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Maddie writes and edits stories about food, health, the environment, and culture. She oversees Mother Jones' research department and manages its Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program. Email tips to moatman [at] motherjones [dot] com.
When Sara Farizan presented early drafts of her young-adult novels at writing workshops, her fellow graduate students at Lesley University often responded with a stunned "Huh." The YA genre tends to be dominated by wizards and trolls, but here was Farizan writing about gay teenage sexual angst. Her 2013 debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, centers on Sahar, an Iranian teenager who considers desperate measures—including sex reassignment surgery—to try to stop her true love's arranged marriage. Farizan, born in the United States to Iranian parents, figured the book would sell on the fringes. Instead, it quickly landed on several "best YA reading" lists and snagged a Lambda Literary Award.
Her new novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, takes place closer to home. Out October 7, it is set in a waspy prep school, not unlike the one Farizan attended as a closeted teen in Massachusetts ("pre-Ellen," she notes). "I had this outgoing personality, and I was class president, but inside, I was going to my car to cry."
Farizan's stories, as full of gossip as any school cafeteria, are nonetheless funny and frank. They deal with uncomfortable issues—and not just for "girls named Emily or Annie." For that matter, Farizan thinks her fellow YA authors could do better at appealing to kids of all stripes. "Not that Harry isn't great," she says. "But if Ron and Hermione had been some other identity—black, Latina, gay—I think that would have made a huge difference."
Mother Jones: You've said: "I write books I wish I had as a teenager." Can you elaborate?
"It didn't bother me that my first crush was animated, or a mouse; it bothered me that she was female."
Sara Farizan: My first crush, as early as age 5, was Gadget the Mouse from Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers. It didn't bother me that she was animated, or a mouse; it bothered me that she was female. I had these inclinations, and was really terrified by them. This was pre-Ellen of course, and given the culture my parents are from—where a husband and wife is very important, and kids, and then those kids grow up to be doctors hopefully—I spent a lot of years in this silent fear and anger. As a teenager, I had this outgoing personality, and I was class president and doing all kinds of things; but inside was going to my car to cry. I had no problems explaining to people what my Iranian heritage meant, and trying to be a good representative. What did worry me was that I was secretly gay.
MJ: What were you reading at the time?
SF: There were LGBT-oriented books for teens by Julie Anne Peters, and Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind. I normally got those from my town library rather than my school. But there wasn't anything about someone of a different background, you know. They were all girls named Emily and Annie. While those books were really helpful to me, there was a disconnect in that the only LGBT books that I had read about in school were concerning very of-European-descent people.
MJ: You started your books as graduate school projects. Did you think they'd become more than that?
SF: I really didn't see them ever being published, based on what they're about. Everyone in the "Writing for Young People" track was writing trolls and wizards, and, um, not LGBT people of color, certainly. I thought perhaps they were too niche. I didn't anticipate that all of this would have happened—that I'd be speaking to you, for one.
MJ: There are a lot of doctors in your books, and I see that your father was a surgeon. Did you feel pressure to go that route?
SF: No, but I think it was a profession that was understood. It's one that's really lofty and prestigious. I think for a lot of Persian parents in the States, being a doctor was the gold standard. There's this comedian, Amir K, who does an impression of his dad, who's like, "What do you mean you want to be a comedian? You can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can open up a bank." And Amir's like, "Dad, you can't just go around opening up banks." [See video below.] My sister and I have gone very media-related routes. My parents are really wonderful about it, but it's not something they knew anything about. It's all very new territory for them.
MJ: Is your book, If You Could Be Mine, banned in Iran?
SF: I don't know that they know about it. I don't Google myself. I don't look myself up. One, because I'm a fragile flower. And two, it's going to mess up anything I want to write in the future.
MJ: You paint a very believable portrait of life in Iran. Did you live there for a time?
SF: I've been there. I have the passport stamps. I worry about being exploitative because I'm a Westerner. But for me it was very important, being a member of the LGBT community and dealing with that kind if frustration and isolation, to imagine what it would be like growing up in the country my parents are from.
MJ: The idea of transexualism plays a big role in the new book—though it seems pretty evident that Sahar is not trans. But I was surprised to learn that transgender Iranians can get subsidies for gender reassignment surgeries, and that they have more government protections than homosexuals.
A boy steps out of a bus full of families deported from Mexico back to Honduras in July of this year.
