Search Results for: writing

The Psychiatrist in My Writing Class and His ‘Gift’ of Hate

Longreads Pick
Source: Longreads
Published: May 20, 2019
Length: 10 minutes (2,723 words)

The Psychiatrist in My Writing Class and His ‘Gift’ of Hate

Illustration by Olivia Waller

Rani Neutill | Longreads | May 2019 | 11 minutes (2,723 words)

It is day three of the writing workshop. I sit in a small room with a table fit for ten. The chairs, blue and plastic, are uncomfortable. The table, smooth. The walls, buttercream. I cram writing, reading, and workshopping into four hours a day. Each morning a slight wind breaks through the New England summer heat and wafts salt through the air. It reminds me that the ocean is not far away. I am grateful to have five days away from waiting tables and teaching so I can learn and write.

Covered in greens, reds, and orange, I wear tank tops that expose my tattoos, that make eyes follow the lines of my decorated arms. My skin has grown into a deep brown from the sun’s finesse, from the batches of melanin that lay under my flesh, from my mother’s Indian blood.

All my classmates are white.

I have meticulously selected this date, smack in the middle of the week to present my work. I wanted time to get acclimated, to know my fellow classmates, to feel comfortable around them. When I walked into the room on the first day, I felt my difference, my race, my arms marked with color. I knew my story would be different. How questions of racism and immigration might not pertain to the other members of my class. The eight pages I workshop are from the memoir I’ve been writing for three years about my mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother and the way she tragically died. A memoir about the silence around mental illness within South Asian communities. A memoir about the costs of beauty defined by racism, a quintessential Bengali story about the impact of the forces of migration and colonialism.

The teacher is intelligent and kind and has encouraged helpful criticism, beginning with an author’s strengths. She does not like the Iowa Workshop type of annihilating appraisal. Students talk about what they like. Then a fellow workshopper says,

“I guess I’m the only one who hated this piece.”

I recoil.

My skin combusts into tendrils from the force of his statement. My back sharpens. Eyes wide, I turn towards this man. I am thankful there is a student between us so I don’t have to be near his translucent skin, his bald head shimmering under the fluorescent lights. Sweat beading on his brow. His long grey and red beard, his attempt to look distinct. His small silver earrings, his attempt to look edgy.

The class takes a quick breath, exhaling after two Mississippi seconds. It is a pause and silence that registers what was said. That impenetrable word, hate.

He continues.

“I found myself furiously crossing things out and correcting grammar, fixing sentences and wondering when this writer learned to speak English.”

I wonder if he has British blood. I was a professor of postcolonial literature for sixteen years. I am familiar with the white man’s interrogation of colonized peoples’ ability to speak English. I read and taught Freud and Lacan to analyze the white man’s words; Kipling, Macaulay, EM Forster all come to mind.

I am livid. I was born in the United States. English is my first language and I speak it fluently, but am embarrassed because my relationship with the language is fraught. My mother’s English was fractured. Her accent muddled white people’s perception of her. She tried hard to rid herself of that accent, to sound like a “real” American. As she grew older, her Indian accent crept back in and her English became broken.
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Rewriting A Symphony In Stone

Engraving of the cathedral of Notre Dame circa 1850 by Deroy. Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

Summer Brennan | Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,685 words)

 

As flames erupted from the roof of Notre Dame cathedral, snapping their bright orange tongues against the blue of a darkening springtime sky, people the world over felt the scorch of its destruction lick the walls of our internal picture galleries. We patted down our memories, as one does when fearing the loss of a wallet, making sure they were still there: the year we lived on the Left Bank, the semester abroad, the summer vacation or backpacking trip when, after what felt like an eternity standing in line, we climbed up to the bell towers for a view of Paris among the gargoyles. Jutting stone of an ancient river island, lapped by eight centuries of the city’s shifting tides of politics and light.

If we had never set foot in Notre Dame, or even in France, our vault of association was no less full. Novels, paintings, photographs, postcards, and films both old and new rushed in to provide romantic context: Audrey Hepburn spilling ice cream on Cary Grant on the quai opposite the famous cathedral in Charade; Jesse telling Celine in Linklater’s Before Sunset about the Nazi who defied orders by refusing to blow it up; Quasimodo swinging down on a rope to save Esmeralda from the mob, and shouting from the symbolic protection of the church his stirring claim of “Sanctuary!” If we do not have our own Paris to recall, there is the fabled city of Victor Hugo, Colette, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin. As Notre Dame burned and we found ourselves, despite our representations and our memories, still pickpocketed by loss, I was reminded of the ways in which Paris has been repeatedly damaged, demolished, rebuilt and reimagined.

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‘I’m Always Writing Against This Idea That Denver’s a White Space.’

Adam Morgan | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,462 words)

 

There’s a section in Robert Bolaño’s 2666 — “The Part About the Crimes” — where women are raped and murdered for nearly 300 pages, their mutilated bodies abandoned in the deserts of northern Mexico. The violence is brutal enough to seem gratuitous, even sadistic, but Bolaño was merely fictionalizing the real-life female homicides of Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. And while 2666 circles these murders like a vulture, the women themselves barely get a chance to speak.

