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The State We Are In: Neither Here, There, nor in Heaven

Image courtesy of Madhushree Ghosh. Illustration by Carolyn Wells.

Madhushree Ghosh | Longreads | May 2021 | 16 minutes (4,261 words)

Seventeen years ago, I receive the call most immigrants dread. It is inevitable, and yet. The call announces that my Baba, my indefatigable, extroverted, positively enthusiastic father, was felled by a massive cardiac arrest. On a heart that was the most giving one among all the people I’ve known. Life in America at that second continues without a ripple. Only, my life changes, divided into before-the-call and after-the-call.

I ask my now-ex. “Will you come with me?” — like a child.

Awkwardly, he says, “Do you want me to?” — like he has an option and he could escape this uncomfortable moment. I call him my now-ex for a reason.

“My Baba is dead,” I say mournfully. As if saying it over and over would make it real. It wasn’t real. It still isn’t.

Journalist Aman Sethi talks about the burning funeral pyres that light up India’s cremation grounds in the New York Times. With over 300,000 new daily infections and over 21,000 dead in the last week in April, the pyres are lit in the parking lots of crematoriums. Author Rani Neutill writes about the pyres and her own journey back to cremate her mother five years ago. We both acknowledge these images transport us back to our own trauma of losing our parents, our loved ones. PTSD all over again.


On an August evening last year, now Vice President Harris tells the world, “Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chittis.” — as she accepts the Democratic nomination. I — and I am sure, millions of Indians, Indian Americans like me — weep with unbridled joy. To me, this kvelling was surprising, because I didn’t realize the depth of unbelonging I had felt. I have lived in America longer than in India, my birth country. I’m not even Tamil, and yet, that word, “chitti” — younger sister of an aunt, mausi, mashi, moushi in other Desi languages — reverberates in bursts of validation all through our immigrant communities. Two months later, author, host, and activist Padma Lakshmi notes what that ripple effect would be when a woman of color is vice president. Padma articulates what we all felt — we may not agree with everything Vice President Harris said/did, but we do like what she represents. We are hopeful.

As Indian Americans who have lived most of our lives outside our birth country, we abide by unwritten rules. We work hard, we internalize racism by being “model” immigrants. We follow American rules and norms, in effect, we try to create very large waves of “good immigrants.” We sympathize with other people of color but try not to draw too much attention to ourselves, except when we are excelling at academics, Spelling Bees, or inventions. To say we have internalized our colorism and racism is minimizing what we feel — we try so hard to “fit in.”


For Hindus, death is the final stage of life, the next journey where the soul travels different levels of earth, the nether lands, and on to heaven. The concept of reincarnation is an idea one grows up on, even if we have moved far away from it.

It takes me almost 36 hours to get to my Baba. A layover in Kuala Lumpur watching a somewhat famous Bollywood star hamming it up for his fans in the lounge, waiting for Didi, my sister to join at the airport connection area, both of us now fatherless, rudderless. I do not remember those 36 hours. I remember every moment of those 36 hours.

In the lounge, waiting for Didi, my sister to join at the airport connection area, both of us now fatherless, rudderless. I do not remember those 36 hours. I remember every moment of those 36 hours.

When we reach Chittaranjan Park, the Bengali neighborhood of middle-class former refugees of the 1947 Partition of India, my Ma is already waiting, eyes swimming in tears, but a hopeful smile on her tired lips. Her daughters are home. She isn’t alone in her grief anymore.

The house is filled with neighbors and strangers. Everyone looks at Didi and me, expecting us to collapse, weep, wail, because only a frantic acknowledgment of loss matters to the neighbors. Didi and I don’t cry, though we hug our Ma despite us not being a hugging family.

The neighbors want to know, “Who will give mukhagni?” — only menfolk are allowed to go with the dead to the cremation grounds. Only sons or designated male family members are allowed to light the pyre, mukhagni (adding fire to the mouth of the dead). Women are second-class, not permitted. Women are to bear children — souls may get attached to them when they return from the cremation grounds — not allowed, not allowed.

Didi tells the crowd and to no one in particular, “Ma will give mukhagni. We will be there with her.”

I hear the collective soft gasp of horror. But no one says anything. The Ghosh daughters are foreign-returned, with Western ideas. They don’t see how wrong this is. How men and women aren’t equal.

We have my father to cremate. We have no time to worry about what the neighbors think.

We have my father to cremate. We have no time to worry about what the neighbors think.


In a country that brought in immigrants and slaves for centuries, Indians are the “good” ones, who are still shocked in the ‘80s when the Dotbusters attack them in Jersey City. “We are Americans too,” we say, the hatred is incomprehensible.

Post-9/11, the first immigrant to be gunned down in Mesa, Arizona, isn’t a Muslim but a Sikh. Balbir Singh Sodhi is killed at the gas station he managed by a man who didn’t want “towel heads” in his country. As Indians who give up their birth country’s citizenship when we become U.S. citizens, we gulp down that discrimination, that unnamed fear, to pay taxes, buy property, wave the U.S. flag, vote in elections, because we have earned it. We are model citizens, even when we remain entwined with what our birth country does. What we become is casual observers of what’s happening in “desh,” but very involved in the American way of life. We choose, because we are made to.


As the years go by in a country not our own, we spend time teaching non-Indians what India represents. Soon it is descriptions of the festivals, the cuisines, the food, our saris, politics, and minimizing how much cricket is a religion. We minimize because it’s easier to do that than push Americans to explore cultures other than American. We minimize sports, religion, food, life.

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But then, when we interact with Indians in India, our attitudes are of condescension toward those we left behind, mixed with cultural respect for elders as we were taught. We roll our eyes at WhatsApp Good Mornings and rose gifs from family and classmates pinging at midnight. We send back things like Costco cashews, or thick socks for the family, and college advice for future generations. We are stuck in the decade we left desh — for me it’s the ‘90s, the advent of Madhuri, Rani, Shahrukh, and revenge movies.

We still hate the social media forwards, but surreptitiously sign up for Signal because the WhatsApp gang told us to. However, we dare not leave the high school group of middle-aged classmates because they connect us to our long lost childhood. We post pictures of dishes we’ve created during the pandemic, but secretly, we crave the spicy paapri-chaat mix of crunchy goodness from the stall next to the bus stop at Delhi University. We scroll online sites for the Desi dhurrie, spices, fabrics. We’re more up to date with the politics from desh than ever.

After a few decades in America, we miss the things we consider ours. We may return “home,” armed with U.S. citizenship because we have the freedom to do so. But lately, we go home, not because we can afford to but because we’ve reached a stage in life where our people are getting older, sick, or dying. Guilt that we abandoned our parents, our extended family, our home for better lives in America, is what usually guides us back. But even then, we visit for two weeks at most, because work in America beckons like an angry, righteous, and indignant spouse.

But lately, we go home, not because we can afford to but because we’ve reached a stage in life where our people are getting older, sick, or dying. Guilt that we abandoned our parents, our extended family, our home for better lives in America, is what usually guides us back.


In 2004 when Didi and I get to the Lodhi cremation grounds, we are part of a handful waiting. The priest and the “body handlers” ask for cash to expedite the services. They speak only with the menfolk who accompany us. When we go in, with Baba — his body clad in a new dhoti and kurta hurriedly bought to make him look good on his last journey on a flat wooden bed covered with marigolds and rajnigandha — Baba looks like he’s sleeping. We sprinkle him with his favorite aftershave, as if we want him to arrive at the heavenly gates like it’s his first day at his new job.

We sprinkle him with his favorite aftershave, as if we want him to arrive at the heavenly gates like it’s his first day at his new job.

The priest says the prayers that guide the soul on its journey. They ask us to throw flowers at the body. They sprinkle ghee all the while chanting shlokas that mean nothing to us. Then they ask Ma to hold a bunch of incense, and place them on Baba. She does, howling, because among the Ghosh survivors, she knows what comes next. They light camphor and place it near Baba’s head. Handing a small fragrant sandalwood piece, they tell Ma, “Isko yahaan lagaaiyeh.” — put this here, pointing at Baba’s chest. I know they mean his mouth. Mukhagni. Fire to the mouth.

Handing a small fragrant sandalwood piece, they tell Ma, “Isko yahaan lagaaiyeh.” — put this here, pointing at Baba’s chest. I know they mean his mouth. Mukhagni. Fire to the mouth.

Ma does that. Didi and I hold her between us. Those cries haunt me. They will haunt me till I die. The wood bier trundles away from us as if he’s on a makeshift train ride. I did not realize that would be the last time I’ll see Baba. The crematorium fire roars like a hungry dragon at the far end. Baba enters the flames, the orange fire taking over our world.

That is the last time my family is together.


