By Josh Roiland
Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.
When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”
Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.
Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.
Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…
There’s a certain type of scholar who is obsessed with the Blues. The music’s historic record is riddled with holes, and, like swamp water, speculation fills the gaps, producing a narrative built as much from legend as fact, where a traveling guitarist like Robert Johnson can stroll down a dark rural road to make deals with the devil. Blues’ blurry, mythological past only makes the subject more seductive. Still, there are certain matters of record to contend with. With so many scholars searching for new revelations, it seems like every rock has been overturned and every shellac pre-war record unearthed from those Southern attics, but like all frontiers, there’s always more to discover.
In The Sewanee Review, essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan explores the Early Blues, a time in the music’s development before people started calling songs “blues songs” based on their definitive a-a-b rhyme scheme and 12-bar structure. There in the not-so-blurry past of early published articles, Sullivan finds an African American journalist named Columbus Bragg who was the first to call a song a blues song. Although Bragg predates all the well-known Blues scholars, he is largely absent from the larger narrative. But it was Bragg who, in the 1914 issue of the African American newspaper the Chicago Defender, wrote “Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” And with those words, he simplified a diverse group of musical traditions and helped codify a genre.
That sentence in the Defender is the first “first blues.” It represents the first time, that we know of, when someone speculated about what the first blues song had been, and who had created it. This is also the first time we ever find these two words together, “blues” and “song.” The first time someone ever calls a song “a blues song,” he’s actively wondering what the first one was. The form and the obsession with the form’s roots are born together. This suggests that when we wonder about the beginning of the blues, we are participating in the form; it is a way of playing the blues.
Another extraordinary thing about the sentence is that the man doing the wondering is black. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. “Blues scholarship” is educated white men writing on old black music. But this is why the Early Blues rewards study. The writer’s name is Columbus Bragg, or to go by the fuller version he gave the draft board in 1918, the Rev. Columbus Sylvester Clifton Bragg. He was preaching then (or claimed to be; he often grew inventive when asked to provide biographical data) at a tiny church called Israel of God, White Horse Army, a black evangelical sect that had recently bloomed in nearby Sycamore, Illinois. The members keep their headquarters there to this day. They possess some old records, but these make no mention of a Rev. Bragg. The only other noticeable entry on his draft card is a brief observation made by the registrar, concerning Bragg’s physical faculties. The man, who must have examined one too many inductees that day, has written in big bold cursive, “Deaf Eye.”
It is perhaps an unfortunate description for an arts critic. Bragg’s slender fame, his not-quite-oblivion, depends entirely on a brief 1914 stint as a culture columnist for the Chicago Defender. The newspaper had been founded about a decade before, just as Bragg was coming to the city, arriving by train from Louisiana with a half-German wife named Lillian and their daughter, Lumie. He seems to have made the decision on the train to rewrite his past.
As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 309, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Kelly Loudenberg about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Why do we become writers? What is the impulse?
For many, it’s being drawn to writers whose prose is pyrotechnic. The aspiring writer thinks, “Man, I want to try and do that.” We know how this story ends, though: It never ends up like that. So then what?
Being a stylist isn’t the only thing that makes a writer great, or even good. Sometimes a piece calls for holding back — which is what Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby sought from the documentary filmmaker and journalist Kelly Loudenberg for her piece “The Caregivers.”
Kelly’s piece chronicles the story of Danny Valentine, a brilliant artist whose path crossed with Janie and Buzz, a Michigan couple who worked with incarcerated artists. Once Danny was released from prison, and Buzz’s health was in decline, Janie called on Danny for some much-needed help. Emotion is everywhere in this story, and Darby and I discussed how that can sometimes spill into sentimentality. “This is a piece where restraint is everything,” she says. “Figuring out with Kelly how tightly to hold the reins and when to slacken it a little bit.”
Kelly, who created Netflix true-crime series Exhibit A and The Confession Tapes, applied her documentary film background to this, her first foray into longform written journalism. As she was sitting down to write, she says, her old storytelling instincts kicked in: “Do I want to storyboard this? Do I want to outline? How am I going to get all this information down?” As she found out, though, sometimes the best practice is to surrender to the story.
Lots of stuff to unpack. Please enjoy this excerpt from Episode 309 of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
Brendan O’Meara: Every piece that comes to your desk, or [contributing editor] Jonah [Ogles’] desk up there, there’s often an inherent puzzle. As the editor of Kelly’s piece, what was the puzzle for you to figure out?
