Women We Read This Week

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Rafia Zakaria’s “The Tragedies of Other Places” in Guernica

A resident of Watertown, MA, was quoted in this week’s Harper’s Weekly Review saying, “I can’t imagine how people in other parts of the world live like this..with all the bombs, guns, and uncertainty.”

This kind of insight is rare during American tragedies, and it seems at best insensitive to point out to someone whose child has lost a leg that these horrors unfold all the time in places like Pakistan. And yet it is also crucial not to lose sight of the fact that such tragedy in the U.S. is rare and extraordinary; that in the countries where the U.S. is waging its wars these incidents are part of the quotidian; and that we are, most of the time, extraordinarily lucky, kept at a safe remove from our now decades-long battles. How can we see beyond the huge swell of patriotism and sensationalist coverage to a wider, more complicated reality: how can we use this moment to empathize instead of only narrowing in on our own isolated incidents of victimhood?

By reading pieces like Rafia Zakaria’s. Zakaria’s analysis of the American response to tragedy is clear-headed, critical, and courageous. She makes the essential and uncomfortable point that “Boston is no different, no more or less tragic than the bombings that have razed the marketplaces of Karachi, the school in Khost, the mosque in Karbala.” And yet “American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response.” Zakaria argues that this response, like so much American media coverage of our ongoing wars, dramatically oversimplifies the complexities of war and terrorism. The marathon, for her, is the ultimate metaphor for the American understanding of good and evil, right and wrong:

The innocence of marathon runners and their expectations of a finish line, a well-earned victory, are markers of an America that still believes in an uncomplicated morality even while it is at war. The runner runs, sweats, suffers, and deserves the prize; the messiness of the world has no place in that vacuum of earned achievement where victory is straightforward in a way that it can never be in actual life.

At moments like these it is rare, but so crucial, to find critical voices that put the American experience into international perspective and remind us that we are not exceptional, our suffering is not unique. Sadly, Boston is just one more city rocked by the convulsions of war and terrorism, and perhaps in seeing that bigger picture, the quotidian nature of these horrors, we will reconsider our endless wars.–Sarah

Sarah Jaffe’s“A Day Without Care,” in the Jacobin

Growing up both of my parents worked full-time. They worked as public servants, in unionized “helping people” jobs. My mom’s career required a college diploma; my dad’s did not. But my dad still earned more than twice than my mom did.

I was always given two reasons for this discrepancy: one, my dad’s job was physically dangerous and potentially fatal, and thus had been one of the first professions in the US to unionize. The second reason was more compelling to me: my dad’s job as a firefighter was a traditionally male job, while my mom’s job as a teacher was a traditionally female job. While both jobs served the greater good, one profession was valued more in our society than the other.

I was reminded of this while reading Sarah Jaffe’s “A Day Without Care.” In it Jaffe explores the genderization of “work-family balance” and how low-paid, part-time, non-unionized work has been developed as the “solution.” She frames the struggles of working-class women within the larger context of gender discrepancy by tracing the historical factors that gave rise to such gendered work; the culture it has created; and the factors that keep it going. In the end Jaffe advocates for a general strike of all such workers:

…[W]hat the Chicago teachers did [by striking], what nurses and home care aides do, is make their work visible. By stepping away from it, even briefly, they dissociate themselves from it and remind us that it is not work done simply out of love. By including demands that benefit the community, they make visible the value of their caring as well as their expertise.

With so much of the female-in-the-workplace discussion dominated by professional women trying to climb the ladder, it was gratifying to read a piece that framed the problems of working-class women within the gender conversation. If feminism is ever to be the robust, inclusive movement it needs to be, more pieces like this one need to be written.

Megan Stielstra’s “Channel B,” in The Rumpus

I saw a Rumblr post that Megan Stielstra’s essay “Channel B” was being included in the upcoming Best American Essays 2013. And guess what? It’s totally obvious why. In my mind, this is a near perfect essay. With a strong narrative voice, it explores postpartum depression by saying just enough. Concise, Stielstra gives us a few potent details–the baby monitor, the yoga pants, the bleak winter–to really bring us into the anxiety and loneliness of being a new mother. It’s not overdone or underdone; it sits in that perfect little pocket inbetween, where the real gems exist.–Lauren

“Deborah Blum on Science Writing: I’m a Neurotic Over-Researcher,” in the Guardian

I really enjoyed Deborah Blum’s thoughtful take on science writing — and how she approaches it — in an interview with The Guardian. It’s got some solid craft advice that’s equally applicable in other genres of writing, and as a confirmed math failure I appreciated her conception of science writing for the masses:

I’ve never been a writer who spends a lot of time on what you might call “big” science stories. I like the view through a small lens. My favourite stories are ones that illustrate the ways that science is essential to our everyday life.

That’s partly because I’ve never really liked, as they say, preaching to the choir. The audience that interests me doesn’t really dwell in the science inner circle but outside of it. It’s always been my most enjoyable challenge as a writer: how do I reach the person who walked away from science in high school – decided that it was too hard, too boring, too irrelevant? So what I think of as a good science story is one that has some power to seduce, as it were, a member of the science-disenfranchised.

–Eva

Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s “Antarctica: The Planet’s Imagination” on Al Jazeera

Antarctica as final frontier takes a narrative turn in this opinion piece by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. No longer are adventurers racing to the pole, and those colonial claims are largely unrecognized. Can the “white south” be home to anybody? Or is it in fact a place of metaphor–the unwritten, the unknown, the apparently barren expanse where, paradoxically, imagination resides? A wilderness that stands in, as Bledsoe argues, as the antithesis of home? And thus, might Antarctica, as idea, as geography, possess, in its very unclaimed blankness, a roadmap for our planet’s future?

“Being lost is the heart of imagination,” Bledsoe answers. “Imagining is always the first step outside oneself.” –Molly

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About Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick is the founder of Vela. Her work has been featured in Harper's, Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The Best Women's Travel Writing, The New Inquiry, The Common, and elsewhere. Her Vela story "Homing Instincts" was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2014. Before returning to the U.S. for graduate school, she spent six years living, teaching and traveling abroad. Read her full bio here. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMenkedick.

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