We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.
Publishing professional, contributing editor to Electric Literature, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, editor of Everyday People: The Color of Life—A Short Story Anthology.
Lesson Plan: This Is Not a Drill (Jasminne Mendez, Queen Mob’s Tea House)
On Facebook author Jasminne Mendez said “Lesson Plan” came out of “an attempt at capturing what I’ve felt and what I can only imagine feeling.” Art at its best, at its height, at its most vivid brings us into an experience so deeply one cannot help but feel the effects of the work in our marrow. “Lesson Plan” captures something unique and raw through structure, precision, poetics, and accuracy of what an initially conventional turned unconventional school day looks like when it comes to a new “normal”: active shooters/drills. How can we keep kids safe? Is that even possible anymore? What pressures are educators under? What and who gets lost when these events occur? When will this kind of terror end? The refrain of “this is not a drill” pulsates throughout. Remember… remember… remember. The bare honesty of “Lesson Plan” exemplifies the kind of writing that inspires you to experiment with how to encapsulate and explore our reality, as distressing as it may be.
A contributing editor at Catapult, founder and host of the Memoir Monday newsletter and reading series, and editor of Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger.
The Greeter (T Kira Madden, The Sun)
Author of the novels The Hundred-Year Flood and the forthcoming Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear (Little A, August 2020).
The Uncanny Child (Elisa Gabbert, The Paris Review)
What should an essay do? I am reading, right now, about mirror neurons and desire. Mirror neurons are the neurons that fire both when we do something and when we watch someone else do that thing; they are said to be responsible for empathy, and learning. Empathy and learning are at the heart of what compels me to read an essay. In the essays I like best, I rarely know at first why I am reading. Forgive me, but I never read an essay for a story. In fiction, many different desires are in conflict, provoking the readerly desire to both get to the end of the story and never get to the end of the story. In an essay, the only desire to shape the audience’s desire is the essayist’s. In other words, fairly or not, I want a novel to know what I want; I want an essay to show me what I want. Desire is mimetic — how and what we desire is learned from the desires of others — so a good essay must take responsibility for the desires of its readers. An essay should show us how to want better, by showing us the essayist thinking through her own wants. The essayist who does this most reliably for me is Elisa Gabbert. Instead of offering one essay to read from 2019, I would like to offer a step in one author’s direction.
Writer, educator, and the founder of the Writing Our Lives Workshop.
‘Queen & Slim’ Could Be One of the Great Love Stories of All Time — if You Let It (Carvell Wallace, The New York Times Magazine)
Choosing a best of 2019 essay was nearly impossible because so many gorgeous essays were published this year, but this feature by Carvell Wallace is one is that will stay with me for a long time. I know an essay is that good when I want to share it with my 15-year-old daughter.
I love essays that take me on a journey. I love to see inside people’s lives, into their humanity, their hearts, their emotions, what moves them and shatters them, what gives them hope, what they survive. I rarely expect that from a movie review.
Carvell Wallace’s language is beautiful and wrenching but what got me was his ability to put into words what I have struggled to write: “Every experience is either life-affirming or life-denying. There is just one trick. It sometimes happens that to move toward love — true, active, life-affirming love — means to move toward death.”
This essay brought me closer to life, which is what I seek in an essay. The pain and joy of the testimony.
Wallace writes unflinchingly about how loss and our proximity to death can shape us and open us up if we allow it. He doesn’t negate or make light of what it’s like to live as a person of color in this country, the dangers we face constantly, as we go about our lives. He affirmed what experiencing loss and injustice has taught me: that fear cannot stop us from experiencing joy, from loving and letting ourselves be seen….
Carvell Wallace reminded me in this essay of what art and writing can do, and ultimately that’s why I chose it as the best essay of 2019.
A writer and professor of writing and literature at work on “do you love me?,” a memoir about fractured identity and her relationship with her mentally ill Bengali immigrant mother.
Breaking My Own Silence (Min Jin Lee, The New York Times)
Every year, a slew of fantastic essays are published. 2019 felt even more exceptional in this regard. One particular essay resonated with me, both as a child of an immigrant mother who struggled with language, accent, and assimilation into American society, and as a scholar of Asian American literature. Novelist, Min Jin Lee’s, “Breaking My Own Silence,” beautifully chronicles her journey through life and education and the difficulty of speaking and speaking up. She moved from Seoul to Queens, NY when she was 7 years old and narrates her experience as a Korean immigrant to recount how the English language is one of the determining, often insidious, forces of assimilation. She also describes how she encountered notions of Asian women as silent, weak and submissive — the lotus blossom stereotype. Lee astutely and emotionally notes the differences between talking and writing. The links between the two and the power of both. The painful nature of each expressive gesture. Her experiences as a Korean immigrant, now having lived in the West for more than four decades, build to make sense of herself as a writer.
