Things I Read This Week #2: Scouring the Sea for Those You Love, Good and Bad Smells, and the Things Her Father Carried

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Welcome (and apologies for the unannounced break. It’s capstone season yall!) to the second “Things I Read This Week,” where I get to share the longform essays and pieces I’ve been reading this week and talk at length about things that don’t necessarily belong anywhere else on the site. Some of these will be hilarious, others will hit too close to home, and others still won’t reveal to you their true importance until they’re ready, or something like that. This week we have the search for the Ghost Boat, a Louisiana DA straight out of white supremacist hell, straight men and their desire for trans women, freelancing advice, and more.

I try to feature writing from new and familiar sites, so feel free to share your favorites with me in the comments.


“Revenge Killing”, The New Yorker

This reads like a dystopian nightmare, the kind where people in a small town see your family as animals and kill your loved ones without remorse, first responders only save the human Americans, and cities poison their residents with impunity.

There are no words to describe the blatant, dogged commitment to extermination that swirls within this story, not least the monstrous Louisiana DA who makes it his personal mission to destroy black men. A powerful, powerful story.

Not long afterward, another 911 operator called a dispatcher and asked what was happening at the address. “They probably slept on the damn baby,” the dispatcher said. “There’s a hundred folks in that damn house.”

And after the ambulance came:

The families began knocking on the windows of the ambulance, asking the driver why he hadn’t left for the hospital. The paramedics reported to their dispatcher that they were surrounded by a mob; they worried that there was going to be some sort of riot. “If the crowd gets bad, we don’t have anything—there’s no protection,” one paramedic said later. “We had to leave for our safety.” The ambulance drove away with its sirens and lights on, but switched them off as soon as it turned the corner.

“Ghost Boat”, Medium

The disappearance of 243 refugees in the Mediterranean. Countless others lost at sea, the smell of their corpses so bad it coated the water for as far as 900 meters. This ongoing series uses crowdsourced reporting that’s sucked in everyone from experts to journalism students to fishermen in Zarzis who’ve been pulling bodies out of the water in a mission to find the Ghost Boat.

By the time the third part of this series came out, the number of refugees who’d drowned between North Africa and Europe broke 3,000. It brings to us over and over again the moment refugees realize their boat is sinking. It is ever-conscious of the horror of dying at sea. And here is why this series is so important: In part 3, writer Eric Reidy finds out where the bodies of those refugees go.

Walking over the nondescript ground, I was imagining the bodies buried in piles under my feet. Those corpses had an identity—they were people. And those people had families, friends, loved ones, maybe children, who, like the Ghost Boat families, are in limbo: suspended by nagging questions.

When We Ask Straight Men About Their Desire for Trans BodiesHarlot

Not quite a long read, but an important piece on how wanting to have sex with trans women is not the same as loving them.

The camera frames a trans woman’s crotch, the narrator explains that there are men who are actually proud to hit that, and the implication is that there’s nothing normal about finding trans women fuckable. We’re a riddle. A cocktail that’s made with equal parts misogyny and gay panic. The camera puts culture several steps removed from us, and that’s the way things will remain for the foreseeable future.

And:

For many of us, the best-case scenario is that we end up with a man who wants a trans woman because that’s what he beats off to on the Internet, because he pictures us as adhering to a strict, rigid femininity, because he expects us to be thankful for the attention.

Our Pungent History: Sweat, Perfume, and the Scent of Death, Collectors Weekly

As much as I love things that smell good (yes to peppermint plants, no to Yankee candles), I’m just as fascinated by pungent smells. I have a special place in my heart for pieces that dive into the fun and nasty carnality of the human body, such as this one.

The Freelancers’ Roundtable, Longreads

This has all sorts of detailed, insightful advice on negotiating contracts, developing and pitching stories, and revision nightmares helpful for young writers/journalists trying to break into the industry. If you want a tangible guide that keeps it real, this is a good place to start.

The Daughter, The Los Angeles Times

I came across this piece a couple of years ago, but dug it up again as guidance for a story I’m writing on how our families’ baggage affect us. It covers two important stories: It profiles a young girl who survives her father’s murder-suicide, and it touches on the larger truth of immigrant parents (my parents, your parents) who love their children to pieces, do the best they can, but still crumble under the weight.This piece resonates deeply with me because it made me reexamine my own relationship with my father, and try to understand and forgive his limitations.

The sparse, compassionate prose is exceptional and all too rare with stories about Asian families.

The Man Who Sailed His House, GQ

And now, one of my all-time favorite pieces. GQ recently reposted this piece from its archives for the 5th anniversary of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, along with the original illustrations by the award-winning Yuko Shimizu. Hiromitsu Shinkawa was rescued at sea on the roof of his house, which had been swept into the ocean in the same catastrophic rush of water that killed his wife. It’s a beautiful, epic piece that reconstructs the moment the tsunami hit to the hour Shinkawa is rescued. It nails every detail while managing to imbue the writing with a numb acceptance that everyone and everything he used to call home is gone. The writing shudders with grief and loneliness. Forgive me for quoting such huge chunks, but every sentence streams into the next:

If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house—chimneys and doors, stairs and walls—crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

This piece intrigues me because the tone is such a risk. It uses second person, a particular tone that’s part epic and part stream-of-consciousness to tell Shinkawa’s story back to him. The risk is it can sound patronizing, self-indulgent, or both, but here it reads as gut-wrenching eulogy.

This ending section kills me every time:

These are strange days, in this anonymous eight-story beige structure where, at first, you know nobody—and where the world carries on without memory, the bustle of salarymen in the stations and streets, traffic rushing somewhere. You say nothing about who you are to the neighbors but spend your time trying to keep busy, all in order to forget, too. Unbidden, you begin a daily sweeping of the walkways at the complex. You and your broom, hoping to make yourselves useful. You also try to spend time with your grandson, who is now a short commute away, but of course, mothering doesn’t come as naturally to you as it did to Yuko. And so between your parents, who sit all day watching television in sad nostalgia for everything lost, and your daughter, whose life is busy and now motherless, your displacement is complete.

I posted this roundup early to make up for being MIA, but check back next Friday for more!

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