Friday, 7 August 2020

Northern California Esselen tribe regains ancestral land after 250 years

The tribe purchased the 1,200 acre ranch near Big Sur as part of a $4.5m deal and will use it for educational and cultural purposes

Two-hundred and fifty years after they were stripped of their ancestral homeland, the Esselen tribe of northern California is landless no more.

This week, the Esselen tribe finalized the purchase of a 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur, along California’s north central coast, as part of a $4.5m acquisition that involved the state and an Oregon-based environmental group.

The deal will conserve old-growth redwoods and endangered wildlife such as the California condor and red-legged frog, as well as protect the Little Sur River, an important spawning stream for the imperiled steelhead trout.

Tribal leaders say they’ll use the land for educational and cultural purposes, building a sweat lodge and traditional village in view of Pico Blanco peak, the center of the tribe’s origin story.

The Esselen Tribe of Monterey county now owns a small piece of their ancestral land along California’s north central coast. Photograph: Doug Steakley/AP

“We’re the original stewards of the land. Now we’re returned,” Tom Little Bear Nason, chairman of the Esselen tribe of Monterey county, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“We are going to conserve it and pass it on to our children and grandchildren and beyond.”

Nearly 250 years ago, Spanish soldiers built a military outpost in Monterey and Franciscan padres founded missions in nearby settlements – places where tribal members were brought to be baptized and converted to Catholicism. By the early 1800s, nearly all of the remaining tribe had been decimated by disease and death. Esselen tribal members were stripped of their land, language and culture.

But this week, after 250 years, their descendants reclaimed some of their land. The tribe has no plans on leaving.

“We are back after a 250-year absence – because in 1770 our people were taken to the missions,” Nason told Monterey County Weekly. “Now we are back home. We plan on keeping this land forever.”

Since the 1950s the property, known as Rancho Aguila, had been owned by Axel Adler, a Swedish immigrant. After his death in 2004, his family put it up for sale for $15m. After years-long negotiations, the Western Rivers Conservancy, a Portland-based environmental group, etched a deal to purchase the land and hand it over to the US Forest Service.

Working on behalf of the tribe, the conservancy secured a $4.5m grant from the California Natural Resources Agency to cover the land purchase and studies of the area.

“The property is spectacular, and on top of that it repatriates land to a tribe that has had a really hard go of it over the years. To be a part of helping a tribe regain its homeland is great,” said Sue Doroff, president of the Western Rivers Conservancy.

The deal by the Esselen tribe will protect the Little Sur River. Photograph: Doug Steakley/AP

While the property was originally expected to be broken in five lots that developers could build on, this week’s deal will allow the tribe to preserve the land as undeveloped.

Nason said the 214-member Esselen tribe will share it with other groups also native to the area, including the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun and the Rumsen people – all of whom were devastated by the arrival of white settlers.

“Getting this land back gives privacy to do our ceremonies,” Nason said. “It gives us space and the ability to continue our culture without further interruption. This is forever, and in perpetuity, that we can hold on to our culture and our values.”

(Source: The Guardian)

'People don't want to fly': Covid-19 reawakens Europe's sleeper trains

Overnight services in Europe had seemingly hit the buffers but pandemic has revived demand

For all their promise of romance and adventure, Europe’s sleeper trains had appeared to have reached the end of the line.

Cripplingly expensive to run and forsaken by travellers for budget airlines, a decision by the German rail operator Deutsche Bahn to terminate the service connecting Paris to Berlin six years ago ushered in the closure of routes across the continent including almost all of France’s network.

But as Europe continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, there are tentative signs of a new dawn for the couchettes and twin bunks, as the concerns of both governments and travellers’ over the environmental impact of short-haul flights are being complemented by a desire to avoid airport departure lounges and security queues.

ÖBB has resumed half of its night-time routes connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Photograph: Harald Eisenberger

In the last few weeks there has been a flurry of announcements and inaugural journeys. Last Thursday the Swedish government said it would provide funds for two new routes to connect the cities of Stockholm and Malmö with Hamburg and Brussels.

A few days earlier, France’s transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said an overnight service would be resurrected between Paris and Nice following Emmanuel Macron’s Bastille Day promise to redevelop night trains for the nation.

Leading the way has been the Austrian operator Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB), which had the foresight to buy 42 sleeper cars from Deutsche Bahn in 2016. It has resumed half of the night-time routes connecting Hamburg, Berlin, Munich and Düsseldorf to Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

Despite a recent rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Belgium, up 71% week-on-week, a Brussels-Vienna service, which opened in February offering one-way trips from as low as €29.90 (£27.25), will recommence in September.

