There is a kind of lingering snobbery in the literary world that wants to exclude nonfiction from the classification of literature—to suggest that somehow it lacks artistry, or imagination, or invention by comparison to fiction. The mentality is akin to the prejudice that long held photography at bay in the visual-art world.
—  Philip Gourevitch on why nonfiction deserves a Nobel

When intelligence isn’t enough

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (Scribner, $27).


Jeff Hobbs, a novelist, was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale, which gave him a front-row seat for a good part of this biography-slash-memoir. The question at the root of Robert Peace’s story is: How did a kid who escaped from a rough place and succeeded by any terms end up back in Newark, eventually murdered by a fellow drug dealer?

In The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, Hobbs has written a nuanced biography that reserves some of its most scathing criticisms for the class system at Yale, one in which Peace’s popularity with fellow students was actually increased by his being the guy from the ghetto who dealt dope.

This biography is nuanced, but it still makes clear that there’s a lot more involved in breaking the cycles of poverty and criminality than just getting an education. Those of us who’ve been—or who teach—first-generation college students from lower socio-economic backgrounds know that there are entire clusters of issues, including the constant pull back to the familiar (and less-demanding) norms of the family and friends who often feel abandoned by a kid who’s trying to climb out of poverty.

And, as this recent Washington Post piece points out, youth from impoverished backgrounds who do everything right still don’t succeed at rates anything like youth from wealthier backgrounds—in fact, well-off youth have to be total screw-ups to do as poorly as the poorer kids who are doing everything right.

While Hobbs doesn’t make excuses for Peace’s bad decisions, he does put them in context, and in the process creates a haunting portrait of a young man who seemed to have it made, only to watch passively while his entire life slipped away. 

O(h)B(aby) 1: The Ways We Say Those Three Words

You all know by now that I am obsessed with writing about everything that happens third year. (You can read all my other stories about my other rotations here) I’ve been on OB for almost three weeks now, so I guess it’s time that I actually put up some of the writing I’ve scribbled down about my experiences. 

OB is one of those rotations that is all highs and lows. There’s nothing else runs the gambit of highs and lows quite so quickly. Someone once told me that the worst outcomes in medicine happen in OB because when something goes wrong, too often you don’t only lose one patient and because sometimes your hands are tied by the simple biology of viability. But it also has some of the most beautiful outcomes and I will never be amazed how often people walk onto or off the OB wards smiling.

As always, all the usual disclaimers to this apply (see bottom). 


My grandfather was a doctor; these were the years before work hour restrictions, before anyone had done research about how dangerous it was to treat patients after you hadn’t been asleep in two days. These were the years before we talked about how important it was doctors got to be happy too. And so my grandmother always used to say that it: “took a very special woman to be a doctor’s wife”.

Now, with a set number of hours off between call and a maximum number of house residents are allowed to work per week (even though many residents have to lie because they routinely go over) it may not be quite the same as when my grandfather would leave home at 3 in the morning after the phone rang and then my grandmother wouldn’t know to expect him back by morning or until the following day.

But I still think it takes a very special person to be a doctor’s wife—and perhaps an even more special person to be a doctor’s husband. Hell, it takes a special person just to be a doctor’s significant other for any period of time.

When I was on surgery, my attending agreed to take a patient back for a surgery that was desperately needed, even though he was supposed to leave to go home at 6. I remember him calling his wife from post-op, leaning against the wall with his shoe covers still dotted with blood hiding his brown leather loafers. “Yeah, I’m going to go back to the OR again. I won’t be home till late.”

Silence for a moment, then “If you feed the kids I can pick something up for us if you want to wait for me.”

Silence again, then “You too.” Then a pause, like he’s about to hang up, then he breathes a quiet “thank you” and smiles.

He hangs up the phone and looks at me: “It’s very important to have an understanding partner when you’re in medicine. 

“It’s not just important it’s essential,” I say. 

He nods, and then grabs a mask from the box and walks back toward the OR. I know that he and his wife have been together though most of his surgical career, she’s probably used to these kind of calls now. But I wonder if she’s ever disappointed when she puts a plate in the oven to stay warm instead of sitting down across from him.

