Women We Read this Week

It’s exciting and encouraging to note that two of the most significant and widely discussed stories this week were by female journalists. They’re reviewed below.

Jeanne Marie Laskas’s “Have You Heard the One About President Joe Biden?” in GQ

Jeanne Marie Laskas’s latest piece for GQ could not open in a more Jeanne Marie Laskas way:

“Keep going straight here,” Joe Biden says. We’ve been at this for hours, climbing in and out of the SUV to look at stuff, a water tower, a stone wall, the house where the most beautiful girl in the world lived, hoagies, Herman the German’s gas station, Meyers-eats-tires tire shop, the house where another most beautiful girl in the world lived, and he’s holding up better than the rest of us.”

You know right away who you’re reading. And right away, there’s the thrilling juxtaposition of this original, funny, humble voice – an everywoman voice that is also slyly observant, insightful – with the subject matter, which ordinarily might call forth the most buttoned-up of Serious Reporter Voices. We’re in Joe Biden’s SUV, and we’re looking at Herman the German’s gas station. The whole piece will continue like this, with surprising tenderness, humility, and casual ease for a profile of the Vice President, but then these characteristics are Laskas’s trademarks. Here, they are meant to reflect Biden’s distinct and unusual lack of pretense – “Biden can say malarkey. Biden can hug, literally, Republicans.”

Laskas does all the traditional reporting work for this story, talking to friends and relatives and fellow politicians and riding along with Biden, but the story never feels like it’s jumping through the traditional hoops. This is all in the masterful scene-setting and the writing, which is nowhere more powerful than in the cemetery where Biden’s wife and daughter are buried:

“It’s too far away. We can’t see anything.

“Should we walk over?” I ask.

“It looks like there’s a funeral about to come in. I don’t want to disturb…”

But there is no funeral coming in. There is no activity over there whatsoever.

“We shouldn’t,” he says. His mother, his father, his wife, and his daughter. This is close enough. Close enough.”

It is rare and refreshing to read a big magazine story like this one that is so charged with emotion – both the subject’s emotion but also the writer’s as she reacts to her subject’s story: the tragic death of his wife and daughter; his struggle to overcome his stuttering; the way he cannot escape this thing, this strange American perception that humility, approachability and unpretentiousness are incompatible with intelligence. I was sad to see the piece end, and felt what I think Jeanne Marie Laskas might want the reader to feel: not necessarily a deeper understanding of policy issues or strategic moves or political history, but an affection for the man himself and his unique human story.

Janet Reitman’s “Jahar’s World” in Rolling Stone

Janet Reitman’s “Jahar’s World” is a feat of reporting, particularly considering it was put together in three months. Reitman talks to Jahar’s (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s) friends, teachers, classmates, former coach, and family doctor; friends of the Tsarnaev family; the FBI; a former FBI agent; and various professors and experts on Chechnya and Islamic Studies. She reviews court documents and Jahar’s Twitter feed, and combs over the extensive stories and interviews already written about the Boston bombers and their families, all in order to reconstruct the narrative of how Jahar – by all accounts a friendly and good-natured “Cambridge kid” – became a terrorist. Reitman catalogues an increasing number of pressures – financial, existential, familial – on Jahar and his brother Tamerlan, and elegantly weaves together the distinct narratives of the two brothers and that of the Tsarnaev family. She is careful here not to provide definitive explanations or prescriptive answers, but does hint at a larger problem of rootless, ignored immigrant children hunting for identities and explanations. An essential, tragic and haunting read. — Sarah

Amy King’s “Beauty and the Beastly Po-Biz” in the Rumpus

In this piece the poet Amy King takes on exclusivity and division in the world of concept poetry (and be extension all schools of art concerned with classification): “I didn’t understand why, in each class I took with Charles Bernstein, a certain core of “po-mo” boys were permitted to dominate discussions every semester while new female students would populate the room’s fringes, dropping away after the first week or so. I didn’t understand how intentional groups premised on exploring poetics intent on engaging politically as the ‘avant-garde,’ presumably to destabilize power, might also be complicit in reifying the overall capitalist structure in the process of their empire building, er, institutionalization.” If you don’t follow contemporary poetry movements, this will catch you up on what gets those poets hot and bothered and provide some erudite ammunition to sound off at cocktail parties, but as her analogy to Frida Kahlo’s rejection of the Surrealist label demonstrates, this is hardly a critique leveled at poetry alone. – Molly

Haley B. Elkins’ “My Mom Was An Underground Railroad For Abused Women: What She Taught Me About Feminism And Fear” in XOJane

In this personal account, Elkins explores how her mother’s outsider status in their community played a role in her decision to act as an unofficial mentor for abused women. It wasn’t until Elkins herself ended up in an abusive relationship that she began to recall incidents from her childhood where her mother took women in and helped women escape, even though her mother claims, “I didn’t even know there was a feminist movement; it just marched right past my front door.”

Elkins concludes that:

It takes us a long time, as children, to get outside of ourselves and realize our parents have lives outside the scope of us. Not just lives before us, or lives after we move out, but wholly private lives that run concurrent with our own upbringing.

As her daughter, it took me nearly 20 years not to pity my mother’s “otherness.” She stopped pitying it herself a long time ago.

It’s taken me longer, still — until writing these words, actually — to develop admiration for the way she turned her seclusion and separation into not just a tool, but a blueprint for that tool; there were other women out there, who also didn’t have anyone to go to, and so she would use her resources to help them.


Roxanne Krystalli’s “Field Notes from Colombia, Part 4: Nostalgia” on Stories of Conflict and Love

“Nearly a half decade into this field of work, I realize that the cost of distance is increasing,” Krystalli writes. And I read it over and over because, for the first time in my travel addicted life, I feel those costs acutely, the rootlessness that has suddenly become apparent to me after a decade of constant movement, of living in countries that I loved and left, of loving people I tried to hang on to despite the distance. Krystalli, a gender and armed conflict specialist, is writing about her most recent research trip to Colombia.

What are the costs of distance? For her, they are rooted in a sense of place and thoughts of home, in wanting to share her experiences with the ones she loves. She writes, “If Cartagena were a color, it would be a warm yellow, accompanied by sweat droplets, sliced fruit, and hand-holding,” and I think that she is writing a love letter (to the city, to her loved ones, to herself).

She reflects, “Yet, as the line between solitude and loneliness runs thin, I long for the kind of companionship that being anchored in place can afford you.” And I know that line, because I am walking it now, wondering if there is anything to keep me from drifting away. — Alice


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