Along with government action there is evidence of renewed enthusiasm among the paying public too, as people reflect more deeply on how they travel amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thello is still planning to discontinue its service between Paris and Venice. Photograph: Travelscapes/Alamy

A new summer night train linking five EU member states – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia – had barely started setting off from Prague on 30 June when the level of demand from holidaymakers heading to the coast ensured it was upgraded to a daily service.

The Swedish rail company Snälltåget said in June it planned to quadruple the number of night trains on its Stockholm-Malmö-Copenhagen-Hamburg-Berlin route. A new Alpine-Sylt night express that began operating between Sylt in northern Germany and Salzburg in Austria was also due to run for only two months but will continue until November due to demand.

“What I am told by people using my site is two things in the same breath: they are fed up with the airport experience and they want to cut their carbon footprint,” said Mark Smith, who runs the award-winning Man in Seat 61 railway website offering information on pan-European services. “Certainly, in the short term, I am getting people commenting that they don’t want to fly [because of the pandemic]. I think climate change will be the bigger one in the long term because hopefully this pandemic will [be] over at some point.”

The recovery of the night train may not be all smooth running, however, as the economics of night services remain difficult.

A normal high-speed train can accommodate 70 people in a coach and take multiple journeys a day, offering a number of stops. A sleeper might hold 20 to 30 beds in a coach but the majority of its passengers will travel end-to-end. The rolling stock is used for just one journey over a 24-hour period.

Train services have had to pay track access charges as they cross borders since 2000. New services run by private companies are often just for the summer months, while state operators are taking huge government handouts in order to re-establish their overnight routes.
A passenger in a couchette on a French sleeper train in 1957, when the mode of travelling was the height of glamour. Photograph: Eugene Kammerman/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

As a result, some of the most romantic night train journeys that were still running when the pandemic struck may still be discontinued, including the Thello Paris-Venice night train service and the Trenhotel Lusitania, which runs between Lisbon and Madrid.

Karima Delli, a French MEP who chairs the European parliament’s transport committee, welcomed governments’ loosening of their purse strings. “Relaunching night trains is both a necessity and an ecological solution to the planet,” she said.

But Alexander Gomme, from the Back on Track Belgium campaign group, said there needed to be a wider rethink of the costs to allow private operators to thrive, raise standards and take advantage of the new mentality.

“‘More state’ is a possibility but another is that the European Union makes it easier and cheaper for operators to book track access,” he said. “Night trains do a lot of kilometres and access charges are counted in kilometres.”

Nick Brooks, the secretary general of the Alliance of Rail New Entrants, which represents independent providers, argued that governments should also prohibit airlines receiving state bailouts from operating any short-haul or late-night flights that could be done by train. “This pandemic must lead to a better appreciation for rail,” he said.

(Source: The Guardian)

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Survivors of Covid-19 show increased rate of psychiatric disorders, study finds

Research suggests more than half experience PTSD, anxiety, insomnia, depression or compulsive symptoms

More than half of people who received hospital treatment for Covid-19 were found to be suffering from a psychiatric disorder a month later, a study has found.

Out of 402 patients monitored after being treated for the virus, 55% were found to have at least one psychiatric disorder, experts from San Raffaele hospital in Milan found. The results, based on clinical interviews and self-assessment questionnaires, showed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 28% of cases, depression in 31% and anxiety in 42%.

Additionally, 40% of patients had insomnia and 20% had obsessive-compulsive (OC) symptoms.

The findings will increase concerns about the psychological effects of the virus. The paper, published on Monday in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, says: “PTSD, major depression, and anxiety are all high-burden non-communicable conditions associated with years of life lived with disability.

Covid-19 patients at San Raffaele hospital, Milan, in March. The hospital’s study found outpatients showed more severe psychiatric effects. Photograph: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

“Considering the alarming impact of Covid-19 infection on mental health, the current insights on inflammation in psychiatry, and the present observation of worse inflammation leading to worse depression, we recommend to assess psychopathology of Covid-19 survivors and to deepen research on inflammatory biomarkers, in order to diagnose and treat emergent psychiatric conditions.”

The study of 265 men and 137 women found that women – who are less likely to die from Covid than men – suffered more than men psychologically. Patients with positive previous psychiatric diagnoses suffered more than those without a history of psychiatric disorder. The researchers, led by Dr Mario Gennaro Mazza, said these results were consistent with previous epidemiological studies.

They said psychiatric effects could be caused “by the immune response to the virus itself, or by psychological stressors such as social isolation, psychological impact of a novel severe and potentially fatal illness, concerns about infecting others, and stigma.”

Outpatients showed increased anxiety and sleep disturbances, while – perhaps surprisingly – the duration of hospitalisation inversely correlated with symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety and OC.