Seyward Darby: This definitely hits some different, softer notes, I think, than some of the stuff we’ve been publishing recently. It’s a romance, but it’s also about friendship, and it’s also about justice. There’s a lot of beauty in it. There are no cliffhangers, per se, but there are surprises. So it turns into figuring out where to locate those — but then also to keep the line between good storytelling and getting a little too saccharin.
As a writer, Kelly was already very much in this mindset, but still, as you’re editing, it’s making sure you’re letting people’s actions and decisions speak for themselves, as opposed to commenting on them. That’s where you can get into the danger zone of over-sentimentalizing things. Figuring out how to strike the right balance between tugging at people’s heartstrings and yanking at them.
Writing the thing in such a way where you don’t comment on it is such a hard place to write from, because you have to show so much restraint — this is especially true with memoir, because sometimes you want to defend or justify a decision or at least acknowledge that, for example, something was kind of unsavory. But you’ve got to find a way to let the scene speak for itself, or to be the bad guy, or let someone else be the bad guy. It’s a really hard thing to navigate as a writer.
It is, and this is a piece where restraint is everything. So [it involved] figuring out with Kelly how tightly to hold the reins, when to slacken a little bit. But really, trying to keep things in check so the story is speaking for itself, and we’re not getting lost in purple language or unnecessary sentimentality. She did a really nice job with that. It’s also on the shorter side for us — 8600 words. And I think that’s because of the intimacy of the story and also because of the restraint that was really a priority in the writing and editing process.
Kelly comes from a documentary film background. And at least from the conversation I had with her, I gleaned that this was her first real foray into longform written journalism. When you’re approached by a writer who doesn’t necessarily have the body of work in this vein, how do you make sure that they can pull off the piece they pitched if they don’t have that body of work?
I remember getting this pitch very clearly because these three characters — Janie, Buzz, and Danny — jumped off the page immediately. And I found their story to be an interesting confluence of a couple of stories we’ve heard before. One is stories about people who support [those] in the U.S. carceral system, and [the other is] stories about the people who become surprising caregivers for the aging in America. I don’t mean that to say that either of these was overdone or trite; the point was that this story had various components of these little genres of other popular stories, and I was immediately excited by the way that I saw those layers in her pitch.
As a filmmaker, Kelly saw the story. No question. For me, it was a matter of talking to her and getting a sense of how close she could get to these folks, and it was pretty abundantly clear that she really had their trust and support. In the editing process, when the first draft had a bit too much restraint, we said “okay, let’s give it a little bit more love,” like, let’s put a little bit more flesh on the bones here. And she was really excited by that. She said something then — I’m trying to remember exactly — something along the lines of “editing is better than taking a writing class.” I love being edited for that reason, too; I feel like I’m learning in process, as opposed to a more sort of instructional format.
Kelly was definitely game to try something she’d never tried before. But she also just instinctively got what the story was supposed to be from the get-go. And to me, that’s always the most important thing. It’s not “can you write the best sentences? Are your powers of description off the charts?” It’s “do you feel the story?” And it was just so clear that Kelly did. It was one of those pitches I got and immediately replied to because I was just really interested. And I think it was because even in her pitch she was already conveying that she understood the power of the story.
Sometimes for writers, we may be very seduced by stylists, whether they be David Foster Wallace, or Didion, or John Jeremiah Sullivan, you know, these people that really just kind of leap off the page. And I think a lot of us get into writing because we’re excited by that. And we want to find some sort of way to contribute to that. It’s such a delicate balance to really surrender to the story, but also to inject some style into it without going over the top.
To be clear, I love a great prose stylist. But when in doubt, let the story do the work. That isn’t to say that the writer is not doing the work because the writer had to get the story. The writer had to understand the story. The writer had to put all of those bones together.
I think there’s sometimes a misapprehension that the more words you put on the page, the more description you’re able to include about a particular scene or something, [the better]. People think that good writing is ultimately all about style, right? But I always tell people, focus on the story and be more restrained. Because if you have a good story, and you’re able to tell it in such a way that a reader really wants to keep turning the page or scrolling down, then you’re succeeding as a writer, even if there’s not some flair or panache to every sentence.
