Topic Editors’ Picks: The Best of 2018

What did we read? What did we remember reading?

It’s been a wild year. We look back at some of our favorite Topic stories, and those published around the internet.

Madeline Leung Coleman, Managing Editor

SEEING RED

Is China’s rise threatening our freedoms, or is Xi Jinping—as one resident of the Oval Office put it—cowering before Trump’s “very, very large brain”? American media’s China coverage ping-ponged between awe and fear this year. If you’re wondering how we got here, read this multi-part deep dive into Beijing’s unlikely formula for success, as well as anything by Jiayang Fan. She continued her excellent coverage at The New Yorker in 2018, bringing an existential threat down to earth in stories like this one, about the impact of e-commerce on China’s rural communities.

Here at Topic, we’re all in love with Jia Li’s short documentary Noodle School. Li takes us to Lanzhou, a city in northwest China that’s famous for its beef noodle soup, and introduces us to a motley band of students who dream of making it big in dough business. It’s full of mesmerizing shots of noodles being pulled into shape and accomplishes what only the best stories do: gets us deeply invested in the fates of people we may never meet. By the time the students are ready to take their final exam, you’ll be holding your breath. And, also, super hungry.


Michelle Legro, Contributing Editor

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT

Earlier this year, Topic followed students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as they rehearsed a production of Spring Awakening—a musical about precocious young people battling against the world their parents built. The result was a long-form feature, "They Don’t Do Sadness," and a documentary, Awakenings, both of which showed how important musical theater can be for young people working through trauma.

The risk of being a determined young person is also at the heart of one of my favorite works of journalism this year, Abe Streep’s "What the Arlee Warriors Were Playing For." Streep followed a Montana high school basketball team from the Flathead Indian Reservation. Ostensibly a look at reservation basketball, halfway through the piece Streep begins a deep dive into what public-health professionals call a “cluster” of suicides in the Flathead reservation, including friends and family of the Warriors. It’s a thrilling read about friendship, competition, and community that has haunted me all year.


Anna Holmes, Editorial Director

A LONG TIME COMING

I admit: I’m biased. But one of my favorite Topic stories of 2018, the documentary The Loving Generation, is the culmination of an idea I’ve been mulling over for close to two decades. A four-part series that looks at the generation of biracial Americans born in the years before, and after, the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, the doc was directed by Lacey Schwartz and Mehret Mandefro and executive produced by Ezra Edelman.

Another favorite: our June Monologue video with Ta-Nehisi Coates, who sat with me for an interview about how becoming a parent changed who he is as a writer. Thanks to Lyndon J. Barrois, an animator who works with everyday objects such as chewing gum wrappers, this aspect of Coates’s personal history came to life in a meticulously crafted short.

And last but not least, a mention of a few creative endeavors that kept me entertained, enraged, and inspired throughout 2018: Crime + Punishment, a feature doc on a group of NYC police officers putting their careers in peril by pushing back against racist arrest policies; Kamasi Washington’s new album, Heaven and Earth; and what I would argue was the best piece of long-form journalism I read this year (even though it was first published in 1946), John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, which I revisited in advance of a visit to the Japanese city of the same name. Hiroshima was just as gripping, raw, and moving as I remembered it, but I also found it, surprisingly, even more terrifying and awe-inspiring than when I first read it in the early ‘90s—a consequence, perhaps, of contemporary political tensions, my own anxieties around mortality, and a more mature appreciation of Hersey’s facility with language and respect for truth with regards to one of the lowest points in modern human history.


Gabriel Boylan, Social Editor

ALL-SEEING

The short film Mobilize is mesmerizing, propelled by artist Caroline Monnet’s quick cuts of archival footage of First Nations people at work and a great soundtrack from Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer. Native people have made canoes, yes, snowshoes, yes—but they have also made skyscrapers. It’s a powerful, wordless tribute to labor that has largely been unheralded. Other unseen forces are at play in Jenny Odell’s masterful para-journalism work "A Business with No End," her New York Times piece on “dropshipping,” shell companies, Christian colleges, and the weird labyrinthine world of storefronts pushing mountains of overpriced trash on Amazon. She wrote about similar e-commerce wormholes for us last year.


Caroline Smith, Visuals Editor

SELF-REFLECTION

This year was all about America taking a long, hard look at itself in the mirror—part of the ongoing cultural and political hangover from the 2016 election—and being dismayed by what it saw. The #MeToo movement prompted parents to reevaluate how we’re raising our boys, which New York Magazine tackled with its series “How to Raise a Boy.” The ongoing opioid crisis has exposed the ugly collusion of Big Pharma and our criminal justice system, which we were forced to confront by the powerful obituary for one victim in Vermont.