The women in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, Sabrina & Corina — Chicana and Indigenous women living in Denver and southern Colorado — suffer similar fates. But we meet their sisters, mothers, and daughters. We meet the men who abuse them. And finally, we hear their voices.

In the title story, a teenaged cosmetology student is tasked with applying her murdered cousin’s funeral makeup. In “Sisters”, a double date leaves one sibling blind. In “Cheesman Park”, a bank teller flees Los Angeles for Denver after she and her mother are attacked, separately, by the men who claim to love them. And in “Any Further West,” a sex worker and her daughter travel in the opposite direction in search of a better life.

Sabrina & Corina is a moving, textured, masterful collection, saturated with a strong sense of place. I spoke with Kali Fajardo-Anstine about her book, the cycles of violence, and the gentrification of her hometown’s Chicano and Indigenous communities. Read more…

I’m Writing You from Tehran

House party in an affluent section of northern Tehran. Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Delphine Minoui | I’m Writing You from Tehran | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | April 2019 | 32 minutes (6,421 words)

 

It all started with flowers. Flowers, everywhere flowers. And all those shouts of joy escaping from chadors. I remember that May 23, 1998, as if it were yesterday. The second of Khordad, according to the Iranian calendar. A year had gone by since Khatami was elected. The scent of spring permeated the Iranian capital. On Enghelab (Revolution) Street, Iranians were celebrating the first anniversary of his victory. I had landed in Tehran a few days earlier. I was staying with Grandmother, my last family connection to Iran since your passing. Despite her inordinate protectiveness, I had managed to extricate myself from her house. It was my first outing. To help pay for my journey, I had pitched a documentary project on Iranian youth to Radio France. In the West, Iran had become respectable again, and in Parisian newsrooms, questions were pouring in from all sides. Did Khatami’s victory signal the end of repressive theocracy? Was democracy compatible with Islam? What did “Generation K” — all those young people my age born under Khomeini; raised under his successor, Khamenei; and the main electors of the new president — dream of? The stipend for my freelancing only just about covered my plane ticket. But the idea of working for one of the biggest French media companies and being in the land of my ancestors was more than enough compensation for me.

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‘Craft Is My Belief System. My Obligation To Writing Is Religious.’

RASimon / Getty

Lily Meyer | Longreads | March 2019 | 9 minutes (2,302 words)

 

Nathan Englander has been writing fiction about Jews in America for nearly as long as I’ve been a Jew in America. I stole my mother’s copy of his debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, as a nine-year-old, and was both enthralled and baffled by his stories of Orthodox identity and longing.

Since then, Englander has written a play, another story collection, and three novels, the most recent of which, kaddish.com, opens with a secular Jew named Larry who refuses to say daily Kaddish for his dead father. Saying Kaddish is, according to Jewish law, the eldest son’s duty, but Larry can’t bring himself to return to the synagogue he has left behind. Instead, he finds a solution on the then-new Internet: he’ll pay a rabbinical student in Jerusalem to take on his filial duty. Years later, Larry returns to Orthodox Judaism, reinventing himself as a yeshiva teacher named Reb Shuli. He’s happily married, and comfortable in his reclaimed community. The sole stain on his Jewish life is his failure to say Kaddish for his father. His guilt swells into an obsession, and soon, he’s off to Israel to track down the proprietor of kaddish.com and get back the birthright he e-signed away.

Englander tells Shuli’s story in the language Shuli knows best: The Yiddish-inflected, Hebrew-sprinkled English of religious American Jews. He writes with humor, pathos, and irrepressible life. I thought often of Grace Paley as I read kaddish.com, and of the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, which, as it turns out, Englander loves. We spoke on the phone about the Coen brothers, Philip Roth’s secular funeral, and other questions of Jewish-American identity. Like my nine-year-old self, I was enthralled. Read more…

Namwali Serpell on Doing the Responsible Thing — Writing an Irresponsible Novel

Peg Skorpinski / Hogarth

Tobias Carroll | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,830 words)

Namwali Serpell’s first novel, The Old Drift, tells the story of several families living in Zambia, encompassing over a century of their interwoven lives. The novel takes its title from a region located near Victoria Falls (otherwise known as Mosi-o-Tunya, which translates to “The Smoke That Thunders”), which is also where the novel begins. Along the way, The Old Drift touches on many moments in history, from the Second World War to Zambia’s foray into space exploration.

But Serpell isn’t content to simply tell the story of a nation through several generations of its residents. Instead, her narrative extends into the near future, and each of its sections is paired with a short passage written by a strange collective voice — one which doesn’t seem to be human. It’s a bold narrative choice, but it’s one that pays off brilliantly at novel’s end.

Serpell’s bibliography covers a broad range of styles and territories, from the theoretical to the metafictional. Her first book, Seven Modes of Uncertainty, explored the works of writers like Tom McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Ian McEwan. She’s contributed the introduction to Penguin Classics’ edition of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel Devil on the Cross. And her short story “Company,” published in the “Cover Stories” issue of McSweeney’s, reimagines a Samuel Beckett narrative along Afrofuturist lines — a process that Serpell described in one interview as “a Janelle Monaé cover of a Philip Glass song.” Read more…

The Problem with Nature Writing

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Nature writing is a prestigious genre graced with such legendary practitioners as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Unfortunately, the genre is no longer that popular. For The Believer, nature writer Jenny Price shows what the sprawling Los Angeles Metropolitan Area reveals about the genre’s failure to connect with modern readers, and how we can rethink our relationship with nature.