What comes to mind when hearing you talk about this is that being the writer is effectively the drummer. There are tendencies where a band could be overstylized: too many fills, too much tempo. It feels like the good writer who knows the story is just putting the right accent in the right place and keeping you moving along. And then when there’s really a good opportunity, they can be there to hit the cymbal, maybe do a little bit of a flourish, but it’s all in service of accenting the other elements of the band.
I’m one of the bajillion people who loved Get Back, the Beatles documentary. And one of the things I was so struck by in watching it was that nobody ever had notes for Ringo. Like, they were all arguing about this or that, and Ringo was just there doing his job keeping the beat in an absolutely crucial way. I know people say Ringo is the best Beatle, and after seeing that documentary, it’s really hard to argue with that — not only because he is a great drummer, but because he’s hilarious and gives no shits about a lot of the drama. I understand exactly what you’re saying. Which isn’t to say that the drummer can’t have a fantastic solo, but it’s really about “are we keeping the song on track?” It’s the backbone, it’s the anchor.
Given that you have a lot of experience in filmmaking, in what way does filmmaking help your writing?
Kelly Loudenberg: Well, this is my first longform piece. I mean, I’ve written smaller things. But this was kind of more like making a documentary. I actually enjoyed the process a little bit more, because it was more intimate; I like collaboration, but sometimes, like when you’re working on a story, it’s kind of nice to be just you and the people who you’re writing about.
I was talking not just to Janie and Danny, but also all the people in their orbit: Janie’s former students, Buzz’s former students, Buzz’s work colleagues, old friends from before he knew Janie, Janie’s friends. I kind of made friends with one of Janie’s friends who’s in the piece, and who lives in LA now, which is really nice. But it’s kind of just getting to know their whole world and talking to everybody around it, and not just directly to both of them.
For both of my documentary shows, I would talk to a lot of people who I never even planned on interviewing, but who gave me the right kind of context and helped me embed myself in their story. So I think it was really similar to that. And then the process of writing is like the process of thinking about the structure of a documentary — how am I going to unfold this story? With documentary, you’re more limited, because you have to tell it with interviews and footage and archival. If you don’t have those things, you can’t really do it. But with writing, if you have the scenes and they exist, you can write them. So it was really more creative in that way.
Making a film, you’ve got a crew, you’ve got microphones, and then here reporting is just you and your recorder and your notebook. Did it feel more streamlined? Liberating?
It felt simpler. I’m not saying it was easier, just that I felt like I could focus more. I could create things in my head, too, and it just didn’t have to be the distraction of all the crew and all the money. You know, when you’re doing shows, there’s just a lot of money weighing on each time you go out with a crew. This kind of reporting, you don’t have to put so much pressure on every interaction, you don’t have to get something out of every conversation, you can just kind of flow through it a bit easier.
You alluded to structure earlier — can you talk about the structure of this piece in particular, but also maybe give us an insight into how the structure of a documentary is similar or different than a longform written piece?
You can open a documentary the same way I open that story. Structure is one of my favorite parts, just figuring out [that] it’s not just beginning, middle, and end. It’s not like I need to go through a chronology. How am I going to create something interesting that somebody wants to read? And it’s the same thing with a documentary. Within a documentary setting, the editor is also writing it with you, and they’re helping you think through what the structure should be. And you’re kind of talking back and forth about it. And it’s really a huge part of the shape and the form that it takes. But I think with documentary, you are limited to having the right assets visually. And if you don’t have them visually, you can’t do it.
The opening element of this piece is a really nice scene. I wrote in my notes “ask Kelly how she goes about reconstructing something like this.” So maybe you can unpack the opening vignette of this piece that introduced Daniel, and how you went about reporting that.
The scene in my head was of Danny getting this call from Janie on Christmas Eve that she needed some help — she was emotionally exhausted and needed a backup. And he left the next day. Packed up his car and came down from the Upper Peninsula.
I just imagined Danny on his drive, smoking a joint, driving through this wicked snowstorm and getting into Ann Arbor to this beautiful neighborhood and this beautiful house, and what that scene must have been like. I mean, it was also probably very stressful for people involved — it wasn’t a perfectly normal Christmas. But you also have to stick to the facts. You can make the scene cinematic, but it also has to be completely true. I’m glad that we were able to bring it out.
I think sometimes in documentaries, there is a tendency to get further from the truth. That’s what’s happening now. That’s not how we made our shows, and we were very committed to representing what actually happened. But things are getting more blurry in the genre, and it’s not something I totally like.
