Andrea Barrett’s “Traveling Corpse” in The American Scholar
I’ve always loved Andrea Barrett’s historical fiction, and in this essay she narrates the process of researching her short story “Archangel,” which takes place in Russia at the tail end of World War I. The article itself reads like one of her stories, sensitive and gripping, though most of it simply describes tracking down obscure books and newspaper articles and comparing different sources —what could be supremely boring in other hands is fascinating in hers. “Those brooms! Those blankets!” she says, after stumbling on some
particularly salient details. “I’d worked for months, perhaps a year already, before finding them.” Research, she shows, can take you to unexpected places. She delights in small coincidences, half-remembered facts, and serendipitous conversations, and after one particularly special coincidence, the reader shares her elation:
Afterward, for days and then weeks—that exhilarating moment of recognition kept coming back to me. In my office I found the
paperback, which for seven years had existed as a cherished but inert object, often handled and used but not really seen. Now it bloomed as shockingly as an allium, green stem suddenly sporting an enormous globe: alive as the person who wrote it had once been.
Barrett reflects, too, on the differences between delving into history as a historian and as a historical fiction writer. Though she doesn’t mention it, what seems apparent to me is her profound sense of empathy with people who have already lived and died (“I tried to imagine being 19 or 20 years old, barely trained and so far from home”). In comparing various versions of a bizarre journey, she concludes, “The details are what move us.” — Elizabeth
Alissa J. Ruben and Lynsey Addario’s “Afghan Policewomen Struggle Against Culture” in The New York Times
When I read an article these days, it is as much for the photography as for the writing. Ever since I got my hands on Lynsey Addario’s new memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, I’ve wanted to see more of her work. This photo essay looks at how difficult it is to import ideas about change – in this case, the plan to elevate the status of women in Afghanistan and promote equality by hiring women police. Despite efforts to train the women, Alissa J.Ruben describes how, “Policewomen have been branded as little more than prostitutes, dishonoring their families. That stigma means that mostly desperate women, usually illiterate and poor, have joined the force.” Many of the policewomen have been the targets of murder, rape, or intimidation.
After looking through Addario’s photos of the policewomen at the shooting range, on the bus, and eating together, I thought, “Even if Afghan society refuses to accept the policewomen, they won’t forget their experiences, and their daughters won’t either. Those stories will live on, and will be passed down from mother to daughter.” — Alice
Mac McClelland’s Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. In late June 2011, GOOD published Mac McClelland’s “I’m Gonna Need You To Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD”, an essay about a traumatic event and its aftermath. It was the first piece I’d ever read by the young reporter who covered the human rights beat for Mother Jones at the time, and it has stayed with me in the years since. It was the type of no-holds-barred personal essay that makes you blink and go, “Wait – we can do that? That’s allowed?” (Other essays that have had that effect on me: “The Source of All Things” by Tracy Ross, and Roxane Gay’s “What We Hunger For”.) I’ve followed McClelland’s career ever since.
The book covers some of the same ground introduced in the essay. It begins with McClelland’s first trip to Haiti, in 2010 – after spending months covering the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the Gulf Coast, McClelland headed to Port-au-Prince to work on a story about the aftermath of Haiti’s massive earthquake. She was already firmly in trauma’s grip by the time she got home to San Francisco, and Irritable Hearts is the story of her emotional free fall, gradual recovery, and burgeoning understanding of PTSD and its effects not just on her, but on a whole community of sufferers. It’s also, simultaneously, the story of how she fell in love with a French soldier she met on that same trip to Haiti, the man who became her husband. Crucially, it’s about her fears that her trauma – her crazy, as she puts it – will spread to him, as PTSD, we now understand, often affects spouses too.
The book is powerful, smart, and often painful to read. I won’t say too much more, but you can read an excerpt, or listen to McClelland talk about the book on the Longform Podcast.
Leslie Jamison’s “The Two Faces of Paradise” in AFAR
The always insightful Leslie Jamison’s contribution to AFAR’s “Spin the Globe” series – where a writer gets sent, with little to no warning, to a random corner of the planet – tackles the divide between northern Sri Lanka, where the civil war raged, and the country’s idyllic south. Jamison travels to the north, but the tension, the fundamental awkwardness, of her doing so is clear throughout the piece. Here she is early on, before her departure:
The journalist told me it bothers him to hear the way travelers talk about the north, especially its beaches—pristine, unspoiled, undiscovered. Those beaches aren’t unspoiled, he told me. There are skeletons in the sand.
I asked how recently he’d been up there himself, and he just shook his head. Not recently, he said. He didn’t have to go. He already knew. He wouldn’t go just to look, he said. That would make him uncomfortable. He’d only go if he thought he could be useful.
And Jamison again, deeper into the story:
People like me—which is to say, people who’ve had the privilege to travel, and to think of traveling as a constituent part of their identity—often like to travel where others like themselves haven’t already gone. But in Jaffna, being away from other tourists didn’t make me feel less like a tourist. Just the opposite. I was looked at, sussed out, wondered about, and rightly so, because what was I doing there, anyway? I felt my own lack of use.
It’s the type of essay that’s especially uncomfortable for travelers and travel writers to read. But it’s worth your time. — Eva
Jacqueline Doyle’s ”The Tyranny of Things” in Litragger
I’m always happy when I come across an essay by Doyle. This one, originally published in South Dakota Review, is now available online at Litragger. In it, Doyle highlights her parents’ (especially her mother’s) affection for and attention toward things in great detail. The essay’s nine sections each begin with an epigraph; Doyle uses these to further examine and illuminate her own thoughts. And while it’s clear she has a strong opinion about her mother’s overbearing behavior, given the title of the piece, she takes time to reflect, make suppositions, ask questions. She lets her thoughts spool into her essay. Sometimes this results in her “thinking on the page,” but other times, she just lets her observations be, inviting readers to make their own associations and conclusions.
We’re given several glimpses into the couple’s obsession with the ephemera of their vacations and day-to-day lives, snippets that are both comedic — Doyle describes the “outdoor furniture from Florida that they’ve reupholstered at great expense to use in their living room (‘we weren’t just going to get rid of it’)” — and tragic. Upon the death of her mother’s father’s second wife:
Mom raced up to New Hampshire on the eve of his widow’s funeral to barge into her house and retrieve three hand-painted pieces of china of her mother’s, the kind of dishes you see in the windows of every antique store, and she has hoarded them ever since. There were three plates, but she never once considered giving two of the plates to her two sisters. They called me at college, my Aunt Mary in tears, when they discovered that my mother had already been to New England to collect them.
But after taking the time to showcase this behavior, she considers where it might have originated. These considerations help humanize her mother, but the calculations don’t add up to a happy ending. In the last two sections, like the first one, we get scene. Here, I couldn’t help but feel the same desperation as the author. Ultimately, Doyle’s arithmetic unveils one truth: her parents’ obsession with possessions stands in stark contrast to their behavior, or lack of affection, toward their children. — Sarah