How to Douse Chronic Workplace Stress Before It Explodes into Full Burnout

My article for the Society of Human Resources Management
By Antoaneta Tileva June 1, 2021

If it’s true, according to a recent Gallup study, that nearly 8 in 10 workers experience burnout on the job at least sometimes—and more than 1 in 4 experience it “very often” or “always”—then it’s clear that “chronic workplace stress has not been successfully managed,” as the World Health Organization has said.

“Burnout is when people have been highly engaged for a long time, without the personal skills and organizational support to maintain their well-being,” said Lindsay Lagreid, senior advisor at the Limeade Institute, a Bellevue, Wash.-based institute that conducts research on employee well-being.

Unsurprisingly, employee burnout levels in 2020—the year of the pandemic—were high, with one major shift from previous years: Fully remote workers are now experiencing more burnout than onsite workers. Before the pandemic, the perks of working remotely—either part- or full-time—led to lower levels of burnout compared with employees who were onsite all the time.

Burnout has effects on the micro and macro levels. If employees’ well-being suffers, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. They may also become less productive and unfocused.

Managers play a significant role in employees’ mental health and can take several approaches to ease the effects of burnout:

Conduct regular and varied check-ins. Brandon Greiner is vice president of operations for MedExpress, a Morgantown, W.Va.-based urgent care provider. He emphasized the need for honesty and transparency from both managers and employees: “An important first step in keeping stress in check is for managers to regularly check in with employees and encourage them to provide honest feedback regarding their workload, work environment and responsibilities.” These discussions can take a variety of forms, including hosting group or individual talks, creating employee surveys, and reviewing employment data.

Lagreid advises managers to “start asking better questions.”

“Asking ‘How ya doing?’ and accepting answers like ‘I’m fine’ or ‘hanging in there’ aren’t going to cut it anymore.” Instead, try more specific questions like:
*Have you been able to complete your projects on time? If not, why do you think that is?

*Do you have the resources you need to get your work done? If not, what else would you need?

*What can I do to make your job easier?

Educate employees on what burnout is. Educate your team on what burnout is and how it shows up, so they have the right language to describe their experience to you.

Workplace burnout is not a medical condition. Rather, it is a sense of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a feeling of reduced accomplishment, Greiner said. He defines workplace burnout as “often characterized by feelings of exhaustion, depersonalization and inefficacy. Workplace stress can cause mental and physical reactions that make employees less effective. Prolonged stress, which results in severe mental, emotional and physical fatigue, can lead to burnout.”

Said Lagreid: “First is a deep feeling of exhaustion—almost a soul-level feeling of depletion, not just needing a good night of sleep. The second step is cynicism—being ‘fed up’ or negative. This cynicism is how the brain protects itself from the source of exhaustion. The final stage of burnout is inefficacy—feeling like there’s no point and having a loss of hope, optimism and purpose, [and asking] ‘Why do I even try.’ ”

Some potential signs of workplace burnout include:

*An increase in irritability or conflict.

*A pessimistic outlook or marked lack of interest.

*Decreased productivity or quality of work.

*Fatigue or exhaustion.

*Restlessness or insomnia.

*Increase in physical illness or discomfort.

*Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression.

*Isolation or avoidance in the workplace.

*Decision fatigue.

*Concentration or memory issues.

Identifying the root causes of employee stress is the hard part, as is making successful organizational adjustments. “For instance, if employees find that long work hours contribute to stress, managers could consider accordingly adjusting work schedules,” Greiner advised.

“Evaluate workload, turnaround time expectations and support. Find things you can take off employees’ plates or find more efficient ways to get things done. All the burnout recovery in the world isn’t going to last long if an employee comes back to the exact same reality that caused the burnout in the first place,” Lagreid said.

Reflect on your management style. Managers should self-reflect. Are too many mandatory meetings getting in the way of completing work? Are assignments aligned with employees’ strengths? Managers can also do simple things that can make a big difference, such as not scheduling meetings during the lunch hour or late on a Friday.

“If you haven’t fostered that level of vulnerability and trust within your team, start by answering those check-in questions yourself,” Lagreid said. “Be honest with your team about your own challenges and stressors, so they feel safe doing the same with you.”

Encourage downtime and unplugging. People need time to recharge. Managers should encourage their employees to take time off. Lagreid advises managers to “model healthy boundaries for employees. Take walking meetings, don’t respond to e-mails outside of working hours, and take time away from work. Share the things you do to take care of your well-being, and ask them to share what works for them.”