The researchers said: “Considering the worse severity of Covid-19 in hospitalised patients, this observation suggests that less healthcare support could have increased the social isolation and loneliness typical of Covid-19 pandemics.”

They said their findings mirrored those from previous studies in outbreaks of coronaviruses, including Sars, where the psychiatric morbidities ranged from 10% to 35% in the post-illness stage.

There have been warnings from UK experts about brain disorders in Covid-19 patients. Problems including brain inflammation, stroke and psychosis have been linked to the virus.

(Source: The Guardian)

Indian Matchmaking: The 'cringe-worthy' Netflix show that is a huge hit

A new Netflix show, Indian Matchmaking, has created a huge buzz in India, but many can't seem to agree if it is regressive and cringe-worthy or honest and realistic, writes the BBC's Geeta Pandey in Delhi.

The eight-part docuseries features elite Indian matchmaker Sima Taparia as she goes about trying to find suitable matches for her wealthy clients in India and the US.

"Matches are made in heaven and God has given me the job to make it successful on Earth," says Ms Taparia who claims to be "Mumbai's top matchmaker".

Sima Taparia describes herself as Mumbai's top matchmaker. YASH RUPARELIA/NETFLIX

In the series, she's seen jet-setting around Delhi, Mumbai and several American cities, meeting prospective brides and grooms to find out what they are looking for in a life partner.

Since its release nearly two weeks back, Indian Matchmaking has raced to the top of the charts for Netflix in India.

It has also become a massive social phenomenon. Hundreds of memes and jokes have been shared on social media: some say they are loving it, some say they are hating it, some say they are "hate-watching" it, but it seems almost everyone is watching it.

The in-your-face misogyny, casteism and colourism on display have caused much outrage, but also inspired many to introspection.

Ms Taparia, who's in her 50s and like a genial "aunty" to her clients, takes us through living rooms that resemble lobbies of posh hotels and custom-made closets filled with dozens of shoes and hundreds of items of clothing.

"I speak to the girl or the boy and assess their nature," she says, using girls and boys to describe unmarried women and men like most Indians. "I visit their homes to see their lifestyle, I ask them for their criteria and preferences."

Ms Taparia tries to find suitable matches for her wealthy clients in India and the United States. Netflix

That, though, is mostly with her Indian-American clients - where men and women in their 30s have tried Tinder, Bumble and other dating apps and want to give traditional matchmaking a chance to see if it helps them find love.

The conversations back home in most cases happen with the parents because, as Ms Taparia says, "in India, marriages are between two families, and the families have their reputations and millions of dollars at stake so parents guide their children".

As we progress through the episodes, it's obvious it's much more than just guidance.

It's the parents, mostly mothers of young men, who are in charge, insisting on a "tall and fair bride" from a "good family" and their own caste.

Ms Taparia then leafs through her database to pull out a "biodata" that would make a good fit.

Arranged marriages are commonplace in India and even though instances of couples marrying for love are growing, especially in urban areas, 90% of all marriages in the country are still arranged.

Traditionally, matchmaking has been the job of family priests, relatives and neighbourhood aunties. Parents also trawl through matrimonial columns in newspapers to find a suitable match for their children.

Over the years, thousands of professional matchmakers and hundreds of matrimonial websites have joined the hunt.
But what has come as a surprise to many here is that affluent, successful, independent Indian-Americans are also willing to try "methods from the past" and rely on the wisdom of someone like "Sima aunty" to find them a match. Many of them also come with long shopping lists that include caste and religious preferences.

"As an educated, liberal, middle-class Indian woman who does not view marriage as an essential part of life, I watched Indian Matchmaking like an outsider looking in on an alien world," journalist and film critic Anna MM Vetticad told the BBC.
Arranged marriages, she says, are "a practical Indian version of the dating game in the West and to that extent this show can be educational since it does not condescendingly suggest that one is a more modern practice than the other."

Ms Vetticad describes Indian Matchmaking as "occasionally insightful" and says "parts of it are hilarious because Ms Taparia's clients are such characters and she herself is so unaware of her own regressive mindset".

But an absence of caveats, she says, makes it "problematic".

Ms Taparia's clients also include affluent, successful, independent Indian-Americans. Netflix

In the show, Ms Taparia is seen describing marriage as a familial obligation, insisting that "parents know best and must guide their children". She consults astrologers and even a face reader over whether a match would be auspicious or not, and calls her clients - mostly independent women - "stubborn", telling them to "compromise" or "be flexible" or "adjust" if they are to find a mate.

She also regularly comments on their appearance, including one instance where she describes a woman as "not photogenic".