Is it getting overstylized? Dramatized?
Very much. I think some things don’t need to be documentaries; some things are better as a written piece, or a podcast, or a fictional take on that story. [When you force it into a documentary,] sometimes it just stretches a little bit. There’s not such a strenuous fact-checking process. They don’t have an outsider coming in and checking these things, so it’s up to the filmmaking team.
Your piece isn’t all cinematic scenes; there are more expositional informational sections as well. How did you go about balancing the more kinetic scenework versus information the reader needs to be fully immersed with these primary characters?
It was a lot longer at one point, and then Seyward really helped cut it back by working to find that balance of details versus scenework. What I began with was something like, Okay, I’m going to take as many pieces of this and make them into scenes, and not get too bogged down in mundane details. That’s just how I started thinking about it, and then the editor helped me expand on that and make that even stronger.
A lot of writers have their own idiosyncrasies to get into the flow of things. Like, Susan Orlean is all about the lede — she’s said she can’t proceed until the lede is in place. And some people may put that off until later and work on something else. What are the things that you like to have in place when you’re generating the thing?
I think it was a little bit scattered for me, and I’d be more organized next time about how I’m looking through the information before I start writing. At first I was like, “This is my first time doing something so long — maybe I should just outline it.” That’s what I would do for a documentary: I would outline it in a very detailed way, even put it up on the wall, like some people storyboard a film. So I thought about “okay, do I want to storyboard this? How am I going to get all this information down?” But what I actually did was I just started writing it. And I just kept going through all the interviews and transcripts, and talking to Danny and Janie along the way.
So it wasn’t like I went out and did all the interviews, and then came to my desk and started writing. I was actively interviewing them the whole time, realizing that I needed more here or there, and they were just so wonderful about answering all these questions, and also their memories are very detailed. And so they helped, where I needed to fill in all of these pieces that I didn’t have. So for this time, at least, it was very piecemeal, just working through it until I got through to the end.
Because you were kind of writing it as you went along, did you find that you were spackling in holes with interviews here and there? Did you ever run into an instance where you felt like you might have been painting yourself into a structural corner that might have been hard to get out of?
I knew the general arc of the story, so I didn’t worry that the structure wouldn’t work. But it’s hard when you don’t have a ton of distance to know, “Is this interesting? Does this build, does this work?” So I also had to ask Seyward if the basic structure was working, and thankfully, it was.
But there were times, too, that I was like “How much do I want to go into the prison art world culture” — because that’s a world unto itself that I got to know through Danny and other artists that I’ve interviewed and talked to who were still incarcerated, and a couple who are out. It was a whole other world that I just loved, and I think I did at one point go pretty far down that rabbit hole, but then we scaled it back. That’s probably a whole other piece right there, but not the same thing.
The story is so tender and delicate. With Buzz’s mind starting to deteriorate over the years, it can be really hard to tease out information and interview people about such delicate subject matter. So I wonder how you went about interviewing Janie and Danny about things that are so delicate, and doing it in a way that honored their story, but also getting the information you needed to tell the story you wanted to tell.
I just felt a deep connection with both of them. When I met Janie, I had had a baby born very early. She was born three months early, and was in the NICU for four-and-a-half months, and was very sick. And then when she came home, it was a process of caregiving that was beyond normal parenting. I think I was still very, very raw from that experience — almost still in shock. I can’t say how they were, but I did feel a deep empathy and connection to them through going through this myself, and I felt like talking to them helped me too in a lot of ways, like we were just having a conversation about these things that were really hard.
In the first part of his two-part essay in the redesigned Sewanee Review, John Jeremiah Sullivan examines the hazy, complicated roots of the Blues, going deep into Early Blues before, where he finds forgotten African-American journalist and performer Columbus Bragg, the first person to describe a song as a “blues song,” and another wrinkle in the Blues’ tangled origins.
“Home, I began to feel, was the half-formed beliefs you fashioned in the middle of all you didn’t and couldn’t understand, a tent on a wide, empty plain.”
Nine or 10 months after I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, my parents packed up all of our belongings in a Mazda 323, and drove us away from my natal home. My parents took the Alcan highway through Canada, and then made their way down to Texas, where we lived for a couple of years before moving again. There are photos from that initial journey. In some, I am lolling on a viewing platform in Yellowstone National Park, and in others, I’m bundled up in a snowsuit, unnamed mountains behind me. My parents tell me I remained watchful in the backseat, my eyes trained on the scenery as it flushed from snowy white to green.
