We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.
A writer, editor, instructor, and PhD student at Florida State University.
I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye (Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic)
This fall, I taught my freshman composition classes through a pop culture lens. Many of my students had been indoctrinated with the false promises of the five-paragraph essay and began the year with the certainty first-person point of view had no place in professional or academic writing. After I assigned this personal essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates during week one, most, if not all, of them changed their minds. Coates dissects the celebrity of Kanye West by interweaving personal narrative, meticulous research, and deft cultural and political commentary. It’s a remarkable model for what the personal essay can accomplish. How Coates ties the personal to the societal to the universal is hard to match. Coates’s ease in presenting West’s cross-generational relevance also presented an important point of connection between my students and me. Regardless of the age gap, we had all grown up on Kanye’s music. Our mutual familiarity opened up an important conversation about the divide between art and the artist, as well as the sticky social, cultural, and political complexities of fame. Throughout the semester, I found my students returning to this piece. It became a common point of reference. Certainly this essay was a pleasure to teach, but it also had much to teach me, and for that I am grateful.
Author of Ordinary Girls, a memoir, forthcoming October 2019 from Algonquin Books.
Hamzah AD 2018 (Kima Jones, Unruly Bodies/Medium)
This year, I read several different essay collections, and dozens of essays online, but this is the piece I keep returning to, the one I’ve thought about most. It is joy and pain, an elegy, a celebration. Every sentence vibrates with poetry. The image of a young daughter on a bicycle, a father’s favorite memory, a family that’s been separated by incarceration. The intimate details of the rituals of faith and grief, an inventory of the things a family sends for sustenance, when clearly it is love that sustains them. Listen: “Hamzah AD 2018” is a gift.
A writer at work on Murmur, a book about how her congenital heart defect drives her to investigate the contemporary and imperiled world we live in.
Crying in H Mart (Michelle Zauner, The New Yorker)
In the last five years, Michelle Zauner lost her mother and aunt to cancer. Crying in H Mart is her emission of grief, an act of collecting memories of these women, “evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did.” She walks through the aisles of this asian grocery store telling us the Korean words for the sundries she picks up and then — more importantly— the memories of her childhood that they ignite. There is happiness in recalling the way her mom showed her how to eat Jolly Pong, but H Mart also ignites anger for Zauner. In the food court, she cries again at the sight of an old Korean woman eating, asking “[w]hy is she here slurping up spicy jjamppong noodles and my mom isn’t?” And then explaining, “Other people must feel this way. Life is unfair, and sometimes it helps to irrationally blame someone for it.” In H Mart, Zauner gets at what makes grief so difficult a reality: in memories love and tragedy weigh the same, and it is a difficult task to honor both kinds of feelings within. I’m grateful to Zauner for illustrating this, and I want to tell her directly, I am truly sorry for your loss. I also admire Zauner for, in the midst of her grief, asking a larger question that I think many of us biracial kids contend with: what does it mean to be Asian in a body that is mixed? I read Zauner’s essay a few months after giving birth to my son in New York City. My own mom had just flown back to California after living with us for two months so that she could show me how to be a mother while also mothering me. After 33 years of sometimes wishing for a mom who I could talk to about matters of relationship and career, I was overcome by immense gratitude for the person she is, and along with it a sudden and distinct fear of her mortality. When I read her essay, Zauner made it okay for me to embrace these feelings, to acknowledge my shame and the precious time I have now.
Historian and author of the forthcoming book, To Live Here, You Have to Fight.
As Goes the South, So Goes the Nation (Imani Perry, Harper’s)
In an election year when all eyes were on the South, when many sought to convince themselves — with quick, easy stories — that things are better (or worse) than we thought, Imani Perry’s letter from Alabama takes the reader on a different kind of journey through the South. Full of love for Alabama’s Black people — ancestors, artists, musicians, and thinkers — Perry maps the Alabama of past and present that she sees in her mind’s eye, in the outlines of her family history. But the essay is never simply a celebration of a South in which we want to believe. She follows every seductive image with another, more painful, and raw reality. “There are legions of cypress, oak, and loblolly trees, purple blazing star flowers, and all sorts of animals, especially the massive bucks that hunters pridefully kill.” She lulls us into a southern landscape before reminding us: “The Black towns in the Black Belt are now dumping grounds — of fantasies and waste.” It is a powerfully disorienting essay.
Writer, contributing editor at Longreads.
The B-Side of Blackness (Zandria Felice Robinson, The Believer)
2018 was chaotic, mournful, elegiac, with a seemingly unending avalanche of losses and disorienting highs and lows. Much is unresolved. In America, our moral crisis may have been years in the making, but right now, it is all especially noisy, and pronounced, with no real end to the nastiness in sight. At the start of the year, Trump slurred Haitians while rescinding deportation protections put in place after the 2010 earthquake. Last month, Cindy Hyde Smith won an election in Mississippi, the state with the highest number of lynchings in history, despite, (mayb, because of), making public comments about a “public hanging” and laughing it off. The midterms’ “blue wave” brought us Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tahlib, and Lauren Underwood as well as the defeat of Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke and a new awareness of voter suppression.
Through it all, a flowering of culture happened, with novels and essays and poems that articulated, raged, affirmed, and soothed. One of the highlights was this essay, by Zandria Felice Robinson, which expands the possibilities of what an essay can do, its sonics and rhythms, and how it lives on the page. It elucidates our moment with a bluesy clarity, taking the political personally, while asking, amidst all the hellfire and confusion, for peace and quiet.
A writer, teacher, and the editor of When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood.
Intrusions (Melissa Febos, Tin House)
One of my favorite essayists is Melissa Febos, whose symphonic writing is simultaneously intimate — grounded in memory, place, physicality — and grand, encompassing politics, theory, and history. She’s in top form in “Intrusions,” from Tin House, Issue 77. After a tense scene in which she’s propositioned by an unseen man outside her first-floor window, Febos unpacks the voyeuristic behavior of predatory men. She analyzes how cultural touchstones from Hitchcock to Stranger Things romanticize peeping Toms as lovesick loners with sweet intentions, then draws on first-hand accounts and statistics to reveal the terrifying and terrible truth that this behavior is often prelude to assault. As a straight white man, I grew up consuming the noxious culture she deconstructs, and with a father whose advice before a middle school dance consisted of “stare her down, then get in her space.” As Febos writes, patriarchy is “an elegant machinery whose pistons fire silently inside our minds, and whose gleaming gears we mistake for our own jewelry.” Word by word her work calls it out, for which I’m grateful.
Essays editor, Longreads
My Father’s Body, At Rest and in Motion (Siddhartha Mukherjee, The New Yorker)
I was already obsessed with death and dying when I read physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee’s brilliant braided and reported essay in the January 8th issue of The New Yorker. I had no idea how much more relevant it would become for me in a few months’ time, when suddenly my 89-year-old stepfather would fall ill and spend the last month of his life in a kind of medically-induced limbo. Balancing empathy with journalistic and scientific precision, Mukherjee artfully considers the body’s proclivity for homeostasis, which kept his elderly father’s failing body alive for longer than seemed to make sense, after he had begun failing, and falling.