Creative writing, "botanical sexism", sumac-roasted strawberries, and more.

Digest #5 - July 12th 2020

Creative writing, "botanical sexism", sumac-roasted strawberries, and more.
The Seven - A weekly digest by Keeya-Lee Ayre

Digest #5, July 12th 2020


I love to read short stories. I highly recommend them to anyone who doesn't actively seek them out. They are a great way to indulge in literature in a single session, and without a large time investment. They are hard to tell well, but when they are, the impact can be huge. I'm having a really busy week and have paused my current novel, so I searched some of my favourite literary magazines for new "creative writing" to read. In a moment of weirdly meta self-determination, I found a wonderful story actually titled "Creative Writing" by Israeli writer Etgar Keret. It's translated from Hebrew, and was originally published by the New Yorker in January 2012. It is ambiguous, in a way that the best shorts are, and tells a layered, humorous, at times painful story of a wife, a husband, and some creative writing classes. It’s very short indeed, and as a perfect exercise in minimalism we are given just enough to speculate and draw our own conclusions as readers, while being given no surety at all. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think (you can hit reply to any of these digests to send me an email).

Photograph by Quentin Bertoux / AGENCE VU/AURORA.


Since I started The Seven, a fair few of my loved ones have been sharing content with me, hoping I’ll find it interesting enough to include. This week’s winner (I am entirely joking of course, it’s not a competition) is my husband Alex, who shared this fascinating piece with me about a concept called “botanical sexism”. If you live in the United States, or have visited in the Spring, you might be familiar with the huge clouds of yellow pollen that tend to stifle our cities and cause allergenic reactions in huge swathes of people. Well it turns out there’s a very practical reason for this: almost all of our urban trees are male. Urban planners and city officials found the idea of cleaning up the fruits and flowers that drop from female trees unfathomable, so they planted male, pollen-producing trees en masse instead. The article contains a quote from an opponent who argues that “sexism”, a very real human issue shouldn’t be applied to plants. I tend to agree. It doesn’t make the phenomenon of male tree dominance any less interesting. I want to learn how to identify trees' sexes visually, so I can see how prevalent this is in my own neighbourhood… But judging from the yellow blanket of pollen on our car earlier this year, quite. If anyone is an arborist, botanist, or generally knowledgeable about these things, please point me in the right direction!

Pollen engulfing Durham, North Carolina, in April. Photo by Jeremy Gilchrist.


I'm mindful that I have not featured many recipes that aren't dependent on animal products, and I will ensure to include more diversity with regard to ingredients going forwards. In this vein, I've got another Ottolenghi hit to share! So I've got diversity of ingredients, but maybe not of chefs or culinary styles (will table that for later). I find that when I buy a huge punnet of strawberries, I can never use them fast enough and they always start to rot. This sumac-roasted strawberries recipe is the perfect way to enjoy the berries at their turning point. I cooked it for a date night last month and Alex, who has discerning tastes and doesn't give compliments easily, called it "restaurant quality". That's one for the history books. For the primary part of the dish, all you need are the strawberries, some lemon juice, mint, salt, vanilla, sumac and sugar. I used plain greek yoghurt as a side for Alex, and cashew yogurt for myself (you can too for a vegan version), but once I stop nursing and/or my son Leo's milk allergy resolves - I'm making the full thing with the yoghurt cream. If you do sooner, please tell me how it went.

A photo of the dish, as prepared by me. Photograph my own (evidently, as the quality isn't on par with the rest - ha).


In May, we watched a brilliant Hulu Original series called The Great. It's based on the arrival of Catherine the Great in Russia, and her ascent to the throne. However, many things about the show are completely atypical of this kind of historical fiction: the brazen humour, crude language, and bold sexuality to name but a few. One of my favourite things about the show is that they cast a range of non-white actors as Russian aristocrats and other historical figures, and it completely didn't matter. You read that correctly: it wasn't a big deal, it didn't factor into the plot, and the world didn't end. It's so rare to see, however, that for a moment Alex and I paused and thought "did they have Black and Asian people in Russia then?" before realising even if they didn't, it was completely irrelevant to the story. If we just accept it and move on, it allows the best actors to be playing historical roles they may not be physically (i.e. racially) perfect for. But that's the point of acting, to embody someone else. The cast all nail their roles. This show can hopefully be a learning experience for the myriad of entertainment pros who still see race as critical to casting decisions. Hint: if it isn't explicitly plot or character relevant, it's not.

A still from the show, with Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great, and supporting actors pictured.


I recently watched an interview with Jane Elliott about her lifelong work, and she recommended that everyone read Timothy Snyder's 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. I found a second hand copy of the book, and read it in a single sitting (it's small). It contains some very valuable insights and individual actions regarding politics, privacy, safety and freedom. Take for example number ten, "believe in truth:"

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

It's easy to see the relevance of this to the United States, but the lessons in this book come from Europe, and can be applied to other societies too. This isn't an 'American issue', or even a new one, and sometimes it's important as humans to stop seeing ourselves as exceptional. We exist at but one moment in a long human history, very rarely are any thoughts or actions actually new. We need to start studying wider patterns. This book helps us realise that there are actionable ways to address tyranny on the individual level, like number sixteen, learn from peers in other countries: see larger trends, always make sure you and your family have passports. This may seem like paranoia, but as someone who has worked with refugees for a long time, I hold this close to my heart and take citizenships seriously. People rarely see the threat coming before it's too late. It happens, over and over again in human history, and no society has proven themselves immune.

A photograph of my own copy of the book, with pen and notebook for scale (I told you it's small!)


I first saw artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg's piece Stranger Visions in 2013, though for the life of me, I can't remember where. It has toured so widely that it could have been multiple cities in Australia or the United States, as I turned 21 that year and went off travelling. For those unfamiliar with the piece, in Heather's own words:

In Stranger Visions I collected hairs, chewed up gum, and cigarette butts from the streets, public bathrooms and waiting rooms of New York City. I extracted DNA from them and analyzed it to computationally generate 3d printed life size full color portraits representing what those individuals might look like, based on genomic research. Working with the traces strangers unwittingly left behind, the project was meant to call attention to the developing technology of forensic DNA phenotyping, the potential for a culture of biological surveillance, and the impulse towards genetic determinism.

For me, this piece exemplifies the ways that 'distinct' disciplines (like science and art) can intersect, and the role of art in activism. Dewey-Hagborg has made clear, then and now, that phenotypes (what traits we see externally, versus all the possibilities that live in our DNA) are not this simple. Phenotypic profiles shouldn't be used in policing. And yet, they are. The piece raises many important questions we should be asking ourselves and each other. I'm bringing this to your attention now in 2020, because I'm personally shocked by how little the needle has moved on this conversation in seven years.

A screenshot from National Geographic's 2016 short film about Heather Dewey-Hagbog's "Stranger Visions".


To bid you goodbye this week, I am sharing the delightful song "Beginning" by Joeboy (it's on the playlist I shared in digest #1). My friend Max sent this visualiser video for the song to me last year. When I played it I was six months pregnant, and Leo started kicking. Right now I'm playing it, and he's dancing. We have come full circle. This song makes me happy, and I hope it makes you happy too. It's that simple really.

A screenshot from the visualiser/music video.

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