Escaping rampant violence in parts of Central America, tens of thousands of child migrants made a treacherous journey up to the United States border this year. To help dissuade such a vulnerable population from taking such risky treks in the first place, President Obama announced Tuesday that he plans to roll out a new program to allow children to apply for refugee status from their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
The program is still in the planning stages, and it remains unclear how old the kids must be and what circumstances they must be caught in to successfully apply for asylum. But at least it's a move in the right direction, says Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are laying the groundwork and designating an avenue—it's a good starting off point," she says.
"That's not even close to enough. We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."
White House spokesperson Shawn Turner told the New York Times that the initiative is meant to "provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey children are currently taking to join relatives in the United States." The point made in the last part of this statement has caught the attention of human rights advocates including Brané, as it suggests that only children who already have a relative in the US will qualify for asylum under this new program, leaving out thousands who are trying to escape newly developing unrest and gang violence.
Advocates also worry about the number of applicants that will be granted asylum. The White House's announcement projects that 4,000 people total from Latin America and the Caribbean could be granted refugee visas in fiscal year 2015. (Let's not forget that region includes troubled countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti). The children who would be allowed to apply for refugee status from their home countries appear to be a subcategory of that 4,000. "That's not even close to enough," says Brané. "We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."
"Kids have a threat against their lives. They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."
One study by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees revealed that 60 percent of recent child migrants interviewed expressed a targeted fear, like a death threat, which is the type of experience that can qualify you for asylum. If you use that statistic, that means 36,000 of the kids who crossed the border this year should qualify for refugee visas—nine times the total number Obama is promising.
But Brané says an even bigger concern with the program is its potential to eclipse or replace protections given to targeted migrants who arrive at the Mexico/US border. "A program like this is fine as a complementary approach," she says, "but it cannot replace protection at the border; it should not impede access to asylum in the US." Ironically, it's the children whose lives are most threatened that could have the hardest time applying for refugee status from their home countries. "In some of these cases, kids have a threat against their lives," says Brané. "They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."
Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton has no shame in asking our server about the tattoo peeking out from under her right armpit. We're at Magnolia Brewery, a pub in San Francisco with a soft glow and a hint of an edgy past. The petite, bespectacled waitress explains that the hen and chicks inked on her inner bicep come from a kid's book her grandma used to read to her at the childhood farm. After the server disappears to retrieve our fries, MacNaughton says: "If someone is choosing to permanently mark their body, there is a story behind it."
She should know. MacNaughton has spent much of the last two years on a new oral-history book, Pen and Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them, out October 7. The testimonies accompanying her expressive drawings serve as glimpses into the subjects' earlier selves—"my sister and I would race after bees in the lavender bushes and try to pet them without getting stung"—or mantras to live by—"a gray-blue stripe down my spine…symbolizes 'balance.'" Some insignias represent disturbing moments: incarceration or chemo or lost family members. Others are just goofy: A male comedian sports a cursive "Whoops" on his arm, and one woman inked a T. rex on her ribcage as a reminder "not to take myself too seriously."
The project was the brainchild of Isaac Fitzgerald, co-owner of literary website The Rumpus and the books editor at BuzzFeed. Past bartending gigs had taught Fitzgerald that quizzing fellow mixologists about their tattoos was an easy ice-breaker. As his interest in publishing took hold, he noticed that most books about tattoos merely relied on photographs, which, in terms of capturing the essence of a great tattoo, "leave a lot to be desired."
One day, Fitzgerald was having a drink with MacNaughton, whose playful renderings have adorned the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, PRINT, and several books. "I said, 'Here's this really dumb idea!'" Fitzgerald recalls. "And I think she was like, 'That's not that dumb.'" So, in 2012, they launched a Tumblr called Pen and Ink, which pairs MacNaughton's tattoo portraits with the subjects' personal stories. Before long, their project had attracted 80,000 followers, including rock star fans such as Neko Case and Colin Meloy.
"Andrea de Francisco, Cafe Owner"
Drawing hadn't always come so easy for MacNaughton. After graduating from Pasadena's City Art Center College of Design in 1999, and making, in her words, "the worst conceptual art ever," she abandoned her pen in exasperation. Instead, she went to grad school for international social work, and spent several years working on political campaigns in East Africa.