The Great Pause has thrown that nostalgia out like trash. The vaccines cannot be developed fast enough. Being part of the scientific community gives me the privilege of receiving the Moderna vaccine within the first month of 2021. I haven’t seen my extended family and friends in India for over three years — life, then work, and then the pandemic happened. Staying alive in a pandemic has been the reason to stay put.

My life, as it is for many of us immigrants, revolves around phone calls to India early on weekend mornings. India, roughly half a day ahead of us, is also used to those calls. There were times when those calls were short, maybe 10 minutes, our eyes on the clock indicating the $2/minute price on a calling card. Not anymore. Our privilege is calling our cousin for a masur dal vada recipe. Our privilege is us tweeting anti-Indian government comments without concern for whether our families will be harassed by Modi-bhakts. Our privilege is that we are Americans and our bravado too, is American.


India watches us in 2020 grappling with the virus racing through New York, L.A., Texas, and Florida like the California fires usually ravage our canyons, jumping highways, towns, and roads resembling acrobatic dragons.

“Ah, we can’t afford shutdowns. We had the BCG vaccine, we’re immune,” my former classmates say, noting why the TB vaccine may lead to a lower coronavirus infection rate.

The first wave doesn’t phase India. It’s Modi’s India — brash, young, arrogant, and complacent. In May 2021, the Lancet notes the government’s response of “[f]ully opening society with unrestrained crowding, mass gatherings, large scale travel, and lack of personal protective measures such as masks” gave the public a false sense of healthcare and vaccine security — that the pandemic had passed India by, much like the first wave.

Madhushree Ghosh’s high school classmates.

During the first and many waves in America meanwhile, we stay home. “Hunkering down” is a phrase I never want to hear again. Then religious places, movie theaters, stores, and restaurants shut down. The owners and workers protest.

Our Indian families and friends find the outrage amusing, “Ah, you’re all such rule-followers!” The condescension we had shown Indians as green card holders, as Indians who’d escaped to a better life, returns against us with a vengeance. The public, our extended families, and friends laugh at our caution.

“Yes, but this will contain the virus,” I counter.

“Sure, but in India, we’re so many people, nothing will work. We’re done with the pandemic here, Madhu,” my WhatsApp classmates opine.


During the first wave, in 2020 at the end of March, a 21-day lockdown is established by the Modi government to curb the virus. Over 120 million migrant workers left stranded, walk back to their villages and homes, making it a migration ten times larger than when Hindus and Muslims moved between British-divided India and Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. The Desis who can stay home are the privileged ones.

Indian-Americans have our own lockdown issues to handle. Beside a few articles, tweets, prayers, and thoughts, we don’t worry about the migrants. A very well-known American activist tells me that Americans get “crisis-fatigued” quickly, and not to expect them to think much about issues outside of America.

During a WhatsApp call, architect and high-school friend Anuj Arya says, “Migrants who I’ve worked with as daily wage construction workers, can’t survive without their wages. If they live in a 20X20 foot space with 10 more people, one of them getting COVID means the rest of them do too.”

He adds, “A COVID QPCR test is 1500 rupees (about $20). It’s beyond their reach.”


When the second wave hits India in April 2021, no one is prepared. Not the government. Not the healthcare system. Not the people.

When the second wave hits India in April 2021, no one is prepared. Not the government. Not the healthcare system. Not the people.

A country of 1.3 billion is now gasping for air. By April 21st, 2021, the oxygen requirement is over 8000 metric tons per day. India, as per the government, produces 7127 tons daily. People aren’t dying because of the virus. The COVID-compromised patients are dying of suffocation.


We sit outside the crematorium in October, watching Baba’s remains burn at high heat. The chimney above the oven spews out hot carbon air.

“That’s my Baba in the air,” I think, feeling nothing.

A few hours later they call us.

They tell us, “Hold your palms to receive the ashes.”

Didi and I hold the clay matka with the ashes and bones. It is harsh, real, immediate. There aren’t pretty urns priced according to your financial ability. It’s a reddish clay pot, with gray ashes. A priest-helper adds, “Yeh dekhiya, your babuji’s nerves are connected at the nabhi.”

Baba’s nerves are knotted near the navel — which never burns completely. This is why Hindu philosophy says we are connected to our ancestors through our nabhi, navel. This is added to a separate dish, covered with another clay plate. We are to take it to the Ganges, the holy river that will connect my father’s soul to the gods. Much as we don’t believe any of it, we do what we are told to.

Didi and I head to the Yamuna river in her best friend’s car. My father’s ashes rest on my lap. The clay pot is still hot from the crematorium. It is surreal and yet, here we are. Here we are.

We get out of the car close to the Yamuna, a tributary that connects to the Ganges. The river is thick with grease, decaying animal corpses, feces, and industrial effluents. The smell is nauseating and yet, Hindu religion tells us this river will connect Baba to the gods. And who are we to deny that?

The river is thick with grease, decaying animal corpses, feces, and industrial effluents. The smell is nauseating and yet, Hindu religion tells us this river will connect Baba to the gods. And who are we to deny that?

Ma gets out of the other car, her arthritis makes her older than she is. She waits silently for us as Didi and I climb over rocks slick with dirt, shit, and dead animals. Didi looks ahead, one step at a time, no words. I follow. This isn’t what Baba would have wanted. This is all we can give him.

The priest stands next to us, chanting hymns. “Put the ashes here,” he points.

Didi lets the pot float. We have the nabhi in its clay dish. He points at it and tells me to throw it inside the turgid river. I do.

“Walk, walk! Don’t look back,” the priest says like we are suddenly in an adventure movie.

It must have something to do with the soul latching onto live people. I don’t know. I don’t care. I want to look back, but I don’t.

At the car, my now-ex says, “Uff, that river sucks, doesn’t it?” — like a naïve American would.

I ignore him. My Baba is dead.


Twelve months after the first wave, before the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela encourages millions to congregate at Haridwar, near the Ganges river bank, the B.1.617 double mutant is already circulating among the people. The Mela is held every 12 years, but the Hindutva nationalist government appeases Hindu astrologers to allow a super spreader event to happen a year earlier. On April 1st, millions descended. The Mela was stopped two weeks later. A double mutant with an exponentially increased infectivity rate has now taken over the entire country — larger metropolitan cities like Delhi reached a COVID positivity rate of 30% in 12 days. Only 9% of the total population has been vaccinated.

On WhatsApp group messages, I now see posts about where one can buy more oxygen, or how to kill the virus by drinking water. Vaccine hesitancy, and misinformation circulates as rampantly as the virus through uneducated guesses, pro-government media rumor mills, and government silence on the total failure of the hospital and healthcare system. There’s a vaccine shortage which was expected to abate by May 1. It hasn’t.

A month ago, citizens and the Indian government were complacent enough to not mandate masks, nor ban large gatherings. The political rallies to pander to the public and gain votes took place like 2021 was a normal year.


On my high-school and middle-school WhatsApp groups, there are no rose gifs anymore, nor are there midnight pings of “Good morning!” The threads are somber, humming with stress, slow panic, and calls for help. The only requests are pleas for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds in Delhi suburbs. We hear of patients gasping for breath in hospital hallways and parking lots, dying in ambulances. Neighbors help neighbors cremate their loved ones.

A relative dies in Hyderabad and his family waits for hours to get the paperwork completed before he is hurriedly cremated. Crematoriums and cemeteries operate beyond capacity. Families wait for hours at cremation grounds in lines snaking through Noida and Ghaziabad to cremate their own. The Noida Hindon crematorium sets 14 funeral pyre platforms on the sidewalk for the COVID-19 dead to perform the last rites there instead. Dead and dying line hospital pathways. There is no respite.


Meanwhile in America, for us, India feels like what New York did in 2020. But Modi continues to punt to states to determine healthcare logistics, while he and his administration have created one of the largest humanitarian crises in this pandemic. On Twitter, we watch an interesting trend of the entire world going about their lives as Indians gasp for breath. It’s as if India isn’t a country that needs to be helped. We hear that the U.S. government didn’t allow for vaccine raw materials to reach India but the blame lies with the internal decisions made at the Indian government level.

We see “trauma porn” photos of funeral pyres burning through the night skies in India. The Western world watches those images over and over, and the Western people react to it. This is showing TV ads of malnourished African babies for us to donate instantly. This is Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” playing for animal shelters and pulling at our heartstrings.

But where does one donate? Does it go to the PM Cares Fund, run by the nationalist Prime Minister with no way of knowing how your money was used? Where there is no guarantee that the money reaches the migrants dying hungry, or the patients waiting for oxygen or Remdesivir?

I wonder if daughters were able to accompany their dead father’s body to the pyre. The cremations are taking place morning through sundown. Overworked priests are charging more. The lower-class Dalit funeral grounds helpers work round the clock, as do the hospital ward workers, the caregivers. Are the family members able to pay their last respects like I was able to? Do they know if the dignity expected of the dead was given to theirs?