Other tips include starting meetings by sharing fun trivia, holding a moment of mindful breathing or having workers share the things they’re grateful for.

Identify and encourage employee strengths. “Share specific and thoughtfully-worded gratitude often: Tell your people the specific skills and strengths they have and the value that brings to the team and the organization. Recognize contributions and celebrate wins,” Lagreid said.

Get familiar with resources for your employees. Make sure you, as a manager, are well-acquainted with your company’s employee assistance program or other mental health resources, how to contact them, and what the benefits are so that you can steer your workers to those resources when needed.

“Burnout has become commonplace in the modern workplace, and it doesn’t need to be this way,” Lagreid said. “The best strategy is an ever-present, strategic approach to employee well-being that is supported by the organization … from the top down and is integrated into daily work-life. … Creating a culture where well-being is a priority can provide the safety net needed to prevent and address employee burnout.”

Remember that everyone deals with stress differently, Greiner said. What’s stressful to one person might not affect another. Additionally, factors outside of work, such as taking care of children or elderly parents, health issues, or personal issues like loneliness or depression, can impact people’s ability to manage stress.

“It’s important to recommend resources that are appropriate for the individual employee,” Greiner said. “Promoting a meditation app may not be ideal, for instance, if the worker doesn’t enjoy using technology.”

Antoaneta Tileva, Ph.D., is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Shriek-Worthy, Feminist-Friendly Horror Flicks

What exactly is a feminist-friendly horror film? Well, it is no secret the genre has catered to the male gaze for a very long time, with its penchant for big-breasted women who seemingly have never had “The Talk” (you know the one about walking alone in the dark with keys as a makeshift ‘weapon’) and blithely waltz into peril, defying any logic or self-preservation instincts. Then, there are the characters fitting into the promiscuity-hyper-inflated-for-the-male-gaze trope. In other words, girls don’t have sex in the woods because, well, Jason. It seems that the only strong female characters in horror are victims of particularly grisly violence who seek to wreak their revenge.

This low bar notwithstanding, there are plenty of feminist-friendly horror films that eschew these essentialist portrayals to offer much more nuanced imaginary. What fascinates and what horrifies us is very much a social commentary. Feminist-friendly horror films make us question gender, sexual, religious and political givens. They make us wonder who gets to define what is horrific. From the days of the OG Mary Shelley to the present, there are plenty of horror films that tear apart the veil of normalcy to give us a glimpse of something weirdly intriguing. Sometimes, the film between the comical and the serious, between the imagined and the real, is so flimsy as to be imperceptible — this is what makes a good feminist-friendly horror film. Or if not cerebral good, at least entertainment good, like in the original 1978 John Carpenter-helmed “Halloween,” when Laurie Strode uses such staples of domesticity as a knitting needle and a clothing hanger to whip “The Shape” into shape.

The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival Returns

Founded in 2011 by three women — Noura Erakat, Huda Asfour, and Nadia Daar — the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival showcases Palestinian culture from Palestine and the diaspora.In its eleventh year, this fall’s lineup included a double-feature documentary, play, feature films, shorts and a discussion on the art of tatreez: Palestinian embroidery.

One theme that echoed throughout the films was love and border-crossing, with many works questioning: Can love cross man-made boundaries? Can boundaries prevent people from plying the craft they love? Could we come to take boundaries as so omnipresent that they are a part of our emotional milieu like love is?

In “200 Meters,” the opening feature film, a father is separated from his family by 200 meters and an unscalable wall. In a strange riff on “The Great Gatsby,” he says goodnight to his kids with a light show from his balcony. The film sets a somber tone for the slate of features to follow.

The “Fishless Sea” documents the challenge fishermen in Gaza face in sustaining this age-old tradition in the face of the borders erected during the occupation. It leaves us wondering, How can there be borders in something as boundless as Earth’s waters?

Under the Oslo Agreements, the fishing range for Palestinian fishermen was 20 nautical miles. Over the years, however, the Israeli military dramatically reduced this range simply by harassing and jailing anyone who dared to go past the seemingly arbitrary limit. For a brief period, Israel expanded the range to six miles, only to once again reduce it, ostensibly in response to missile fire coming from the strip.

