This week, we’re sharing stories from Ben Mauk and Matt Huynh, Katie Engelhart, Devon O’Neil, Ariel Saramandi, and Tananarive Due.
Ben Mauk, Matt Huynh | The New Yorker | February 26, 2021 | 28 minutes (7,000 words)
“Survivors of China’s campaign of persecution reveal the scope of the devastation.”
Katie Engelhart | The New York Times | Februaary 19, 2021 | 15 minutes (3,794 words)
“For the millions of Americans living with dementia, every day during this pandemic can bring a fresh horror.”
Devon O’Neil | Outside | February 22, 2021 | 44 minutes (11,327 words)
“‘This isn’t a tale of savagery,’ said former H2O lead guide turned Cummings nemesis Will Spilo. ‘This is a tale of mental illness.'”
Ariel Saramandi | Granta | Febuary 8, 2021 | 16 minutes (4,066 words)
“Ariel Saramandi on the sinking of the MV Wakashio off the coast of Mauritius.”
Tananarive Due | Vanity Fair | February 23, 2021 | 19 minutes (4,811 words)
“The movie is so scary because it seeps into people’s consciousness through fears. It really works on fear more than anything else.”
On July 25th, 2020, the container ship MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, an area known for “some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, (and) healthiest fish.” The ship eventually broke in two, spilling oil into Point D’Esnay, contaminating the coastline’s vegetation and sea life. As Ariel Saramandi recounts in this essay at Granta, when the government failed to act quickly, the citizens of Mauritius took action. The community made booms to soak up oil and protested against government indifference and inaction — despite the threat of being arrested for criticizing the authorities.
We have our superlative reputation to protect, after all: some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, healthiest fish. Tourism is the heart of the economy. The majority of the island’s most opulent hotels are found on the east coast. Plus, the government is heavily invested in the fishing industry. Our fish exports are a 250-million-dollar business, and parastatal fish farms dot the south-eastern lagoon. We are confident that the Wakashio will be removed imminently from the reef: it’s in the government’s self-interest. We hear talk of international assistance and are reassured.
Meanwhile, images show filaments of an oily substance on the shore. Then images show the ship beginning to tilt. The Minister of Fisheries said the photos ‘appeared to be manipulated and deceptive.’ ‘The ship is not sinking and will not sink,’ he said on 5 August 2020.6 All is under control.
The next day thick black streaks coat our lagoon. Oil like lacquer on the water.
Against all international recommendations, despite our outcry and outrage, the government sank half of the Wakashio in great haste on 24 August. Two days later, melon-headed whales washed up around the south-eastern coast. Dead, mutilated, glossy bodies. Authorities haul them onto the back of pickup trucks, tails hanging out. Authorities cover them in white sheets. Videos of dying whales bobbing helpless in the ocean. Video of a mother whale trying to nudge her dying baby above the waves so that it can breathe; she watches as it dies, then dies a little while later, too. Fishermen say the ship was sunk in a whale breeding ground, that some of the corpses they found were of pregnant females.
At Granta, Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier recounts her community’s ancestral way of life: one based on hunting and gathering traditions that convey a deep respect for the animals and land that offer sustenance, and one that has been all but destroyed by government paternalism and climate change. She argues that the Arctic’s health is a barometer of the planet’s health and that the earth can still heal, provided we prioritize it over economic growth.
With the signs of spring all around me, and my dreams of soon being able to get out on the land again, in season to go berry picking with fellow Inuit women, it’s perhaps not surprising that my thoughts have turned to the place of nature in Inuit life. In our language we have no word for ‘nature’, despite our deep affinity with the land, which teaches us how to live in harmony with the natural world. The division the Western world likes to make between ‘man and nature’ is both foreign and dangerous in the traditional Inuit view. In Western thinking, humans are set apart from nature; nature is something to strive against, to conquer, to tame, to exploit or, more benignly, to use for ‘recreation’. By contrast, Inuit place themselves within, not apart from, nature.