Hospitals shouldn’t be overburdened. Oxygen supplies should have been available. Vaccines in the world’s largest manufacturing country, should be, well, available. And yet, the latest news cycle asks not to blame but to unite, to blame America for holding the raw materials for vaccine production instead. It’s easier to hate the Western country, hand-wave over the flouting of social distancing rules, because religion and elections are more important than gasping-for-breath Indians.


As an Indian who is a U.S. citizen, the guilt I feel is one that paralyzes me. I have abandoned my country of birth to choose the country of citizenship for personal material gain. Of that I am sure. How am I to assuage this guilt? The American way is to donate. But where do I donate? Not to the government that has systematically pushed against unity, religious, and caste freedom creating a Hindutva country. What do I do? How do I amplify this without tokenizing Indian grief?

We hold onto phone calls, reach out to friends, family members, find out ways, or “jugaad” as we call it in India, to make sure our people are safe. Others want to donate, but don’t know how. They See Blue GA circulates a Google doc of places that’ll accept our dollars. We want to do anything, something, something to help. Because if we can’t help, and if we can’t be there, and if we can’t do anything, the guilt we’ve always felt as Indians who became Americans will be fueled enough to rage on further.

As immigrants who love this country, we are grateful for the privilege and we also love our birth country that’s in such hell. Behind the scenes, my group of Desi authors text each other bemoaning the state we are in, neither in desh/home, nor in heaven. COVID is definitely a stark reminder of the choices we made. Feeling guilty is our state of being, besides a state of exhaustion and fear.

It’ll take India decades to recover from this and I am but a bystander, whether I like it or not.

Twitter asks about the use of funeral pyres and how disrespectful it is — do you not rage when they do this to your people, Twitter asks. No, I say, no — because what is disrespectful is how and why Indians are dying.

It takes President Biden two weeks before he does a U-turn and announces millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses to be routed to India. Two weeks, with thousands dying daily. America and American leaders are silent. Only with social media outrage, behind-the-scenes negotiations lead to Biden behaving like the leader he says he is. Those pyres speak much more than the world’s largest humanitarian country. Are those photos disrespectful? Not if they coaxed my country of choice to act like the leader it says it is.


I hope Vice President Harris comments, perhaps shows solidarity with the country her mother comes from. It isn’t her job, but I’d like to think her chittis would be doubly proud of her if she did.

Right now, as an Indian American, the guilt propels me to doomscroll like I did with other Americans last year. Now I call my friends, and I tell them, “Stay safe,” like it’s a mantra that’ll save them all when their government has failed them.

My Baba’s cremation has stayed with me for decades since he left. The families losing their loved ones can’t even touch their dead as they’re whisked to the cremation grounds. COVID-19 has destroyed life in ways unimaginable.

The guilt I feel, buzzes like a loud bee.


Madhushree Ghosh‘s work has received an Honorable Mention in Best American Essays in Food Writing. Her work is Pushcart-nominated, and has been published in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Longreads, the Rumpus, Catapult, Hippocampus, Atlas Obscura, Unearth Women, Panorama, Garnet News, DAME, and others. As a woman in science, an immigrant, and daughter of refugees, her work reflects her roots and her activism. Her food narrative, “Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey” is forthcoming Spring 2022 from University of Iowa Press. She can be reached @writemadhushree.


Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact checker: Lisa Whittington-Hill


The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Breai Mason-Campbell, Simon J. Levien, Paola Capó-García, Emma Gilchrist, and Liam Boylan-Pett.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

1. Seeing in the Dark

Breai Mason-Campbell | Pipe Wrench | April 13, 2021 | 5,129 words

“I have to wear all of these dolls, you see, so that Whiteness does not have to wear any.”

2. The Crimson Klan

Simon J. Levien | The Harvard Crimson | March 25, 2021 | 4616 words

Exploring the history of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence at Harvard University.

3. Making Sense Of It All: High School Poetry in the Age of Zoom

Paola Capó-García | Teachers & Writers Magazine | April 5, 2021 | 2,260 words

“I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.”

4. Genetic Mapping

Emma Gilchrist | Maisonneuve | April 12, 2021 | 6,900 words

“Here’s what I know for sure: I have three fathers who love me. One is my true dad—the man who raised me and has always told me ‘the more people who love you the better.’ One has the softest heart and shares my experience of being adopted. And one feels like a soulmate even though we’ve never met.”

5. Ready

Liam Boylan-Pett | Lope | March 29, 2021 | 2,900 words

“On the start of a cross-country race.”

“We Can’t Rush This Kind of Power”: An Educator on Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers During the Pandemic

surreal moment of a butterfly entering the pages of a book
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During this period of remote learning during the pandemic, poet and educator Paola Capó-García decided to reimagine her senior English class into a more immersive and focused eight-week poetry course. Through poems, she thought, perhaps her teenage students could reflect on “the particular chaos of 2020” and begin to process the loss they’d experienced over the year. In a piece at Teachers & Writers Magazine, Capó-García recounts this special time spent with her students, and how she created a safe, quiet space for them to think, to write, and to heal.

Poetry is so often neglected at the high school level, deemed too difficult, too precious, or too esoteric to tackle. And when it is taught, it’s typically filtered through dead white men. But teaching Whitman and Frost does not fit into my politics as a teacher and human, and it certainly does not fit the narrative of the students my school serves. I’m not interested in widening the gap between them and poetry, between them and knowledge. My goal, now and always, has been to make poetry accessible, exciting, and useful to young people. To teach them that the way they speak and live is already poetic. To help them manage the messiness of 21st century youth with 21st century language. And in this extra-messy age of Covid and Zoom and rightful apathy, poetry felt like the perfect way to make sense of it all.

Between a raging pandemic, civil rights unrest, controversial U.S. election, and graduation on the horizon, the students needed a space to explore the enormity of their feelings. To address this, I designed the writing prompts around the concept of loss. The world we’re living in is punctuated by overwhelming loss, and it must be confronted and articulated in cathartic ways.

I value the elegy as a poetic form for teenagers because it invites healing; it’s a way to give grief a name and exit strategy. I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.

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A Reading List on Travel Influencers and the Politics of a Place

Photo by Oleg Magni

Influencers come in many flavors, including kid stars who make more money than you, self-made online traders involved in shady financial schemes, women hunters of #huntstagram, and COVID-denying wellness experts. At the end of 2019, brands were forecast to spend as much as $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022. The pandemic, however, has forced many influencers to shift business models and strategies, especially those whose livelihoods depend on traveling the world.

But even before COVID-19, jet-setting content creators entangled themselves in problematic scenarios, posing questions about privacy, safety, and ownership, among other issues. These seven reads explore the world of travel influencers in the age of Instagram, and the implications of the industry and its content on tourism and politics.

1. How Western Travel Influencers Got Tangled Up in Pakistan’s Politics. (Samira Shackle, November 2020, The Guardian)

In recent years, Western travel bloggers and “adventure tourists” have come to Pakistan to discover the country and write about its beauty, while some — like Cynthia Ritchie — have ended up becoming political voices. Ritchie, who calls her work strategic communications, has received extraordinary access to restricted areas and officials, and her critics accuse her of being “a propagandist for the military with a white saviour complex.” In response, Ritchie and others, like Polish travel vlogger Eva zu Beck, see themselves as truth-tellers and storytellers. At the Guardian, Samira Shackle reports on the politicization of tourism in Pakistan.

The fanbase that has developed around Ritchie can be split into two camps. The first enjoys her travel content, and her sunny portrayals of Pakistan. For the second camp, who actively support the military and spend their time on social media attacking anyone they see as insufficiently patriotic, Ritchie is a useful ally, an outsider who reflects their worldview. “More power to you Cynthia. Keep exposing the filthy culprits who have eaten up this country like mites,” wrote one Twitter user.

In 2019, questions about Ritchie’s links to the army intensified on social media when she posted footage of a trip to Pakistan’s heavily contested tribal areas. She told me that the trip had actually taken place in the run-up to the 2018 election, and that it had been part of an “interview process” at which military officials were “assessing and monitoring me, my experience, and determining my worth and capacity as an individual”, and that afterwards she was offered a big project. It is difficult to know what to make of comments like this, given that at other times Ritchie flat-out denies working for the military.

Having offered this puzzling explanation, Ritchie then dismissed the entire controversy over the pictures as just another fuss about nothing. “Look, if I had anything to hide, I wouldn’t be publishing these things,” she said. She pointed out that anyone who wants to travel to the tribal areas needs army permission: “You can’t access some of these areas without the military.”