The drawing bug bit again after she moved to the Bay Area and began sketching fellow commuters on the train to work. Something had shifted: "In art school it was all about expressing my analysis of the world, and my ideas." But now she wanted to use her talents to tell other people's stories. Her sketches of life in the city—street characters, found objects, or moments on a bus—became an online series for The Rumpus, culminating in a 2014 book, Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words.
"Anna Schoenberger, Manager at Thrift Store"
Interviewing diverse tribes for Meanwhile was a great warmup for Pen and Ink, MacNaughton tells me. Nowadays, it's impossible to predict who might have a tattoo: anyone from "people who work downtown in an office on a top floor in a suit to somebody who doesn't work who has tattoos all over his face," she says. She shoots me a sly look. "I get a possible tattoo vibe from you."
When I break the news that I'm actually not among the 23 percent of Americans who are inked, she counters, "You just don't have one yet." (I've recently become obsessed with FlashTats, those sparkly temporary tattoos designed to look like jewelry. Gateway drug?)
MacNaughton, who has wavy rust-colored hair and sparkly eyes, sports two tattoos herself—both equally embarrassing, she admits. She points to one on her forearm: a triangle connecting three circles meant to represent a philosophical "mirror theory." "There was a point when I would have removed this. But I'm really glad now that I didn't." Doing Pen and Ink, she says, "helped me embrace that attitude that this represents a time in my life when I was more sincere. That was a great time. And I am so glad it is not that time anymore."
MacNaughton and Fitzgerald are already busy with a sequel, Knives and Ink, an illustrated series of tattooed chefs and their tales. MacNaughton's not done inking herself, either. "My next tattoo," she confides, "is Grandma-related."
For the past two years, killing a wolf in Wyoming was pretty simple. In a trophy game area near the border of Yellowstone, licensed hunters were allowed to take a certain number of gray wolves. In the rest of the state, or about 80 percent of Wyoming's land, anyone could kill a limitless number of them on sight.
But that's about to change. A judge ruled Tuesday that the animals' delisting in 2012, which handed management of the species over to the Wyoming government, was "arbitrary and capricious," and that the state isn't ready to manage wolf populations on its own. The move has wolf activists breathing a sigh of relief; Wyoming's management plan, as Sierra Club's Bonnie Rice put it, could have potentially taken wolves "back to the brink of extinction." Judge Amy Berman Jackson did not challenge the previous finding that wolves had recovered and that the species "is not endangered or threatened within a significant portion of its range." But even so, her ruling means that Wyoming's wolves will again enjoy protections under the Endangered Species Act and can no longer be hunted—at least in the short term.
"The court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan."
While as many as 2 million gray wolves once roamed North America, the carnivores were nearly wiped out by humans by the early 1900s. Roughly 5,500 remain today, though an uptick in laws permitting wolf hunting in states like Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, and Idaho all threaten to keep the animals scarce. Wyoming's hunting and "kill-on-sight" policies, for instance, meant 219 wolves were gunned down since 2012, according to Earthjustice.
In part because wolves were reintroduced in Wyoming, whether to kill or protect this predator remains a very polarizing issue in the state. Wolves kill farm animals and pets, pissing off ranchers and rural landowners alike and feeding into the attitude that the canids are just a deadly nuisance. A Facebook photo posted last year by hunting outfitters, for instance, shows a group of hunters posing with a dead wolf with blood covering its paws and mouth. The caption reads "Wyoming is FED up." Commenters responded with notes like "the only good Canadian gray wolf to me is a dead Canadian gray wolf" and "Keep on killing guys!"
But scientists and conservationists have fought hard to restore this species into the North American ecosystem. Studies have shown that wolves maintain balance in the environment: they prey on other large mammals like moose and elk, whose populations (and eating habits) can get out of control without a predator to keep them in check; their hunting helps feed scavengers like wolverines, bald eagles, and mountain lions; their predation can force elk to hang out in smaller groups, thereby reducing the spread of diseases; and they've even been found to be good for the soil.
By restoring protections to gray wolves, states Rice in a press release, "the court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan." She argues that the state needs to reevaluate how it treats the animal and develop "a science-based management plan that recognizes the many benefits wolves bring to the region."
The conservation groups that sued after the wolves were delisted in 2012 include Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Though yesterday's news comes as a victory to these groups, a bigger hurdle lies ahead: The US Fish and Wildlife has proposed to remove the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species list altogether based on the animals' perceived recovery. A final decision is expected later this year.