From the start, the government’s policy to move us ‘off the land’ was misguided and paternalistic. The idea was to make the ‘administration’ of Canada’s Eskimos (as we were then called) easier. We were seen as a problem needing to be fixed. This would be mended by gathering us into settlements, building houses for us and ‘educating’ our children in English with a ‘Dick and Jane’ curriculum, an education that had nothing to do with what we knew to be the real world. We would partake of the government’s assistance programmes such as family allowances (which sometimes could be withheld if we didn’t send our children to school) and, when needed, social assistance payments and subsidized housing. Along with the provision of health services, these seemingly positive enticements were difficult to resist. Nowadays we recognize these offerings as coercive, though strangely packaged in well-meaning wrappings.
With the move, things happened very quickly. At first, we expected that this new world in which we suddenly found ourselves would be as wise as our own. But it wasn’t. It turned out that our new world was deeply dependent on external political and economic concepts and forces utterly at odds with our ways of being. In particular its structures seemed to have nothing to do with the natural world. Almost immediately, we started to give away our power. For a while we thought that if we were patient – as the Inuit hunters necessarily are – that patience would pay off. But we soon lost that sense of control over our lives, especially over the upbringing of our children. They were brought into the classrooms of southern institutional schooling, a concept totally foreign to us, where they were given an ‘education’ that had nothing to do with the knowledge and skills we needed for life on the land. All our traditional character-building teachings went out the window, and our social values began to erode. When we surrender our personal autonomy, we also give away our sense of self-worth, we lose the ability to define ourselves and to navigate our own lives.
Our Arctic home is a barometer of the planet’s health: if we cannot save the Arctic, can we really hope to save the forests, the rivers and the farmlands of other regions?
The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.
If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly Top 5 email every Friday.
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Visible Men: Black Fathers Talk About Losing Sons to Police Brutality (Mosi Secret, GQ)
At GQ, Mosi Secret offers a moving portrait of Joe Louis Cole, Larry Barbine, Rev. Joey Crutcher, Selwyn Jones, Jacob Blake III, and Michael Brown Sr., who are the fathers and father figures of Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake — all Black men who were killed by police brutality.
Their lives were transformed by the worst kind of news, a blow that left everything that followed so suddenly and painfully different. Not only have they suffered the abrupt and traumatic loss of their loved ones, but often just hours after being stunned by tragedy, they grieve before news cameras. They are transformed from ordinary people into symbols of this country’s injustice, symbols onto which so much meaning other than their own is projected. How easily could that parent have been me, grieving my child, the thinking goes. And yet these fathers endure such moments in uneasy juxtaposition with the mythical assumption that they don’t even exist.
These fathers and father figures, in just being present, fight against a myth of the absent Black father, one that began in 1965, when “Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, delivered a report to the Johnson White House, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, arguing that the plight of Black American communities was in decline due to a simple factor: the crumbling of the family unit and, in particular, children being raised in fatherless homes.” What Moynihan’s report failed to convey was the way in which social structures meant to assist actually penalized the nuclear Black family.
Just weeks after the study’s release, riots broke out across the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and critics latched onto the report to blame the ensuing violence on what Moynihan called “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The number of fatherless families, Black and otherwise, would rapidly grow in the following decades—a trend partly driven by the nation’s primary welfare program, in which for a period some states considered families ineligible for benefits if an adult male was a member of the household. The legacy of that policy and Moynihan’s report continues, and the notion of troubled, fatherless Black men has resurfaced after each national reckoning with racial injustice, including in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.
N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds (Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker)
“John Scalzi, the former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, heralded Jemisin as ‘
arguably the most important speculative writer of her generation.’” (Edit, mine.) Jemisin’s fiction is imaginative, original, and immersive and I’ll just say it: I’m an unabashed fangirl.
In this portrait by Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker, we learn about the personal dreamscapes that inspire Jemisin’s fiction and the critical influence that Noah, her artist father, had on her development as a writer. We get a glimpse into the systemic racism Jemisin has experienced in her career and into some fantastic writing that offers hope amid the chaos of a failed civilization.
Accepting her third Hugo, Jemisin stood at the lectern, with the rocket-shaped award beside her, and declared, “This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers, every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me could not possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s ‘meritocracy,’ but when we win it’s ‘identity politics.’ ” Holding up the award, she added, “I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.”