2. Instagram Influencers Are Wrecking Public Lands. Meet the Anonymous Account Trying to Stop Them. (Anna Merlan, April 2019, Jezebel)

In the spring of 2019, when areas of Southern California experienced a vibrant superbloom, thousands of tourists trekked to the fields of Lake Elsinore to pose with the poppies. And when the owner of the Instagram account @publiclandshateyou saw a photo of an influencer sitting among (and ruining) the flowers while holding a can of soup, he’d had enough. At Jezebel, Anna Merlan talks with the man behind this account, who educates people on the negative effects of Instagram tourism on the environment.

Right now you’re focusing pretty heavily on damage done during the superbloom. That must be because it’s the hot thing to photograph right now.

Exactly. Previously it was graffiti on rocks in national parks, but the superbloom is the thing of the moment. Influencers see this cool thing, do what they need to do to promote their products or take a cool picture. And then they move on to whatever else is cool, whether it’s, for instance, going out to the California coast, going past “closed” signs and taking a picture under a waterfall. Or whatever. And then Lake Elsinore, where Walker Canyon is, gets stuck with the aftermath. The people who live there. They have a poppy preserve that looks like a checkerboard. The people who did the damage are long gone. They’re on to the next thing.

The pushback you get seems to be a lot of comments like “they’re just flowers,” with the case of the superbloom photos, or comments that you need to calm down and focus on “real problems.”

I do try to respond to that and try to provide my point of view and get people to see, who might have lived in a city their whole life, who might not understand the biology of these areas. I say to them, “You’re not wrong, but I think that a lot of these bigger problems are symptoms of people not thinking about the little things and their impact.” Whether it’s the impact of of me stepping on a couple poppies or me getting my takeout tonight in a styrofoam container, people aren’t thinking about the impact of their actions and that’s applicable to small things like going off the trail, all the way up to big global issues like climate change or microplastics in the water.

3. Selfies and Sharia Police. (Mehr Nadeem, November 2020, Rest of World)

Instagram is the last open social media platform in Iran, where Iranians have felt freer to be themselves. For high-schooler and influencer Roya, this means taking photos of herself on the streets of Tehran, sans hijab, or wearing bright eye makeup or going sleeveless — types of things that are frowned upon by Iranian authorities. But as Instagram evolves into more of a space for organizing and political change in Iran, the government has increased surveillance on the app, writes Mehr Nadeem at Rest of World.

The increased threat of arrest is giving pause to Iranian Instagrammers who once saw the platform as a safe space to post freely.

Vania, a 17-year-old aspiring violinist who created her Instagram account to post videos of her music, saw that her friends were becoming careful of their online activity in the wake of the crackdowns. “One of my friends sings [on Instagram], and she was so worried, she did an encrypted location of another country in the caption so that they wouldn’t think she was Iranian,” Vania told Rest of World. It’s illegal for women to publicly sing in Iran, unless they perform to female-only audiences.

Sahba, an Iranian artist based in Canada, said she has second thoughts before posting to Instagram, even from her home in Vancouver. “I wasn’t really worried until the November protests, when I saw how people were arrested on the streets because of their social media posts,” Sahba said. “I try not to censor myself politically, but it’s something that’s always going to be in my head.

4. Whose Facade Is It, Anyway? (Alexandra Marvar, February 2019, Curbed)

Posing in front of photo-worthy facades like colorful street murals and famous buildings is one thing, but snapping a picture on someone’s property — in front of their pretty pastel door or on their adorable wraparound porch  — raises issues of privacy and etiquette. At Curbed, Alexandra Marvar explores homeownership in the age of the Instagram travel influencer.

Travel blogger and micro-influencer Valerie Furgerson, @redgypsea, says she’s never had a negative interaction with a homeowner: “A sort of influencer photographer’s code that I live by is, if you’re going to be shooting in a residential area, know what shots you want to get ahead of time and be quick about it. Not all tourists live by this code,” she says. “We definitely saw full-on photo shoots happening at Rainbow Row in Savannah, complete with big reflective umbrellas. I have found that if you are respectful of the residents, they will also be respectful of you.” I came across Furgerson’s feed by searching for pictures of Rainbow Row and reaching out to users who did photoshoots directly on the shipping pallet-sized front porches of these private homes.

“I don’t mind people just taking photos,” said T’s pink-shutters neighbor (whom I’ll keep anonymous), “but really I find it an invasion of my space when it’s on my porch.” If she’s returning on foot to her home and sees someone on her porch taking pictures, she hangs back until they’ve wrapped up their activities. But on more than one occasion, she’s been startled to open her front door to a person, or a group of people, posing in front of her. “The other thing,” she says, “is that it opens up liability issues that I don’t even want to think about.”

5. What I Learned at the Most Instagrammed Outdoor Places. (Lisa Chase, July 2020, Outside)

While visiting Arizona’s iconic landmarks and tourist hotspots like the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, Lisa Chase, writing for Outside, examines our obsession with documenting ourselves in nature, and the evolving art and process of photography in the era of iPhone-toting outdoor enthusiasts.

There have to be 75 to 100 of us here, all with smartphones in hand, tapping away. One teenage girl positions herself in warrior one pose on a rock, her back to the sun, slender arms overhead, taking a selfie. Nearby there’s a group of French guys murmuring “C’est magnifique” as they take photos of themselves in the gloaming. I think about an article I’d read by Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has studied the psychology of selfie culture. “A selfie, like any photograph, interrupts experience to mark the moment,” she wrote in The New York Times in 2013. “The selfie makes us accustomed to putting ourselves and those around us ‘on pause’ in order to document our lives. It is an extension of how we have learned to put our conversations ‘on pause’ when we send or receive a text, an image, an email, a call. When you get accustomed to a life of stops and starts, you get less accustomed to reflecting on where you are and what you are thinking.”

6. Travel Influencers, Meet Authoritarian Regimes. (Krithika Varagur, October 2020, Rest of World)

In December 2019, celebrities and Western travel bloggers were invited to attend a music festival in Riyadh, put on by Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, in order to promote tourism to the region. “The Instagram posts coming out of the festival looked more Coachella than Sharia,” writes Krithika Varagur, and for those who attended the event, criticism was harsh. At Rest of World, Varagur asks: How could these influencers accept a paid trip from a repressive monarchy?

Despite this, several prominent influencers turned down the MDL Beast trip on ethical grounds, including American actress Emily Ratajkowski and American model Teddy Quinlivan. Quinlivan, who is transgender, said on her Instagram story: “If you have any semblance of journalistic integrity, maybe it might be a cute idea not to take money from foreign governments that, um, I don’t know, openly kill and assassinate journalists [and] LGBTQ+ people. Suppress women’s rights, suppress religious rights – I mean the list of shit goes on.”

“Every traveler has an obligation to think about the ethical consequences of their trip. … But it is even more critical for influencers because they are such important role models, especially for young people,” said Dr. Ulrike Gretzel, who researches technology and social media marketing at the University of Southern California. “Uncritically spreading political propaganda is unethical under all circumstances and especially in the form of branded content, where the lines are very blurry, and the audience might therefore not recognize it as such.”

7. The Digital Nomads Did Not Prepare for This. (Erin Griffith, November 2020, The New York Times)

“If you’re going to work from home indefinitely, why not make a new home in an exotic place?” In the New York Times, Erin Griffith shares the stories of those privileged enough to escape lockdown by joining the globe-trotting, remote-working set. But they eventually realize it’s not what they expect it to be. These digital nomads may not call themselves travel influencers, but the idyllic, away-from-home settings they work in — as they wait out the pandemic — are the same.

They Instagrammed their workdays from empty beach resorts in Bali and took Zoom meetings from tricked-out camper vans. They made balcony offices at cheap Tulum Airbnbs and booked state park campsites with Wi-Fi. They were the kind of people who actually applied to those remote worker visa programs heavily advertised by Caribbean countries. And occasionally they were deflated.

Others are struggling with the same vacation fatigue experienced by Mr. Malka, the Cabo-to-London-to-maybe-Bali wanderer. According to research conducted at Radboud University in the Netherlands, it takes eight days of vacation for people to reach peak happiness. It’s downhill from there.

When the pandemic hit, Mr. Stylianoudis, the lawyer, was on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. At first, he couldn’t complain about the tropical locale. Each day, after work, he swam in crystal-clear water. But after five months, he was itching to get out. He had become a regular at the island’s 7-Eleven. He even grew tired of the beach — something he hadn’t thought was possible.

The feeling of being trapped in paradise was hard to explain. “I started to feel like I was in a sequel of ‘Lost,’” he said.