The fishermen are not allowed to go further than 3-4 nautical miles and that very limited perimeter has them mired in depleted waters, where few sardines remain. Abu Alaa’, the patriarch, poignantly talks about taking out a bank loan so his oldest son can get married. Despite what is clearly economic violence, he and his family remain stoic in the face of it, with the past continuing to live in their hearts, albeit spoken of wistfully. “The sea is all they know,” he says, and he remains anchored there, despite the invisible but stark chains the state has placed in his path.

The Bride Dress,” similarly, is the story of how checkpoints box something as intensely human as marriage in a checkmate. The film captures the journey of two Palestinian brides, Lubna and Sumoud, who share the same wedding dress and the same challenge of having their grooms there for their weddings. A political prisoner, Sumoud’s fiancé watches his engagement party on video from behind bars.

Lubna’s groom, denied an entry permit, has to be smuggled into Nazareth. What could be perhaps shocking to a Western audience is that this situation is not uncommon. Israel currently has a 18-year-old ban on family reunification, known as the Citizenship Law. The family reunification ban was passed in 2003 as a temporary security measure in the wake of the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada. The law has been renewed every year since. This law keeps some married couples permanently apart. As one of the women in the documentary puts it, “It is easier for me to marry a foreigner than to marry someone from the West Bank or Gaza.” “This is sick, but what can we do?”

In both of these documentaries, we see very little overt pathos or polemics; it is almost as if the characters have internalized these borders and found a way to resist them by holding on to celebrations ever so staunchly and bravely. In a scene where Lubna tries on her wedding dress for the first time, her family invites her fiance Abdallah to take a selfie as it might be the only photo they have from their wedding day if he is not able to come. Lubna’s mother reassures her with “I hope your groom will come, honey,” in a scene so poignant in its banality. Clearly, this is a fate that is felt by others, too.

Both of these documentaries also portray life in occupation in all its surprising normalcy. In The Bride Dress, we are treated to many scenes of the pre-wedding festivities, such as the dolma rolling party and the henna hand-painting, along with the singing of traditional songs. We see the bride and her family going through the same universal trepidations of leaving one’s family and starting on a new chapter of one’s life. The films offer such a rich, engrossing immersion of everyday life behind borders.

Though the festival was October 21-24, you can still stream the films on other platforms, and support the DCPFAF through volunteering and donating.

To learn more about the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival, visit dcpfaf.org. Follow the festival on Instagram @dcpfaf.

 

Surviving and Thriving through the Unexpected

My article for Kogod School of Business

How Kogod alum and entrepreneur Michael Bleau successfully pivoted his live events company during COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, businesses large and small were faced with a daunting challenge—adapt to the new normal or perish. Some companies changed their operations with only short-term survival in mind. Fashion houses and designers, like Christian Siriano, for example, started making masks. Whiskey producers “brewed” hand sanitizer. To-go cocktails kept the restaurant industry afloat and rose to the surface as a product here to stay. Airlines offered cargo-only flights.

A sector hit especially hard by the pandemic was the events industry. For the first time ever, some of the most famous festivals, tournaments, conventions, and trade shows shut down. While adaptability has long been a key to business survival, the pandemic forced event companies to wrestle with the unthinkable—what if there were no more events?

Michael Bleau (Kogod/BSBA ’07), co-founder and CEO of EventHub, was among the many business owners considering how to pivot their operations in the new locked-down environment. Thanks to the unique solutions EventHub provides and the entrepreneurial mindset of the team behind it, the company not only weathered the pandemic but found new customers, added new capabilities, and solidified its standing as an industry leader.

Bleau traces the spark that ignited his entrepreneurial fire back to his participation in the annual Kogod Case Competition. “That put the bug in me for entrepreneurial initiatives,” he says. “And then throughout my time at Kogod, I was able to do some things that opened my mindset. I did a study abroad program that really started opening me up to a global mindset versus just thinking very locally.”

EventHub was the first company that Bleau started, and while it was positioned to successfully navigate the pandemic that began last March, it didn’t start out that way. “It took a while to develop to the point where it is now,” Bleau explains.

The company began as a consulting and event production firm, but securing funding from investors through the Techstars Anywhere Accelerator allowed Bleau and his team to expand their technological capabilities and shift their focus from managing events to connecting event organizers and potential sponsors through an event management platform—a capability no one else in the events industry had yet developed.

“EventHub does a really nice job matching event sponsors with potential event opportunities,” he says. “There’s not really another platform that does a good job of it. That’s why we decided to start it.”

