Essays & Journalism
I found a way into my own story as an investigative journalist, essayist, book critic and novelist. The trick is to be indefatigable.
The world needs many tellings, and most of mine have been true. In the spring of 2020, I fictionalized the landscapes of my Floridian youth in two short stories: “Try Saying Yes” in the Los Angeles Review and “Last to Know” in Joyland Magazine. The rest of this page is nonfiction.
“She’s also one of Seattle’s best essayists, producing rich, thoughtful, human work time and time again.” – Seattle Review of Books
Very Personal Essays
Though a radical departure from the journalism I’ve long been hired to produce, my personal essays are also investigations that interrogate my own lived experience as a site of resistance and making. My next new essay will appear in the spring 2021 issue of [PANK] magazine, issue 15.
“I am awake. There is no acceptable remedy for that truth. It is week six of our family’s self-quarantine.”
I wrote about the inescapable joys of motherhood during a pandemic for Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort During the Time of COVID-19. Following the lead of editor Jennifer Haupt, who first published my essay in Psychology Today, sales of Alone Together will be donated by Central Avenue Publishing to the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation, which helps indie booksellers in need.
It’s a real joy to appear alongside Andre Dubus III, Pam Houston, Luis Alberto Urrea, Major Jackson, Ada Limón, Dani Shapiro, Steve Yarbrough, Lidia Yuknavitch and other writers I respect.
“What use might I have for my education, if not to service the economy?” Proximity published my thoughts about making my way in a world that wants everything from women, and little for us. “Every woman keeps a flame against the wind.” has been anthologized in Latina Outsiders: Remaking Latina Identity, forthcoming from Routledge in December 2020 gracias to editor Grisel Acosta.
Drawing upon my on-the-ground reportage with sex workers in Cuba, the land of my mother’s birth, I invoke decades of being made to feel an outsider within communities to which I belong. I’m grateful to Proximity editors Maggie Messitt and Paige Towers for making a space for true stories. Listen to this Stories to Write Songs About podcast of an original song inspired by my performance of this most personal essay.
“Over time, I have come to understand that there is no deserving of happiness, only the great fortune of receiving it. By this measure, I am rich, given a vocation and years to see it through, granted one son and pledged another, gifted promise that lives within, kicking and kicking and kicking.”
“A Few Thoughts While Shaving,” a personal essay about pregnancy and pre-existing conditions, was selected for Hobart by novelist Jac Jemc.
With thanks to editors Jessica Hendry Nelson and Sean Prentiss, “A Few Thoughts While Shaving” will be anthologized in Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, forthcoming from Bloomsbury in March 2021.
I am grateful to Janine Ledford, executive director of the Makah Cultural & Research Center, for hosting my family on her land and sharing a whale meat fajita I won’t forget.
With that meal came insights I explore in this Literary Hub essay about decolonizing my research process during the decade I spent writing SUBDUCTION.
“After researching the recurrent history of anthropological disturbance of Makah territory, I wrote a novel to explore contact, nothing less than the long story of living. Worried about the fractals of oppression spreading like frost over history, for years I examined layers—documents, oral testimonies, artifacts, the random stuff people keep—and in my book, I tried hard to get it right, knowing most efforts fail. But never to have risked engagement feels like a bigger failure, one I’ve seen replicated too often.”
With thanks to editor Maggie Messitt, I wrote about salvaging hope from the wreckage for Between Coasts. “My editor asked me to provide a narrative reportage of COVID-19 in Seattle, but what I can share is this prism of my life in the Rainier Valley, where the skies have quieted so that I can trace the birds kindling the trees with song.”
I spent decades accrediting my brain so I’d be allowed to rise from my body and be seen for my mind. As a writer, I’ve turned to the great wisdom of my womanhood. I’m drawn to the stories we tell ourselves to hasten or counteract our loss of cultural identity. These explorations are my American inheritance.
My voice is direct and unsurprised by cruelty. I’m also shocked by the beauty of the natural world, sensitive to the pull of history, and in search of grace from humanity.
Still, it felt dangerous to share these essays.
I am a great believer in local journalism, which creates communities of thought. In March of 2020, I contributed an essay to the nonprofit Crosscut about facing down a pandemic alongside Washington state poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna, former Seattle Civic poet Anastacia-Renée and others.
“Under the best circumstance, writing is risky. But to launch a book in a pandemic — there’s a challenge. I’ve been cross-training for this moment since 2007, when on rare hours away from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I began researching my novel Subduction, a lyric retelling of the troubled history of encounter in the Americas.
