Literary Magazine Launches Yearlong Instagram Storytelling Experiment

The Virginia Quarterly Review is nearly a century old, but they’re getting with the times for a new project. The revered literary magazine will be sharing daily photos and accompanying stories for an entire year. They’re calling it #VQRTrueStory.


Welcome to the #VQRtruestory project, our new social-media experiment in nonfiction. First up: @meerasub and her series on a changing India. Her fingers flutter across the stalks from bloom to bloom, like bees pollinating, like a bird seeking seeds. She tosses the cotton into a sling slung across her back. I reach for a boll, unprepared for the thorns that encase it, protecting the soft interior, the billowy seed head that opens into five folds. The woman—I never catch her name, meet her only fleetingly—and her fellow harvesters are artists. I am not. I yank awkwardly at the cotton. She laughs, her face framed in gauzy orange fabric. That one’s not ready, she motions, laying her hand upon mine, guiding me. We are surrounded by acres of cotton, the Punjabi state of cotton, the Indian nation of cotton. Though the farmer who has brought me here to his land is switching to organic on some of his land, in this field he grows from genetically modified Bt cotton seed. In this field, he sprays, but less with the Bt variety. “When I was growing non-Bt cotton, I would be using twelve to thirteen pesticides—broad-spectrum organophosphates—the worst ones,” he tells me. “But with Bt, I use maybe four or five sprays.” It’s what Monsanto brags about, this reduction of chemicals with Bt cotton. In 2002, the Indian government approved Monsanto’s cotton and it now dominates the market, pushing the old varieties that emerged from this region to the fringes. But the farmer knows: When one pest goes, another arrives. The woman before me is focused on her harvest. With cotton at six rupees per kilo, a good day will yield her a dollar. The cotton is piled at the end of field rows, loaded onto the bloated backs of trucks, added to downy mountains overflowing from concrete-walled depots in town, bound into bales, sorted through, and eventually spun into cloth in a factory far from Gandhi’s spinning wheel. (1/6) #Punjab #RiverRunsAgain #ElementalIndia #earth #agriculture #organic #ecoswaraj #labor #truestory #cotton #vqr

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The project is designed to create a dialogue between the magazine, its website, and its social media arms. The Virginia Quarterly Review is calling it an “experiment in nonfiction.” Stories will “share platforms,” giving readers access to different views on the same subject.


This week #VQRTrueStory presents @jamiealliotts on encounters on the sidewalks of Manhattan: (3/4) Gregg Simons is thirty-one, calm, articulate, friendly. The tattoo running across his forehead used to read “Fuck Society.” Now, it’s checkered. // Gregg says he stole a car when he was fifteen. He and a buddy led cops on a high-speed chase. Cocoa Beach to Orlando. “It was all over the news,” he says. Like O. J.? Like O. J. “I was famous for two months.” The cops spike-stripped the car, blasted them with Mace, “swarmed us, cuffed us, kicked us around.” Then they found the cocaine. Lots of it. He did three and a half years in juvie. “I got lucky,” he says about the time. // His girl introduced him to freight-hopping. He’s been jumping trains for four years. She’s in Springfield, Massachusetts, holding down their room till he gets back. He blinks a few times. “Man, I found the one chick everybody talks about finding. With her, I’m happy.” // No more heroin for Gregg. “I stick to weed now.” Yeah? “Yeah. It’s a lot better than nodding out on the sidewalk, trying to suck my own dick, drooling all over myself.” He’s been arrested in Nashville, New Orleans, elsewhere. “That’s her only rule: call once a month.” He means his mother. She’s happy whenever he calls from jail. “At least she knows I’m safe, I’ll be there for a while.” // I ask if he’ll ever go straight, settle down. “Shit, I’ll make more money asking people for a quarter than I will working a regular job.” I know he’s right. // I want to say something. That I stole a car when I was sixteen. That I used to shoot dope, live on the street, make a hundred bucks a day begging for change, keep my mother wondering when she was going to get that other kind of call. That I turned it around, started writing about it—the life, how hard it is to give up—that he can, too, that he should, that forty-one ain’t thirty-one, that—further. // I want to say something, but I don’t. It’s not my place. It’s not my time. They’re not my checkers.

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Needless to say, these aren’t your typical Instagram posts. #VQRTrueStory posts feature powerful photos and superb writing. Deputy editor Paul Reyes told NiemanLab that the Instagram posts get the same editorial scrutiny as the print publication does.


This week #VQRTrueStory presents @laura.kasinof on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Lesotho (2/5): When Letsatsi found out that she was HIV positive, a doctor told her that she should begin an antiretroviral regimen right away. Her mother had heard a woman on the radio, a traditional healer called Maseits’iro Seits’iro, who advertised that she could cure HIV. Traditional healers, or herbalists, are an ancient part of the culture in Lesotho, a small mountain kingdom in southern Africa, so Letsatsi and her husband, who’s also HIV positive, paid Seits’iro a visit. At twenty-four, Letsatsi is eager to begin a family, she says, and hopes that, with Seits’iro’s help, they can “beat HIV so we can have children.” She and her husband have been going back to Seits’iro once a month for an herbal powder that supposedly cures HIV. The price starts at 450 maloti—around $32—each month, a hefty amount for an unemployed Basotho couple. When they told Seits’iro they could no longer afford her herbs, she insisted they continue. So they began taking the herbs on loan. // Now in debt to Seits’iro, Letsatsi is still HIV positive; her husband, meanwhile, says he doesn’t have the nerve to retest. Still, they are hopeful that the herbs will eventually work their magic. After all, the doctors at the medical clinic can’t offer what Seits’iro offers—the hope of complete healing. // According to UNICEF, Lesotho has the second-highest HIV rate in the world, with women aged fifteen to twenty-four being the most afflicted, with an infection rate of 10.5 percent. Given the magnitude of this crisis, it’s no wonder miraculous cures like Seits’iro’s are popular. When the prognosis is this poor, one looks for just an ounce of hope to hold onto. (Laura Kasinof reported from Lesotho on an @InternationalReportingProject fellowship.) #HIV #AIDS #Lesotho #healers #Basotho #VQRTrueStoryKasinof

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The project started back in December and is still going strong. According to The Virginia Quarterly Review, it will run all year long – so now’s the time to follow them on Instagram!


Main image: the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Instagram page