“How Long ’til Black Future Month?” includes one of her earliest published stories, “Cloud Dragon Skies” (2005), in which an ecological disaster has caused most of humanity to abandon Earth for a ring-shaped space colony, built from crushed asteroids, beyond Mars. “Old foolishness lay at the root of it,” notes the narrator, a young woman named Nahautu, one of the few who stay. The planet has rebounded, except for the atmosphere. The toxic chemicals it has absorbed combine to form a new kind of life:
One morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.
Ozark Life (Terra Fondriest, The Bitter Southerner)
Terra Fondriest’s ode to Ozark life in text and visuals at The Bitter Southerner is firmly set in the before times, when you could safely hold a wedding without masks, and when you could mix with more than members of your household without fear. What I loved most about his piece is how it exalts in simple joys — the best kind. This piece cleanses your mental palate not only with words and images, but with its grace.
Motor down just one dirt road, and you’ll begin to collect moments that are unique to this part of the South we call the Ozark Hills. Up and down hills and across creeks, maybe stopping in the middle to listen to the water flow and then heading back up, you’ll pass vistas of seemingly endless peaks dotted with cattle pastures. You’ll see wild turkeys dash across the road in front of you on their way to the acorns and hickory nuts in the forest on the other side. If your windows are open, you might hear waterfalls cascading down the drainage ways after a hard rain, or the interior might fill with dust and the smell of oak leaves burning during a dry spell. You might meet a truck coming at you on the narrow road and see how it pulls off near the edge of the woods to let you pass.
And if it so happens you decide to put roots down and call these hills home, you might start to develop relationships with certain parts of the creek or different bends in the road. You might start to become familiar with the people nestled in the hills who have been here for generations and those who arrived recently, just like you. You will slowly become part of the cadence of everyday Ozark life.
While Fondriest is new to the area, she understands that the only way to find her place is to get to know her neighbors and to earn their trust.
I am still the same introverted girl who grew up in the suburbs. Getting to know new people makes me more nervous photographing for this project. It’s a challenge that is daunting on most days, but the camaraderie built by pushing through that with my subjects yields the intimacy I strive for in my storytelling. Some of the folks I photograph are friends and neighbors, but others are people I meet through circumstance, whose everyday story I find interesting and a good piece for my Ozark Life story quilt. But I approach them. I might talk to them right away about my project, or I might let it simmer a bit and get to know them over days, months, even years before I bring up my project and my request to photograph them. Building a relationship is important, because it makes the pictures secondary.
Death and the All-American Boy (Kitty Kelley, The Washingtonian)
In 1974, Joe Biden had just lost his first wife Neilia and his daughter in a car crash and as the youngest person in the Senate at age 31, it is the sum of these things that make him “good copy.”
Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. Suddenly this handsome, young man struck down in his moment of glory was prey to scores of hungry reporters clamoring to write soul-searching stories.
What intrigued me about this piece at The Washingtonian is the pure swagger Biden displays for reporter Kitty Kelly. Oh 1974, you were a different time, indeed.
In his office in the New Senate Office Building surrounded by more than 35 pictures of his late wife, Biden launched into a three-hour reminiscence. It wasn’t maudlin—he seemed to enjoy remembering aloud. He was the handsome football hero. She was the beautiful homecoming queen. Their marriage was perfect. Their children were beautiful. And they almost lived happily ever after. “Neilia was my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover. The longer we lived together the more we enjoyed everything from sex to sports. Most guys don’t really know what I lost because they never knew what I had. Our marriage was sensational. It was exceptional, and now that I look around at my friends and my colleagues, I know more than ever how phenomenal it really was. When you lose something like that, you lose a part of yourself that you never get back again.
“My wife was the brains behind my campaign. I would never have made it here without her. It’s hard to imagine ever going through another campaign without her. She was the most intelligent human being I have ever known. She was absolutely brilliant. I’m smart but Neilia was ten times smarter. And she had the best political sense of anybody in the world. She always knew the right thing to do.
“Let me show you my favorite picture of her,” he says, holding up a snapshot of Neilia in a bikini. “She had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?