We can weather collapse. My family has rolled with unforeseen obstacles for generations, fleeing Spanish famine for Cuba. Soon exiled, they landed in Florida, strip mall of my youth, lowland that harbors my elders. I skedaddled west, and here I mean to stay.“
With support from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, Cascadia Magazine editor Andrew Engelson commissioned an essay that was, for me, a long time coming.
I wrote “On Being a Reporter” to show how it is possible to evolve beyond that which we have foreseen. Published alongside this illustration by Sarah Salcedo in December of 2019, “On Being a Reporter” unfolds as I bike through South Seattle’s urban landscape to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where I served my community as a beat journalist from 2004 to 2009.
At the P-I, my editors had my back. They encouraged my sustained inquiries into corruption at the port and placed my stories on A1. Port policies changed in the wake of federal criminal investigations that involved my reporting, the FBI and the state Supreme Court.
As the Epilogue of their penultimate issue in September 2018, City Arts published my flash essay “Follow Me” about sisterhood and self erasure. Seattle will miss their vital arts coverage.
Former P-I editorial board editor Joe Copeland and Florangela Davila, former editor for the nonprofit Crosscut, commissioned this January 2018 column about corporate evasions of liability, sexual harassment and Lyft drivers, which I wrote in second person to evoke the hazardous immediacy of women’s lives.
“On Being Driven,” my inquiry into sexual violence and white privilege, appeared in Moss in October of 2017 thanks to editors Diana Xin, Alex Davis-Lawrence and Connor Guy.
Seattle Review of Books had some kind words for “On Being Driven”: “an ill-met drive on a small island in the Bahamas; a trade of threats; a tangle of considerations involving sex, race, money, and history. Her voice — conversational, warm, relentless — comes through as clearly on the page. A rich and difficult and exceptional piece.”
“Straight, No Chaser” — a personal essay about pregnancy and pressure — came out in Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze. Editors Kate Lebo and Sam Ligon gave my work a home at Sasquatch Books alongside Anthony Doerr, Kim Addonizio and Jess Walter in this anthology selected by the New York Times as a New & Notable Book.
Praise for Pie & Whiskey * “eclectic, drunk and delicious” in The New York Times * “there’s magic in this mating of sweetness and sin” in Salon * “surprising, unexpected” in San Francisco Book Review * “seriously talented writers” in Foreword Reviews
Hesitant to begin this journey toward revealing my true self, I found fellowship with other readers and writers. I am grateful for public support from media outlets like the Stranger, whose books editor Rich Smith called me a “mind-blowing nonfiction writer” and a “crack Seattle journalist and novelist” with “considerable vocal talents,” and Seattle Review of Books, which included me in a short list of “stunning” Seattle essayists.
Lately, I’ve been pouring my essayistic self into reviews like this one in Poetry Northwest, a paean to Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky.
The Washington Post
Meet Aushenae Matthews. At 22, she manages a shelter for domestic violence survivors. It was my honor to profile this absolutely essential American worker for the Washington Post with stunning photos by Jovelle Tamayo.
I was, briefly, a frontliner. But after meeting with Aushenae at the shelter, I put myself into self-quarantine for five days to write her profile (and my new book). I returned to my family after testing negative, a privilege unavailable to her and to the other Americans whose daily lives are depicted in the series.
At the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network, they risk themselves to do the work every day. I am grateful. Matthews is extraordinary, and so was this WaPo series that dawned on the east coast and concluded with my contribution, published as part of a special print section in October 2020.
“Billy-Ray Belcourt wants to unshackle your mind.” Let him do just that. I read A History of My Brief Body twice before reviewing his debut essay collection for Book World, and I’ll be reading this excellence from Two Dollar Radio again and again.
My thanks to Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburten, editors of Shapes of Native Nonfiction, for introducing me to Belcourt’s work, which is a rallying call for freedom in the form of lyric essays steeped in queer theory and indigenous literary lineage.
At what human cost, prosperity?
One hundred years have elapsed since 87 Mexican miners were locked into a burning mineshaft by their bosses at an American-owned company, a corporate massacre detailed by author Yuri Herrera in A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire.
In the midst of a pandemic claiming the lives of frontline workers, vulnerable peoples and our elders, a grief punctuated only by national protests against racist cruelty, A Silent Fury underscores the need to defend workers against corporate greed, the devaluation of individual lives and the collusive erasure of community suffering by the media, government and corporations.”
In my June 2020 Book World review, which was also reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Borneo Bulletin, I find that by “bringing moral exactitude to a story long silenced for American profit, A Silent Fury joins that most vital of canons, the literatures of witness.”
The Washington Post released my final book review of 2019 on November 5th.
