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Women We Read This Week

1. Rebecca Solnit’s “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” on Lit Hub

It gives me so much hope to see Rebecca Solnit rise to the limelight as a literary sage on how to respond to, think about, and endure the political nightmare of our time. It is also just lovely and inspiring to see her brilliant mind trounce Trump’s puny, predictable, malicious little ego with such calm, and with insights that spiral outwards to implicate us all but never become grim or accusatory.

Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters.

2. Rebecca Traister’s “Inside Hillary Clinton’s Surreal Post-Election Life” in New York Magazine

I’ve read Traister’s pieces on Clinton throughout the election season, but this is the most masterful–and devastating–of them all. I actually sobbed. Traister is remarkably adept at demonstrating why and how people attack Clinton, the difficulties she faces in responding, and how the entire circus plays out in the same way over and over in the framework of a deeply misogynist culture that believes it has overcome misogyny. Traister highlights the familiar flaws we all know by now–the perceived coldness, the unrelatability, etc–situating them in the context of sexist expectations and uncertainty of how to respond to them, but she also shows that Clinton has inspired deep loyalty and love not only from her team but from millions of supporters, many of whom have been cowed into the shadows. Read it, weep, then go support your favorite female politician.

When she entered the 2016 race, Clinton says, she had hoped that “a lot of the rawness of being a woman competing for the presidency would have dissipated” in the eight years since she had last run. What she found was that indeed, “a lot of the explicit stuff” — the nutcrackers, the television pundits who compared her to their carping ex-wives, the opponents who made fun of her outfits during debates — “had somewhat diminished, but a lot of implicit [bias] was just raging below the surface.” For Clinton, the online commentary, the more subtle but also more intimate social-media disparagement, offered “the revelation that there were still very deep, raw feelings about gender that had not been resolved.”

3. Margaret Talbot’s “The Addicts Next Door” in The New Yorker

Talbot spends months traveling around the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, the state most hard hit by the country’s ongoing opiate epidemic. She weaves the history of the opiate problem–drug companies flooding poor rural areas with drugs, these drugs’ rising prices, then the arrival of cheaper heroin–with the industrial history of the area, its sociological issues, and narrative from her travels, talking to doctors, E.M.T.’s, and the parents, families, and friends of addicts. The scope of the problem is staggering: one woman has lost 13 friends to overdoses.

Barrett sometimes had to return several times in one day to the same house—once, a father, a mother, and a teen-age daughter overdosed on heroin in succession. Such stories seemed like twisted variations on the small-town generational solidarity he admired; as Barrett put it, even if one family member wanted to get clean, it would be next to impossible unless the others did, too. He was used to O.D. calls by now, except for the ones in which kids were around. He once arrived at a home to find a seven-year-old and a five-year-old following the instructions of a 911 operator and performing C.P.R. on their parents. (They survived.)

4. M.R. Branwen’s “Why Literary Journals Don’t Pay” on The Millions

Reading this piece I kept murmuring yes, yes, yes to myself. As you probably all know by now, I run this here literary journal. The writing and editing involved are incredibly rewarding, but frankly the financial side of it all is a constant stress. Vela has worked hard to pay decent rates for feature stories, but meanwhile our editors and staff are not paid, all of our writing is free, and getting funding for excellent literary writing has only gotten trickier between this administration and the death of print media. With no rancor or blaming, Branwen covers here many of the reasons why payment is not a given, and why one would want to write for a literary magazine without it.

Lit mags receive a lot of submissions — this can range from many hundreds to many thousands each year — which they read and then accept or decline. Those declined are read carefully, often reviewed by several (unpaid) readers each. Those that are accepted go through a minimum of two rounds of editing (often more). Then the work must be formatted and proofed, and, at last, when the issue is completed, it is promoted on social media and by whatever other means possible. This process represents hours and hours of time. And while some lit mags can afford to pay some members of their staff, many are entirely staffed by volunteers. If you consider that, in their non-literary lives, these same people are paid to do things, you could think of every hour they spend working at literary journals as negative money.

5. Brenda Peynado’s “Yaiza” in The Kenyon Review

In this haunting, quietly ruthless essay, Peynado recounts the experience of a “scholarship girl,” Yaiza, at her tennis academy. Peynado pits her own strategy for success–” I did things over and over, for longer than anyone else. I made people weary” with Yaiza’s natural talent, and the way Yaiza owns this talent without being cocky or cruel. Peynado is at once envious and scornful of Yaiza, and their brief relationship, as well as their divergent fates, act as a powerful commentary on race, class, and the hunger to achieve.

“Yaiza kept trouncing us, graceful topspin arching the balls over the net, the balls lunging away from us before we had even taken a backswing. I was the only one who could run them down, by staying near the back fence and sprinting for my life when she delivered a drop shot by the net. Those last two weeks were scored by the grace of her swing and the sliding and thudding of my feet. I went home powdered green and smelling of must. A few nights I refused to shower because I wanted that dust to be mine, to color me permanently, to claim me back. Years later, I would ask myself what it was all for, and my eleven-year-old dirty self would point at her own skin and say, ‘This.'”


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