When the first hints of a full-scale global pandemic began appearing in February 2020, Bleau and his team knew they were going to need to pivot their business model. So how did they do it?

First, the company identified long-term trends created by the pandemic, namely the rise of remote work, social distancing, shorter supply chains, and the need for more robust technology. “We realized that all of our customers are live event organizers, and they were going to need to adapt and want to do some type of virtual version of their events in lieu of a live event,” Bleau says. “There are very few large, public event-type platforms, so that was our focus.”

Then, it extended its already-existing capabilities instead of abandoning what its reputation was built on, preventing confusion among its existing customers and offering valuable services to new ones. “In March, we started developing a virtual platform that could sit on top of our sponsorship platform that was very focused on consumer and public events versus business-to-business conferencing because there’s a ton of B2B conferencing out there,” Bleau explains. “We worked with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on their virtual event; we worked with food and wine festivals, county and state fairs. It really led us in some ways to get more on the map with these larger events because we were the only real, good-fit solution out there for these consumer-oriented events.”

Finally, EventHub pivoted as rapidly as possible. “One big lesson learned for us is that fast, aggressive pivots are possible as long as you have a clear, strategic vision and a path to getting there,” says Bleau. “Your team should feel like there is an executable plan that everyone can get behind. Think about what your company does differently and what is needed in the market.”

Responding to unforeseen challenges is a part of business, and pivoting may not always be the right strategy. But finding a balance between being reactive and adaptive and determining whether the pivot is an added value rather than a temporary fix may be the difference between a business weathering a storm or shuttering for good.

 

A More Equitable Future

My article for Kogod School of Business

Professor Stacy Merida, Kogod’s new assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, describes her mission to shape a more inclusive Kogod community.

What do diversity, equity, and inclusion look like in a university setting? Who are the stakeholders of diversity initiatives? These are challenging questions, and the Kogod School of Business’s new assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Stacy Merida, is finding answers. Merida, who teaches music entertainment industry classes in Kogod’s business and entertainment program, accepted the position in January 2021. She is leading the school not only in learning what these terms mean to its students, faculty, and staff but also in implementing meaningful changes based on input from the entire Kogod community.

Merida has a broad view of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that not only comprises demographic characteristics like gender, race, and ethnicity but all dimensions of a person’s identity, such as immigrant and first-generation status, economic background, education, and more. Of course, some of these characteristics are more salient to people’s identities, and some, because they are more visible to society, affect how people are treated more than less readily observable traits.

“One of our strategic goals is to cultivate a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive Kogod culture where every individual, regardless of background, has the full opportunity to flourish and thrive,” says Merida.

The daughter of a civil rights leader, Merida has been passionate about social justice since her childhood in Alabama. And that passion has driven her throughout her career. Her PhD dissertation examined cultural competency and proficiency in higher education administration. She serves as a board liaison for diversity and inclusion at the Music Entertainment Industry Educators Association (MEIEA) and represents American University as a committee member on the GRAMMY Museum’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility affiliate committee. Her most recent initiative was reaching out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic and Tribal Universities to join the MEIEA through free membership.

In her new role as assistant dean, she will implement several initiatives that include creating a DEI task force, DEI fellowships, policy and procedure reviews, ongoing training, and surveying faculty, students, and staff. Her goals include ensuring students and staff reflect the diversity of our global society and transforming the faculty’s makeup to reflect the diversity of the student body. Another major goal is improving the academic outcomes for students from underrepresented, low-income, and other marginalized groups, in addition to securing transparent and more equitable outcomes for staff and faculty.

Diversity, as the word connotes, is about difference. But it is not about eliding or ignoring that difference. Rather, it is about ensuring that difference doesn’t lead to inequitable outcomes.

“There are distinct differences between equality and equity,” Merida explains. “Equity involves giving people what they need to be as successful as non-minoritized groups; conversely, equality is to treat everyone the same.”

Diversity is valuable in all areas but especially important in business. When a company has a diverse culture, it welcomes more viewpoints, allowing it to reach a wider audience. According to a McKinsey & Company report, “Companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.” Google recently completed a study, Project Aristotle, that identified psychological safety as one of the most important factors of a high-performing team. Employees feeling included and able to be their authentic selves at work frees up their minds and energy to focus on their performance.

“Diversity is extremely important in the business community where different perspectives are and should be highly valued,” says Merida. “Organizations that value diversity and inclusion strive to provide a space where all members are respected. If a system or structure perpetuates inequity and inequality, we should encourage one another to challenge this system or structure.”