I think it’s interesting how he said “thank you” at the end of the conversation. And it was so much more than just thank you for understanding. Something about the way the words slipped past his lips was the gentle communication that happens between people who have loved each other for a very long time. The way you say one thing to tell a thousand things because the other 999 need not be said, they’re simply understood. He says thank you and he means “thank you for taking care of the kids even though I can’t tonight”, he says “thank you for not being angry”, he says “thank you for every time this has happened”. But most of all what he’s saying is “I love you.”

I love you. A soft, unspoken I love you breathed into the beeping, cold, quivering air of the PACU.

At the time, watching this scene slipped past me, unnoticed in the busyness of surgery rotation. I know it’s OB that has brought it back to the forefront of my mind. It’s OB that made me start thinking about all the ways we say “I love you”.


Read More

Power, of course, is vampiric. We enjoy it only because someone else does not. Power is what philosophers would call a positional good, meaning that its value is determined by how much of it one has in comparison to other people. Privilege, too, is a positional good, and some have argued that health is as well. Our vampires, whatever else they are, remain a reminder that our bodies are penetrable. A reminder that we feed off of each other, that we need each other to live.
—  From On Immunity by Eula Biss, reviewed for The Rumpus by Molly Beer

Girl geeks — and really ALL geeks — should check out Laura Sydell’s piece from today’s Morning Edition, about Walter Isaacson’s new The Innovators and the forgotten female pioneers of computer programming (well, forgotten by SOME).

Isaacson begins his book with the story of Ada Lovelace, considered the mother of computer programming.

"Ada Lovelace is Lord Byron’s child, and her mother, Lady Byron, did not want her to turn out to be like her father, a romantic poet," says Isaacson. So Lady Byron "had her tutored almost exclusively in mathematics as if that were an antidote to being poetic."

She envisioned that “a computer can do anything that can be noted logically,” explains Isaacson. “Words, pictures and music, not just numbers. She understands how you take an instruction set and load it into the machine, and she even does an example, which is programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers.”

— Petra

One of the toughest tasks for a new writer is mastering the art of writing effective dialogue. It sounds easy enough—just add some quotation marks and write down that conversation between your characters! But it’s not always easy to write realistic conversation, and poorly written dialogue can sabotage even the most clever and engaging novel or short story.

Either I am shrinking or the room is growing around me, cavernous and hulking, until I feel like a little black pea, surrounded by long shadows.

Guilt is a defence mechanism for me. My father, whom I love dearly, is a short-tempered man who used the belt on my brother but favoured expletive-laden outbursts and impromptu, midnight, verbal barrages with me. I think the reason I was spared corporal punishment, besides the obvious one that I am a girl and my brother is not, has to do with a skill I learned young and fast, a skill my mother jokingly refers to as “sorry, daddy.”

I “sorry, daddy” my way through life. More often than not my sentences begin with an apology. I experience disproportionate levels of anxiety over small mistakes and if I can sense that someone is even the slightest bit annoyed with me, I cannot rest until I have supplicated, agonized and badgered them into explicitly confirming their forgiveness, at least twice.

My brother never learned the subtle art of “sorry, daddy”. Instead, following some display of insolence, my brother would adopt a sullen, dead-eyed stare, which would serve to whip my father into a kind of rage-nado. Whereas I sought to temper his anger, my brother, with is characteristic self-destructiveness, would poke the bear until he bit.

In hindsight I think the devolving relationship of anger and resentment between my father and my brother was one of the unspoken reasons my mother eventually left my father. Maybe, if we want to get Freudian about it, my parents’ relationship was ruined the day my brother was conceived. My father, only 22, had just finished his undergraduate degree. My parents had been married fewer than 6 months. I do not think my father was ready to share my mother with this bright, wicked, impossibly beautiful boy. And as my brother grew into a wunderkind, athletic, artistic, intelligent, handsome; my father became fatter, sweatier, angrier, his career not having soared as his teenage self, which he still was in many ways, had imagined it would. My father’s resentment only served to kindle my brother’s deep insecurities, rendering him more antagonistic and hostile, this would in turn anger my father more. It was not a happy cycle.

