Essays & Journalism

Essays & Journalism

I found a way into my own story as a novelist, essayist, investigative journalist and book critic. The trick is to be indefatigable. Please buy Subduction from Bookshop or the bookstores linked on my events page.

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

The Washington Post

 

“Many writers have tried to describe the chill of Seattle’s social distance, an aloof tendency that predates the pandemic. No one got it right until queer activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in The Freezer Door. In November 2020, I reviewed her aching, playful memoir of vivid desire amidst the desperation of midlife disconnection.

“People say it’s the Seattle freeze like this is some kind of cute local popsicle flavor, but really it’s just the gentrified gaze, the suburban imagination in the urban environment, the white picket fence in the eyes—people don’t come to cities for that surprising interaction anymore, they just want to redraw the borders of the places they aren’t even escaping.”

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Aushenae Matthews portrait by Jovelle Tomayo

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 like those depicted in “24 hours in the life of American workers,” which dawned on the east coast and concluded with my contribution, published as a special print section in October 2020. At the Domestic Abuse Women’s Network, they risk themselves to do the work every day. Matthews is extraordinary.

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“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 in July of 2020, and I’ll be reading this excellence from Two Dollar Radio again and again. My most recent Book World reviews are here.

TheShapes of Native Nonfiction anthology introduced 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.

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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.”

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In Afterlife, Alvarez probes the contours of private moral decisions that echo our national conversation, which excludes migrant communities from claiming their contributions to our country.

It would be easy for Alvarez to create a wholly sympathetic narrator who does the right thing without question, even if most readers wouldn’t — or at least, haven’t yet. Instead, Alvarez puts Antonia through the paces of wrestling with the obligations of her privilege.”

My April 2020 Book World review finds Alvarez returning to themes that launched her debut How the García Girls Lost Their Accents into the canon. It is an honor to reflect on the lifelong contributions of a Latinx literary powerhouse.

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“When complex human stories are carved into the style of a thriller, the probability of reductionism increases. With his fifth book Amnesty, Aravind Adiga examines systemic and individual impunity through one bad day of a working man’s life. But does Adiga create characters only to exploit their paradigms?”

I first encountered Adiga’s The White Tiger when I was a reader, and not yet a novelist nor a reviewer. Though its characters fell prey to the novel’s formula, Amnesty does succeed in wrenching attention toward systemic injustice. Published in February 2020.

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“My Cuban mother is worried about how you’ll react to this review. Sweetheart, can you get out of doing the Allende book, she texted…A Long Petal of the Sea is a draft of the book it could have been if the corporations profiting from its publication had invested in a rigorous editorial process to support Allende’s noblesse oblige.

We need better depictions of people enduring dictatorships in eras so like our own, in which refugees are dehumanized, separated from their children and made to live in camps.” This January 2020 Book World review was easy to write but hard to share.

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In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado’s lyric memoir of queer domestic abuse, is more formally inventive than her debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, a finalist for the National Book Award.

But In the Dream House is a page turner of psychological suspense…As she wrote in her first book, “Many people live and die without ever confronting themselves in the darkness.” Machado is not among them, nor are her readers, as told in my final book review of 2019.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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 NaamahSarah 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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

A MoveOn petition asking Amazon to “stop using paper and bubble wrap envelopes that can’t be recycled” has garnered more than 100,00 signatures.

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“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 Modern Farmer analysis to this interview featuring yours truly on NPR member station KUOW 94.9-FM.

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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.

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 essays will appear in the spring of 2021 in The Rumpus and [PANK] magazine, issue 15.

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“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, which anthologized 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.

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“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 in paperback from Routledge in December 2020. 

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 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.

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“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 in 2017 and is forthcoming in Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, March 2021).

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My dear friend hosted my family on her land for a whale meat fajita I won’t forget. With that meal came insights I explore in this Literary Hub essay edited by Corinne Segal 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.”

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I wrote about salvaging hope from the wreckage of loss 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.”

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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.

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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.

“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.

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With support from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, Cascadia Magazine 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.

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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.

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.

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“On Being Driven,” my inquiry into sexual violence and white privilege, appeared in Moss in October of 2017.

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.”

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“Straight, No Chaser” — a personal essay about pregnancy and pressure — came out in Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter & Booze, which gave my work a home at Sasquatch Books alongside Anthony Doerr, Kim Addonizio and Jess Walter in this 2017 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

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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, which 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 for SAL/on, a paean to Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky.

 
 

The Guardian

“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 October 2017 Guardian essay about automation and education helped spur an ongoing robotics program at a Seattle public school.

Illustration by Rachel Blowen. www.rachelblowen.com

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.

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My 2015 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.

http://www.theguardian.com/global/2015/jun/30/misty-upham-native-american-actress-tragic-death-inspiring-life

Misty Upham: the tragic death and unscripted life of Hollywood’s rising star

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 aired an interview with me about this investigation on The Record and All Things Considered. KVRU also aired an hour-long interview which appeared on KBCS 91.3-FM as a 7-minute installation of a #MMIW series about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. 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.

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As a freelance journalist for the Guardian, I have written about legal marijuana, the Oso mudslide, the death penalty, migrant hunger strikesCatholic students protesting the termination of their gay vice principal and his subsequent lawsuit against the school.

 

The New York Times

Snow Fall

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.”

KUOW 94.9 FM

KUOW-FM 94.9, a Seattle NPR station, awarded a Program Venture Fund grant to underwrite my nine-minute feature story about tribal measures to fight Native youth substance abuse. After airing on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the story, which highlighted how tribes are exercising self-governance to heal wounds left by the settler colonial state, helped spur an hour-long discussion featuring Lummi tribal leaders and me on Weekday.

SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

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.