Merida is also acutely aware that no one holds just one identity. The term intersectionality, coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, describes how individual characteristics like race, class, and gender interact with each other to form how someone sees—and is seen by—the world.

“Our students will find themselves working with employers, coworkers, and clients from diverse backgrounds,” explains Merida. “By experiencing diversity, we are laying the groundwork for all to be comfortable working and interacting with a variety of individuals of all nationalities.

“However, efforts in this space are nothing new as Kogod is ranked no. 9 by the recent Bloomberg Newsweek Diversity Index for its long-term commitment to diversity. I am exhibit A, as the creation of my position only exemplifies the continuation and broadening of Dean Delaney’s and the DEI committee’s visionary leadership. We are intentional in being the guiding example for our students, faculty, and staff.”

Merida’s new role is a testament to the hard work she and the Kogod community continue to engage in to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive business school that prepares students not only for successful careers but to be thoughtful, compassionate, and engaged citizens of the world.

Book Review: Still Mad by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Literary critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in this follow-up to their The Madwoman in the Attic, offer a comprehensive, sweeping engagement with voices from the tradition of second-wave feminism. Spanning the 1950s to the present, Still Mad contextualizes — historically and personally — the works of singers, poets, essayists, and prose writers while exploring the creativity that started on the page but moved far beyond it.

In their introduction, Gilbert and Gubar outline their intent to feature works which “they consider to be the ongoing second wave of feminism,” as they believe “the debate in which women continue to engage swirls around the issue of how many ‘waves’ of feminism there have been.” While that’s a questionable assertion (perhaps this debate is taking place in the rarefied halls of academia), parsing the conversations surrounding the feminist zeitgeist decades ago is important to understanding the choices the authors make regarding which writers to include here.

Still Mad is striking in its breadth and scope but especially in that selection of authors. Structurally, Gilbert and Gubar write chronologically, which enables them to trace the fluidity of the featured authors’ thinking. For example, the section on Audre Lorde follows her career from “lesbian biomythographer” to one who “dismantles the master’s house.”

Aside from a couple of questionable diversions, such as interludes on the (mis)education of Hillary Clinton and the Trump presidency, Gilbert and Gubar stay the course of weaving together passages from literary pieces, quotes from people in the writers’ lives, and keen sociocultural analysis. And while there is clearly a bias toward poetry, Still Mad impresses with the creativity of its selections (for example, Nina Simone is featured) and the compelling way it makes connections between seemingly disparate currents in the feminist movement.

The book’s deep dive into Adrienne Rich (including her tenuous-at-best link to Judaism) isn’t quite as interesting as the section on Audre Lorde, in which the authors capture the tension between vulnerability and anger that feminists felt and continue to feel. Lorde’s alienation as a “Black in a lesbian world and a lesbian in a Black world” drove her to ever more ardently seek out words that would rupture those boundaries. When she said that the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house, she was referring to the inadequacy of existing language to disrupt this boundary-making.

So, new words and tools — a new vocabulary — must be forged to chip away at these walls. The title of Lorde’s “Sister Outsider,” Gilbert and Gubar write, reflects “her commitment to the sisterhood of the women’s movement as well as her insistence on positioning herself as an outsider questioning its boundaries.”

Still Mad also reveals the way in which activist anger was and is a part of the personal lives of these writers. Lorde, for one, from her position as a poet writing from the underpaid trenches, excoriated the economic injustices that her fellow academics were perhaps sheltered from.

Another especially compelling part of the book focuses on Andrea Dworkin and the sex wars. Few have written about the anti-pornography crusader, whom Gloria Steinem called “an Old Testament prophet.” Gilbert and Gubar capture the separatist movement that Dworkin is credited with starting — one that viewed men’s values as opposed to women’s and which created female-only spaces such as rural communes called “womyn’s lands.”

Still Mad explains the strategy behind Dworkin’s anti-pornography polemics: namely, to legally codify pornography as a civil-rights violation. Regardless of one’s opinion on sex work, there is little doubt that Dworkin was an effective, passionate advocate for elevating the testimony of women actually involved in the sex trade over that of commentary based on purely abstract or philosophical arguments.