No wonder, then, that critics have called her out on social media for promoting sexism, and memes and jokes have been shared about "Sima aunty" and her "picky" clients.

Some have also criticised the show for glossing over how the process of arranged marriages has scarred many women permanently.

One woman described on Twitter how she felt like chattel being paraded before prospective grooms and the show brought back painful memories.

"The whole process of bride viewing is so demeaning for a woman because she's being put on display, she's being sized up," Kiran Lamba Jha, assistant professor of sociology at Kanpur's CSJM university, told the BBC.

"And it's really traumatic for her when she is rejected, sometimes for trivial reasons like skin colour or height," Prof Lamba Jha added.
In India, it's the parents who take charge, insisting on a "tall and fair bride" from a "good family" and their own caste. Netflix

On the show, one Indian mother tells Ms Taparia that she has been receiving lots of proposals for her son but had rejected them all because either the girl was "not well educated" or because of her "height".

And an affluent bride-seeking man reveals he has rejected 150 women.

The show does not question these prejudices but, as some point out, what it does do is hold up a mirror - a disturbing reminder of patriarchy and misogyny, casteism and colourism.

And, as writer Devaiah Bopanna points out in an Instagram post, that is where its true merit lies.

"Is the show problematic? Reality is problematic. And this is a freaking reality show," he writes.

"Reality is not 1.3 billion woke people worried about clean energy and free speech. In fact, I would have been offended if Sima Aunty was woke and spoke about choice, body positivity and clean energy during matchmaking. Because that is not true and it is not real."

(Source: BBC)

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Mrs America: A smart take on the blind spots of 20th-century feminism

The Emmy-nominated series brilliantly depicts the women’s liberation movement of the Seventies and its critics, but the heroes and villains are not so clear-cut, says Fiona Sturges

There’s a moment in the television series Mrs America when the journalist and feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem makes a late-night phone call to Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book argued against the post-war cult of the housewife and lit the touch paper for feminism’s second wave in America. In the series, Friedan and Steinem are at loggerheads. Friedan can’t stand Steinem’s softly-softly diplomacy and is irked by her prettiness; Steinem isn’t a fan of Friedan’s bull-in-a-china shop tactics. “Every time I reach out to her, I pull back a bloody stump,” complains Steinem to a colleague. But then she is reminded by a fellow campaigner, Natalie Gittelson, that “we get to do what we do because [Friedan] risked everything. So before you tell her what she can and cannot do, consider just saying thank you.” And so, a few days later, Steinem picks up the phone and does just that. “I don’t know if I ever told you,” she tells Friedan, “but your book changed my life.”

Cate Blanchett stars as anti-feminist campaigner Phyllis Schlafly in the BBC drama ( BBC/FX/Sabrina Lantos )

Mrs America is a stylish ensemble piece about the struggle for gender equality in the Seventies that was thrown into focus by the equal rights amendment (ERA), a proposed change to the constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women (spoiler alert: it was defeated). Along with Steinem and Friedan, the series also highlights the achievements of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, and Bella Abzug, a lawyer and social activist who went on to lead Jimmy Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women. As Mrs America tells it, their biggest opponent was Phyllis Schlafly (played with starchy brilliance by Cate Blanchett, who has been nominated for an Emmy for the role), who mobilised housewives and the evangelical right to do her bidding. It also proved a handy peg on which to hang her own ambitions as a political activist. Defence was her passion – though, in those days, no one wanted to hear a woman talk about that.

Schlafly is a formidable rival, a sharp-elbowed bigot in twinset and pearls who fetishised domesticity and motherhood, despite having outsourced it in her own home to a black housekeeper. When, in Mrs America, one of her fellow anti-ERA activists reveals she is a member of the John Birch Society, an anti-communist group with alleged ties to the Ku Klux Klan, she smiles benignly and replies, “That’s your right, and I think maybe you should just keep that to yourself.” On hearing of secretaries being sexually assaulted by their male bosses on Capitol Hill, she shrugs and says they must be “inviting it” since “virtuous women are rarely accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions”.

Just as compelling as the gulf between Schlafly and the women’s liberation movement, however, is Mrs America’s depiction of the competing agendas of feminists. Race is a grave blind spot among the white, middle-class campaigners who habitually talk over their black peers. When Margaret Sloan-Hunter, the only black writer at Steinem’s Ms magazine, pitches an idea during an editorial meeting about tokenism in the workplace, her co-workers stare blankly at her. “You’re not saying you feel like that here – look at our latest issue!” says one editor, waving a cover image featuring a black woman. Steinem soothingly adds that Sloan-Hunter should speak out if she ever feels overlooked because of her race, ignoring the fact that she just did.

Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem in ‘Mrs America’ (BBC/FX/Sabrina Lantos)

The term intersectionality hadn’t been invented in the Seventies, though the hierarchy of privilege on display is jolting in its familiarity. So too the factions – black vs white, young vs old, gay vs straight, working mothers vs stay-at-home ones. Such divisions have always been there, though today they are amplified and heightened by social media to the point where resolution, or even a calm conversation, can seem impossible.

In Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, the author Helen Lewis looks at the victories secured by 19th- and 20th-century British feminists that we now take for granted, among them the right to divorce, vote, study at university, work, consent to sex, abort babies and escape male violence. “Progress erases struggle,” says Lewis, noting how much of their work is forgotten, along with the opposition they faced. The women who brought about change, she points out, were often bloody-minded, defensive and mean-spirited. They were, to use today’s parlance, problematic. But to expect ideological perfection from our feminist forebears is to wish for the moon on a stick.

Betty Friedan could be narcissistic, judgmental and petty. She famously called lesbians the “lavender menace” and wanted to exclude them from the movement. She also had a hell of a temper, as evidenced at a public debate with Phyllis Schlafly where, after being goaded about her divorce, she yelled: “You are a witch! God, I’d like to burn you at the stake.”

Every political cause has its heroes and villains, though Mrs America expertly depicts the grey space between them. It shows how movements rise up through desperation and the desire to do good, but how stubbornness and self-interest are often vital ingredients in getting stuff done. It shows how marginalised people routinely fail to notice those more marginalised than themselves, and that humans are infuriating and complicated. Rather than dismiss those feminists who battled for the freedoms we enjoy today, we need to acknowledge them, understand them and learn from their mistakes.

‘Mrs America’ is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

(Source: Independent)

A keeper of jewels: Remembering Brad Watson

I met Brad Watson in 2004. He was starting a one-year stint as the Grisham Visiting Writer at Ole Miss, where I was an M.F.A. student, and I’d signed up for his workshop. The week before the semester began, I saw him at a bar in town, newly arrived and sitting on a stool by himself. I went up and introduced myself and he looked me over and grinned. His eyes had this way of shining when he found something funny.

“You the one who wrote that weird story with the mannequin?” he asked me.

“I am,” I confessed.

“I enjoyed it,” he said, and picked up his drink. “I like sort of oddball stuff.”

At that point in my life, my glorious and unpublished twenties, I knew only that I wanted to be a good writer, not that I could be. So, this exchange gave me a suspicious confidence. I liked Brad from the start.

After we said goodbye, I walked directly to Square Books, smiling, and bought his debut collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men. I then went back to my apartment to read it. I wish I could tell you that it charmed me as much as he had, but the truth is I was young and jealous and dumb and distrustful of people who’d had so much success early in their career. The book was published by Norton. It won the Sue Kaufman Prize for Fiction. Writers who accomplished these things at first blush angered me back then. They had to have some connection, I always thought, they must be plugged into some secret writer society in New York for these things to happen. And here I was living in Mississippi, in an odd circular apartment complex the locals called Ewok Village. What chance did I have?

All I knew for sure was that his stories were set in the South, like mine aimed to be, and because of this I felt a bit competitive with him back in my idiot days. I didn’t want to be just another Southern writer, though, and when I realized the title story of his collection was about men out fishing, shooting at snakes and turtles, as so many Southern stories seem to be, I rolled my eyes. I decided this Watson guy, with all his critical acclaim, would be my benchmark. Whatever he achieved, I told myself, I would top it. He, of course, already had a collection and a novel out at that point, whereas I’d not published a single thing of note. Still, he was older than me. I figured I had a decade to catch him.

Little did I know the sort of genius I was up against.

In addition to the workshop, I signed up for Watson’s take on Form, Craft, and Influence, a course in which the professor chose books they considered formative to their own aesthetic or style. Barry Hannah taught Kafka’s The Trial in his version; Tom Franklin taught Rick Bass’s The Watch. Brad’s syllabus, however, remains to this day one of the most eclectic I have ever seen. He assigned things like Michael Ondaatje’s verse novel The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Kate Jennings’s Snake, Richard Brautigan’s Willard and His Bowling Trophies, and The Lover by Marguerite Duras, among others. For a writer who grew up in the South, riding the dirt roads of Faulkner and O’Connor since undergrad, it was a bewildering volley of new voices and settings.

Yet Brad’s interest in these books was so contagious that my friends and I found ourselves behaving oddly, like reading passages of Lars Gustafson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, which he’d also assigned, to each other on a Saturday night instead of going to the bar. It wasn’t until midway through the semester that we began to realize what these disparate books had in common. They pushed boundaries, yes. They were beautifully written, of course. But, what seemed to connect them all for Brad was a thread of deep sadness woven throughout each narrative.