“My beautiful millionaire wife was a conservative Republican before she met me. But she changed her registration. At first she didn’t want me to run for the Senate—we had such a beautiful thing going, and we knew all those stories about what politics can do to a marriage. She didn’t want that to happen. At first she stayed at home with the kids while I campaigned but that didn’t work out because I’d come back too tired to talk to her. I might satisfy her in bed but I didn’t have much time for anything else. That’s when she started campaigning with me and that’s when I started winning. You know, the people of Delaware really elected her,” he says, “but they got me.”
Some detractors accuse him of shrouding himself in widower’s weeds, of dredging up his late wife in every speech. But Biden prides himself on being candid and honest—”That’s the only way I could be with the wife I had.” He understands the accusations: “I’m not the kind of guy everyone likes. My personality either grabs you or it doesn’t. My sister says I almost lost the campaign because ofmy personality, and my brother-in-law says you either love me or you hate me. I’m not an in-between type.
Feeling Bullish: On My Great-Uncle, Gay Matador and Friend of Hemingway (Rebekah Frumkin, Granta)
Speaking of intriguing men in very different times, at Granta we have Rebekah Frumkin’s portrait of her uncle Sidney Franklin. Discontent with the prospect of a potentially hum-drum existence as a teacher or an accountant, Franklin, armed only with persistence, self-confidence, and a desire for fame, ditched his Brooklyn-based identity in 1922 to fashion himself into a matador on a dare. What’s more, he became very good at it.
On 26 April 1976, after suffering a stroke that robbed him of the ability to walk and speak, the matador Sidney Franklin died in a nursing home in Manhattan, roughly thirteen miles from his native Brooklyn. Fifteen years earlier, on 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway donned his ‘emperor’s robe’ and shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun. As young men, the two had split bottles of brandy in Spain, had traveled through the countryside together (a remarked-upon odd couple, one clean and effete and the other greasy and unshaven), had watched bombs explode in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross had said theirs was a friendship between a great man and a lesser one. I am the grand-niece of the lesser one.
After six years of touring successfully in Mexico, Sidney fought his way to the central stage of the bullfighting world: the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza in Seville. On 9 June 1929, Sidney would acquit himself expertly in the ring, earning praise from Spanish aficionados and major newspapers. Again, adoring fans would flood from their stadium seats to lift Sidney up on their shoulders. Again, they would tear his traje apart, but these would be Spanish hands tearing, the hands of people who considered their arenas too good for Mexican toreros. Sidney would be carried back to his pension and strangers would crowd him – they would even join him in the shower. ‘I enjoyed and savored what I had done with an intensity almost sexually sensual,’ Sidney wrote, and later: ‘All the sexes seem to throw themselves at you.’ The Brooklyn Eagle, which had been covering Sidney’s story in lavish terms since his debut in Mexico, would publish headlines such as ‘Brooklyn Bullfighter Wins Great Ovation in Brilliant Spanish Debut’ and ‘Ten Thousand in Seville Arena Cheer Him as He Dispatches Bovine Foe with Single Stroke.’
Sidney was more than a novelty, a weird American who’d decided to try his hand at a foreign sport: he was a bullfighter in his own right, el único matador, and to his extreme satisfaction more than a little Spanish. He fashioned himself as a sort of cultural ambassador to Spain, singularly capable of introducing bullfighting to his American countrymen. ‘I shall not return to my hometown, Brooklyn, until I have gained fame throughout Spain,’ he told the Eagle. ‘I am sure that as soon as Americans are able to understand the beauty of this art, they will take to it, the same as they have taken to other sports.’ He joined an elite group of Spanish bullfighters whose company he continued to keep for decades.
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“DNA evidence proved Lydell Grant’s innocence. So why won’t the state’s highest criminal court exonerate him?”
This week, we’re sharing stories from Teju Cole, Barton Gellman, Dexter Filkins, Rebecca May Johnson, and Navneet Alang.
Teju Cole | The New York Times Magazine | May 18, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,411 words)
“History’s first draft is almost always wrong — but we still have to try and write it.”
Barton Gellman | The Atlantic | May 18, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,472 words)
“After receiving a trove of documents from the whistleblower, I found myself under surveillance and investigation by the U.S. government.”