Here at Topic, we were inspired by how artists addressed a prior crisis—the Great Depression—to create our ongoing artist series Federal Project No. 2, in which we tackle what “America” means today.

After all that, we could all use a good cleanse—it’s worth checking out one of our favorite photographers, Chris Maggio’s, series for Gossamer called “The New Age of New Age” for a few ideas.


Jeff Seelbach, Director of Non-Fiction Programming

FIGHT OR FLIGHT

What if we could erase our fears, phobias, and traumatic experiences? (Jeez, this year of all years ...) It seems impossible, and yet a neuroscientist in Amsterdam is exploring this question, with remarkable results. Twenty-four hours after undergoing Dr. Merel Kindt’s treatment, many of her patients are utterly transformed. Filmmaker Lana Wilson guides us through this fascinating world in the Topic documentary series A Cure for Fear, and it’s a credit to both Dr. Kindt’s openness and Wilson’s curiosity that the story feels at once rigorous, empathetic, and dystopian.

Some of my favorite work in 2018 took much less scientific approaches to confronting and processing difficult experiences. In a year when the US tore immigrant children from the arms of their parents, Robert Greene made a haunting musical Western documentary that reminds us of Arizona’s forcible deportation of mostly immigrant mine workers over a century ago; RaMell Ross plumbed the minute details of black life in Alabama in ways that felt both granular and mythic; and Stefani Saintonge’s poetic take on Toni Morrison packed more creative punch in seven minutes than most feature films do in two hours.


David Barreda, Deputy Visuals Editor

FINDING BALANCE

Maybe it’s because I hear “That’s not fair!” all the time from one particular six-year-old (as well as many grown-ups), but this year I’ve been thinking even more how power and privilege are wielded in unjust and uneven ways. For Topic, illustrator Chelsea Saunders and writer Manisha Claire explained how gun rights have applied to—or been used against—African Americans throughout this country’s history. In Mexico City, photographer Eunice Adorno and writer Alice Driver looked at a water crisis that cuts across economic divides, in a metropolitan area of over 21 million people. That story also feels like a preview of how water problems will define everyone’s future, whether we have too little or too much.

There was a lot of fantastic visual reporting elsewhere, too—including this land-use map of the US, a much more useful depiction of the lower 48 than the maps we were monitoring during the elections. I have long been a lover of W. E. B. Du Bois’ sociological data portraits—his incredible hand-drawn explainers of black life in the late 19th century—and I was excited to come across Ben Welsh’s homage made using D3. And then there is this crazy animated story taking us through the Apple valuation. (Yes, it really is worth that much.) Lastly, as the debate rages over which immigrants belong in America, this visualization of the country as a tree trunk (really!) makes one thing clear: most of us are not from here.


Man Bartlett, Deputy Social Editor

WE GOT THIS

There are three Topic stories that have stayed with me since they were published—stories that I believe stand among some of the best, most engaging pieces of #content on the internet this year: an oral history in collaboration with The Verge about a scientist who discovered a rainforest on top of a mountain (then assembled a team to explore it); The Wild Inside, a deeply affecting documentary about Arizona state prison inmates who train wild horses; and this creepy, cannot-unsee trip to the dilapidated “hospital” where Cabbage Patch Kids are “born.”

And in the spirit of giving, here's some light reading on how unprepared we are to deal with the very real possibility of a global pandemic. Cool, cool—on the bright side maybe we’ll figure out a way to build this thing? Happy new year! Let's plant some trees! But not before reading the fascinating and infuriating history of the plastic bag.


Reyhan Harmanci, Executive Editor

MORAL CONFUSION

As anyone anywhere near me (including people who happen to see my Twitter feed) knows, I have been obsessed with the coverage of the US government ripping children from their parents at the border. That is one of the reasons that I was so pleased to publish an interview with a US immigration officer, someone who feels the effects of the Trump administration’s shifting and morally obscene policies more viscerally than most; this person has to make the choice, every day, as to whether they will be complicit in order to keep their job. But that isn’t the only story Topic did this year that looked at ethical gray zones: how do you account for the suffering of fish? What does it mean to make the most toxic site in America—a tourist destination? And can you be celebrated for being petty? (Yes.)

Also: get to know Casey Parks. Her first story in the New Yorker, about HBCUs and a woman named Dorian, won’t be her last. I could not get enough of Adam Davidson this year, as he welcomed all of us to the #resistance. Legend has it that there is an 18,000-word version of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s story on Goop, and I would pay double my NYT subscription to read it. Lili Loofbourow’s dive into Brett Kavanaugh’s head was remarkable. And if you’re going to read any end-of-year list, make it Emily Nussbaum’s. The Good Fight IS great!

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