A brilliant inclusion is that of Gloria Anzaldua, whose Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) is among the most seminal feminist/intersectional works (and one too often overlooked). Her “mestiza consciousness” is one of the best descriptions of those living in the borderlands of multiple identities. Because this experience is so unmooring and disorienting, Anzaldua uses both linguistic and spiritual-healing practice as a salve to suture the wounds wrought by white patriarchy. She refuses to “accommodate” English speakers, instead code-switching between slang, English, Spanish, Chicano Spanish, and Tex-Mex to build a creole reflective of this unrest and dispossession.

Still Mad is rich and carefully and creatively curated; it is madly in love with words, which remain some of the best tools we have for dismantling the master’s house. The way Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wield them as weapons of personal and political redemption and healing will leave readers speechless.

Show Me the Money: Representation of Women + Capital in Media

My article for District Fray Magazine

Shakira sang about she wolves in the closet, which (albeit not) might as well have been a reference to the absence of popular media portrayal of the She Wolves of Wall Street. Kept pent up for far too long, women’s roars are finally falling on some eager ears. 

In reality and on screen, Wall Street has been a boy’s club. Not only are women less represented, but they are also less remunerated. Citi — one of the world’s largest banks– reported in 2019 that its female employees earn 29 percent less than its male employees globally.

But women are wresting the wads away from the dominant grasp in some surprising ways, including starting their own investing clubs and creating new enterprises during the pandemic.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, here are some bankable portrayals of women and money:

  1. Equity–is a corporate thriller that follows Naomi Bishop, an investment banker working on the IPO launch of a Silicon Valley company. While taut and engaging (and thrilling), it is also a very sophisticated exploration of the power dynamics on Wall Street between and among genders. One of the most memorable lines from the movie is Naomi’s deadpan, “I like money.” Taking a Wall Street opening bell hammer to the groan-inducing gold-digger trope, director Meera Mennon, portrays women as enjoying the competition, the chaos, the hard work of their careers but the perks, too (hello, enviable power wardrobe). And while Naomi’s character has been a caretaker for those around her, she reminds us that “Don’t let money be a dirty word. We can like that, too.”
  2. Drug Short on Netflix’ “Dirty Money”–Dubbed the “femme fatale of short trading,” Fahmi Quadir, a brilliant short seller who left a Ph.D. program in algebraic mathematics for a career on Wall Street, takes on drug behemoth Valeant…and wins.The recent Gamestop kerfuffle and techbro Elon Musk’s relentless Twitter beef has shorted short sellers, portraying them as predatory. Fahmi is a testament to a different kind of a short seller–one who looks to identify corporate malfeasance and (yes) reap the rewards. When she says, “I do my work in the shadows,” she is referring to the fact that short selling is sleuthing and hours of poring over quarterly earnings reports. In other words, you won’t find the kind of information Quadir unearths readily available and even less so revealed by the companies themselves. Short selling is especially male-dominated, so this documentary on a world understood by very few is illuminating: “All short sellers are outsiders. And women are especially outsiders in this world,” says Quadir.
  3. Capital in the 21st Century–”We have a mythology that what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, but that’s really never been true,” says Rana Foroohar, financial journalist associate editor of the Financial Times, in this documentary take on Thomas Piketty’s tome of a book. Foroohar’s commentary features prominently in the film. And her recently-released bookDon’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech” is a searing indictment of the extent to which tech behemoths are monetizing our data.
  4. Bethany McLean’s podcast “Making a Killing” Known for her book “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” journalist and contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, McLean takes issues you may think you understand and complicates them, featuring clever titles like “Keynes was wrong. Gen Z will have it worse.” Her more recent 2018 book “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World” is also thoroughly engrossing and a must-read for the energy heads out there.

While portrayals of women in finance have been scarce, the tide is certainly turning, as is the cash flow, with more women asserting their seat at the table at this former boys’ bastion.

Book Review: Kink: Stories, Edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Its titillating subject matter aside, this collection is strangely uninspired.

Kink’s veritable all-star-writer roster and exciting subject matter belie how drearily humdrum the collection is. The anthology tackles BDSM and other “unconventional” relationships yet fails quite spectacularly in whipping itself into shape (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Contributions by bestselling authors Alexander Chee, Roxane Gay, and Carmen Maria Machado are surprisingly un-titillating.

In attempting to capture complex emotions, however, Kink succeeds at times, such as in “The Cure,” where Melissa Febos writes, “She didn’t care. Her not caring was voluptuous, sensual. It was a most substantial absence. It filled her like a good meal. She had had enough.” Elsewhere, the narratives are weighed down by tropes, as in Larissa Pham’s “Trust,” where we get the ubiquitous empty-shell metaphor: “She feels delicate and hollowed out, like an empty seashell.”

