A gathering of some of the best pieces by women we’ve read this week.
Caty Enders’ “There Are No Pythons Here,” in Outside
When the Florida Wildlife Commission announced the Florida Python Challenge, a month-long free-for-all in which participants vied for a cash prize for the most Burmese pythons (an invasive species) killed, Outside‘s Caty Enders jumped on a plane. Her story about the hunt, and about the ongoing deterioration of the Everglades, is vivid and funny and sad.
As I soon discover, snake hunting isn’t about wading through the swamp or crawling through mud on your belly. Mainly, you just walk a lot, on a hot, dry road, waiting for something to happen, which usually doesn’t. “Nobody knows how to do this well,” Booth says. “There’s this one guy we kept running into, a kid on a bicycle with a lacrosse net. He had his earbuds in, listening to music, riding along. We just catch ’em by hand.”
“Sometimes you’ll hear ’em before you see ’em,” he says, dragging his boot through the grass to mimic the sound. “But you can’t get into the weeds—they’re too thick, and it’ll wear you down.” We stick to the top of the dusty levee, scanning the banks for dark shapes and any hint of motion.
When we stop for a minute, I notice a low drone from some far-off place. Booth says it’s probably planes taking off from the airport. He points to a hazy urban outline. “You can see Miami,” he says. “Opposing worlds. The city’s such a rat race, but here there’s no one.” Booth has lost 12 pounds since the Challenge started, and he says he’d like to quit his job entirely, that “staying inside and getting fat” gives him anxiety. “Being outdoors is a gift in itself,” he says. “We live on such a beautiful planet.”
Julia Cooke’s “Amigos” in Virginia Quarterly Review
The simple, cheery title of Julia Cooke‘s piece belies its complexities, just as the seemingly straightforward or small dreams of the Cuban “friends” she profiles contain within them the complications and hidden dimensions of a country in transition. With an earnestness that never feels saccharine, romanticized, or disingenuous, Cooke follows Sandra, a Cuban prostitute whose plans for the future “were like clouds she thought she’d walk into; they’d envelop her and then everything would be different.” Sandra is at once wily, funny, tender, and harsh, containing a hopeful and doomed ambition Americans want to identify with and a hard pragmatism, born of poverty and limited opportunity, that many readers (and the writer herself) will find unsettling. The tragedy and the humanity of Sandra’s story are derived from the fact that “the dreams [she] imagined were the size of all the rooms she’d ever been in.” Through her, we experience Cuba’s jinetero culture of hustlers and hookers, men and women who seek out foreigners for “friendship” with the benefits of CUC currency and exit visas. As Cooke discovers, the jineteros do not operate within a distinct category of Cuban culture but are rather emblematic of relationships in Havana, in which clean lines between journalist and source, between amiga and jinetera, don’t exist, and the strongest dividing line is between those who can leave and those confined to the island. A complex, fluid, and beautiful profile relevant not only to Cuba but to any place where the relative freedoms and opportunities of foreign journalists collide with the concomitant lack of their subjects. — Sarah
Michelle Dean’s “How To Win at the Women’s Memoir Game” in New York Magazine‘s The Cut
At first this piece wearied me. Not due to any fault of the writing; probably in fact because of the writing. Michelle Dean presents a succinct, clear and well-argued response to last week’s piece in The Nation by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Dean traces a few potent examples of female writers throughout history whose works were dismissed, attacked or generally not taken seriously to arrive at the point most of us contemporary female memoirists seem to already know: women’s confessional work is slighted in mainstream literary culture.
But what I like about this piece is that Dean doesn’t stop there. I feel like most of these types of critiques I read–and believe me, there are a lot–only take the train this far, and leave you feeling angry, dejected and hopeless. But Dean does something different: she looks a little closer. There are women who are “succeeding” at the women’s memoir game: Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed, to name a couple. Do these writers still face sexist criticism? Yes. Does that stop them from writing? No. Dean admits that on a certain level, all women who continue to write memoir agree to engage in “the game.” They may operate in opposition to it, like Copaken Kogan, but they’re still playing it. This doesn’t make the sexism any less real or problematic, nor does it diminish the work of the writers.
There was a certain feeling of freedom with which I came away from Dean’s piece. It’s a rigged game, sure, but it’s not an entirely hopeless one: “Women who win at the memoir game know the rules and decide to game the system.”
Ann Friedman’s “The other side of reporting a tragedy” in the Columbia Journalism Review
I think of Ann Friedman as a pretty social-media savvy lady, which I think makes this piece all the more important. In it, Friedman, simply and without a lot of fanfare, relates her experience of having her immediate family members at the Boston Marathon at the time of the bombing. What she hones in on here is her reaction to the social media reaction: basically, she didn’t want to interact with it at all. “After that wave of relief, the last thing I wanted to do was watch other journalists spread half-truths and write the first drafts of tomorrow’s thinkpieces on Twitter.” Friedman reminds us that the line between empathy and concern, and self-serving bandwagonism and exploitation can actually be quite fine. Being a practical lady, she leaves us with some good tips, chief of which might be: “Think about people, not clicks or ratings.” — Lauren