“You raise kids in America because you were born here, and you learned to love this country the hard way. You remember to lock doors. In the presumed safety of your home, you read Bloomland, a debut novel by John Englehardt, whose narrator speaks to you directly about what matters today.”
The Washington Post published my Book World review of a debut novel about a school massacre in September of 2019, a year that brought more U.S. mass shootings than days.
“Novels that consider the unflinching question of whether to die often bend toward showing us how to live. To read Juliet the Maniac is to confront our shared faith in the flawed logic of life’s meaning, and by so doing, become worthier of our humanity.”
To “honor the glimmering beauty of its teenage voice, sharpened by pain, without amplifying the siren calls of self-harm and suicidal ideation,” I dove into literatures of suicide, reading and citing Weil, Camus, Goethe, Shakespeare, Plath, Toews and Glasgow in my May 2019 Book World review of Juliet Escoria’s debut novel Juliet the Maniac.
“In the beginning, the word of God was mediated by men, and they believed patriarchy to be a celestial order, and the work of women went unrecognized.”
In Naamah, Sarah Blake’s fresh telling of the flood story as seen by Noah’s wife, “Blake lays bare the biblical tendency to shunt aside the women from whose bodies our society emerged.” I considered the Bible — “the most translated and enduring work of literary fiction” — in my April 2019 Book World review, also published in the Mercury News.
“Lost Children Archive is a work of fiction that daylights our common humanity and challenges us, as a nation, to reconcile our differences…Even now, she writes, children are ‘traveling alone on trains, crossing the desert, sleeping on the ground under the huge sky.’”
Having read Valeria Luiselli’s prior books in Spanish and in translation, I was delighted to review her novel Lost Children Archive in February 2019 and to reflect upon its truths at Elliott Bay Book Co. The Mercury News, Chicago Tribune and Star Tribune also ran this review, which was translated into Spanish for El Economista.
In summer 2020, I have a forthcoming book review in the Washington Post Book World: a debut memoir by a queer indigenous writer whose poetry and essays have moved me for years. It’s so good.
“Jessica Jung is all business.” My profile of the K-Pop star was part of a ten part series published online by the Washington Post & The Lily, a WaPo publication named for the first women-founded newspaper. “It can be hard to come back to the core of it all, the art-making, though what she does for a living, aside from running the businesses built from her brand, is entertain.”
Released as a bonus print section of the Washington Post on October 2, 2019, the project also became an immersive Instagram page. Stay tuned for the wide release of The Lily‘s 20-minute documentary featuring six of the subjects, which will premiere at the Bend Film Festival and air on PBS in December. Watch the trailer.
“Who benefits from designating a woman’s speech as a degradation of language?” Drawing from dozens of linguistic studies, I revealed gendered prejudice toward the ubiquitous word “like” in my August 2019 analysis for The Lily. “Dismissing women’s speech makes it easier to dismiss their experiences — and to doubt them when they’re wronged.”
I interviewed dozens of waste, packaging and recycling experts to write this February 2019 story about Amazon’s switch to plastic packaging that cannot be recycled at curbside.
Newspapers from the Chicago Tribune and Akron Beacon Journal to the LA Times, Mercury News and Seattle Times picked up the story about how the Seattle-based corporation’s waste is clogging taxpayer-funded recycling centers around the country.
By June, a MoveOn petition asking Amazon to “stop using paper and bubble wrap envelopes that can’t be recycled” had garnered 83,310 signatures; they’re aiming for 100,000.
“Washington state’s penchant for getting high is trashing the place.” My first enterprise for the National Desk revealed major waste streams created by the cannabis industry.
Syndicated in newspapers across the country, including the Portland Press Herald in Maine, the Columbian in Ohio and the Bulletin in Bend, the story catalyzed many conversations, from a Modern Farmer analysis to this interview featuring yours truly on NPR member station KUOW 94.9-FM.
Being a freelancer puts any day on a swivel. In the wake of a measles outbreak in Washington state, I watched 700 people, the majority of them against inoculation, participate in our democracy. I am honored to share a byline with National reporter Lena Sun, who wrote this February 2019 story, which also appeared in the Baltimore Post.
“Automation is a social justice issue, and if history is any teacher, it tells us that vast swaths of disenfranchised peoples are a harbinger of war.” My Guardian essay about automation, education and social justice helped spur a new robotics program at a Seattle public school.
Preparing my children for the second machine age helped me examine the contradictions inherent in Seattle, Washington, where a progressive reputation belies the nation’s most regressive tax structure.
My prior investigation for the Guardian revealed police negligence in response to the disappearance of Misty Upham, a Blackfeet actress who appeared alongside Meryl Streep in August: Osage County.