Around this same time, Brad had also grown more morose. There was a woman in Texas named Nell that he loved, it turned out, as well as two sons from a previous marriage. He was thankful for the paycheck in Oxford but missed these people too much for his heart’s liking. The loneliness got to him. In those days, the Grisham Visiting Writer lived in a nice house right off the town square in Oxford, and Brad took to holding his classes there. On many nights, these classes were cheerful and fine, but on others we would show up to the house to find Brad staring at a fire in the fireplace, though it wasn’t cold out. He would conduct the class as he was paid to do, kind and thoughtful as ever, but it was obvious his heart wasn’t with us.


After fancying myself too cutting edge for Last Days of the Dog-Men, I finally read Brad’s first novel, The Heaven of Mercury, and realized what a fool I’d been. This novel, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002, does everything a Southern Gothic novel is supposed to do, everything I thought I was supposed to be subverting, but does it in such a sublime and well-crafted way that all the knobs on my amp had to be readjusted. Everything that could have been a Southern cliché—small town characters named Finus and Creasie and Birdie, a necrophiliac, an undertaker, a medicine woman, even a ghost—all feel totally fresh and unique. And the factor that differentiates these characters and their stereotypes, of course, is Brad. He never took a character lightly.

Finus is not just some eighty-nine-year-old coot but, instead, an obituary writer and lover of Wordsworth who recognizes his only moment of transcendence had been when he was a young boy and accidentally saw a girl, whose heart he’d never be able to win, do a cartwheel in the nude. Such a long stretch of years between him and that moment of joy and soon the novel, rotating through strange and empathetic characters almost kaleidoscopically, reveals itself to be the very thing Brad had been trying to show us in class. It is a beautifully written, boundary-pushing meditation on love, loss, and sadness, like nearly everything he’d assigned.

I felt something in me click.

The way to make your own path as a writer, I began to understand, was not to discount every literary convention you came across, but to use it, instead, to your advantage. You don’t ignore Faulkner and Flannery, Hurston and Welty. You build upon them to create a new voice. A new Brad Watson. This can’t be done by reading only the writers you most want to emulate, but by reading those you may seem, on the surface, to have nothing in common with. As obvious as this should be, it wasn’t to me then, and Brad cracked it open.


Brad left Oxford the next summer, and we kept in touch sporadically. He soon landed a great job in Wyoming and, in these years away from one another, my admiration for his work grew. I read the stories he was publishing in The New Yorker, Ecotone, and Granta, each one so different, strange, yet so undeniably his that I came to recognize what was afoot. Brad Watson was quietly becoming one of the best writers in America.

This was confirmed for me with his next collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which contains stories so distilled and original that I felt nervous to talk to him. What do you say, I wonder, to a person so talented? I began handing out stories like “Alamo Plaza” and “Visitation” to my own grad students. The accolades had come to him again in great and deserving waves, yet Brad never acted like he’d done anything extraordinary. Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives had just become a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2011, but when I got him on the phone to congratulate him, he wanted to talk about my work rather than his. He also wanted to put in a good word for a student of his who’d applied to the M.F.A. program where I teach. It was incredible. As I write this now, I realize that Brad had also won a Guggenheim and O’Henry around this time, a fact I found on Google because he never once brought it up in conversation.
The last time I saw Brad was shortly after Miss Jane, his last book, was published. I’d been asked to moderate a panel he was on at the Mississippi Book Festival. I had read the novel and loved it but had not yet told Brad this news. We met up at the hotel bar the night before the panel and, after a quick hug and order of bourbon, I began to gush about the book so earnestly that I felt almost embarrassed. However, I needed to tell him, and I want to state this as clearly as I can: I believe Miss Jane to be a masterpiece of American literature. It is as remarkable as any book to ever come out of the South.

A story based on his own great aunt, a woman born in Depression-era Mississippi with a rare genital abnormality that made her incontinent for life, I knew Brad had worked on this book for over thirteen years. Miss Jane is a novel about a person’s entire life, from its first beginning on earth to its last new beginning possibly elsewhere, and is so richly imagined and empathetically spun that I couldn’t believe I knew the person who’d written it. I told him how it almost pained me with its beauty, and even recited a moment to him from the novel I will never forget. It is when Jane, still a child and only beginning to truly understand the difference between herself and others, looks out of the kitchen window and feels a “strange presence” lock into her consciousness, one that is “like no one else’s in the world … and it sent a current into her spine up into the base of her neck, the tingling of it coming out of her eyes in invisible little needles of light indistinguishable from the light of the gathering day.”

“My God,” I told him. “I just read that part it over and over. It killed me.”

