Best of 2021: Personal Essays

The personal essays that we can’t stop thinking about.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Today, we’re kicking off our annual curation celebration with five moving personal essays we loved in 2021. Watch for lists over the next couple of weeks that highlight reported essays, investigative reporting, features, and profiles.

The Gradual Extinction of Softness, Chantha Nguon and Kim Green, Hippocampus Magazine, November 8, 2021

For this category, I’m recommending a moving, lyrical personal essay from Kim Green and Chantha Nguon. Nguon is a co-founder of a women’s social enterprise in rural northeastern Cambodia. For 10 years, these two friends have been collaborating on Nguon’s life story, through interviews and cooking sessions, which will eventually culminate into Slow Noodles, a memoir on food, loss, and recovered family recipes. This excerpt from the memoir-in-progress is an evocative piece on surviving the Cambodian genocide, and remembering the flavors, the memories, and the past that the Khmer Rouge regime tried to erase. It’s also sprinkled with “recipes,” made up of ingredients that reveal details of Nguon’s life, particularly of her childhood in Battambang: “Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy French-Catholic-school education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Separate her from home, country, and a reliable source of food.” I’ve read this gorgeous essay a number of times, and each time I pay attention to new details — aromas, tastes — which make me appreciate it even more. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Authors Chantha Nguon and Kim Green on the story they wish they’d written this year:

We both loved “Cambodian Americans Are Ready to Share Their Cuisine, On Their Terms” by Maryam Jillani in Condé Nast Traveler. It’s a great primer on Cambodian cuisine that acknowledges the diaspora’s collective trauma without dwelling on it. And we love how she highlights the artistry of chefs we follow and admire. We wish we had written it but are also thrilled that Jillani did it so well.

Aftermath, Briohny Doyle, Griffith Review, October 24, 2021

In her exquisite piece about the human condition in the age of COVID, climate change, and other calamities, Briohny Doyle challenges readers — and herself — to give up the ghost of renewal. “What is an ideal community, a good life,” Doyle asks, “if nothing is renewed, if we are working in and through catastrophe with only what we have now and in the face of what will be?” This question is more than essay fodder. It’s a mantra, an incantation — for us all. —Seyward Darby

Author Briohny Doyle‘s personal essay recommendation:

I’m a long-time admirer of Vanessa Berry’s writing, which is always marked by assiduous curiosity and intimate detail. Gentle and Fierce — the title of her new collection — describes her writing as much as her animal subjects. This essay, “Perec’s Cat” is a wonderful example of her enviably light touch at work.

Ghosts, Vauhini Vara, The Believer, August 9, 2021

Even as artificial intelligence creeps across science and technology, bulldozing computational problems, we comfort ourselves in the face of such power by thinking there are some things a program simply can’t do. A program can’t be funny, can’t be fraught, can’t be human. And maybe it can’t. But in Vauhini Vara’s gutpunch of an essay, we begin to see the glimmer of otherwise. Unable to write about her sister’s death of a rare cancer years earlier, Vara began feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her sister — and over the course of nine increasingly stirring attempts, their two voices meld in a way that wipes away any preconceptions you might have brought to the piece. This isn’t a warning klaxon about robot overlords; it’s a bracing exploration of what can happen when we finally hold the mirror at the perfect angle. —Peter Rubin

Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on “Ghosts”:

“My own writing is largely a practice of communion with the dead—recording forgotten lives, lost records, documenting collective memory. I personally use tarot to tap into my own unconscious and excavate the buried material there, and have noted the recent trend of astrology apps and tarot on TikTok and the uncanny specificity of its algorithms to ensure the right message finds you. It is brilliant to use AI as a divination tool, and to explore what mathematical fabric algorithms might be connected to beyond our understanding.”

Contraindications, Alison Criscitiello, The Alpinist, September 17, 2017

Alison Criscitiello’s essay about her climbing partner Anna Smith has stayed with me for a long time. It starts off as a rollicking adventure story: Two best friends embarking on a climbing expedition to the Indian Himalayas. The affection and admiration the women share spills out of her words, “opposites in almost every way imaginable, end members constantly bringing one another closer to an elusive center.” It is not just an exquisitely told quest: It is also about true friendship — and the joy found in sharing beautiful experiences.

Then it becomes something else. When Criscitiello describes Anna’s death, it is raw; I felt her pain. The essay turns into a survival story: Surviving not only the physical challenge of getting Anna off the mountain, but the grief, shock, and loneliness overwhelming Criscitiello now that she “no longer had Anna tethered to me.” For three days, she stays with Anna before a team arrives to help take her body down. Even then, Criscitiello remains, “guarding her” until Anna is finally cremated “along the shores of the Beas River in the heart of Manali” and her ashes taken home. It is time spent remembering Anna, whose “strength emanated from her core” and whose spark “set my aspirations afire.” —Carolyn Wells

The Grief Artist, Traci Brimhall, Guernica Magazine, January 6, 2021

Brimhall’s essay explores the influence that art, process, and ritual have on dealing with grief and loss as she mourns her mother’s death and the end of her marriage. So many essays deal with grief, but few consider the shape of it through so many disparate lenses. As Brimhall makes art out of the unexpected, she weaves a strand of persistent, insistent hope for the reader. “I love that nothing is wasted,” she writes. “Everything is ripe for transformation.” This essay reminds me that despite the fact that humans struggle with loss and change, maybe we can learn something about ourselves if we choose to lean on process and routine. Maybe too, we can get better at being more human as we deal with things that end, be it a life, a friendship, a marriage, or even just a time in our lives. —Krista Stevens

 

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