Find Yourself

Photo Collage: "Find Yourself" by Stuart Horn/ Carolyn Wells

Elizabeth Isadora Gold| Longreads | September 2020 | 4,633 words (18 minutes)

It was 1981, in the Olde City section of Philadelphia. I was six. My parents were artists — my dad a cellist/composer/arranger and my mom a potter and teacher — and our tiny bathroom showed it. On one whole wall, my mom hung a poster of the San Francisco baths circa 1890, with lots of gents in one-piece suits and ladies in frilly bathing bonnets. By the toilet, on cinder block-and-board shelves, were stacks and stacks of magazines, New Yorkers, mostly. Postcards framed the mirror over the sink, fleshy vintage nudies with bobbed hair, standing in chorus lines.

Read more…

Tangled Up in Bob Stories: A Dylan Reading List

Bob Dylan playing on the Olympia stage, France, May 24, 1966, on his 25th birthday. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Music legends from Tom Waits to Joni Mitchell immediately heard Dylan’s genius in songs like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,“ but not me. It took me two decades to warm to Bob Dylan. It’s a common story. He’s one of those artists that people say will “grow on you,” or, in more patronizing terms: You’ll understand when you’re older. No young person wants to hear that, but people I knew in high school loved Dylan, so I gave him a try.

Compared to all the loud, cutting-edge guitar bands my friends and I listened to in the ’90s, like Bad Brains and Meat Puppets, Dylan seemed to belong to what my naive teenage mind characterized as ancient rock dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones and The Who: historically interesting but obsolete. I was in high school. Shows what I knew. Dylan and The Who were nothing alike. As cool as Dylan looked in old photos with his cigarette and sunglasses, folk music could not have seemed less cool. My friends and I skated and moshed in the pit. Acoustic guitar didn’t move me. Then I heard about Dylan’s legendary 1966 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, from the tour where he played controversial electric sets. As a die-hard fan of live recordings, a legendary rock show seemed a great place to start with Dylan.

In the early ’90s I found a bootleg CD of the Royal Albert Hall show at the record store next to my high school. Swingin’ Pig released it. I had other Swingin’ Pig bootlegs, so I trusted it as much as you can trust black market record labels. When I played the album at home, it left me cold. This was what people fawned over? “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”? Compared to power chords and fuzz petals, Dylan’s rock sounded tame. His nasally voice grated, so I shoved the CD in a box where my unloved albums went.

In college, I spotted the CD buried in a drawer. I wondered how it would sound now. Even as a more worldly college undergrad who listened to Miles Davis and twinkly New Zealand underground like The Clean, Dylan’s music still bored me, so it went back in the drawer. This was my pattern during my 20s and 30s. I’d play the CD every few years, dislike it, and squirrel it away. As big of an idiot as I was, something about Dylan demanded respect. He was too venerated to just throw his CD away. Albums are like that. Sometimes your favorites find you at the time in your life and you love them upon first listen. Sometimes they grow on you. Dylan also seemed like the kind of artist you needed in your collection, to provide variety and a sense of history, as well as something mainstream to compliment all the adolescent statement albums by Misfits and Slayer. So that album came with me to different states and through different stages of my life. Even when I didn’t enjoy listening to old music, I always appreciated music history.

Jacques Haillot/Apis/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

In 1999, my then-girlfriend wanted to see Paul Simon, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan play. I was all in, because I loved The Beatles and knew these legends could die at any minute. Ringo was eh. Simon was fun. Dylan blew me away. He came out in some kind of clean, country music suit, a big hat, and tore through a rocking set that was more honky-tonk than the rambling folk-rock I expected. I watched, enraptured. The set rolled like a train that never slowed at crossings. Turns out, he was touring for his best new album in ages, Time Out of Mind. Dylan’s performance completely changed my mind about him. I never laughed him off again. But the experience didn’t turn me into a devotee. I didn’t buy that double album, and when I played Royal Albert Hall 1966 again, I still heard no magic. When I met the woman who I fell for immediately in my late 30s, my musical taste had grown so broad that when she played me Dylan’s 1976 album Desire, I finally heard Dylan’s peculiar magic. “Hurricane” and “Isis” were masterpieces. How had Dylan sounded so different to the younger me? How could I not like this? When I went to play her my old live bootleg, the CD case was empty. My last girlfriend had lost it and forgotten to tell me. No problem. In the intervening years, Dylan had officially released a better-sounding version of the concert as part of his official Bootleg Series, so I bought that, and the circle was complete. Now I listen to his live 1966 acoustic performances of “Visions Of Johanna” and it gives me chills. One good thing about taking this long to come around is that his most familiar songs still sound fresh to me. That familiar acoustic strumming can still elicit tears. Turns out that the Royal Albert Hall show I had was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. It’s a famous show and famous error. At least the bootleggers got the year right.

Stories like this abound in Dylan lore and fan circles: stories of transformation, reinvention, and musical progress. Those themes define Dylan himself. He’s always changing, putting listeners and scholars off the trail, to keep us guessing about who he is, about songs’ meanings, and what he’ll do next. That’s one reason Dylan scholarship and journalism constitute their own body of literary work. Here are a few of my favorite Dylan stories, written by everyone from Ellen Willis to Greg Tate. You can appreciate these stories even if you don’t dig Dylan’s music. Maybe you’re curious about the man himself, or you enjoy hating someone enshrined by so much hype. Like Dylan’s music, these stories will be here if you find yourself ready for them, though remember, you don’t ever have to be ready. His voice can still be pretty annoying.

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Dylan” (Ellen Willis, Cheetah, 1967)

It all starts here: the Dylan literary cannon, and Willis’ writing career. Sure, in 1961 Robert Shelton wrote about Dylan for The New York Times, but few people wrote about Dylan with such intelligence, electricity, and insight until Willis did. The Dylan cannon was still relatively small when his 1967 album Blonde on Blonde came out. The 7800-word exploration that Willis took five months to write set the proverbial bar, marking a literary high-point against which all subsequent Dylan pieces, even rock criticism itself, can be measured. Willis created Cheetah, and it proved to be the kind of smart scrappy magazine that published solid stories before quickly fading into obscurity after a year. It was of its time, but in that short time, it launched careers. After Willis’ Dylan piece published, a New Yorker writer convinced editor William Shawn to cover modern music, and said Willis was the person to do it. Based on the strength of this Dylan piece, Shawn hired her to be the magazine’s first pop music critic, and the rest of her life is history. Pick any paragraph and you’ll see why.

“His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker’s ultimate antagonist,” Willis writes. “And in coming to terms with that world, he has forced us to come to terms with him.” Willis was an astute observer and listener. Long before Dylan’s knack for invention and reinvention became well-known parts of his appeal, she spotted the push and pull between his public and private lives, the artifice and the art, and how it reflected modern culture. “The tenacity of the modern publicity apparatus often makes artists’ personalities more familiar than their work, while its pervasiveness obscures the work of those who can’t or won’t be personalities.” That’s as true 50 years later. Cheetah closed the year after her piece came out, but she’d made the leap from obscurity to The New Yorker, where she applied her brilliance to iconic underground artists like the Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls, before turning her back on music and this phase of her writing life all-together.

A Trip to Hibbing High” (Greil Marcus, Daedalus, Spring 2007)

When he first saw Dylan perform with Joan Baez at an outdoor stage in 1963, Marcus was 18 years old, and Dylan seemed to have no age, no sense of origin or identity. Dylan only had two albums out at the time, and already, he exhibited a unique, sui generis aura. “When the show was over, I saw this person, whose name I hadn’t caught, crouching behind the tent,” Marcus wrote in the introduction of his book Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, “so I went up to him.” This pivotal moment marked the beginning of Marcus’ writing career. He had witnessed one of the most influential musicians in history before his moment of emergence. This meeting also marked Marcus’ emergence. “Along with a lot of other things,” Marcus wrote, “becoming a Bob Dylan fan made me a writer.” Five years after that 1963 performance, Marcus published his first Dylan piece. He has since written enough about Dylan to literally fill books, but this piece always stood out because it addresses Dylan’s origins. To try to understand how childhood shaped Dylan’s genius, Marcus visited Hibbing High School, where Dylan graduated, and whose legend centers around the school’s striking architecture, lavish decoration, and creative influence. Speaking of origins: What’s the appeal of Dylan for Marcus? His answer could apply to many Dylan fans: “I don’t think about it, I just do it, or rather can’t help it.”

Climbing the enclosed stairway that followed the expanse of outdoor steps, we saw not a hint of graffiti, not a sign of deterioration in the intricate colored tile designs on the walls and the ceilings, in the curving woodwork. We gazed up at old-fashioned but still majestic murals depicting the history of Minnesota, with bold trappers surrounded by submissive Indians, huge trees and roaming animals, the forest and the emerging towns. It was strange, the pristine condition of the place. It spoke not for emptiness, for Hibbing High as a version of Pompeii High—though the school, with a capacity of over 2,000, was down to 600 students, up from four hundred only a few years before—and, somehow, you knew the state of the building didn’t speak for discipline. You could sense self-respect, passed down over the years.