After Texas, we maintained a peripatetic existence, moving to Louisiana, then back to Alaska again. Though I learned early on in my life that we didn’t live anywhere long enough to change the walls from sellable beige, the idea of home didn’t concern me until my first-grade year, when my parents suggested we move to a small seaport city on the edge of Borneo, the second-largest island in Indonesia. We spent six years in Indonesia, only moving once from Borneo to Java. It was the longest I lived anywhere. Not knowing as an elementary schooler the layers of privilege that complicated my presence there, I allowed myself to feel as though I had found a home. I learned to pull nectar from the pink flowers outside my front door, speak Bahasa Indonesia, and scooter past the monitor lizards on my way to school. America — the country people often reminded me I was from — became the other end of infrequent long-distance phone calls, during which I’d listen to the crackling, faraway voices of people I loved. When we returned to the States once a year, well-meaning family and friends would always say, welcome home or I’m so glad you’re back. I felt, in those moments, as though there were two of me, both versions shimmering and illusory. I didn’t fully belong in Indonesia, but I also couldn’t understand how I fit into the landscape of technicolor grocery-store aisles and the dazzling suburban asphalt streets of a country that others called mine.
My family found out we were moving from Indonesia while on summer leave in the U.S., so I never got the chance to return or say goodbye. My memories from the formative years I spent there are buried somewhere deep within me — for years, I have felt too homesick to let myself remember. It is only in certain moments — the voice of a woman speaking Bahasa Indonesia rising from a crowded venue in Oregon, the echo of an adzan from a mosque — that I allow my memories from those days to unfurl like lush rainforest leaves, broad and green and glossy, beading with dew and bursting with song.
I move every two to four years now, and I am always filled with anticipation, hoping for a place that will hold me. I feel rootless, capable of fitting in anywhere, but not truly belonging. Most of the time I carry these thoughts quietly within myself, but I have found comfort in the way others voice complications with the idea of home. How much of who we are stems from the places that bear us? What does it mean to long for a home that doesn’t exist in the way it once did? What memories rise to the surface when you return to a long-forgotten place? What does it mean to be unable to return?
1. Reading ‘The Odyssey’ Far From Home (Azareen Van der Vliet, March 10, 2018, Electric Lit)
When Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi moves to South Bend, Indiana, she feels unmoored.
“Given the disorienting cartography of my life, there isn’t a singular home for me to return to. I am from nowhere; or, perhaps, I am from a constellation of places which habits and social codes violently contradict one another, leaving me empty handed.”
Van der Vliet Oloomi reads The Odyssey in Indiana, which helps her better understand her own nostalgia for an intangible place. Her encounter with the tale serves as an example of the power that literature, like place, has in offering an intersection between reality and possibility, solace and hope.
2. Baby Boy Born Birthplace Blues (John Jeremiah Sullivan, December 6, 2016, Oxford American)
When John Jeremiah Sullivan was young, a local paper in his hometown of New Albany, Indiana, ran an article about a boy who discovered a passageway that had once been part of the Underground Railroad. By researching old newspaper clippings reporting on runaway slaves, instances of racial violence, and the origins of blues music, Sullivan unravels myth to reveal truths about the complex and rich history of the place he “was raised in and where occurred the events that most shaped and damaged me as a human being.”
3. A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home (Jamila Osman, January 9, 2017, Catapult)
While watching salmon return to the site of their birth to lay thousands of eggs of their own, Jamila Osman feels a pang of jealousy at the certainty of the fish, their ability to find their way back to a point of origin. In this lyrical, haunting essay, Osman chronicles her parents’ journey from Somalia to Canada to Portland, Oregon, and reckons with grief after the death of her sister, the shortcomings of maps, and how her own identity has been shaped significantly by loss and place.
“A country is impossible to contain; a people are impossible to boil to the silt of parchment. A map is only one story. It is not the most important story. The most important story is the one a people tell about themselves.”
4. Enduring Exile (Alia Malek, October 15, 2013, Guernica)
When Anto’s neighbors warn him that he’s no longer safe in northwestern Syria, he heeds their warning, quickly shuttering the windows of his restaurant and inn, and selling what possessions he could. Alia Malek not only tells the story of Anto’s displacement in this harrowing journalistic essay, but also writes about the devastating effects of the Armenian Genocide and the way Anto’s family’s relationship to the idea of home was permanently altered as a result.
