So I finally followed all of the buzz and listened to Hamilton the musical.

Let’s just say it was like listening to Rent for the first time, and that defined part of my college years. It’s brilliant.

For those who’ve been living under a rock (or in Switzerland) like me, it’s the story of Alexander Hamilton told through hip hop. The writer did a brilliant job of telling this story in verse — the entire musical is like a villanelle with the repeated phrases and themes gaining new layers and resonance with every repetition. Parts of it is absolutely hilarious — like the cabinet meetings that are structured as rap battles (oh how I wish!) — and others are heartbreaking. Don’t listen to the last few songs in public.

There’s also so much about writing in the musical. Hamilton was a writer, of course, who wrote a majority of the Federalist Papers. There’s something about cross-pollination in the arts — actors and singers share the drive and need to create and interpret, and that passion comes through in this show. I think that’s part of why I also loved Rent so much when I was in college. It expressed the need to create and the fear of not getting there.

You can listen to Hamilton for free right now. Check it out.

If you need any other motivation — the writer Lin-Manuel Miranda just got a MacArthur Genius Grant. Another recipient? Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’m so thrilled about that one. I’ve mentioned several of his essays here and believe he’s one of the best writers on race today.

Another one of my favorite contemporary writers, Teju Cole, spent 6 months in Switzerland and wrote about it for the Times. The landscape here seems to have affected him as it does me, and he touches on many of the ideas I’m currently exploring. It’s one of those pieces that simultaneously delighted and depressed me — yes! I’m onto something. And wow, imagine if he were to write what I’m attempting. How good would that be?

Only one thing to do about it: keep working. Get better.

And finally, switching over to pop culture, I watched the premier of Quantico, which is usually described as a cross between Homeland and Grey’s Anatomy. It’s entertaining and plotwise pretty similar to a lot of procedurals, but! The lead is a Bollywood star, and the cast is actually diverse. From the start, they confront and flip stereotypes about gender, race, and religion. I actually laughed aloud in delight at several of Priyanka Chopra’s moments because you don’t usually get to see women own their stories the way she does, let alone Indian women. I hope the rest of the series keeps this up because the premier was pretty fabulous.


I recently read a few pieces with ideas that will stay with me. The first two aren’t easy to read. In fact, they’re pretty devastating, and they’re written by two of the finest writers of today. Ta-Nehisi Coates has an extremely long piece (think novella) tracing the history of black families, poverty, and incarceration. It’s worth the time. Helen’s piece is much shorter, and it’s about the environmental change that we can witness within our lifetimes.

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A serious reformation of our carceral policy—one seeking a smaller prison population, and a prison population that looks more like America—cannot concern itself merely with sentencing reform, cannot pretend as though the past 50 years of criminal-justice policy did not do real damage…. One class of people suffers deprivation at levels above and beyond the rest of the country—the same group that so disproportionately fills our jails and prisons. To pull too energetically on one thread is to tug at the entire tapestry.

Dead Forests and Living Memories by Helen MacDonald

Increasingly, knowing your surroundings, recognizing the species of animals and plants around you, means opening yourself to constant grief. Virulent tree diseases hit the headlines, but smaller, less visible disappearances happen all the time.

In her essay, Helen mentions a concept called solastalgia, which I thought was evocative. Here’s a piece by the person who coined the term, going into some depth about it.

The age of solastagia by Glenn Albrecht

Solastalgia, simply put, is “the homesickness you have when you are still at home”.

And along with that, I read a little bit about nostalgia and the history of the term, which is quite fascinating. In the late 17th and early 18th century, it was thought to be an actual medical ailment, a contagious disease.

When Nostalgia Was a Disease by Julie Beck

Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain. The disease was similar to paranoia, except the sufferer was manic with longing, not perceived persecution, and similar to melancholy, except specific to an object or place.

Though Hofer is credited with naming nostalgia, it existed prior to that. During the Thirty Years War, at least six soldiers were discharged from the Spanish Army of Flanders with el mal de corazón. The disease came to be associated with soldiers, particularly Swiss soldiers, who were reportedly so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen, that its playing was punishable by death.

Currently, I’m reading Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash, which thus far is presenting a fascinating history of American conceptions of wilderness, beginning with etymology (“wild” is a contraction of “willed”, so wilderness is “willful” land). Although Helen’s piece is heartbreaking — thinking of the biodiversity we’re losing every day — I am glad (once again) to live now and not, say, 200 years ago, when nature was still seen as an adversary and dominion as a goal. (In the West, that is, which is where I grew up and my main frame of reference.)

What have you read recently that will stay with you?


Until this summer, I’d never heard of ecocriticism. Cheryll Glotfelty, one of the editors of The Ecocriticism Reader, offers a bit of a mission statement for the term in her introduction to the text.

She describes how critics from specific perspectives (feminist, Marxist, etc.) have unique approaches to texts that can affect how a culture at large understands and thinks about related issues. For example, feminism and the feminist movement have radically changed public discourse and opinion on what women can do and the rights they should have. Although as we’ve seen from annual VIDA Counts, we still have a long way to go in terms of making space for women’s voices, our representations of women have become more nuanced, and we can more easily find texts authored by women. We can also articulate why the absence of women authors and a lack of realistic portrayals of women are problematic.

Glotfelty argues for an ecological approach to literature, saying that without one, we are essentially claiming that nature, the environment, and climate change are neither relevant nor important to us. By reading through an ecocritical lens, we can better understand our relationship to nature, and, in turn, find productive ways to frame, discuss, and address problems of nature and the environment as a society.

I’ve been reading my way through some foundational texts and found Glotfelty’s comparison to feminist criticism to be helpful. She uses Elaine Showalter’s developmental stages of feminist criticism to illustrate ecocritical possibilities:

Stage 1 — Representation
– Feminist Criticism
Critics examine how women are traditionally portrayed in literature and identify stereotypes and absences.
– Ecocriticism
Critics examine how nature is portrayed in literature. What are the stereotypes (Eden, savage wilderness, virgin land, etc.), and when is nature absent? What does this reveal about our views of nature and the environment?

Stage 2 — Canon and Context
– Feminist Criticism
Critics examine work written by women, filling in gaps in both history and the canon. Work is reissued. The lives of women authors are studied for additional context.
– Ecocriticism
Critics examine nature writing, a genre that has often been overlooked. Its history is rediscovered, and writers like John Muir, Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, and others are considered against the canon. The lives of writers are also studied, specifically the environments in which they wrote. How were they affected by their environments?

Stage 3 — Theory
– Feminist Criticism
How are gender and sexuality constructed in literary works?
– Ecocriticism
How is humanity defined? How is nature constructed in writing? What is our relationship to nature?

Really rich, really great stuff that’s making me see and read differently, which is the whole point of criticism.