I came into the picture 5 years later. The beloved second child. I was no accident. My brother gleaned this from young and I don’t think he ever has forgiven me for it. From the get go I was the princess, I was chatty where my brother was withdrawn, I was whiny and bratty where he was sullen and seething. I would often call my parents to ask to be picked up early from sleepovers whereas my brother could spend days on end out of the house, coming in only to change his clothes. I dealt with preteen angst with a mix of melodramatic journaling and crying, my brother head-butted a palm tree in our front yard.

I followed my brother around in a kind of amazed haze, in awe of his brashness, his bravado. I would scramble up trees after him, only to be too afraid to climb down, having to be rescued by a grown up. As we got older, I would hear tales of his infamous insubordination at school; riding in late on a skateboard, skipping class to get high on the roof, giving teachers the finger. His legend was only amplified by the fact that he was nothing short of a genius, solving mathematical equations well beyond his age-level, excelling in the arts, the sciences, sports. He learned how to sail. He was a scout and a cadet.

I too did well in school, but I was bookish and precocious. I favoured languages and literature. Whereas my brother was good at everything, I quickly lost interest in things that I could not easily master. I had no patience for failure and would never push myself out of my comfort zone.

Tonight, as I sit sleepless, propped on too many pillows, worrying that the light from this laptop is keeping my boyfriend awake, I try to summon some of my brother’s insolence. Today, at work, after my shift, I spilled a full pint of beer. I’m not sure how it happened, I was not drunk, it was only my second drink. This tiny, non-event was so upsetting to me that I left immediately, hardly able to maintain my composure on the commute home. I got home and climbed straight into bed, unable to stop crying, feeling at once horrible and ridiculous. I cannot explain why this spilled beer set me off. It had been a long and arduous day and I could sense, probably inaccurately, that my coworkers were annoyed with me, probably the worst feeling in the world for a “sorry, daddy” like me.

I dozed for hours, not so much tired as just undesiring to be conscious. And now I cannot sleep. I feel too small to sleep. Instead I think of my brother, five hours ahead in England. I wonder if he too lies awake in the dawn hours, overthinking his relatively privileged upbringing, trying to psychoanalyze away his fears. I think about my dad, wherever in the world he is. In my mind’s eye he is half asleep in a business class cabin somewhere over the Atlantic. He is thinking about my mother, wondering, for the infinite time, how he lost her. He is a better man for it, though he may not be able to admit this to himself. It has been 13 years since they split and he still texts me on their anniversary, still unable to fathom his inability to get her back.

And I think about tomorrow. I will be tired. I will be cranky and will likely snap at people. I will say stupid things and make mistakes and probably spill beer. I hope I am not too hard on myself about it. 

It’s a common critique that writing produced by younger people is lacking in reflection. The old joke is that a person in their 20s (or 30s, 40s, 50s) couldn’t possibly have enough life experience to write a memoir. In Body, Washuta shows why younger voices and voices outside the mainstream matter. They show us the immediate implications of our current culture on our psyches, bodies, and hearts. In her refusal to apologize or sugarcoat her thoughts and behavior, and her refusal to let others off the hook for their actions, Washuta forces us to reflect on our own experiences and draw the connections.
—  My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta, reviewed at The Rumpus by Samantha Claire Updegrave

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 2:39 PM

dude I am trollbaiting some white dude on fb why
take the internets away from me
he’s on this girl’s status update about miss saigon
like instead of being like, “yea oppression is fucked up” he’s all, why u gotta use “womyn” it’s so ridiculous
like thanx for yr manpinion I guess
“not to be a sexist” but I’m gonna power through anyway
u mad bro
hahahahaha what a stupid asshole
talking like no word’s spelling has ever been changed for any reason in the history of language
you have a good point. no word’s spelling has ever been changed for any reason in the history of language, so why should those damn “womyn” or “blaques” get to do it? especially when the change fails to garner the recognition of a privileged person lol
and I guess nothing we do has a point if some white jerkoff from iowa doesn’t recognize it as having one
I love fucking with people
white man dismisses anti-oppressive terminology as “silly” and unnecessary news at 11
why would it ever be ok to write, “when did race come into this” on a status about how miss saigon is oppressive

