The animation student felt a thrill as he entered the hotel. It grew when, as soon as he unlocked his luxurious room, he caught sight of a not-entirely-unexpected gift—a hamper of complimentary cigarettes and Zippo lighters. His excitement increased further over the next couple of days, filled with seminars and celebrations, and culminating in a party that he described, years later, as “a slice of real-life American Pie.”
“We started off with the bartending competition, and the alcohol was on the house, so all of us started drinking right then,” he told me. “By the time the party ‘started,’ most of us were either halfway drunk or completely drunk.” That was just the beginning. “They”—his hosts—“were going around with bottles of Chivas Regal, picking people up and literally choking them with alcohol.”
That evening, the Parkland Retreat’s plush banquet hall was the venue for a party themed “Gold, White and Black,” and was full of standees and banners adorned with the familiar logo of Marlboro cigarettes, of which the varieties sold in India include Marlboro Golds, Whites and Blacks. “They taught us how to party,” the student said, “Marlboro style.”
The event was a rite of passage for the student and his fellows, who had signed on to be “Marlboro Gold Connectors.” It was all part of a brand ambassador programme launched in 2009 by Philip Morris India, a wholesale trading company and a subsidiary of the global tobacco firm Philip Morris, which works on “fostering and promoting the sale of Marlboro cigarettes in India.” From 2009 until the programme was officially halted this June, the company hired “influencers” between the ages of roughly 18 and 25 to serve as “connectors” for Marlboro. Simply put, they were paid to promote Marlboro’s Gold and Red cigarettes among their friends and peers.
—Nikita Saxena, writing for The Caravan, about how Philip Morris India skirted the country’s restrictions on tobacco advertising by enlisting “brand ambassadors.”
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To learn the craft, I’d just written random stories, whatever came into my head, attempting to storify any thought as practice for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But just writing whatever wasn’t really being a writer. A writer, it seemed to me at the time, was someone with a creative or intellectual project that lasted not the length of a story but over years of writing many different things.
I asked myself what I was fascinated by, scared of, drawn to, repelled by, in love with. What did I like thinking about and what could I never find an end to musing over? For me, then, it was the natural world, any angle of it. I opened this umbrella and began to write stories that fit under it. And suddenly I knew why I was writing a story at any particular moment. Even if it was a mysterious or troublesome one, I knew I was pursuing something with it. The thing is, I’m not sure these pursuits are ever very obvious to anyone but me. They get obscured. Or maybe they are really just the jumping-off points that send me back to the big questions we all think about, the stuff too big to approach head on. Like, I tell myself I’m exploring the wilderness, but really I’m trying to figure out grief. But the concept of the ongoing ‘project’ forces me to remember that writing is active and not just a product.
— In Granta, Sam Lipsyte and Diane Cook correspond with one another about the craft of writing stories. The above is from Cook. Before working on her own stories, Cook was a producer for This American Life, which taught her how to put together stories in a very specific way.
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There are a number of reasons a writer may waffle on the question of which events in the book match up with her life. Most writers receive the question of whether something in their fiction “really happened” as an accusation, without being exactly sure what they are being accused of. There can be the egotistical concern that a writer is considered less “creative” if what she has done is “simply” to document what happened in “real life.” But everybody knows, or should, that just because something happened does not guarantee dynamite on the page. Effervescent dinner parties recorded and transcribed read like somber autopsies. Also, a writer may wish to preserve some privacy—not only for herself, but also to protect the people she is already betraying.
Still, the connection between writing and reality is impossible to ignore. This is not just a question of “realism,” or of the sort of undramatized alignment with actual events that fills the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Consider Tolstoy. Levin’s proposal to Kitty in Anna Karenina (which takes place over a board game) mirrored Tolstoy’s own proposal, and the scene in which the young fiancé insists on showing his bride-to-be the diaries recounting his extensive youthful debaucheries also came straight from Tolstoy’s life. He seems not to have gone to any great lengths to disguise identities—the maid in Levin’s house, Agafya Mikhaylovna, has the precise name of one of his own maids, and in the early drafts of War and Peace the central family was called “the Tolstoys.” According to one of his biographers, Tolstoy performed his work in progress for his family and friends. The biographer makes it sound like a party: “Doctor Bers arranged an evening at the house. … Tolstoy was to read aloud from his novel. … [T]he more pages he read, the more vividly they all began to recognize themselves. ‘Mama?’, the hostess ecclaimed. ‘Marya Dmitriyevna Akhrosimov is you!’”
