Photo: Devin Smith

Women We Read This Week

Claudia Rankine’s “Her Excellence: What Serena Williams Means to Us” in The New York Times Magazine

About halfway into this profile, we hear from Rankine’s subject for the first time: “You don’t understand me,” Serena Williams says. This, after Rankine has spent almost 1000 words persuasively exalting her, reflecting on what her unapologetic excellence in tennis means for culture, for racism, and for Rankine personally, as a black woman. It’s a thrilling, disruptive line, since Rankine has already shown that she does understand Williams. “Her excellence doesn’t mask the struggle it takes to achieve each win,” Rankine writes.

For black people, there is an unspoken script that demands the humble absorption of racist assaults, no matter the scale, because whites need to believe that it’s no big deal. But Serena refuses to keep to that script. Somehow, along the way, she made a decision to be excellent while still being Serena.

Does it matter if Williams agrees? In the rest of the piece, she only utters a few more lines, and they’re the kind of things we’re used to hearing star athletes tell journalists: familiar, cagey thoughts on what it feels like to play, and what it means to win. But the thinness of her insights is almost beside the point. This relatively concise profile is built on the tension between everything Rankine so fervently reads into Williams, and Williams’s refusal to add to her mythologizing (at least in this particular interview, off the court). It’s a study not only in Serena Williams herself, but in what it means to understand her—and proof that a writer can own that understanding without suggesting that Williams doesn’t understand herself.


Antonia Malchik’s “The End of Walking” in Aeon

Antonia Malchik offers a heartbreakingly eloquent argument for how the elevation of car travel above walking in this country has harmed much more than our health. She juxtaposes her own personal experience of her family having nearly everything within walking distance of their neighborhood on wide, safe sidewalks with the tragic story of a woman in suburban Atlanta who, as a “jaywalking” pedestrian, was convicted of vehicular homicide after her 4-year-old son let go of her hand while crossing the street and was killed by a car. Malchik contends that as a society, we believe cars to be synonymous with luxury, independence, and safety, but in actuality it’s the ability to get to where we are going on our own two feet that is true freedom–yet is becoming less and less safe. Like Malchik, I also spent some time living abroad in my twenties and greatly enjoyed not owning a car. I walked and used buses and underground trains in London; in Edinburgh, which has no underground, I dedicated myself to memorizing bus maps and schedules and to knowing my way around town by foot. Back in the U.S., I have found that my ability to navigate cities as a pedestrian has greatly diminished since I have not regularly been flexing that muscle. Among so many other things, when we drive everywhere, we lose the ability to wander and discover. Malchik’s article is a beautifully crafted wake-up call to us all—get up and get walking.

“We came to scorn walking, to fear it. Real Americans fold themselves into cars, where they feel safe and in control. For exercise, the better-off mimic walkers, bicyclists, hikers, and farmers on stationary machines in health clubs. They and the middle class drive to parks and wilderness preserves for the privilege of walking outside among trees and birds and clean air, and the poor are left with vast wastelands of road and concrete; the advice to ‘walk three times a week for your health’ easier given than followed when there’s nowhere safe to place your foot.”


Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts from Graywolf Press, and excerpted here in Longreads

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is about queerness, sure, but in the expansive sense of the word: not just “gay,” but queerness as an interruption of the status quo, a making strange, a lingering in the gray areas of boundaries, troubling the notion of boundary at all. So, yes, it’s about queerness in the gender sense of things, about “queer family making,” as it’s often summarized, but also about the slipperiness of boundaries themselves: between a person and their partner, in this case Maggie Nelson & Harry Dodge, between understandings of man and woman, mother and child, born-parent and step-parent and adopted-parent.

In typical Maggie Nelson style, the book weaves the personal and the critical with enviable ease, pulling in art, literature and theory as it goes. It’s rich with critical depth, and relaxes into the personal without apology—illuminating both as it moves steadily along, eschewing chronological progression for an intellectual one. The result is a collaged portrait of Nelson’s individual family situated in a larger queer community, within a critical/philosophical framework. But it never leaves the concrete stuff of lived experience for too long; it never allows criticism to divorce itself from life, and the two in conjunction easily replace binary simplifications with the complexity of gradations.

Nelson writes about trying to figure out what pronoun Harry preferred:

…I can’t bring myself to ask. Instead I’ve become a quick study in pronoun avoidance. The key is training your ear not to mind hearing a person’s name over and over again. You must learn to have cover in grammatical cul-de-sacs, relax into an orgy of specificity. You must learn to tolerate an instance beyond the Two, precisely at the moment of attempting to represent a partnership—a nuptial, even.

On bodies, Neslon’s pregnant, Harry’s in transition:

Our bodies grew stranger, to ourselves, to each other. You sprouted coarse hair in new places; new muscles fanned out across your hip bones. My breasts were sore for over a year, and while they don’t hurt anymore, they still feel like they belong to someone else… For years you were stone; now you strip your shirt off whenever you feel like it, emerge muscular, shirtless, into public spaces, go running—swimming, even.

On her son:

I don’t ever want to make the mistake of needing him as much as or more than he needs me. But there’s no denying that sometimes, when we sleep together in the dark cavern of the bottom bunk, his big brother thrashing around on top, the white noise machine grinding out its fake rain, the green digital clock announcing every hour, Iggy’s small body holds mine.

In The Argonauts, the efforts that love requires underscore every attempt to make sense. It is relief, here, to live in the complicated spaces that queerness opens up—not only for thinking of things that go against the mainstream, but for the new and thoughtful ways of surrendering into so-called normality. Indeed, one of the things I admire most about The Argonauts—perhaps the element I find the most comfort in—is that Nelson doesn’t take cover in radical simplifications, even as she constantly questions norms. Speaking of a photography exhibit, but with meaning that stretches along the whole expanse of the book, Nelson writes, “It reminds us that any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.”


Ariana Kelly’s “Taking the Waters in Desert Hot Springs” in Los Angeles Review of Books

What does water mean? More specifically, what does water mean now, in California? According to Ariana Kelly, “the very presence of natural water in the desert is ameliorative. It suggests a kind of elemental survival and, at the same time, a deeper geological time in which any individual’s survival is totally insignificant.” The article outlines the history of Desert Hot Springs, a small town in southern California that in the past offered the “water cure” to everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Al Capone, but which now languishes under the burdens of poverty and crime. The town’s boom-and-bust history echoes other uncomfortable juxtapositions in California: paradise and poverty, the promise of health and the reality of toxicity, wild hope and desperate disappointment.

As a brief history of the “water cure” in southern CA, the article is interesting. But more interesting is the implicit question behind all this: when the drought ends, will the water cure us this time? Will it be back to business as usual? As Kelly points out, “it won’t be easy to forget how vulnerable—how desperate—the last four years have revealed us to be.”



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