So many scenes moved me. I recalled moments in my own childhood where my mother’s practices as a Bengali immigrant separated me from my classmates — how people made fun of my name and the way my mother made up my hair. She always braided it, wove ribbons into each plait, and wrapped them up into two ovals that bounced around my head. This is something mothers did to their daughters in Kolkata as they sent them off to school. It was one of the ways in which my mother attempted to hold onto her identity as a Bengali woman. I often felt the shame of not being able to be what was considered beautiful and “American,” because of this. Lee’s essay helped me make sense of my own experiences and the ways in which I learned to become a writer and someone who struggles.
Author of the New York Times bestseller, This Will Be My Undoing, and the Senior Editor at ZORA.
The Crane Wife (C.J. Hauser, The Paris Review)
I don’t know even know where to begin with this essay. It was only published five months ago and I bring it up every chance I get when talking about how to craft a personal narrative in a structurally unique way. Who would’ve thought that the end of an engagement combined with the discovery of cranes and their behavior would have that much in common? Hauser beautifully blends this moment of coming into her own as a newly single woman who’s studying cranes as she reflects on all the times in her previous relationship where she had red flags to leave. Emotionally resonant, vulnerable, and smart, I hope Hauser continues to publish as much as she wants.
The author of Walking on the Ceiling.
Manual for Mourning a Great Poet (Caroline Stockford, Yrakha)
Many of the essays I read this year were written with outrage, a sentiment particularly well-suited to social media and the types of essays that get circulated within it. Outrage is easily spread; its sting is unambiguous and quickly felt. It has come to represent how much we care; it may seem the only way to write about the things that matter to us. In the language of outrage, the unremarkable aches of our lives can be cast aside, the small cares washed away.
Caroline Stockford’s essay “Manual for Mourning a Great Poet” is an ode to old-world passions — to beers and cigarettes in backstreets, posters of rock stars, poems recited by heart. It is about the betrayal, friendship, and abuse of a great poet’s life. The poet in the essay, Küçük İskender, will be unknown to non-Turkish readers, though he was a cult figure in Turkish poetry. That is part of the essay’s heartbreak. Not because Küçük İskender didn’t achieve international fame, but because he lived fiercely and passionately within literature. The essay reminded me of the force of true poetry; that outrageously frail manual for living a life.
Essays editor, Longreads
The Optics of Opportunity (Hafizah Geter, Gay Magazine)
I will confess that when Hafizah Geter tweeted about her experience with Barnes & Nobel’s failed, deeply problematic Springing Center Fellowship for emerging writers, I reached out to invite her to write an essay about it for Longreads. I knew I wouldn’t be the only editor pursuing this important piece, and I was happy to see it land at Gay Magazine.
In the essay, Geter sets the record straight on outrageous displays of racism, white privilege, and gaslighting on the part of white instructor, Jackson Taylor, after her classmate wrote about it less critically in The New Yorker, framing the story as just “a quirky tale of wealth and nepotism.”
She also brings to light the morally bankrupt opportunism of Barnes & Noble founder Steve Riggio and his daughter, Stephanie (an incognito fellow in the program herself), who seemed to have created the fellowship — for which they “had invited a group of emerging writers to use our work to engage and interrogate structures of power” but were averse to questioning white power — to project a false air of wokeness.
It was an unfair bargain the participants didn’t know they were making, and Geter gets at this urgently and compellingly. She writes: “…as a black, queer woman I am aware of how much harder people of color have to labor in order to be allowed to reap our fruits. I am no stranger to how often opportunity has a racial cost. And wasn’t this an opportunity? — every writer in the room was thinking — though for the writers of color, like it too often is, it was opportunity at a cost…The exchange the people of color at the Springing Center made for the ‘opportunity’ was in granting favorable optics — after all, among the people of color, we carried most of the notable bylines that gave the room prestige — The New Yorker, Tin House, books forthcoming from Knopf and Graywolf. But our admission into white spaces is never free, even when we are the ones carrying the room.”
Hideous Men (E. Jean Carroll, The Cut)
In this stunning excerpt from her memoir, What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal, E. Jean Carroll recalls being sexually assaulted by numerous men throughout her life, and outright raped in the mid-’90s in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room by none other than Donald Trump.
Carroll manages to control the narrative in a piece in which she is abused, again and again, even deploying humor in places as she points to various absurdities of coming up as a woman in media in the ’60s. “I am a member of the Silent Generation,” she writes. “We do not flap our gums. We laugh it off and get on with life.”
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