Last week when my two young nieces were in town, we went to a local theater to watch Jorge R. Gutierrez’s The Book of Life, an animated children’s film that is part heavy-handed love story, part love letter to Día de de los Muertos, the holiday on which those who have died are celebrated, a ritual that goes back 3,000 years. On NPR, journalist Karen Castillo Farfán wrote that the practice was developed by the Aztecs, who believed one should not grieve the loss of a beloved ancestor who passed. Instead, “the Aztecs celebrated their lives and welcomed the return of their spirits to the land of the living once a year.”
The Book of Life is one big visual representation of everything we have come to associate with the holiday: “dark” Mexican folk art, sugar skulls, papel picado in every color, and altars adorned with seven-day candles, orange marigolds, and pan dulce. The movie is bright and visually stunning, despite being about death—and the same could be said about Día de los Muertos.
"Frenemies": friends with fewer benefits. It's often an apt term to describe our working lives, where polite interactions mask fierce competition. But it applies to other domains as well: from the love-hate relationships of siblings and lovers, to the tangled web of international relations (take, for example, longtime allies Germany and the US, recently in a bitter spat over American espionage). Yet having a frenemy is not necessarily a bad thing. Musical rivalries produce great songs (see the hit musical Beautiful). One-time political opponents sometimes become the most formidable of allies (see Bush v. Gore veterans/gay-marriage crusaders David Boies and Ted Olson).
Yesterday, the world lost one of its great talents. Robin Williams was found dead in his home Monday from an apparent suicide. The sadness of his loss is matched only by the joy he brought the world over his life.
While early obituaries I've read have lauded his acting triumphs (i.e., Good Will Hunting, Dead Poet's Society), equally important to my childhood were Robin Williams' less acclaimed works, from Jumanji (50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) to Hook (31 percent) to Flubber (23 percent). Few actors have achieved such generational impact, making his death all the more painful.
Journalist Masha Gessen wrote a well-received biography of Russian president Vladimir Putin two years ago. In her new book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot
, she profiles Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk activist group whose members have become the international faces of anti-Putin protest.
In recent years the group has won a global following—including the likes of Madonna and Paul McCartney—for their offbeat acts of civil disobedience against the Russian government. One of their best-known protests—a controversial “punk prayer” performance in a Moscow cathedral in 2012—eventually landed three of its members in jail. Gessen, a Russian American journalist and herself a critic of Putin, follows the personal histories of these three members: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (Nadya), Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Stanislavovna Samutsevich (Kat). Most of the book was culled from Gessen’s reporting from their trial and her correspondence with Nadya and Maria while they were in prison.
Diversity in literature is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. Last month I attended a workshop run by the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation
(VONA), which sponsors programs for writers of color working in a variety of genres. I sat at the orientation looking around in disbelief at more than 150 writers crammed into a room at UC Berkeley, thinking, “Holy fuck, I had no idea there were so many of us.”
Speaking at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama touted his administration’s response to Russia’s recent belligerence in Ukraine. “Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away,” he said. The public outcry and the pressure exerted by international institutions, he added, have served as an effective “counterweight” to “Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” In spite of the crisis Ukraine has gone on to hold elections—“without us firing a shot.”
Unfortunately, Obama is mistaken. The momentum is still on Russia’s side. It has forcibly seized and annexed the strategically valuable peninsula of Crimea. It has succeeded in destabilizing eastern Ukraine through a proxy war—secretively supporting ethnic Russian rebellions against the Ukrainian government there. It is quite possible Ukraine will end up losing more of its territory.
May in Los Angeles is breathtaking. I know this because it’s all people talk about when the city explodes in Technicolor and flowers rip open. Everything is lush and living, or so they say. I live in Los Angeles too, but I don’t see it the same way. Not anymore. The sunshine is harsh. The colors unkind.
When I walk to the corner liquor store with my sunglasses on and hoodie pulled up, hoping to be left alone, neighbors still yell out, “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” I smile politely, nod. Always polite.
I stood on this same street four years ago, a few days before Mother’s Day. It was early in the morning, around 3 a.m., and I was on the phone with a steely 911 operator, wondering why she was being so cold to me. I realize now it was probably better that way, but in those moments I hated her. I remember saying, “This doesn’t feel real. This feels like a movie. Is this real?” There was silence on the other end of the line.
Today, twelve Sherpas died in an avalanche on Mount Everest, the worst accident in the mountain's history. (Four are still missing.) The Sherpa community, an ethnic group in Nepal renowned for their mountaineering skills, has long guided foreign visitors up the world's tallest peak. "Sherpas bear the real burden of climbing Mount Everest," American mountaineer Conrad Anker told National Geographic
. "They're the ones who take the biggest risks."
