We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.
Editor in chief of Catapult magazine, author of the forthcoming memoir All You Can Ever Know.
Going It Alone (Rahawa Haile, Outside Magazine)
One of my favorite personal essays published this year was Rahawa Haile’s stunning “Going It Alone,” for Outside. She uses a personal story, her own journey on Appalachian Trail, to try and answer a larger question: Just who is the outdoors for? To answer this, Haile doesn’t just rely on her own experiences on the trail, she also does a ton of research, bringing in past interviews and stories, and interweaving anecdotes from other through-hikers she meets along the way. I really appreciated how, with all these other voices in play, we get a clearer vision of Rahawa and her journey, too. At the conclusion of this piece, which is so gorgeously written and urgent and honest and full of life, Rahawa closes with the perfect ode to those she met on her way: “It is no understatement to say that the friends I made, and the experiences I had with strangers who, at times, literally gave me the shirt off their back, saved my life. I owe a great debt to the through-hiking community that welcomed me with open arms, that showed me what I could be and helped me when I faltered. There is no impossible, they taught me: only good ideas of extraordinary magnitude.”
Author of the forthcoming memoir Sick, and the novels The Last Illusion and Sons & Other Flammable Objects.
Obama’s Parting Gift: Not to Fear White Racism (Carvell Wallace, The New Yorker)
I tiptoed into 2017 filled with dread and despair thanks to the political atmosphere, but it just so happened this New Yorker essay came out early in the year, and it was one I returned to many times. It reminded me of what power means and how it can come again, even under the most menacing racist climates in history. It moved me so much that I taught it and then read everything else the writer had written; a couple months later I felt compelled to message him to tell him I greatly appreciated his work. It turned out he knew and loved my work too, and flash forward some months, he became my boyfriend. It might be awkward to nominate a loved one, but Wallace’s work is indispensable to me — he’s one of our most essential essayists. (He managed to turn his GQ cover story on Mahershala Ali into a beautiful essay too, without being indulgent or steering off course.) I know I’m lucky to have him; I know we all are lucky to have him.
Author of the memoir Save the Date and the upcoming novel Unclaimed Baggage
Wrongful Birth (Jen Gann, New York Magazine)
My favorite longread this year was one that came in toward the end of the year, but it’s a stunner. Jen Gann’s New York Magazine cover story weaves reporting and personal essay together in a form that is pure, moving, informative, and true. Gann’s son has cystic fibrosis. The disease should have been caught by her doctors before she gave birth — and in fact, it was — but the information was never passed on to her. Instead, a child she would have aborted is deeply beloved no less for his illness. Because of the disease, she must fight for him daily, which along with caring for his needs also means filing a “wrongful birth” lawsuit to help pay exorbitant medical expenses.
So many personal essays are called brave, but this one truly is, in the way that Gann reveals the complicated truth of her emotions to a society that is not often kind to women who don’t fit the category of “perfect, beatific motherhood,” whatever that is, and is crueler still to those who reject that notion as they attempt to do the best they can for their child. Gann’s reconciling of her emotions with her reality isn’t an easy task; it’s something she’ll have to do for the rest of her life, and her child’s. This powerful essay provides a glimpse into something that every human, whether they have children or not, should try to understand.
Deputy editor, Narratively
Why We Must Believe Women: My Family’s Legacy of Violence and Murder (Chelsea Bieker, Catapult)
This piece by Chelsea Bieker takes all of the swirling pain and fear and rage of the #MeToo moment and brings it back down to earth into one family’s heartbreaking story, which was marred, over and over, by male violence, and by society’s refusal to believe it.
Author of the novel Long Division and the forthcoming memoir Heavy.
Border Wars (Zandria F. Robinson, Oxford American)
It’s strange when one of the best essayists in the world keeps getting, not just better, but more ambitious, clearer, productively ambiguous, and loving. That’s exactly what Robinson pulls off in this essay. She doesn’t just prove that the deep black south is the center of many of our musical worlds, she accepts it. That acceptance becomes a cause for celebration, a painful reckoning, and a real meditation on what literary and literal gumption can create and sustain in essayistic forms.
Writer, working on a dating memoir, An Anthology of Assholes.
A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ)
During the summer of 2015, in an act of white supremacist terror, Dylann Roof murdered nine black people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston while their heads were bowed in prayer. GQ describes Ghansah’s many months spent in Charleston profiling Roof as a search for answers, but that’s not quite accurate. Her piece is an autopsy of the American lie that this has ever been the land of the free. It is the cold truth about racism and its victims written with a warm hand. Her piece is the piece writers with less range attempted to write about a neighborhood Nazi. I look forward to her first book, The Explainers & the Explorers, out next year.
Senior editor, Longreads
A Pet Tortoise Who Will Outlive Us All (Hanya Yanagihara, The New York Times Magazine)
The essay that stayed with me throughout the year was a profile of a sulcata tortoise named Fred who spends his days wandering the backyard of Yanagihara’s parents’ house in Honolulu. Whatever we demand from our pets — love, affection, the mere acknowledgment of our presence — is lost on Fred. But tortoises are present in a way few animals can be. “To be in the company of a tortoise is to be reminded — instantly, inarticulably — of the oldness of the world and the newness of us.” writes Yanagihara “To be around them is to be reminded, incessantly, of our own vulnerability — and our own imminent deaths.” In a year where everything in the world seemed to be moving so quickly, Fred reminded me of what lasts — and what will outlast — the petty troubles of the day.
Essays editor, Longreads
My Father Spent 30 Years in Prison. Now He’s Out (Ashley C. Ford, Refinery29)
Ashley C. Ford writes about the joys and frustrations of being reunited with her father, who spent most of her life in prison. She does so with an astonishing blend of candor and compassion that makes it so you can’t help but feel for both of them. Ford’s father has missed so much of his daughter’s life, but that’s not all he has to catch up on. Having been incarcerated since the late 1980s, he is way behind the times, technologically speaking. He’s new to the whole world of cell phones, not to mention texting. (If you think helping your aging parents with their technology is frustrating, imagine if they’d never owned even a computer.) While her father is trying to learn new ways to connect with his daughter, Ford is also trying to learn how to set healthy boundaries with him, which makes for complications, and tremendous poignancy.
What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men? (Claire Dederer, The Paris Review)
In this nuanced, challenging essay, Claire Dederer crystallizes a particular dilemma that has arisen from this #MeToo moment: Can we continue to enjoy or appreciate the art of men who have turned out to be sexual predators or harassers or discriminators? It’s a question she ponders both morally, and aesthetically. I relate. I will never forgive Woody Allen for, as Ronan Farrow calls it, becoming his brother-in-law, nor for the sexual abuse Dylan Farrow has accused him of. And I will also never forgive Woody Allen for ruining Woody Allen for me. Dederer doesn’t stop there. She also interrogates the harsh boundaries artists and writers must erect, and the others they must trespass, in order to do the work they do — and how women artists are afforded less understanding and forgiveness for becoming such “art monsters.” (A week or so after this was published, Lorin Stein, editor in chief of The Paris Review, resigned amid an investigation into his inappropriate sexual behavior there.)