“I remember where I was when I wrote that,” he said. “I was living in Oxford, staying at that house. That’s probably around the time we first met.”

This exchange clarified, for me, the reason I so much admire Brad Watson’s craft. That line about the light from her eyes had come to him over a decade before and he had written it down and recognized its obvious beauty yet kept it close to his chest like one does a jewel. He went on to move between cities and states with it there by his heart, to write other stories, to win awards and fellowships, and in all that time had not pawned it for a quick payoff, but instead held onto the glowing image like a parent does a child, until it is ready to move on its own through the world. I was awed.
So, I told him what I am about to tell you.

If I could have any career as a writer, I would choose Brad Watson’s. One reason for this may seem obvious, in that every novel he ever published was a finalist for the National Book Award (Miss Jane joined The Heaven of Mercury with that distinction in 2016). Yet, that’s not it. Instead, it is that Brad seemed able to do what so few writers can; he never let his ego rush the story. He did not grab for the low-hanging fruit. He was patient with his characters, with himself, and kind to everyone else in the process. How many writers with that kind of early acclaim, I wonder, would go fourteen years between novels? Only those, it seems to me, both bold enough to recognize their own greatness and humble enough to await its return.

When I told him this, he said, “Yeah, but I’ve never made the best seller lists. I don’t know. I always wanted to write just one book that was read.”

And, of course, he was read, but that is the terrible thing about space and time. When budding writers are sitting at home, reading a book by their favorite author, making notes on their favorite lines, the author is often sitting hundreds of miles away at their own home unaware, wondering if they will ever write anything good.


Yet my clearest memory of Brad has nothing to do with his work. It is instead of a time right after I met him, in Oxford, when I was in love with a woman as well. My wife and I had gone out to dinner at a sushi place in town called Two Stick and saw Brad standing by himself near the host stand. We asked jokingly if he wanted to join us, under the impression he likely had a hundred more important people to see, and he unexpectedly said yes. We were led to a low table where we sat cross-legged on the floor on big cushions and what you need to know, I suppose, is that writers are not always friendly. The more accomplished ones can pick up a habit, it seems, of looking over your head instead of into your eyes in public places. It’s as if they are waiting for another famous writer, perhaps their missing twin, to walk in. Yet Brad sat with my wife and me for hours and talked as openly as a person can. He asked my wife about her family, her interests, and talked to us about the people he missed. 

His love for these people was obvious and vulnerable and his grin, gap-toothed and welcoming, made us hope the night would not end. My wife, who has now been to enough readings and book launches to have a rock-solid idea about how some writers behave, was also struck by how genuine he was.

So, when I found out about Brad’s death, I called her to tell her. I was out of town, but the news had reached me through the grapevine of Southern writers like Tom Franklin, Michael Knight, and George Singleton, as if each was a pallbearer of Brad’s name. By the time I got her on the phone I was crying.

She listened to me, consoled me, and said, “I’ll always remember that night at Two Stick. The three of us just sitting on the floor and talking. I remember his smile. He was so kind.”

“I know,” I told her. “I remember that, too.”

It was the night I discovered the writer I am always trying to be.

(Source: The Paris Review)

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Coronavirus: Iran cover-up of deaths revealed by data leak

The number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is nearly triple what Iran's government claims, a BBC Persian service investigation has found.

The government's own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with Covid-19 symptoms up to 20 July, versus 14,405 reported by its health ministry.

The number of people known to be infected is also almost double official figures: 451,024 as opposed to 278,827.

The official numbers still make Iran the worst-hit in the Middle East.

In recent weeks, it has suffered a second steep rise in the number of cases.

The first death in Iran from Covid-19 was recorded on 22 January, according to lists and medical records that have been passed to the BBC. This was almost a month before the first official case of coronavirus was reported there.

Iran has been the worst-affected country in the Middle East. Getty Images

Since the outbreak of the virus in Iran, many observers have doubted the official numbers.

There have been irregularities in data between national and regional levels, which some local authorities have spoken out about, and statisticians have tried to give alternative estimates..

A level of undercounting, largely due to testing capacity, is seen across the world, but the information leaked to the BBC reveals Iranian authorities have reported significantly lower daily numbers despite having a record of all deaths - suggesting they were deliberately suppressed.

Where did the data come from?
The data was sent to the BBC by an anonymous source.

It includes details of daily admissions to hospitals across Iran, including names, age, gender, symptoms, date and length of periods spent in hospital, and underlying conditions patients might have.

The details on lists correspond to those of some living and deceased patients already known to the BBC.

The source says they have shared this data with the BBC to "shed light on truth" and to end "political games" over the epidemic.