We followed the empty corridors in search of the legendary auditorium. A custodian let us in, and told us the stories. Seating for 1,800, and stained glass everywhere, even in the form of blazing candles on the fire box. In large, gilded paintings in the back, the muses waited; they smiled over the proscenium arch, too, over a stage that, in imitation of thousands of years of ancestors, had the weight of immortality hammered into its boards. “No wonder he turned into Bob Dylan,” said a visitor the next day, when the bus tour stopped at the school, speaking of the talent show Dylan played here with his high-school band the Golden Chords. Anybody on that stage could see kingdoms waiting.

Tangled Up in Dylan” (Mark Jacobson, Rolling Stone, April 12, 2001)

Dylan has generated an entire field of study called Dylanology. Universities offer courses. Scholars publish books and discuss him everywhere from Inside Higher Education to The Wall Street Journal. Long before Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature generated an international discussion about whether his writing was even literature and why, as Richard F. Thomas’s book puts it, Bob Dylan matters, and fans knew the answer.

“If Shakespeare was in your midst, putting on shows at the Globe Theatre,” one Dylanologist tells fan and reporter Mark Jacobson, ”wouldn’t you feel the need to be there, to write down what happened in them?” Jacobson spends time with fanatics to address that question, and he studies the line between appreciation and fanaticism, scholar and obsessive. Dylan fanatics are people who have collected 20,000 live recordings. They’re people spend their time comparing differences in individual songs performances, who even want to clone Dylan’s DNA. “Rock is full of cults,” Jacobson writes as he goes down the rabbit hole, “but nothing—not collecting the Beatles, not documenting Elvis—rivals Dylanology.” What was the limit? Jacobson writes: “I was looking for the limit.” The problem, he discovers, is the issue of accessing Dylan himself.

Here’s the kind of photo that impressed me as a teenage Dylan hater. Blank Archives/Getty Images

Intelligence Data,” (Greg Tate, Village Voice, September 25, 2001)

Greg Tate is a musician and prose stylist whose love of music and critical eye earned him a title as one of “the Godfathers of hip-hop journalism,” but he writes widely about music and culture. As a staff writer for the Village Voice from 1987 to 2005, Tate covered enormous territory and built a unique body of work. Here he offers a fresh perspective on late-period Dylan, around the release of Love and Theft, Dylan’s follow up to the masterful album Time Out of Mind. Tate hears not only genius, but an “impact on a couple generations of visionary black bards has rarely been given its propers,“ from Curtis Mayfield and Tracy Chapman to Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley.

The codger’s got plenty kick left in him yet. Feel like a fightin rooster, feel better than I ever felt, but the Pennsylvania line’s in an awful mess, and the Denver road is about to melt. Plenty parables too. There may be no second acts in American life, but at 60, Dylan could care less. Like Miles Davis and his shadow, that asshole Pablo Picasso, Dylan has given us one long act to chew on, and one long song: a peerless and exquisite display of craft, nerve, and wit. His riddle-rhyming trail is marked by the silence, exile, and cunning of the hermetic populist—Joyce, Pynchon, Reed, Clinton. Occasional lapses of taste and crises of faith, periods of doubt, self-derision, and personal revival too. Rare among American artists, he shouldered the burden of a great and precocious gift. He crashed but did not burn out after the ’60s. Now contemporary evidence, a new release called “Love and Theft,” suggests that the poet of his generation is once again prophet of his age.

How I Changed My Mind About Bob Dylan” (Catherine Nichols, Jezebel, September 16, 2016)

Unlike me, Catherine Nichols loved Dylan the first time she heard him. She was 16 and driving in the car with her dad. He’d introduced her to a lot of good old American music, but Dylan’s song “felt like a searchlight had been switched on shining directly into my eyes, an almost unbearable sense of significance,” she writes. “That’s how I became the last person on the planet to discover that Bob Dylan is really, really, really good. Then she wonders why: “The mystery I’ve wondered about ever since: what’s so good about him.” Her essay is my favorite kind of music writing: personal and analytical, driven to examine both the music and the particular way it works on her as a listener.

When she looks at two versions of one song — Dylan’s version and the version by The Animals — you get a knockout taste of her crystalline vision and the poetry of her sentences. “The Animals’ version should feel more exciting — it has a bounding and rolling melody, Eric Burdon’s voice is stronger and clearer. He lets the song build; he works up to a big roar of sincere misery, vigor and regret. The Dylan version, on the other hand, is snarled virtually at a monotone. The chain that hobbles him is not his own hedonism but the hopelessness and despair he can’t escape. *And yet one track feels like a beloved teddy bear and the other like the touch of living skin. There’s more person in Dylan’s voice than anyone else’s; his voice transmutes the unnerving sensation of being wholly, troublingly alive.”

Although Dylan may have, as her father believed, taught “a generation of white boys with terse WWII-vet fathers how to connect to their own emotions,” Nichols didn’t initially find or need any lessons from Dylan. After she read his memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, she found a musician with many literary talents who could offer her insight as a female writer.

Bob Dylan’s Secret Archive” (Ben Sisario, The New York Times, March, 6, 2016)

There are few things are as exciting to Dylan fans as the prospect of new unreleased material. More home demos. More vintage concert footage. Hope endures for a reason. Lost treasures still surface, like the previously unknown recording of Dylan playing Brandeis University in 1963, found in the basement of Rolling Stone magazine cofounder Ralph Gleason. And new footage from the reels D.A. Pennebaker shot on Dylan’s 1965 tour. Dylan has always been notoriously protective of his private life and his creative process, but for Dylanologists, who want to know how he creates, their dreams have come true.

For an estimated $15 to $20 million, the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa purchased Dylan’s personal collection, which includes footage, written correspondence, film, and lyrics — 6,000 pieces in total — dating back to his formative years. This material will be displayed for the public, and for study, at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bob Dylan Center’s crown jewel: The notebooks that contain Dylan’s sketches for his album Blood on the Tracks. This was once the holy grail among fanatics, rumored but not confirmed. Now there are three. Why Tulsa? The connection to Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s early influence and an Oklahoma native. Also, opportunity: a respected archivist approached the George Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Tulsa, and the Kaiser Foundation had the money. “Portland wasn’t always cool,” George B. Kaiser said. “Seattle wasn’t always cool.” Dylan could help revitalize Tulsa. It’s the motherload fans have waited for, and as The New York Times announced in 2016, “it is clear that the archives are deeper and more vast than even most Dylan experts could imagine, promising untold insight into the songwriter’s work.”

Bringing Some of It All Back Home” (Clive James, Cream, September 1972)

Cream was the loudest rock magazine of the 1970s. Based in Detroit, they covered the big names like Zeppelin and the ignored ones like the Stooges, and rereading this Cream piece, you can hear its time. It is a thorough, thoughtful examination of Dylan’s creativity and approach to songwriting. ”What Dylan has exhausted is not any kind of subject matter,” James writes, ”but a specific kind of approach to the song: the approach that relies on the indiscriminate imagination.” But this piece is also one of those very thinky, early rock pieces that examines the larger rock culture as much as Dylan. It’s fascinating to hear what people thought of his body of work in 1972, since he kept producing more music for decades, yet James can say that ”a critical estimate of Dylan comes within reach.” Ha! Dylan himself said it would take people 100 years to really appreciate his work. The clock keeps ticking.

Bob Dylan, the Wanderer” (Nat Hentoff, The New Yorker, October 24, 1964)

Nat Hentoff is largely known as a jazz writer, but in 1964, he profiled a young Bob Dylan. And it’s good. The subhead describes this early Dylan as “A fusion of Huck Finn and Woody Guthrie, the musician writes songs that sound drawn from oral history.“ Thankfully Dylan became so much more.

Dylan and the Nobel” (Gordon Ball, Oral Tradition, 2007)

Speaking of Dylanology: After Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, a slew of think pieces and scholarly articles debated the prize and Dylan’s work. Was it worthy? In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan R. Goldstein asked a deeper question: “Why are intellectuals so besotted with Dylan?” Long before Dylan won the prize, fans and scholars were making the case for the award. Scholar Gordon Ball specializes in Beat Generation literature, but he saw Dylan perform at his famous 1965 Newport Jazz Festival show, where Dylan shocked fans by first playing electric. “In 1996 I first wrote the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy,“ Ball writes in the journal Oral Tradition, “nominating Dylan for its Prize in literature.“ To get a sense of what Dylan scholarship is like, this makes for an interesting read. “My point,“ Ball writes, “is rather modest: that poetry and music share time-honored ground, that the two arts are often bound closely together, and that Dylan’s great gifts may be appreciated within such a performative lineage. Poetry and music aren’t mutually exclusive.“

The Wanderer” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker, May 10, 1999)

Following Dylan on his now famous 1998 tour of Time Out of Mind, Alex Ross realizes how much the music matters more than the messenger, which is what the Dylanologist often miss.

Discussions of Dylan often boils down to that: “Please speak. Tells us what it means.” But does he need to? He had already given something away, during the ritual acoustic performance of “Tangled Up in Blue.” This dense little tale, which may be about two couples, one couple, or one couple plus an interloper, seems autobiographical: it’s easy to guess what Dylan might be thinking about when he sings, “When it all came crashing down, I became withdrawn / The only thing I knew how to do was keep on keeping on / Like a bird that flew . . .” See any number of ridiculous spectacles in Dylan’s life. But the lines that he shouted out with extra emphasis came at the end:

Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint

We always did feel the same, we just saw it from a different point

Of view

Tangled up in blue.

Suddenly the romance in questions seemed to be the long, stormy one between Dylan and his audience. Dylan is over there and the rest of us are over here, and we’re all seeing things from different points of view. And what is it that we’re looking for? Perhaps the thing that comes between him and us—the music.

25 Movies and the Magazine Stories That Inspired Them

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez on the set of 'Hustlers' in New York City. (Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

As more publications pursue blockbuster stories with film and television potential, producers in Hollywood and the magazine industry are taking their inspiration from successful article-to-film adaptations of the past that have achieved box office success.

Here are 25 gold-standard film adaptations of magazine articles, published over the course of half a century as cover stories, features, or breaking news, as well as direct links to read all 25 stories online.

Legacy magazines with well-known print editions dominate this list, as do the nonfiction writers that legacy magazines accept and champion. Many of these writers’ names will be familiar to readers, as will the majority of the magazines and films themselves, in many cases because celebrated journalists inspired these major motion pictures at the peak of their careers as writers and reporters. Name recognition in one industry reinforces name recognition in another, and — despite the incredible diversity of feature-length nonfiction being published today by new voices most mainstream audiences have yet to discover — institutional support still tends to elevate known veterans.

While the talents of all of the writers on this list are undeniable, there are also well-documented structural biases that account for why so many of the writers represented here are overwhelmingly male, white, or Susan Orlean. These stories belong on any narrative nonfiction syllabus on their own merit, but I hope these samples are still just the beginning, and that new filmmakers and magazine writers can start to work together far more often on a greater breadth of material, with sufficient editorial guidance and studio backing to support them.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’ve limited this roundup to favor adaptations (loosely defined) based primarily on magazine-style features, including only a couple of films based on award-winning newspaper investigations. The list of new film and television adaptations based on popular books or podcasts, let alone reporting that has helped support the explosion in streaming documentary formats, would run even longer.

It takes time, access, imagination, and resources to be able to realize ambitious true stories like these in their original form as narrative magazine features. It would be a welcome change to see greater diversity in the production pipeline in the coming years: in the subjects of narrative stories, in the publications considered for exclusive source material, in the creative teams that are given studio support, in the agencies brokering deals, in the awards and recognition that elevate new work, and in the storytellers who are given the resources to write long.

Writers are the lifeblood of all of these industries, and will always play a pivotal role in any production that is based on a true story.

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Based on Can You Say…Hero? by Tom Junod (Esquire, 1998)

Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”

Hustlers (2019)

Based on The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler (The Cut, 2015)

While evolutionary theory and The Bachelor would suggest that a room full of women hoping to attract the attention of a few men would be cutthroat-competitive, it’s actually better for strippers to work together, because while most men might be able keep their wits, and their wallets, around one scantily clad, sweet-smelling sylph, they tend to lose their grip around three or four. Which is why at Hustler, as elsewhere, the dancers worked in groups.

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Based on My Addicted Son by David Sheff (The New York Times Magazine, 2005)

Nick now claims that he was searching for methamphetamine for his entire life, and when he tried it for the first time, as he says, “That was that.” It would have been no easier to see him strung out on heroin or cocaine, but as every parent of a methamphetamine addict comes to learn, this drug has a unique, horrific quality. In an interview, Stephan Jenkins, the singer in the band Third Eye Blind, said that methamphetamine makes you feel “bright and shiny.” It also makes you paranoid, incoherent and both destructive and pathetically and relentlessly self-destructive. Then you will do unconscionable things in order to feel bright and shiny again. Nick had always been a sensitive, sagacious, joyful and exceptionally bright child, but on meth he became unrecognizable.

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Be a Good Sport

Getty / Illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2020 |  9 minutes (2,284 words)

I hate jocks. Like a good Gen X’er, I walked around my high school with that patch on my backpack — red lettering, white backdrop, frisbee-size. A jock high school. It’s impossible to overstate the contempt I had for sports as a kid. I hated what I took to be phony puddle-deep camaraderie, the brain-dead monosyllabic mottos, the aggressive anti-intellectualism. More than that, there appeared to be a very specific cruelty to it. The way there were always a couple of kids who were always picked last. The collective bullying if someone didn’t measure up to the collective goals. And none of the teachers ever seemed to be as mean as the coaches. They strutted around like grown children, permanently transfixed by the ambitions of their adolescence, actively excluding the same kids they had mocked in their youth.

When I hear about sports stars who kill or commit suicide or generally behave antisocially, I always think: no wonder. In a culture that destroys your body and your mind, no wonder. It’s something of a paradox, of course, because, as we are repeatedly told, physical activity is often essential to psychological health. But why is it so rarely the other way around? I watch Cheer and I watch Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez and I watch former NBA star Delonte West get callously thrashed and I wonder why these athletes’ inner lives weren’t as prized as their motor skills. That’s not true; I know why. It suits a lucrative industry that shapes you from childhood to keep you pliable. And what makes you more pliable than mental instability? What better way to get a winning team than to have it populated with people for whom winning validates their existence and for whom losing is tantamount to death?

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There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the Hernandez doc when there’s an unexpected crossover with Cheer. A childhood photo of the late NFL star and convicted murderer flashes on-screen as we learn that his female cousins made him want be a cheerleader. It was the same for Cheer’s La’Darius Marshall, who is shown in one snapshot as a young cheerleader, having discovered the sport after hanging out with one of his childhood girlfriends. Both men came from dysfunctional backgrounds: Marshall’s mom was a drug user who ended up in prison for five years. He was sexually abused, not to mention beaten up by his brothers; Hernandez found his own mother distant, and he was also physically and sexually abused. Both found solace in sports, though Hernandez had the kind of dad who “slapped the faggot right out of you,” per one childhood friend, so he ended up in football, his dad’s sport, instead. But their similarities underscore how professional athletics, when so closely tied to a person’s sense of self, can simultaneously be a boon to your mental health and its undoing.

Killer Inside is a misnomer for a start. Everything pointed to Hernandez’s conviction for murdering another footballer (semipro linebacker Odin Lloyd) — or at the very least a fair amount of psychological distress. (I’m not certain why the doc chose to focus on his sexuality — besides prurience — as it seemed to be the least of his concerns.) As he said himself to his mom, who almost immediately replaced her dead husband with Hernandez’s cousin’s husband when he was just a teenager: “I had nobody. What’d you think I was gonna do, become a perfect angel?” The way he fled from his home straight into the arms of a University of Florida football scholarship, having wrapped up high school a semester early, is telling. Football made him somebody. He depended on being a star player because the alternative was being nothing — as one journalist says in the doc, at Florida you had to “win to survive.” 

If the NFL didn’t know the depth of his suffering, they at least knew something, something a scouting service categorized as low “social maturity.” Their report stated that Hernandez’s responses “suggest he enjoys living on the edge of acceptable behavior and that he may be prone to partying too much and doing questionable things that could be seen as a problem for him and his team.” But his schools seemed to care more about his history of drug use than his high school concussion (his autopsy would later show chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or the fact that he busted a bar manager’s eardrum for confronting him with his bill. Physical pain was something you played through — one former linebacker described a row of Wisconsin players lining up with their pants down to get painkiller injections — and psychological pain was apparently no different. “It’s a big industry,” the ex-linebacker said, “and they’re willing to put basically kids, young men, in situations that will compromise their long-term health just to beat Northwestern.”

Cheerleading, the billion-dollar sport monopolized by a company called Varsity Brand, has a similarly mercenary approach. While the money is less extreme — the NFL’s annual revenue is more than $14 billion — the contingent self-worth is not. A number of the kids highlighted in Cheer had the kind of childhoods that made them feel like Hernandez, like they had nobody. Morgan Simianer in particular, the weaker flyer who is chosen for her “look,” radiates insecurity. Abandoned by both her parents, she was left as a high school sophomore in a trailer with her brother to fend for herself. “I felt, like, super alone,” Simianer said. “Like everyone was against me and I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t important to anyone.” Though Marshall’s experience was different, his memories of growing up are almost identical to his fellow cheerleader’s. “I felt like I was really alone,” he said. “There was nobody that was gonna come save me.” Like Hernandez, sports was all they had.