People frequently ask Price, “Is there nature in L.A.?” Many outsiders incorrectly claim that L.A. has no history, beauty, depth, culture, or pedestrians. Their inability to recognize nature in the city stems from the same core problem that plagues Price’s genre: the idea that nature is something separate from, or untouched by, humanity. “To define nature as the wild things apart from cities,” Price writes, “is one of the great fantastic American stories.”

And it’s one of the great fantastic American denials. On Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills in the Bel Air area, in the Santa Monica Mountain foothills, the TV producer Aaron Spelling has built what’s widely publicized as the starship of Hollywood homes—a 56,550-square-foot French limestone mansion with 123 rooms, with two rooms for wrapping gifts and a rose garden on top of one of four garages. Here are two generally ignored facts about Spelling’s famous homestead. First, it is a house of nature: Spelling built it, has maintained it, and stocks it with fantastic quantities of oil, stone, metals, dirt, water, and wood (a likely forest’s worth of wrapping paper, to begin with). And second, there are very few maples on Mapleton Drive. Maybe maples grew here in abundance once, and maybe not. Either way, the street enjoys the idea of maple trees, which conjures a bucolic refuge above the smog, noise, and torrential activity of the megalopolis below. Call it maple mojo. Smaller manses of nature line the rest of Mapleton Drive as well as the neighboring streets Parkwood, Greendale, Brooklawn, Beverly Glen. No parks, no woods, no dales, no brooks, no glens. Just the mojo of wild nature.

Mapleton Drive showcases the denial intrinsic to the great American nature story. To say there’s no nature in cities is a convenient way of seeing if I like being a nature lover and environmentalist but don’t want to give up any of my stuff. We cherish nature as an idea of wildness while losing track of the real nature in our very houses. We flee to wild nature as a haven from high-tech industrial urban life, but refuse to see that we madly use and transform wild nature to sustain the exact life from which we seek retreat. We make sacred our encounters with wild nature but thereby desacralize all other encounters. Or in other words, if we cannot clearly understand cities and our lives within them unless we keep track of our connections to nature, still there may be some basic things we prefer not to see and understand.

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Three Decades of Cross-Cultural Utopianism in British Music Writing

Mick Jagger and Brian Jones reading a copy of Mersey Beat magazine in 1965. Mark and Colleen Hayward / Redferns / Getty

Mark Sinker | A Hidden Landscape Once a Week Strange Attractor Press | February 2019 | 32 minutes (6,436 words)

 

It was late 1986, and I was frustrated. I’d given up my day-job to dedicate myself full-time to writing, but I wasn’t getting much work, and what I did get was paying almost nothing. Only one title was giving me the freedom to find my voice — Richard Cook’s still-small monthly The Wire, where he was building a team of new young writers — and it paid worst of all. No surprise I wasn’t getting enough paid work: Mostly I wrote about free improvised music and the more intransigent offshoots of post-punk, but I’d also seen King Sunny Ade play at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983, and fallen in love with West African pop, its dancing brightness and the strangeness of its vocal lines. Others were writing about it, no one very well. Or so I felt. I was young, and young often means arrogant. Two things had drawn me to the music-writing of that era, the weeklies in particular: its opinionated mischief-making humor, and the sense of young people travelling by touch, learning as they went — finding out about the wider world by throwing themselves out into that world. Master both, and there’s your recipe for professional success, I thought. I had a head full of ideas about what music should and shouldn’t be, and was intensely willing to argue about them.

The LP in front of me was Coming Home, debut release of a group of South African exiles under the collective name Kintone. Its quietly melodic afrojazz — with hints of Weather Report, but far less flashy — went right over my head that aggrieved autumn. I had come to hate jazz writing which damned musicians with bland praise, leaving readers swimming unconvinced in routinized tact. But re-listening now, 30 years on, I have to say I no longer hear what apparently so riled me then, when I scorned instrumental prowess and sneered at a cartoon idea of the meaning of fusion.

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Writing for the Movies: A Letter from Hollywood, 1962

AP Photo

Daniel Fuchs | The Golden West | Black Sparrow Books | May 2005 | 42 minutes (8,396 words)

 

Dear Editors:

Thank you for your kind letter and compliments. Yes, your hunch was right, I would like very much to tell about the problems and values I’ve encountered, writing for the movies all these years. I’m so slow in replying to you because I thought it would be a pleasant gesture—in return for your warm letter—to send you the completed essay. But it’s taken me longer than I thought it would. I’ve always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood, and this even though they may never have been inside the business and so haven’t had the chance of knowing how really onerous and exacerbat­ing the conditions are. But for me the subject is more disturbing, or else it is that I like to let my mind wander and that I start from a different bias, or maybe I’ve just been here too long.

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