“He was curious to visit Armenia, even if it wasn’t really Armenia, and he wasn’t really from this Armenia.”
5. Fountain Girls (Samantha Tucker, Fall/Winter, 2016 Ecotone)
“There are Fountain girls who try to leave, but cannot outrun their hometown legacy; there are Fountain girls who never even stumble upon the chance to try.”
By deftly weaving together her own personal narrative about her upbringing in Fountain, Colorado and the death of her brother Ronnie, with the death of a “Fountain girl” named Tara, Tucker illuminates how a place can hold you in its grasp, even after you’ve physically left it behind.
“Where, in our reach for something better—an enlistment, an education, a steady job, a family, the dream—where do we, instead, cycle back, or discover our beginnings have inevitably been our end?”
6. Looking for Home in the Palestinian Diaspora (Marcello Di Cintio, September 24, 2018 Hazlitt)
Over 70 years have passed since Palestinians were first displaced by the Palestine War in the late 1940s, and many of the refugees living in UNRWA-administered camps have not been able to return to their ancestral homes. After Palestinian author Mona Abu Sharekh guides Marcello Di Cintio through Shati refugee camp in Gaza, Di Cintio begins to wonder “about the descendants of refugees who live far from the villages their grandparents lost — not just across a fence, but across an ocean.” Di Cintio meets with several Palestinian poets in Brooklyn in order to bear witness how both literature and heritage inform their conceptions of home.
“‘My father infected in us a nostalgia for Palestine,’ Hala said. Though she’d never seen Palestine, she came to love the place because of her father’s love.”
7. A Woman’s Choice — Sexual Favours or Lose her Home (Jessica Lussenhop, January 11, 2018, BBC News)
Broke and homeless, newly released from prison, Khristen Sellers was offered an abandoned trailer under the condition that she’d clean it herself. She did, but when the inspector came by, he “asked her if she ‘gives head’” and implied that “his signature on the inspection was the only thing standing between her and a place to live. Sellers is not the only one to experience this kind of harassment.
“In a post-Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo world, most people are well aware sexual harassment occurs in the workplace. But across the US, women are subjected to it in a far more intimate setting – their homes.”
In this piece, Jessica Lussenhop chronicles the experiences of sexual harassment that many women tenants have experienced, the flaws in the system that allow for such egregious incidents, and related legislation.
8. Home by (Chris Jones, Jaunary 29, 2007 Esquire)
After the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated before re-entry in February, 2003, Donald Pettit, Captain Kenneth Bowersox, and Nikolai Budarin were left stranded in space. Through interviews with the crew, and research about the surrounding circumstances, Chris Jones, in this moving piece of longform journalism, writes about what it means to be suspended far from Earth’s comforts and minutiae, not knowing when — or how — you’ll be able to return.
“And sometimes you’re no longer a month away from home–you’re suddenly much farther, although you’re not really sure how far, because the miles are meaningless.”
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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and illness.
Michael Jackson had special relationships with Ebony and Jet. Since their beginnings, the publications, founded by John H. Johnson in Chicago in 1945 and 1951, covered the lives of Black celebrities, professionals, and everyday people alongside a strong political undercurrent.
Jet was a weekly digest memorable to me for the Beauty of the Week centerfolds my uncles and cousins scattered around their homes and the Black music charts printed at the back of each issue. It’s perhaps best known for photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, published in 1955.
The lifestyle monthly Ebony was patterned after Life and Look. In its January 1960 issue, a remarkable story written by William B. Davis profiled several Black Americans living in Russia in the midst of the Cold War, asking, “Who are the Negroes in Russia? How did they get there? How are they treated? Are they really free?” A story on Miles Davis from December 1982 was mostly about his recovery from a stroke, but he also critiqued Rolling Stone. “I like that magazine,” he said to Ebony, “but the last time I saw it, it had all white guys in it. How about Kool and the Gang? Earth, Wind, and Fire? They should write more about people like that.”