Summer's pulling to a close, but perk up. Here are videos of five refreshing female vocalists whose smart and uncompromising performances have dazzled me recently:
1. Frazey Ford
Fans of the quirky alt-folk band the Be Good Tanyas—of which Frazey Ford is a founding member—won't be disappointed with this sneak-peek single off Ford's upcoming solo album, Indian Ocean, out in mid-October. With subtle vibrato and pulsing emotion, Ford's velvety vocals take center stage in "September Fields." While Ford's a country-folk singer at heart, the electric organ in the track transforms her normally aching lullaby into something funkier and full of sunshine. As I listened, I kept picturing late summer drives through peaceful farm towns, passing barns with their paint peeling, peach stands framed by dry corn stalks, little girls in their Sunday best giggling on the steps of a small church. "Are you holding, holding on so tight?" Ford croons. Yes—to the edge of my seat in anticipation for her album to land.
2. Diana Gameros
One evening in July, Mexican singer Diana Gameros boarded the historic Balclutha, a tall ship parked in the San Francisco Bay. Under violet lights in the main cabin, alongside a handful of other masterful Latin American musicians, she delivered "Canciones Del Mar (Songs of the Sea)." The group performed ocean homages plucked from all over the continent, from fishing ditties to a silly tune about an octopus to a tribute to the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, who is said to have ended her own life by wading into the sea.
Gameros also performed her original, "Soy Tu Mar," and released this humble video a month later. The waves washing through the ballad offer the singer an ethereal alternative rhythm, and pair well with her bright nylon-stringed Takamine guitar with a sound reminiscent of a mariachi. Gameros grew up bouncing between her hometown of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and Holland, Michigan, where she learned English and studied music. She now resides in the Bay Area and plays regularly at a tamale parlor in San Francisco's Mission District. Her delicate first album, Eterno Retorno, showcases Gameros' bilingual songwriting and jazzy voice. Like "Soy Tu Mar," it's at once full of yearning and serenity. Don't miss the improvised bonus song in the tunnel at the end of the video.
3. Sevyn Streeter
Ignore the nails and revel in this diva's silky and powerful voice. It baffles me that the guys lifting weights in the righthand corner of this scren were able to hold it together while Streeter just kills it.
With roots in church gospel music, Streeter started winning talent competitions at a young age, but her cousin had to convince her to upload her music to MySpace. It soon caught the eye of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez's producer Rich Harrison, who asked Streeter to join RichGirl, a new pop group he was forming. The band never really took off, but Streeter continued to write songs, and six of the tracks she helped pen made it onto Chris Brown's Grammy-winning album F.A.M.E.
Now, with an EP to her name, Streeter is working on a debut album. The singles out so far are gussied up with plenty of electronic beats and echo-y harmonies. But after seeing this video, I hope she releases more stripped-down acoustic tracks that allow her pure voice full reign.
4. FKA Twigs
Move over Gaga: FKA Twigs has arrived. This satisfyingly weird artist struts her sultry vocals and mesmerizing poise in the video version of "Two Weeks." This year saw the London-based Twigs, a former backup dancer, move into the spotlight with her album LP1. Hipster music blog Pitchforkraves about its "eerie, post-humanist, Uncanny Valley-girl aesthetic." Indeed, Twigs plays a doll in many of the surreal videos off this album—in "Water Me," her head bobs from side to side and her eyes are unnaturally large.
In the video above, she's an unapproachable empress. But amid all this cold posturing, her voice is piercingly intimate. And her command of her space and skilled restraint suggest that this 26-year-old half-Jamaican artist is only getting started.
5. Irene Diaz
Okay, this video's not brand new. But Irene Diaz is probably new to most of you. I just stumbled on her recently (h/t NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts), and I'm hooked on this playful song with its driving piano and flirtatious glances.
Based in Los Angeles, the soulful Diaz is just breaking into the national scene, playing at 2014's SXSW and opening for Lila Downs' on her current tour. Diaz seems like she'd be a ton of fun live—but here's hoping she pauses from touring long enough to complete her first full-length album soon. As one blogger pointed out, Diaz sounds a bit like Fiona Apple, but her songs aren't quite so morose. They're muscular and catchy, with a hint of vintage spunk.