Last year we published a story by Stephanie Lowe
that described the growing dangers of the mountain and the concerns of the Sherpa guides, whose very job is to risk their lives on Everest's slopes.
Ukraine. Venezuela. Thailand. The Arab Spring. We are living in a time of vibrant protest, captured and magnified by cellphone videos and Twitter feeds. On both the political right and left, grassroots movements have emerged everywhere—including America and Europe—to resist authority and overturn the establishment.
We want to hear your stories of resistance: from powerful mass movements to personal relationships.
At the height of my teenage apathy, my mom made me squeal with delight by smuggling a kitten into our home in a cardboard box she’d found at work. She burst into my bedroom excitedly and shoved the box toward me. When I saw its tiny, grey nose and bright, yellow eyes, I fell in love just like my mom.
My dad, however, had a strict "no pets" policy. Caring for a cat would cost too much money, he said. He and my mom already struggled to afford food. For days, my parents fought over the kitten while I held out hope I could have this one little, good thing in a house that all too often felt devoid of good things.
Out of everything we published this year, our editors chose the following pieces from each section for being standouts among their peers. As we see it, they best represent what In The Fray
is all about: stories that further our understanding of other people and encourage empathy and compassion.
Click here to read our best commentary, news, photo essay, culture, and blog pieces from 2013.
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Captain Phillips, the new film based on a real-life encounter between an American commercial-shipping crew and Somalian pirates, opens with the titular character in Vermont, driving to the airport with his wife. Richard Phillips expresses concern about the state of the shipping industry, sunk by the global recession that struck a year earlier. On the other side of the globe, Muse, a poor Somalian fisherman forced into piracy by his own economic woes, wakes up to news that the local warlord has demanded that his village capture another ship, or suffer violent consequences. The angular fisherman-turned-pirate is an obvious foil for Phillips, their stories woven together through crosscut scenes that emphasize the economic anxieties shared by the men, even as they highlight the brutality of the Horn of Africa’s most chaotic state.
At the heart of Sister, Brenda Davis' documentary debut, are three inspiring stories of an Ethiopian health officer, a midwife in rural Cambodia, and a traditional birth attendant in Haiti. When Davis met Goitom Berhane in Ethiopia in 2008, she was taken with his vivacious personality and dedication to solving the maternal health crisis in his country. Goitom's example encouraged Davis to explore women's health as an international human rights issue. Eventually, he became a central figure in her film.
Blues legend Sam Hopkins — known as Lightnin’ Hopkins to his fans — influenced everyone from musical giants like Bob Dylan and John Coltrane to activists like Black Panther Party cofounder Bobby Seale. Long after his death, Rolling Stone
named him one of the greatest guitarists
of all time. Yet not much is known about him. Notoriously private, Hopkins fabricated and exaggerated details about his early life, preferring to keep his origins a mystery. Mojo Hand
, a new biography of Hopkins, details the obscure life and music of an iconoclastic bluesman who was the consummate musician’s musician, inspiring legions of artists across many genres.
Lately, as a result of planning my wedding, there’s been a lot of talk among my buddies about what drives the expensive social conservatism we see during our various social and religious ceremonies in India. There is, of course, the cash-flashing, wealth-waving syndrome that leads to obscene shows of buying power, and the media-spurred my-fairy-tale-wedding delusion, but what spurs people with sensible plans and ideological commitments to chuck it all and take a nosedive into these pro forma spectacles of self-destructive wastage?
I talk about race — a lot. I constantly initiate discussions with friends and colleagues, and find that even in our supposedly postracial world many still deem race to be an uncomfortable subject. Although I believe attempts to have a dialogue about race are important, another part of me does it for purely selfish reasons. These conversations help me to figure out my own relationship with race. They validate and invalidate my opinions, and give me a better understanding of where I fit as a light-skinned Latina.
In The Fray
contributing writer Joshunda Sanders recently spoke at TEDCity2.0
, a conference focused on the challenges and innovations that cities across the world are experiencing today. Joshunda gave a moving talk about her mother's struggle with mental illness (a story she also told for our blog
), and the ways that cities can help, and hinder, the lives of the mentally ill — particularly those who are poor and homeless. There are compelling reasons, Joshunda says, that so many homeless individuals congregate in cities.
Fifty years after the March on Washington, John Lewis and his collaborators offer a new visual take on the protests and the people behind them, in the graphic novel March
, an illustrated (and unconventional) autobiography of the civil rights leader and longtime member of Congress. In a way, the book brings Lewis full circle: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story
, a comic book published in 1956, helped inspire him to take up the nonviolent cause as a teenager.