Of course, writing about love and desire is not easy, and some of the stories do it in a straightforward, moving way. Here again is Febos:

“The first time he slept with a woman who asked him to hit her, it felt like a window had opened inside him. He’s not sure what happened, exactly — that she saw something in him and touched it, or if the thing in her was so powerful, it moved the thing in him. All he knows is how it felt — where there was blank space, a rupturing.”

In other tales, we see these supposedly “alternative” relationships normalized: “After some discussion, they decided they’d both benefit from professional guidance. It was like doing yoga, they figured. Hazardous, at first, to go through the poses without an instructor’s help,” writes R.O. Kwon in “Safeword.”

Kwon’s story is a trenchant commentary on the commodification of desire and how, when the self-care ethos meets capitalism’s “we have a solution for everything you desire” motto, even our intimate lives aren’t sacred or private. (When it comes to consumerism, there is no safe word.) Kwon also shows us that practitioners of BDSM are not immune to the groan-inducing banality of eroticism becoming a chore:

“He was tired. His right shoulder hurt. He didn’t want to hit Julie anymore — he wanted to get out of here. He wanted to untie her and take her home, soothe her and have sex with her, his wife, whom he loved. But he kept going. Finish the session, he told himself.”

“Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus similarly demystifies the supposed danger and subversiveness of BDSM relationships by narrating the ways in which they’re dating scenarios like any other:

“He told me he would put me on probation. If I consented, we were entering the second stage. The rules were: He’d decide when and how often we would see each other. He’d decide when and how often we’d talk on the phone. I would not know his address or phone number, but I was free to leave him as many voice mails as I wanted, providing that they made him hard. I found this very liberating. How many hours had I spent in ‘normal’ dating situations, pondering the etiquette and timing of the post-fuck call?”

One of the few outstanding pieces in the collection is Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar” (translating to “master”), in which an American teacher has a tryst with a Bulgarian man in the latter’s home country, where the LGBTQ lifestyle is still hush-hush. Greenwell’s prose is evocative and precise:

“He lived on a middle floor of one of the huge Soviet-style apartment blocks that stand everywhere in Sofia like fortresses or keeps, ugly and imperious, though this is a false impression they give, they’re so poorly built as already to be crumbling away.”

Unfortunately, Kink ultimately fails in its power play for the reader’s excitement; I had to force myself to get through it, and not in a good way. While its subject matter still sorely lacks literary representation, this anthology doesn’t contribute much to the conversation.

Book Review: The Horror is Us by Justin Sanders (Editor)

My review for the Washington Independent Review of Books

Riffing on that famous quip that “horror is other people,” the authors in this slim, affecting anthology from Baltimore-based Mason Jar Press speak of the horror that is us. The stories are pithy — most run just a few pages — but powerful in their parsimony.

Laura Walker’s “A Trick of Uncertain Light,” for instance, at first appears to be a simple tale of a girl stranded in a car on a dark desert road who encounters a guy driving a tow truck. But she’s not a girl in a car; she is “a rabbit feeling the primal liquid-boned fear of desert prey.” And the man in the truck hasn’t stopped out of concern. “Something’s not right. I can feel it the way you can sense the threat of storm when the wind kicks up before the clouds start rolling in.”

The imagery is evocative: “He cuts off my response, slices into the fear of the moment, spilling it.” Fear is spilling toward an inexorable end here, one that is not described and, hence, looms even larger. “Besides, there are things that bullets can’t stop from happening.”

Abigail Teed’s “Rise” and “The Pine Witch” by Alexandria Baker are both about a return to something from the past. The former has Native American mythological elements, while the latter features Wiccan notes. Continuing the theme of the everyday gone awry, the coven in “The Pine Witch” isn’t too far removed from members of a sorority house, sort of like a modern (and far less corny) take on the 1996 supernatural-thriller movie “The Craft.” As with other stories in the collection, the menace is unnamed — and thus all the more terrifying — and the words relentless in their simplicity: “I closed my eyes and reveled in the smell of burning flesh.”