Throughout Michael’s 40 years in show business, Ebony published stories such as “The Michael Jackson Nobody Knows,” on important career milestones. In an interview from 1987, about the release of Bad, he utters a simple but heavy sentence: “I don’t remember not performing.” These stories humanize Michael and try to turn the narrative away from the spectacle and speculation growing around him. The coverage would become strategic when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about discovering this phenomenon in his essay “Michael”:
It’s fascinating to read the interviews he gave to Ebony and Jet over the past thirty years. I confess myself disoriented by them, as a white person. During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted only them, would speak only to them. The articles make me realize that about the only Michael Jackson I’ve ever known, personality-wise, is a Michael Jackson who’s defending himself against white people who are passive-aggressively accusing him of child molestation. He spoke differently to black people, was more at ease. The language and grain of detail are different.
What a pleasure to find him listening to early ‘writing version demos of his own compositions and saying, ‘Listen to that, that’s at home, Janet, Randy, me…You’re hearing four basses on there…’
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Since Beyoncé’s fourth Vogue cover was announced, I’ve been thinking about how the Black press has always been where Black artists could have their work spoken about with integrity. Being Black could be simple matter of fact there, unencumbered by duty of explanation or self-defense. The burden of racism wasn’t the centerpiece or engine of every story. The humanity of subjects was not flattened, defanged, or made into spectacular monstrosity. Beyoncé hasn’t given a traditional magazine interview since 2013, presumably to get around some of these mainstream media tendencies. She has produced an increasingly complex body of visual, sound, and performance art, creating her own candid language. It made sense that the Vogue team would allow her “unprecedented control” of the editorial as reports claimed. The reports also let us know that for the first time in the magazine’s history, a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, would shoot its cover.
When the cover was revealed, however, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour told “Business of Fashion” that it was the Vogue team who’d been in control creatively. It had been their idea to initiate such a sea change for the magazine. Wintour, after all, was who’d made André Leon Talley the magazine’s first Black creative director in 1988. Writing about his tenure for the Washington Post, Talley said he “sounded no bullhorn over diversity.” Cover photography had been “entirely in the hands of others.” He takes a somewhat defensive position, but really, he doesn’t need to. Not even one Black photographer captivated the Vogue team enough in more than one hundred years. How could that have been mere oversight?
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In Mitchell’s finest image, Beyoncé is seated in a Southern Gothic tableau, in front of a plain white sheet, wearing a bridal gown and a crown of real flowers. It could be a still from Lemonade. I see the stare of a woman in refusal, though I’m not sure of what. Beyoncé’s artistry and vivacious attention to her own life is pregnant with history and memory — she’s at an apex of a long line of Black women in American entertainment. Dorothy Dandridge, whose singing voice was dubbed over in Carmen Jones. Lena Horne, whose work in musicals was sometimes deleted when the films screened in the South. Lauryn Hill, who disappeared from the spotlight at the height of her fame. The weight of all that is there, softly referenced in the images, directly in the cover story. But the critic Robin Givhan found an opaque, disappointing muteness in the cover image. “Nothing is divulged,” she wrote.
I think a lot about how journalists called Aretha Franklin a difficult person to interview. “Whatever you learn from Aretha when you sit down and talk to her, you’ve got to watch her onstage if you really want to know what she thinks and feels and agonizes about,” Ed Bradley said after speaking with her in 1990. In Respect, biographer David Ritz documented numerous times Franklin arranged interviews with Jet as counterpoint to an unfavorable report in another outlet.
Beyoncé’s Vogue photos are gorgeous, but I wonder what the editorial would have looked like if she’d truly trusted the publication’s creative team to support her. There’s still much to be desired in the way Black subjects, even the most distinguished and well-known, are portrayed in the mainstream. I’m fatigued by the hollow kind of diversity that tokenizes and the endless stories about racism and racial trauma. If I never again hear about how a Black or brown person has “taught” a white person something of moral value, I’d be pleased. In the not-so-distant past, glossies like Ebony, Jet, Vibe, The Source, and weekly papers like the Michigan Chronicle, and the Chicago Defender existed all at once. They had cachet and resources, and, importantly, a cauldron of Black editors and photographers and stylists who’d come up through the ranks. They created generative, textured counterpoints to mainstream narratives, and their teams were personally and institutionally invested in the growth, preservation, and rigorous interpretation of Black culture.
For better and for worse, and on the whole, they were trusted — to not denigrate, degrade, diminish, or exclude their subjects. To light them beautifully, to see, hear, and listen.