And if a competitive sport defines you, then its coach controls you. Hernandez’s father, the ex-football heavyweight, was known as the King; Monica Aldama, the head coach on Cheer, is the Queen. Describing how she felt when Aldama remembered her name at tryouts, Simianer said, “It was like I’m not just nobody.” For her ability to literally pummel a bunch of college kids into a winning team in half the regular time, Aldama has been characterized as both a saint and a sinner. While she claims to be an advocate for the troubled members of her team, she fails to see how their histories skew her intentions — her position as a maternal figure whose love is not unconditional ultimately puts the athletes more at risk. Aldama proudly comments on Simianer’s lack of fear, while it is a clear case of recklessness. This is a girl who is unable to express her pain in any way sacrificing her own life (literally — with her fragile ribs, one errant move could puncture an organ) for the woman who, ironically, made her feel like she was worthy of it. “I would do anything for that woman,” Simianer confesses at one point. “I would take a bullet for her.” Jury’s out on whether Marshall, the outspoken outsize talent who regularly clashes with his team, would do the same. His ambivalent approach to Aldama seems connected to how self-aware he is about his own struggles, which affords him freedom from her grasp. After she pushes him to be more empathetic, he explains, “It’s hard to be like that when you are mentally battling yourself.”

That Cheer and Killer Inside focus on the psychological as well as the physical strain faced by athletes — not to mention that athletics have no gender — is an improvement on the sports industries they present, which often objectify their stars as mere pedestals for their talents. The Navarro cheerleaders and Hernandez are both helped and hurt by sports, an outlet which can at once mean everything and nothing in the end. This is the legacy of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which followed two teen NBA hopefuls and was as much about the intersections of race and class as it was about basketball. Not to mention OJ: Made in America, the 2016 ESPN miniseries that explored how the story of the football star and alleged murderer reflected race relations in the United States in the mid-’90s. Conversely, mainstream film and television continues to be heavily male when it comes to sports, focusing on individual heroics, on pain leading to gain — the American Dream on steroids. Cheer and Killer Inside expose this narrative for the myth it is, spotlighting that all athletes have both minds and bodies that break, that their legacies as human beings are not about what they have won but who they are. But the climate in which they’ve landed cannot be ignored either, a social-media marinated world in which sports stars are no longer just players but people who are willing to be vulnerable with their public, who are even further willing to sign their names next to their problems for The Players’ Tribune, the six-year-old platform populated by content provided by pro athletes. “Everyone is going through something,” wrote NBA star Kevin Love in an industry-shaking post in 2018. “No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside.”

Fast-forward to that new video of former basketball pro Delonte West, the one of him having his head stomped on so hard in the middle of the street that I still wonder how he survived it. He also came from an underprivileged, unstable background. He chose the college he did for its “family atmosphere.” Like Simianer, he fixated on his failures and played with abandon. Like her, he also had trouble verbalizing his feelings, to the point that they would overflow (in anger for him, tears for her). Though he says he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, he considers his biggest problem to be “self-loathing.” But why? He was a sports star who signed a nearly $13 million contract in his prime — what better reason for self-love? A study published two years ago in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, profiling the psychological well-being of 99 elite athletes, may provide an answer. The study found that those with high perfectionism, fear of failure, and performance-based self-worth had the highest levels of depression, anxiety, shame, and life dissatisfaction. Those with a more global self-worth that did not depend on their performance had the opposite outcome. As if to provide confirmation, a subsequent study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise that same year revealed that athletes with contingent self-esteem were more likely to burn out. When sports become your only source of value, your wins ultimately don’t come to much.

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The irony of all of this is that I came back to sports as an adult for my mental health. Obviously, I’m not an elite athlete — whatever the opposite of that is, I am. But having no stakes makes it that much easier to use physical activity for good. Nothing is dependent on it; that I’m moving at all is victory enough. But my circumstances are different. My jock high school was a private school, sports were (mostly) optional, and elite academics were where most of us found validation — and financial stability. “Conventional wisdom suggests that the sport offers an ‘escape’ from under-resourced communities suffering from the effects of systemic neglect,” Natalie Weiner writes in SB Nation. “If you work hard enough and make the right choices — playing football being one of the most accessible and appealing ways for boys, at least, to do that — you should be safe.” This reminds me of Aldama telling a room of underprivileged kids with limited prospects, “If you work hard at anything you do, you will be rewarded, you will be successful in life.” This is the American Dream–infused sports culture the media has traditionally plugged — the one, ironically, dismantled by the show in which Aldama herself appears. As Spike Lee tells a group of the top high school basketball players in the country in Hoop Dreams: “The only reason why you’re here, you can make their team win, and if their team wins, schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money.” 

In the same SB Nation article, which focused on how school football coaches combat gun violence, Darnell Grant, a high school coach in Newark, admitted he prioritized schoolwork, something both Cheer and Killer Inside barely mentioned. “My thing is to at least have the choice,” he said. Without that, kids are caught in the thrall of sports, which serves the industry but not its players. Contingent self-worth does the same thing, which is why mental health is as much of a priority as education. The head football coach at a Chicago high school, D’Angelo Dereef, explained why dropping a problematic player — which is basically what happened to Hernandez at U of F, where coach Urban Meyer pushed him into the NFL draft rather than taking him back — doesn’t fix them. “They’re not getting into their brains to figure out why,” Dereef told the site. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a big cut — that’s not going to stop the bleeding.” While the NBA was the first major sports league to address mental health in its collective bargaining agreement in 2018, in mid-January the WNBA signed its own new CBA, which only vaguely promised “enhanced mental health benefits and resources.” That the sports industry as a whole does not go far enough to address the psychological welfare of its players is to their detriment, but also to their own: At least one study from 2003 has shown that prioritizing “athletes’ needs of autonomy” — the opposite of contingent self-worth — as opposed to conformity, has the potential to improve their motivation and performance. In sports terms, that’s a win-win.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Longreads Best of 2019: Sports Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in sports writing.

Nicole Auerbach
Senior writer at The Athletic.

The Unbreakable Bond (Mina Kimes, ESPN the Magazine)

A beautifully written, wrenching story from one of the best feature writers in America. It’s about football, sure, but it’s actually about a son and the mother who raised him — a mother who was blinded in her late 20s by a bucket of bleach mixed with lye. DeAndre Hopkins was 10 years old at the time. Mina Kimes’ brilliant prose tells an incredible story of resilience and love. It’ll stick with you for quite some time after: If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too.

Jackie MacMullan is the Great Chronicler of Basketball’s Golden Age (Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker)

This isn’t exactly a feature, but to label it simply a Q&A is to sell it short. It’s just a lovely, lovely interview with Jackie MacMullan, one of the all-time greats in sports journalism. Personally, I can’t imagine being a female sportswriter right now without someone like Jackie Mac to look up to, without someone like Jackie Mac paving the way. She opens up about her crazy career path and her issues with access journalism (preach!) in this day and age in the NBA. She also discussed the problems with writers being fans (again, preach!) openly. I loved all of it, and it’s worth sitting down to read. It’s not quite a feature, but you’ll feel you have a good read on the GOAT by the end. (Also, she references her relationship with Celtics great Red Auerbach … who is the person I named my dog after! Bonus points for that.)

2019 Sportsperson of the Year: Megan Rapinoe (Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated)

One of the best stories I read this year came in just under the wire, in SI’s Sportsperson of the Year issue in mid-December. Jenny Vrentas wrote a masterful piece on an athlete I thought I knew quite a bit about. But it became clear as I began reading this that there were layers to Megan Rapinoe I was totally unaware of, layers that made her even more intriguing both as an athlete and person. There’s a care and precision to the reporting and writing of this piece that comes through in each and every word. You can tell it’s important to Jenny that just the fourth unaccompanied woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year have her story told honestly and fairly. And she does just that.
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Editor’s Roundtable: Stories About Stories

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On our October 11, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Head of Audience Catherine Cusick, Head of Fact-Checking Matt Giles, and Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads

This week, the editors discuss stories in ProPublica, Wired, and Esquire.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

1:13 An Unseen Victim of the College Admissions Scandal: The High School Tennis Champion Aced Out by a Billionaire Family. (Daniel Golden and Doris Burke, October 8, 2019, ProPublica/The New Yorker)

14:02 This economist has a plan to fix capitalism. It’s time we all listened. (João Medeiros, October 8, 2019, Wired)

23:00 Signs and Wonders (J.D. Daniels, May 1, 2017, Esquire)

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