Another brilliant offering is Justin Sanders’ “Baphomet and Blue,” about a Neo-Nazi death cult. The subject matter is all too believable and seemingly plucked from the headlines — police racism and brutality — but it’s given a sinister twist. A music fest turns brutal as participants wreak havoc and enact the violent reality idealized in the songs. As the author points out, “White power music is the number one method for recruiting new members.” Evil sometimes wears a badge instead of a pentagram.

Comic-book writer Scott Bryan Wilson’s “The Enthusiastic Butcher” is a keen dissection of our social-media-obsessed world. Its protagonist cuts deeper and deeper into himself (on several levels) in a vanity-fueled quest for attention and an escape from a life of loneliness. “He was like a king washed up on a desert island, his subjects sending him messages in bottles.”

The tale is a trenchant commentary on the terrifying ways in which we as a society keep pushing beyond boundaries personal, ecological, and global. The first cut is the deepest — or not, it seems to suggest.

Though spare, The Horror Is Us is nonetheless incisive and provocative. Its stories are smartly curated and fleshy, making it a must-read for any fan of the horror genre in its most modern iteration.

A Spotlight on The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival

My article for District Fray Magazine

For the past 10 years, the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival has celebrated Palestinian culture. It has been an umbilical cord to a motherland that increasingly lives on only in the hearts and minds of its people driven into diaspora. The festival has not only been a border-defying place to hear often-unheard voices, but it has preserved traditions imperiled by extinction. It has reaffirmed a sense of identity and community for Palestinians the world over, and offered a look behind forbidding walls.

Founded in 2011 by three women – Noura Erakat, Huda Asfour, and Nadia Daar – it has showcased both local and international artists and been hosted by Busboys and Poets, the Kennedy Center, the Goethe Institute, and Studio Theatre. This year, like the diasporic culture it represents, it has gone beyond the confines of a space and into the virtual realm. Though the festival ran from October 1-10, you can still stream the films, watch the lectures, and support through volunteering and donating.

The festival has highlighted a variety of creative mediums. This past summer, the organization hosted four cooks who offered free cooking and culinary history lessons for Sufra Sundays. Two female Palestinian DJs played free sets this year, and previous years have offered Dabke dancing lessons and breakdancing.

One of the highlights of the festival was Tatreez & Tea. Wafa Ghnaim, the author of the book “Tatreez & Tea” and the creative mind behind Palestinian embroidery workshops, explains the origins.

“I started Tatreez & Tea in 2015 as an oral history documentation project,” Ghnaim says. “My mother has been teaching tatreez since she came to the United States in the 1980s and, before that, she taught at refugee camps.”

Tatreez is an Arabic word meaning embroidery. Palestinians are renowned for their cross-stitching, which shines amongst the already very rich textile traditions of the Levant.

“I learned tatreez, not embroidery,” Ghnaim adds. “To say ‘tatreez’ is a true reclamation of the practice.”

In the Palestinian tradition, tatreez is passed down from mother to daughter. This is why it is such a strong thread to family and identity.

“Initially, I never saw it as a special skill because I learned tatreez when I was a young child. It was just such a natural thing and something that was always around me. My mother had dreamt of writing a book, and I wanted to make her dream a reality.”

In 2015, Ghnaim applied to a number of grants and received every one of them.

“I was a no-name coming on the scene. My mom was really the traditional artist and cultural worker. I took this as a sign that I should really do this.”

The festival’s intersectional orientation is another way in which it differs from other festivals. Bhasma Ghalayini, the editor of “Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba,” shares the process of creating this first anthology of Palestinian science fiction.

“When I was growing up in the Gaza Strip, we had very limited access to books or films,” Ghalayini says. “You had to ask people traveling abroad to bring you back those things. I was working as a translator for Comma Press, a British publishing company, which had released “Iraq + 100,” a book that posed the question of what Iraq would look like in 2103. I wanted to do a similar project with Palestinian writers. The Nakba in 1948 displaced 700,000 Palestinians. This catastrophe that all Palestinians have a connection to seemed like an appropriate date on so many levels.”

Sci-fi is a new genre for the writers featured in the collection.

“We are not used to writing about anything in an imaginative context because it feels like it is almost too much of a luxury to write about the future,” Ghalayini adds. “But if you think about it, the current situation has all the makings of a dystopian future: siege, surveillance, lack of resources and water, pollution.”

The DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival offered a diversity of perspectives, and a thoughtfully and lovingly curated glimpse of talent and creativity that bursts beyond any physical walls. Learn more about the DC Palestinian Film & Arts Festival and like the festival on Facebook.