—From a piece by Mona Simpson about the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, which appeared in The New Republic.
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Once individuals have enrolled and announced that they are trans, the schools, more or less, leave it to the students to work out how trans classmates fit into a women’s college. Two of those students hashed it out last fall after Kaden Mohamed, then a Wellesley senior who had been taking testosterone for seven months, watched a news program on WGBH-TV about the plummeting number of women’s colleges. One guest was Laura Bruno, another Wellesley senior. The other guest was the president of Regis College, a women’s school that went coed in 2007 to reverse its tanking enrollment. The interviewer asked Laura to describe her experience at an “all-female school” and to explain how that might be diminished “by having men there.” Laura answered, “We look around and we see only women, only people like us, leading every organization on campus, contributing to every class discussion.”
Kaden, a manager of the campus student cafe who knew Laura casually, was upset by her words. He emailed Laura and said her response was “extremely disrespectful.” He continued: “I am not a woman. I am a trans man who is part of your graduating class, and you literally ignored my existence in your interview. . . . You had an opportunity to show people that Wellesley is a place that is complicating the meaning of being an ‘all women’s school,’ and you chose instead to displace a bunch of your current and past Wellesley siblings.”
Laura apologized, saying she hadn’t meant to marginalize anyone and had actually vowed beforehand not to imply that all Wellesley students were women. But she said that under pressure, she found herself in a difficult spot: How could she maintain that women’s colleges would lose something precious by including men, but at the same time argue that women’s colleges should accommodate students who identify as men?
— In The New York Times Magazine, Ruth Padawar looks at the growing trans community at schools like Wellesley and Mount Holyoke and how they’re sparking a discussion for policy changes at colleges that have been historically all-female.
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Orlando has long had a towering, and very much deserved, reputation in the LGBT community; it was published the same year Radclyffe Hall’s controversial The Well of Loneliness, depicting lesbianism as a tragic curse, became a bestseller. Woolf’s creation of a figure who effortlessly changes sex casually upends any notion that biological sex is related to gender or orientation—even the notion that biological sex is fixed and stable at all.
Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson would later call Orlando “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” and whether or not it began as a private missive for Vita, it’s also clearly much, much more, and early on in its genesis it began to exceed whatever initial idea Woolf had for it. “For the truth is I feel the need of an escapade after these serious poetic experimental books whose form is always so closely considered,” she wrote in March 1927. “I want to kick up my heels & be off. I want to embody all those innumerable little ideas & tiny stories which flash into my mind at all seasons. I think it will be great fun to write; & it will rest my head before starting the very serious, mystical poetical work which I want to come next.”
-Colin Dickey, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on Virginia Woolf’s time-warping novel Orlando.
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The latest New York Times investigation by C.J. Chivers is about more than just the discovery of old chemical weapons in Iraq—it’s about how shabbily we still treat our troops when they return home. We leave our all-volunteer army with inadequate medical care, emotional trauma, and fragile families. Here are six stories on our veterans.
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Rebecca Solnit | Orion | Summer 2014 | 20 minutes (4,780 words)
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The word “journey” used to mean a single day’s travels, and the French word for day, jour, is packed neatly inside it, like a single pair of shoes in a very small case. Maybe all journeys should be imagined as a single day, short as a trip to the corner or long as a life in its ninth decade. This way of thinking about it is a;rmed by the t-shirts made for African-American funerals in New Orleans and other places that describe the birth date and death date of the person being commemorated as sunrise and sunset. One day. Read more…