Dexter Filkins | The New Yorker | May 18, 2020 | 39 minutes (9,920 words)
“Even as Iranians speculate about who will succeed Khamenei, many believe that, whoever becomes Supreme Leader, the revolution is no longer salvageable.”
Rebecca May Johnson | Granta | May 13, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,171 words)
“That violent heteronormative cultures of sex and reproduction among humans are attributed to ‘nature’ feels astonishing after spending time on the allotment. The slutty ingenuity of vegetables when it comes to desire and reproductive methods is a marvel that makes a mockery of conservative ideas of the natural.”
Navneet Alang | Eater | May 20, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,041 words)
On Alison Roman, social media, and the conundrum of formerly “exotic” foods finding mainstream success.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Gabrielle Hamilton, Nicholas Thompson, Anna Badkhen, Alex Perry, and Caleb Johnson.
Gabrielle Hamilton | New York Times Magazine | April 23, 2020 | 23 minutes (5,831 words)
“Forced to shutter Prune, I’ve been revisiting my original dreams for it — and wondering if there will still be a place for it in the New York of the future.”
Nicholas Thompson | Wired | April 20, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,971 words)
“After 20 years of long-distance competition, I ran my fastest. All it took was tech, training, and a new understanding of my life.”
Anna Badkhen | Granta | April 16, 2020 | 28 minutes (4,780 words)
“Anna Badkhen was researching Eden – the origins of humanity in the Afar Triangle of East Africa – when coronavirus broke out across the world.”
Alex Perry | Outside | April 15, 2020 | 34 minutes (8,610 words)
“It was supposed to be a routine six-hour tour, including the highlight: a quick hike into the island’s otherworldly caldera. Then the volcano exploded. What happened next reveals troubling questions about the risks we’re willing to take when lives hang in the balance.”
Caleb Johnson | The Bitter Southerner | April 21, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,276 words)
“E.O. Wilson’s big ideas for saving nature and humanity along with it.”
Before John Freeman became a respected editor of magazines such as Freeman’s and Granta, and edited multiple anthologies, he was an aspiring poet. Like many of us young writers, he couldn’t figure out how to get his writing life started, so he went into New York book publishing, thinking that might be the career route for him. For Poets & Writers magazine, Freeman writes a welcome personal narrative about how literary events were actually what provided the guidance and models he needed at that early stage of his career. He’d spent so much time in classrooms that he didn’t understand how writers conducted their professional and artistic lives. Interacting with authors offered the same kind of humanity that reading books did, except author events also inspired, educated, illuminated, humbled, and oriented him as a writer, giving him the directions he needed at that stage in his life. Candid, unscripted moments, pointed questions, casual off-the-cuff comments by everyone from Susan Sontag to David Foster Wallace – even the way they conducted themselves in front of the audience – it all left its mark on Freeman.
To this day, even after attending hundreds of readings, and giving hundreds more of my own, I find it hard to be cynical about gigs, readings, tours, and the like: Every single event holds the possibility that someone will leave changed—even the writer. The best writers on the road or onstage know that giving a reading or participating in an event isn’t simply a chance to say what they know. A good public event is more of a dialogue than that. An oral version of what writers do on the page, a reading has no predetermined outcome. In the sacred space of the public event, writers can try things out: a new idea, a way of seeing around what’s in front of us.
Having grown up in the heyday of post-structural criticism, which touted the idea of the abstract author, I was relieved when I started going to readings to see the forms I loved re-embodied, to see that the novel was made by a human hand, a heart, a mind. The more writers I saw onstage, the more physical the art form seemed to be, the more conceptual theory felt beside the point. John Ashbery seemed flattered by all the work done to figure out what his poems were about, but he also appeared, at good readings, just glad to be there. By the time I saw him read, much too late, he seemed to know his time was brief.
It’s funny reading this essay, because for me, it completes a circle. Freeman did the same for me at one AWP panel, where he and others spoke about how they think about editing, and how they came to it. I listened and filled pages of my tiny notebook with their ideas and anecdotes, and in turn, that simple panel shaped me. Such as: “If you’re not reading submissions that represent what America looks like, then you’re not presenting an accurate portrait of a time and place.”