BY JIMMY THOMSON
As part of a company with the lofty goal of publishing excellent long-form journalism once we launch this fall, many of us have started casting around for the existing pillars of the genre in Canada—not necessarily the most well-established players, but promising writers that we personally admire.
Some of the authors you’re about to meet, like May Jeong and Josiah Neufeld, are just starting their careers, despite their already impressive credentials. Some are a little more advanced. What they all have in common is that they are all doing amazing writing today, and will continue to do so in the future. That’s why they made my list.
Over the next few weeks, other WORST contributors will highlight their favourite Canadian long-form journalists. Check out snippets of my picks below, and let us know in the comments who should be on the list with them.
A few milongas ago, I found myself dancing with the colonel again. We were doing OK, I thought, but just as I let my mind wander, he abruptly seized me by my elbows, gave me a sharp shake, and declared, “You don’t lead! I lead!” I had unwittingly tried to break the gender norms of this highly heteronormative dance, the highest transgression in tango. It occurs to me that tango may be an appropriate pastime in a country where beating your wife is not (yet) a crime.
–”A Personal History of Afghanistan in Seven Acts,” n+1, July 2013
May Jeong is based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she is one of the most eloquent voices emanating from an oft-forgotten yet fascinating part of the world. As a freelancer, she has sold articles to essentially every media outlet worth mentioning. Just two years ago, she was a finalist in the Best New Magazine Writer category of the Canadian National Magazine Awards, and today, she makes us all feel inadequate from the other side of the world.
When Mamadou told me there were no debts between us, sweeping up the pieces of his broken drinking glass, he meant the kind of debts we talk about in the West—quantifiable debts, to be paid by a certain date, with penalties attached. African hospitality must forgive the broken glass, but he also wanted to remind me that my social obligation still stood. As the wealthier friend, I was obligated to help him when he needed it.
–”The Way We Give,” the Walrus, December 2013
I must disclose that I have met Josiah Neufeld, at UBC, where we both studied in separate but parallel programs. But I will add that I met him shortly after his essay in the Walrus brought me close to tears with a moving story of the gulf between friends of different socioeconomic backgrounds. The depth of research and sincere attempts at understanding the context didn’t hurt either, and probably contributed to his National Magazine Award nomination this year.
Mental illness today, as reflected in CAMH’s sleek redevelopment, smack in the middle of Toronto’s hippest neighbourhood, has never looked so mainstream. Advances in neuroscience have lent popular credibility to psychiatry, a field not so long ago considered medicine’s poor relation. A new candour among people with depression, addictions, and anxiety has provided a relatable face for the cause.
–”The New Normal,” the Walrus, March 2013
Rachel Giese writes social commentary with the precision and fact-based approach of a science writer, combining carefully crafted scenes with illuminating interviews. Her most recent piece for the Walrus, where she is a senior editor, was about a new, more inclusive and targeted sex education for boys; it was listed in Connor Friedersdorf’s coveted “Best of Journalism” mailing list, and “The New Normal” was nominated for two National Magazine Awards.
There was a time when religious scholars sought to relate every species to the primacy of human beings—lice are our incentive to cleanliness, deer keep our meat fresh until we need it, horse shit smells sweeter than other turds because horses are chosen to live alongside us. For the most part we have left such thoughts behind, yet the way we shutter ourselves away from nature has much the same effect today, making it easy to believe that only our own species is at the centre of creation. It’s a difficult worldview to sustain in the presence of the ruby-crowned kinglet, a bird that weighs less than a handful of coins and sings in forests so cold and high that no human culture in history has ever lingered there for long.
–The Once and Future World, Random House of Canada, 2013
J.B. MacKinnon has already kicked off a worldwide food trend with the idea of the hundred-mile diet. Now he’s at the forefront of the “rewilding” movement: the idea that nature can and does come back to places man has occupied, if we just leave it the hell alone for a little while. Or something like that. Anyway, MacKinnon is a social meme generator, and we should just leave him alone to keep making good ideas to make the world better.
China’s position in the world has changed. And the stereotype of the Chinese presence in Vancouver has changed too—if the old image was of a blue-collar worker living in close quarters and sending money home to China, the new image is of a cosmopolitan billionaire buying up luxury property as a way to park money outside of China. “Is Vancouver Ready for 52,000 More Wealthy New Immigrants?” a Vancouver Sunarticle asked in February of this year, in an article about how Canada’s (now cancelled) immigration program for millionaire investors has resulted in an influx of rich Chinese mainlanders to Vancouver. A blog called Canadian Immigration Reform asks, more pointedly, “Vancouver: Canadian City or Chinese Colony?”
–”‘White Canada’ and the Evolution of Racism,” Hazlitt, May 2014
Linda Besner might be on to something with her dual life as a journalist and poet. Her fleet-footed ease with language allows her to skip through form and to experiment, leading to pieces like “Bar Stool Stories: An oral history of Mohawk ironworkers,” a 2012 Walrus article that deftly combined quote after quote from bar-room conversations to weave a story that was constructed by Besner, but entirely supplied by her subjects.
So who have I missed? Stay tuned for more examples of the best Canadian long-form writers from my WORST colleagues. Hopefully, one day, we’ll find ourselves on lists like this, too. ♦
Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute