. In their write-up for The New York Times, John Leland and Sarah Maslin Nir mourn the paper’s once inescapable presence: “Without it, if you are a New Yorker of a certain age, chances are you would have never found your first apartment. Never discovered your favorite punk band, spouted your first post-Structuralist literary jargon, bought that unfortunate futon sofa, discovered Sam Shepard or charted the perfidies of New York’s elected officials.”

The Village Voice was the first paper you grabbed on the way to the subway, the last thing you grabbed at night for the long ride home. It redefined the alt-weekly and introduced readers to a new kind of journalist and critic. If the Voice was the first place you were published, then you were on the way to a brilliant career. Here are some of our favorite moments of brilliance.

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Why Fiction Haunts Us: Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on His Ghosts

(Photo by Primo Barol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In a profile at New Republic, Josephine Livingstone talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the ghosts that inhabit his life, his writing, and his birthplace in Vietnam. Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”

In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.

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Inside the Content Machine

Assembly line workers

Many of the freelance writers I know cobble  together their income from a mix of projects:  journalism, copy writing, web production work, and cranking out content widgets. Call that last bit what you will — content marketing, brand journalism, native advertising — skilled writers can make good money in this sector of the word market.

And there’s a fat supporting industry to all that content marketing gold — books, classes, fancy conferences. On Tablet, Sean Cooper attends a content marketing conference to find out how the content industry is selling itself — and selling itself out.

…the roaring fire that was 20th-century nonfiction magazine literature has been hosed down to wet coals. In this new 21st-century post-literature era, the techniques and tools of the journalism trade have been plundered by scavenger industries, which rightly foresaw profit opportunities in what has been called branded content, native advertising, or content marketing, which agglomerates techniques used to build characters, create narrative arcs, and establish tones of voice that once served as conduits for nonfiction writers attempting to intimately mind-meld with readers. While journalism continues to struggle, burgled storytelling devices are being leveraged at scale by content-marketing agencies and branding studios that publish content stories to satisfy shareholder expectations. One industry analysis estimates that the content-marketing business will be worth $215 billion in 2017. The Struggling Writer is here to see them count the money.

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