Women We Read This Week

Francesca Borri’s “Woman’s Work” in Columbia Journalism Review

This CJR piece has been making the rounds this week. It’s by an Italian freelancer in Syria, a reflection on the not-so-glamorous life of a war correspondent, and it’s a gut punch:

People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”


Lauren Markham’s “First the Fence, then the System” in Virginia Quarterly Review

This is a story to x-ray for the way in which it moves smoothly and coherently between concentric circles around an issue: in this case, Unaccompanied Alien Children or “juvies” from Central America who’ve journeyed to the U.S. and are now fighting their way through the U.S. immigration system. The first circle here, and the story’s heart, contains the children’s stories: stories of flight from gang pressures, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, kidnapping, and extortion. Then there is the larger story of their numbers, which are increasing dramatically–from 6,560 children in 2011 to 13,625 in 2012–and the whys behind the numbers, most notably the “push” factor of violence in Central America as opposed to the “pull” of economic advancement and education in the U.S. And then there is the even bigger and most complicated story of detention, and the children’s entry into the labyrinthine U.S. immigration system, which still treats them like adults.

In their quests to remain in the United States, the children are not given representation and must represent themselves; Markham’s piece includes the unsettling and tragic detail of a seven-year-old who “holds his blue packet in one hand and ziplocked snack in another” and keeps nodding in eager, feigned comprehension, pretending he will know what to do if and when he must represent himself in court. Markham is careful, however, not to turn the children into cute teddy-bear victims, considering their stories with gravitas and empathy and focusing on the practical impacts of allowing them to make decisions by and for themselves. Many, for example, just want to get out of detention and will take voluntary removal to do so, a decision which both bars them from applying to enter the U.S. in the future and sends them back to the threat of violence. As Markham explains, “Children do not possess the foresight to weigh an immediate misery against a probable danger, especially one that awaits them hundreds of miles away.”

The success and elegance of this piece lie in its ability to move so cleanly between dimensions and layers, using reconstructed narrative to flesh out single stories, then explicating complex legal processes with the help of multiple sources and examples, then providing narrative, then stepping out carefully to observe broader issues, then stepping back in to consider the way in which these issues are being addressed, all without losing warmth and compassion for the human struggle at the center. — Sarah

Amy Butcher’s “Probably It’s Nothing Fancy” in Tin House

Vela contributor Amy Butcher’s short personal essay has the speed and precision of poetry. The understated prose moves around the unspoken aspects of a male-female friendship, capturing the tension in the we’re-just-friends dance.

Amanda Hess’s “You Can Only Hope To Contain Them” in ESPN Mag

Boobies. Anyone who’s ever jogged with her arms across her chest will understand how inhibiting breasts can be to sports and exercise. By painting a broad picture of how breasts have psychically challenged female athletes, Hess reveals a more troubling cultural regard towards breasts as something to be ogled, as in UFC fighting, or restricted from even developing, as in women’s gymnastics. The piece thus exposes another way in which women’s bodies are often not considered as something of their own, but rather objects to be fetishized or controlled. — Lauren

Hadley Freeman’s “Wimbledon exposed the sexism women face – as players and girlfriends” in The Guardian

I was riveted by Wimbledon this year. The injuries, the upsets (that Lisicki-Williams match!), the incredible sense of collective anxiety in Britain as Andy Murray inched his way towards the final; the heat here seemed to intensify in response to some national-scale friction between worry and hope. But I was nagged, too, by a feeling that the woman’s true place in this tournament – as in many sporting contests – was at the arm of her athlete-boyfriend, not on the court. John Inverdale’s baffling commentary on the looks of women’s champion Marion Bartoli (his apology included the line: “she is an incredible role model for people who aren’t born with all the attributes of natural athletes”) elicited a deserved outpouring of anger, but hinted at the sinister persistence of this idea that female athletes, like female actors, should look a certain way – and, moreover, that this particular way of looking is somehow an integral aspect of female athletic ability. (“I am not blonde, yes,” Bartoli responded: “That is a fact. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.”) But this is hardly the only story about sexism here, and in this piece Hadley Freeman identifies an example of what she calls the kind of sexism “that is still so endemic that it passes by largely unnoticed”:

Murray had barely dusted the Wimbledon grass off his trainers before he was being asked by several reporters, including Holly Willoughby on This Morning, whether now that he had won Wimbledon he would propose to Sears, as though one has anything to do with the other. Murray, with his typical and endearing lack of interest in sentimental media conventions, wearily replied: “I only met you 10 minutes ago so I wouldn’t be telling you if I did.” The Daily Telegraph promptly expressed pity for the “long-suffering Sears.”

These tropes – woman as accessory, woman as marriage-desperate victim – are so ingrained that they can still pass by unnoticed so easily.


Nancy Mendez-Booth’s “Tilted Naked Weirdo” in Poets & Writers

This is a thoughtful, succinct essay about the uncomfortable necessity to lay ourselves bare in our writing. Nancy Mendez-Booth, a Puerto Rican fiction writer from New York City, spent her younger years writing characters she wished to be, creating worlds she aspired to be a member of. As a first generation New Yorker, she was taught to hide her background, to be ashamed of what made her different — the government cheese, the photos of el campo, the kinky hair and longing for material things she couldn’t have. She writes: “As a beginning writer, I was told, ‘Write what you know.’ I thought writing about what I wanted to know — what I wanted to be real — was the same thing.”

It wasn’t until Mendez-Booth first read Junot Diaz in the ’90s that she realized she could — and should — be exposing everything she wanted to hide in her work. In his writing, she says, “all the uglies were revealed.” Mendez-Booth rejected herself before anyone else had the chance to, and she points out that this is not particular to writers from her ethnic and socioeconomic background. It’s a universal human fear, and it’s one almost every writer has to face. As a beginning writer, I used to create aspirational characters and worlds in my writing; I had thought of writing as a way out of my life. But it’s only when I revealed the “uglies” — work that made me feel nauseous to publish — that readers really began to connect to my writing, and I began to understand the incredible value there is in exposing yourself: it isn’t exhibitionist but brave, an act of reaching out, an offering of kinship. — Simone


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