The discrepancy between the official figures and the number of deaths on these records also matches the difference between the official figure and calculations of excess mortality until mid-June.

Excess mortality refers to the number of deaths above and beyond what would be expected under "normal" conditions.

What does the data reveal?
Tehran, the capital, has the highest number of deaths with 8,120 people who died with Covid-19 or symptoms similar to it.

The city of Qom, the initial epicentre of the virus in Iran, is worst hit proportionally, with 1,419 deaths - that is one death with Covid-19 for every 1,000 people.

It is notable that, across the country, 1,916 deaths were non-Iranian nationals. This indicates a disproportionate number of deaths amongst migrants and refugees, who are mostly from neighbouring Afghanistan.

The overall trend of cases and deaths in the leaked data is similar to official reports, albeit different in size.

The initial rise of deaths is far steeper than Health Ministry figures and by mid-March it was five times the official figure.

Lockdown measures were imposed over the Nowruz (Iranian New Year) holidays at the end of the third week in March, and there was a corresponding decline in cases and deaths.

Iran has introduced measures to try to curb the spread of coronavirus. AFP

But as government restrictions were relaxed, the cases and deaths started to rise again after late-May.

Crucially the first recorded death on the leaked list occurred on 22 January, a month before the first case of coronavirus was officially reported in Iran.

At the time Health Ministry officials were adamant in acknowledging not a single case of coronavirus in the country, despite reports by journalists inside Iran, and warnings from various medical professionals.

In 28 days until the first official acknowledgement on 19 February, 52 people had already died.

Who were the first whistleblowers?
Doctors with direct knowledge of the matter have told the BBC that the Iranian health ministry has been under pressure from security and intelligence bodies inside Iran.

Dr Pouladi (not their real name) told the BBC that the ministry "was in denial".

"Initially they did not have testing kits and when they got them, they weren't used widely enough. The position of the security services was not to admit to the existence of coronavirus in Iran," Dr Pouladi said.

It was the persistence of two brothers, both doctors from Qom, which forced the health ministry to acknowledge the first official case.

When Dr Mohammad Molayi and Dr Ali Molayi lost their brother, they insisted he should still be tested for Covid-19, which turned out to be positive.

In Kamkar hospital, where their brother died, numerous patients were admitted with similar symptoms to Covid-19, and they would not respond to the usual treatments. Nevertheless, none of them were tested for the disease.

Dr Pouladi says: "They got unlucky. Someone with both decency and influence lost his brother. Dr Molayi had access to these gentlemen [health ministry officials] and did not give up."

Dr Molayi released a video of his late brother with a statement. The health ministry then finally acknowledged the first recorded case.

Nevertheless state TV ran a report criticising him and falsely claiming the video of his brother was months old.

Why the cover-up?
The start of outbreak coincided both with the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and with parliamentary elections.

These were major opportunities for the Islamic Republic to demonstrate its popular support and not risk damaging it because of the virus.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, accused some of wanting to use the coronavirus to undermine the election.
In the event, the election had a very low turnout.

Iran's cover-up after it shot down a Ukrainian airliner fuelled anti-government protests. Getty Images

Before the global coronavirus pandemic hit, Iran was already experiencing a series of its own crises.

In November 2019, the government increased the price of petrol overnight and cracked down violently on protests which followed. Hundreds of protesters were killed in a few days.

In January this year, the Iranian response to the US assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, seen as one of the most powerful figures in Iran after its Supreme Leader, created another problem.

Then Iranian armed forces - on high alert - mistakenly fired missiles at a Ukrainian airliner only minutes after it had taken off from Tehran's international airport. All 176 people on board were killed.

The Iranian authorities initially tried to cover up what happened, but after three days they were forced to admit it, resulting in considerable loss of face.

Dr Nouroldin Pirmoazzen, a former MP who also was an official at the health ministry, told the BBC that in this context, the Iranian government was "anxious and fearful of the truth" when coronavirus hit Iran.

He said: "The government was afraid that the poor and the unemployed would take to the streets."

Dr Pirmoazzen points to the fact that Iran stopped international health organisation Médecins Sans Frontières from treating coronavirus cases in the central province of Isfahan as evidence of how security-conscious its approach towards the pandemic is.

Iran was going through tough times even before the military showdown with the US and coronavirus hit.

The sanctions which followed Donald Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018 hit the economy hard.

Dr Pouladi says: "Those who brought the country to this point don't pay the price. It is the poor people of the country and my poor patients who pay the price with their lives."

"In the confrontation between the governments of the US and Iran we are getting crushed with pressures from both sides."

The health ministry has said that the country's reports to the World Health Organization regarding the number of coronavirus cases and deaths are "transparent" and "far from any deviations".

(Source: BBC)