Ebony, Vibe, Essence and many local newspapers such as the Michigan Chronicle, the Chicago Defender, the St. Louis American and the Tri-State Defender are still publishing. Much of the archives of Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest are available digitally via Google Books. The Obsidian Collection is digitizing the archive of many legacy Black newspapers. Digital-first publications such as CASSIUS, Okayplayer, the Grio, and the Root do excellent work. But the media landscape has contracted and consolidated. Some Black outlets have shut down. Many of those that remain are unable to publish with the cadence they once did. Much Black talent is scattered about. Diversity is universally in, at least in this moment. It has become a business imperative for mainstream publications. That’s a win and a progression. But it has come with a cost.
June 19, also known as Juneteenth, marks the day when, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom. As the National Museum of African-American History and Culture notes in a Tumblr post, it could — and arguably should — be celebrated as a “second independence day.” But as the museum writes, “Though it has long been celebrated among the African American community it is a history that has been marginalized and still remains largely unknown to the wider public.”
This morning, the White House issued a statement on Juneteenth that didn’t land well. USA Today compared his statement to that of President Barack Obama, highlighting, as a commentator at the Independent Journal Review also noted, that Trump chose to praise a white person where Obama focused on the freed slaves. For more on Juneteenth, we’ve collected stories that explain the fraught history of the holiday, and the need for celebration.
A.N. Devers | Longreads | December 2017 | 26 minutes (6,577 words)
This is a story about a woman who was erased from her job as the editor of the most famous literary magazine in America.
In 2011, the New York Times ran Julie Bosman’s energetic and gregarious profile of Lorin Stein, the latest head editor of the famous literary magazine The Paris Review — a position for which she declared, “Bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” The profile portrayed Stein as an intellectual bon vivant who loved parties, party-boy banter, and debating literature as if it were the most important thing in the world.
We know now that Stein, by his own admission, abused his power with women writers and staff of the Paris Review. He has resigned from the literary magazine and from his editor-at-large position at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in response to the board of the Paris Review’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations and his conduct. We also know, by his own admission, that he did not treat literature as the most important thing in the world.
Stein himself admitted it in a cringeworthy 2013 online feature from Refinery29 focused not only on the magazine’s debaucherous parties but also on the interior decor of the Paris Review’s offices and fashion choices of the staffers, who were nearly all women. “It’s always been two things at once,” he says about the Review. “On the one hand, it’s a hyper-sophisticated, modernist, avant-garde magazine. On the other hand, it’s sort of a destination party.”
We now know, between this and Bosman’s piece, even without details of the accusations or reports printed in the Times, or the far worse accusations listed in the “Shitty Media Men” list, that these are glaringly honest portrayals of Stein’s priorities at the helm of the Paris Review. Unfortunately.
Also unfortunate was the error in Bosman’s piece naming Stein as the third editor to “hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” Stein was actually the fourth. Brigid Hughes, the editor who succeeded George Plimpton, had been inexplicably left out of the profile. She was also not mentioned in the piece announcing Stein’s successorship of Philip Gourevitch; although there was no factual error, she was simply ignored.
The quinces were weird. We didn’t know what to make of them, figuratively or literally. Did people eat them? They could have come from space. In fact on Sesame Street there used to be a skit that involved two aliens. They couldn’t reach the fruit on their planet’s fruit trees. One alien was too short, the other couldn’t bend its arms. When that came on I would glance outside at our quince bush. Extraterrestrial nectarines: that’s what they looked like. Beautiful, I realize now. Like a cross between a lemon and pear. (They symbolize fertility.) In the street-view picture, the quince bush was still there, but in the satellite view, taken five years later, you can see it’s been mowed to the ground. In the grass where it was there’s a pale, almost perfect circle.
I hadn’t thought of the quince bush for a couple of decades until I visited an old friend in LA last year, one I’d kept in contact with but hadn’t seen in several years. I’d flown into town that afternoon and was supposed to leave at dawn—it was one of those situations where it made no sense to go to sleep. You’d just be torturing yourself. Kevin West: a friend from college. We were in his apartment in Koreatown, a nice pad with a view of the city lights, though noticeably smaller than his old place in Laurel Canyon. He’d recently downsized his life. He had a bottle of good rye whiskey and some olives. At one point he was explaining to me that all modern fruit preserving, in cans and jars, descends from a discovery the Romans made—that if you cooked the otherwise inedible quince in honey and sealed it in jars, it became sweet and made excellent jam. Quince in honey, as a preserve, spread all over the world. The Portuguese called it marmelada. Marmalade.
Photo: grongar, Flickr