Women We Read This Week

Mac McClelland’s “How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp” in The New York Times Magazine

Mac McClelland always brings the spot-on reporting and her latest piece on a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey is no exception. This is not the expected story about a refugee camp–there are no tents, no sewage, virtually no crime. What there is instead: preschools, infrastructure, Internet access, barbershops, grocery stores that refugees claim are nicer than the ones in their home country. Yet despite being the perfect refugee camp–or perhaps because of it–residents still want out. By stripping away many of the dehumanizing aspects of living in a refugee camp, this piece reveals the underlying dilemma that not even “the nicest refugee camp in the world” can avoid: both the alienation and perpetual limbo of being a refugee, and the way in which camps deter long-term sustainable solutions to displacement.


Vendela Vida’s interview with Elizabeth Gilbert in The Believer

There are some writers on whom I develop giddy little schoolgirl crushes, and Elizabeth Gilbert is one of them. I adore her. I don’t care how gushing it sounds. Nakedly and plainly, I just do – I admire her work, her attitude, and her insights. This recent interview with Vendela Vida reinforced that admiration once more. Here, with trademark down-to-earth insight and intelligence, Gilbert discusses her latest novel, The Signature of All Things; her writing process and career trajectory; the 19th century and the wrenching of the spiritual from the scientific; and writing for male versus female audiences. Here’s a taste:

I think all my early writing reveals all of this stuff pretty clearly. I remember being so delighted when my first short story was published in Esquire and somebody wrote to the magazine saying, “There’s no way that this story was written by a woman. Elizabeth Gilbert is either a man or a big lesbo.” I took the comment as such a badge of honor! These days, of course, I am very much seen as a woman who writes exclusively for and about women, and I now wear that label as badge of honor.


Sandell Morse’s “Houses” on Ascent

Sandell Morse begins her braided essay with Gaston Bachelard (of Poetics of Space fame), and then she quotes him later in the essay: “We are never real historians, but always near poets and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.” Bachelard’s ideas create the essay’s thematic framework.

Structurally, Morse’s essay toggles between two houses: a yellow stucco her grandparents bought when they fled Poland to the U.S. during the World War Two, and la colonie in southern France where Jewish Scouts protected Jewish children from extermination between 1939 and 1944. Just as the piece oscillates between two houses, it moves between the polarities of history and memory. Morse has other images threading through the piece, too. Photographs, for instance. She gets to know historical characters and events through photographs people brought to la colonie after the war. And then, we learn that her parents owned a camera store where they took photographs of soldiers returning home. Yet, because photographs, memory, and history cannot fully portray houses and events of the past, Sandall’s essay also moves with speculation, imagined scenes, and wondering.


Maia Szalavitz’s “The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism” in Medium

Maia Szalavitz tells the story of Henry Markram, a neuroscientist whose autistic son, Kai, completely changed the way he thought of the brain, empathy, and autism. Markram’s Intense World theory claims that autistic people, who have for so long been classified as socially isolated, “are actually overwhelmed not only by their own emotions, but by the emotions of others.”

By explaining not only experiments but the evolving tensions of the Markram family itself—“He studied the brain all day, but couldn’t figure out how to help Kai learn and cope”—Szalavitz grounds hard science in immediate tensions and motivations. She doesn’t just explain the theory; she tells the story behind it.

“The more he investigated the idea of autism not as a deficit of memory, emotion and sensation, but an excess, the more he realized how much he himself had in common with his seemingly alien son.”

In the end, the story demands not only that we reconsider autism, but empathetic responses as a whole.– Katie

Rebecca Solnit’s “Diary: Go back to Palo Alto” in The London Review of Books

This diary piece by Rebecca Solnit starts as a news story – the recent barricading of the Google Bus in San Francisco – and soon widens out into a long analysis of the impact of Silicon Valley employees on the city they choose to commute from. The link between the Internet and the military is explored, the development of an increasingly unaffordable city is described ($50 an hour minimum wage to afford decent accommodation), and the tensions between the rich and not one bit rich riffle through the whole essay.

How do you diagnose what is wrong with San Francisco now? People bandy about the word ‘gentrification’, a term usually used for neighbourhoods rather than whole cities. You could say that San Francisco, like New York and other US metropolises, is suffering the reversal of postwar white flight: affluent people, many of them white, decided in the past few decades that cities were nice places to live after all, and started to return, pushing poorer people, many of them non-white, to the margins.

This may be a familiar story. However this level of detail and critique isn’t often given to a complex problem – a problem which is also shared by New York, London, Paris and Sydney.



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