—  Soleil Vy Ho, “Race Recorder: August 5, 2013 to October 15, 2013

This weird little piece that I put together got a Pushcart nomination! The basic premise is that I used keylogging software to capture everything I wrote for a few months (1000 pages!), then I picked out all of the text that had to do with race, racism, and white supremacy. This piece is a collage of one-sided chatlogs, Google searches, and academic paper text. (It looks a lot better on the Atlas Review’s website!)

Image via Historical Society of Cheshire County

Several years ago, Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs was talking with a favorite aunt, who was also the family storyteller. Hobbs learned that she had a distant cousin whom she’d never met nor heard of.

Which is exactly the way the cousin wanted it.

Hobbs’ cousin had been living as white, far away in California, since she’d graduated from high school. This was at the insistence of her mother.

Dr. Albert Johnston passed in order to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity, and became national news.

Writer Allyson Hobbs was haunted by the story, and constantly went back to it in her mind. It made her realize that all the tales she’d heard about passing over the years involved the gains that people expected for leaving their black identity behind. But through her research, she came to understand there was another, critical part of the experience:

"To write a history of passing is to write a history of loss."

Read the rest of Karen Grigsby Bates’ piece on Hobbs and the history of passing over at NPR’s Code Switch.

All Bleeding Stops 3

All Bleeding Stops is my new series recording the events of my surgery rotation!  Click here to read the first two parts in the series or more of my writing through all my adventures third year. 


It’s thought that stress fractures are the result of fatigued muscles failing to adequately protect bones. I love this statement about the human body—or—perhaps it terrifies me; we can push ourselves to the point we do damage, and then keep on running. We have an incredible ability to push to the limit of our physical capacity, and then go one step further.

I think about this as I run, feet pounding hard against the pavement. It’s been a very long time since I went for a run outside, hell it’s been a long time since I went for a run—okay, let’s be honest, it’s been a long time since I went outside. I’m running faster than is comfortable for me. I usually pace at an easy long-distance pace, loping along at 9:30-10:00 min a mile. Today I’m breaking 8:30. (I know, it’s certainly no Husain Bolt time, but it’s pretty damn fast for my short legs.)

Fall has come quickly, rolling in on the first few days of October with a crispiness of the early hours that quickly dissipates, only to return as the last rays of early evening sun slant down. Fall is my favorite time of year. You wake up with the windows left open to an apartment full of night air like the sharp bite of an apple. I’ve always hated that fall in my hometown is that it’s fleeting, missing the picturesque views of D.C. cherry blossoms or the sun-burnt colors of Boston trees. But what it lacks in photo moments, it makes up for in a perfect smell. The air is constantly filled with piñon smoke and the threads of roasting chile—sweet and spicy.

As was said by L.M. Montgomery—“I am happy to live in a world where there are Octobers”.

But this October already feels like it’s passing me by completely unattended. I wish the world could just stop for a second, slow down its race around the sun. The days are getting shorter, not longer like I would wish them. And with this loss of time added to my breakneck pace through the last several weeks, I seem to be missing it entirely.

All I want is a rain delay for the falling leaves.

I run hard, come back to my front door, look away from the window, sit down at my desk, and go back to work.

Read More

Margalit Fox is a magician with the pen in this first ever popularly accessible description of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language—one of the first languages to be naturally born since before people began keeping records of language. I confess I am a linguist myself (and one with a particular interest in sign languages at that), but I was enchanted with how smoothly she moves between the narrative of her trip to Al-Sayyid in Israel, where the team was studying the language, and the history of sign language itself—American Sign Language in particular, among others.

Her writing is informative and scientifically both accurate and precise, but at the same time a fluent and enjoyable read, accessible to anyone who does not know the first thing about sign language or linguistics. Her descriptions of people made me feel like I was in the room with them. I look forward to more books from her.

3 / 50 Books in 2014