Kima Jones’ “The Aqiqah,” in Midnight Breakfast
It’s always exciting to see a new literary site launch, especially when it includes complimentary original artwork. But when I saw that Kima Jones was included in the inaugural issue of Midnight Breakfast, I was even more excited. I’ve been following Jones’ poetry and Twitter feed for a while, but this is was the first piece of her nonfiction that I’ve encountered. I liked it as much for what it didn’t do as for what it did: instead of launching into mile-long rumination and explanation, Jones instead revealed her story with careful, cut-to-the-bone details and images that allowed her characters to come alive. Can’t wait to see more from her, and Midnight Breakfast.—Lauren
Rachel Aviv’s “A Valuable Reputation” in The New Yorker
I read this story aloud to my husband on a two-hour drive through Ohio and Pennsylvania, and I had to keep stopping to look up at him, incredulous, as it unfolded. “No way,” he kept saying, and I’d say, “What the…” and we’d both pause for a second, disgusted. It’s that kind of story; it reads like a movie, and it’s depressing to think that it’s nonfiction. Essentially, Aviv recounts the way in which Syngenta, a corporation that manufactures the herbicide atrazine, goes after a scientist whose work has consistently shown atrazine’s disturbing effects on the sexual organs of frogs. Aviv gets access to documents released in a class action lawsuit against Syngenta, and reveals systematic attempts by the corporation’s public relations team not only to discredit scientist Tyrone Hayes’ research, but to define and go after his perceived weaknesses as a person: for example, his potential insecurity as a black scientist who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina, and now works in an elite academic realm.
Syngenta’s cynical campaigns are gross enough, but Aviv expands the piece to focus on the way in which corporations have developed a strategy of casting excessive doubt on any scientific research that threatens their products, co-opting and buying out academics, journalists, and researchers who will sway public opinion. Despite consistent studies for more than fifteen years showing atrazine’s toxic effects, the EPA has failed to regulate the chemical, relying instead on studies funded by Syngenta, and claiming that the burden of proof is simply not high enough. When, we are left wondering at the end of Aviv’s piece, will it ever be?
This is a crucial story that reminds us of the sickening links between industry, academia, and government.—Sarah
Hermione Hoby’s “Karl Ove Knausgaard: Norway’s Proust and a life laid painfully bare” in The Guardian
A surge of articles about the craft of writing flashed across my screen this week. Among them, Hermione Hoby’s rose to the top. Hoby seems to have read every word of volume one of Knausgaard’s refrigerator-sized book My Struggle, a 3,600-page book in which he records every mundane detail of his life. I say this with complete admiration–guilt, even–since I own the book but have not read past the first 100 pages. Is it terrible of me to read about the book, instead of actually reading it? I don’t think so. Sometimes this “struggle,” between reading a tiny bit of a great book and ingesting the whole thing, makes a space for readers to connect with an incisive piece of cultural criticism like Hoby’s. My favorite part is when she opens up the origins of Knausgaard’s struggle, which is beautiful in its simplicity. As she tells it, Knausgaard became frustrated with writing fiction. He believed that everything he wrote had no value. Because of the pressure to write crisp, compressed prose, his writing became so minimalist that it disappeared. Hoby quotes him saying:
In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing. Fuck quality, fuck perfection, fuck minimalism. My world isn’t minimalist; my world isn’t perfect, so why on earth should my writing be?
My Struggle started as an experiment motivated by desperation. Knausgaard’s success makes him desperate in another way. Hoby reveals how his desire to be truthful meant that he revealed a great deal about people in his life. Now they are exposed in ways he didn’t foresee.
Eva Saulitis’s “Wild Darkness” in Orion
I’m always drawn to stories of illness and death that resist slouching into sentiment, and instead reveal something about death’s quiet inevitability in a culture that stubbornly resists it. That’s one reason I was so drawn to Eva Saulitis’s story of her hikes off Prince William Sound the autumn after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. (Though, admittedly, I am also drawn in by the way it is written: beautifully, carefully.) The groundedness of the story comes in part from the vivid ways it stays close to the natural world: “I stepped around half-consumed corpses, curled and sloughing skin, over eyeless heads, headless flanks, brainless skulls, pearly backbones stripped of meat.” At the same time, Saulitis strikes an incredible balance in posing the fears and questions that death puts before us, linking them to experience, literature, and nature. “Perhaps (I tell myself), though we deny and abhor and battle death in our society, though we hide it away, it is something so natural, so innate, that when the time comes, our bodies—our whole selves—know exactly how it’s done.”—Katie
Lisa Selin Davis’s “What Lou Reed Taught Me About Love” in The New York Times
To fall in love with a constellation of freckles, dimples so deep you could drink out of them, the gentle curve of a scar, the rough skin of those hands: this is what Lisa Selin Davis reminds me of. The physical maps that marked the love of my youth. Davis was 16, and, as she describes, “He had pale freckles all over his chest and collarbone that formed a beautiful dent below his neck. He mumbled hello to me.” There is a heat and a rawness to the story because she captures that intense moment when you realize that all the negative thoughts you harbor about yourself are exactly the reason another person has chosen to share a particular moment in time with you. And you can’t believe it. “Who would take me as I am?” you wonder. But you don’t have time to think, because all you want to do is kiss.