Misty went missing on October 5th in 2014. Eleven days later, friends of her family found her body in a forest within walking distance of her apartment. To build a narrative about how the police mishandled Misty’s case, I interviewed fifty people and read thousands of documents obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.
Published in the Guardian’s US, UK and Australian editions, the story was featured in the Guardian’s list of long reads united by ”damn good writing, damn good storytelling.” In 2016, the Society for Features Journalism recognized the story with an honorable mention for Diversity in Digital Features.
KUOW 94.9 FM’s Jeannie Yandel and I talked about Misty in an interview which aired on The Record and All Things Considered. Jim Cantú’s interview aired on KVRU as an hour-long segment before appearing on KBCS 91.3-FM as a 7-minute installation of a #MMIW series about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women reported by Yuko Kodama. The story was translated into German to appear in Stern Crime, a true crime storytelling magazine.
I’ve called my investigation “the story” — but it is one which truly belongs to Misty, whose talent deserved a better end. She braved her life.
I honor her memory.
As a freelance journalist for the Guardian, I have written about legal marijuana, the Oso mudslide, the death penalty, migrant hunger strikes, Catholic students protesting the termination of their gay vice principal and his subsequent lawsuit against the school.
The New York Times
As a freelancer for the NYT, I covered federal judge James Robart’s decision to block the Trump administration’s travel ban and Washington state’s 2015 Democratic caucus. I also helped Michael Luo dig up court documents for his excellent series on gun violence.
In 2012, I contributed a significant amount of multimedia research to a digital narrative feature story entitled Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
The NYT published “Snow Fall,” written by John Branch and viewed online by more than 3 million people, as its own special 14-page section and launched a new partnership to sell the package as an e-book.
“Snow Fall” also won a Peabody that praised the package as “spectacular example of the potential of digital-age storytelling” that “combines thorough traditional reporting of a deadly avalanche with stunning topographic video.”
The NYT made “Snow Fall” a focus of its reading club, citing media reports calling its creation “truly fantastic,” a “beautiful” integration of video, photos, and graphics “that makes multimedia feel natural and useful,” the “best designed big Web story ever” and even “the future of Web storytelling.”
KUOW 94.9 FM
KUOW-FM 94.9, a Seattle NPR station, awarded me a Program Venture Fund grant to underwrite my Addicted on the Reservation feature story and photo slideshow about tribal measures to fight Native youth substance abuse. The story aired on Morning Edition and All Things Considered and was the subject of an hour-long discussion featuring Lummi tribal leaders and yours truly on Weekday, a talk show hosted by Steve Scher.
As a beat political and business reporter, I wrote nearly 700 news stories for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a daily newspaper published in Seattle from 1863 to 2009.
Below are a few stories that won prizes or led to policy reform.
The events described in this exclusive story became the focus of a federal criminal investigation. As a result of public interest in this reporting, the Port of Seattle’s most senior commissioner was subject to a recall petition whose validity was upheld by the Washington Supreme Court. In response, the commission began taping its closed-door executive sessions to allow for judicial review.
This story, one of a long series of scoops about the corrupt internal workings of the Port of Seattle, traced the chain of responsibility for civil fraud from the middle manager blamed by the port to the executive staff the agency protected.
The Society of Professional Journalists awarded my investigation of Seattle’s cruise industry profits (part of a series co-written by Ruth Teichroeb) with 2006 First Place in government reporting in the Pacific Northwest.
Public outcry about this story led the Port of Seattle to send PCB-contaminated Superfund site dredge spoils to a landfill rather than dumping it into Puget Sound as planned.
I dedicated a sizable portion of my time to reporting environmental aspects of my beat, which yielded economically relevant and historically rich stories that led to policy review and revision.
It wasn’t all cronyism and bad business deals, though fraud investigations abounded. Here’s a story that shows the side of the maritime community that I came to cherish.
As a bilingual member of the metro and business desks who also moonlighted in features, I travelled around the Pacific Northwest reporting stories unique to the region and its many peoples.
Stories of loss and struggle became commonplace during the recession. Although I often met people going through hard times, the opportunity to listen to their concerns has been one of the greatest honors of my life.
A series of drownings at the docks led to increased port scrutiny of a common class of deckhands: fishing boat live-aboards.
Project costs often ballooned at the Port of Seattle, which implemented more controls of its procurement and contracting policies during the time I spent reporting its doings.
I was the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s retail reporter from 2004 to 2006, covering some of Seattle’s global companies while writing local economic analyses and a weekly small business column.
I wrote reviews because I love food, music and travel. The form encourages a personalized approach.