December 2011

Jill Talbot

nonfiction

The Best American Essays 2011 edited by Edwidge Danticat and Robert Atwan

When I discovered Edwidge Danticat was editing this year's issue of Best American Essays, I assumed two things: the collection would be diverse, and the essays resonant and responsible. I suspected these to be qualities of the not-yet-published edition because I read Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying a few years ago and still recall those qualities so strong in her work: personal resonance and historical accuracy and accountability. So much so that Brother, I'm Dying redeems the memoir as a genre for me in the way it firmly establishes how our personal histories are part of larger histories. Edwidge Danticat is a careful writer, and so I turned the cover page trusting to find a careful collection. As Pico Iyer points out in his contribution, "Chapels," "You create a wider circle not by thinking about yourself, but about the people around you, and how you can find common ground with them." It's clear that Danticat has found common ground in these essays.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives... and we tell our two or three stories -- each time in a new disguise -- maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen." The beauty of this series, Danticat claims, is that it reminds us that the gifted practitioners of this genre are "being heard." And they are voices you will want to hear, again and again, read after read.

In this year's introduction, Robert Atwan boldly claims that this is "the most diverse in the series, both in its range of writers and in its exciting arrays of themes and topics" -- thirteen women, eleven men, eleven multicultural, four with British ties, one experimental (aren't they all?), sectioned pieces, others linear, more narrative, commentary, and one an exquisite prose poem (in my mind). In the 2009 edition, Mary Oliver leaned toward the literary, Christopher Hitchens in 2010 foregrounded the academic essay. Danticat bows toward humanity.

Four years after the publication of her award winning autobiography -- the issues of life, the influence of a father, loss, mortality, healthcare, the fragmentation of self, the writer's sense of obligation to get the words right, the resilience borne from tragedy, grief, the quietude of cultural ritual, the questioning of authority, the warnings of (technological) influence, the solitude of death, and the promise of birth move within the pages of this collection -- just as they do in Danticat's work. Just look at some of the titles, "Port-au-Prince: The Moment," "Grieving," "What Broke My Father's Heart" (Danticat's father had heart problems),  "Long Distance," and "Patient." I'm thinking of one of the most powerful pieces, "Beds," by Toi Dellicotte, who writes, "It wasn't my father's thought that I took in; it was his language." And then I think of the moment in Brother, I'm Dying when Danticat receives a Smith-Corona Corsair from her father who urges, "This will help you measure your words, to line them up neatly." As an anthologist, Danticat has lined up these essays in a similar way.

Kirkus Reviews identifies the voices in this collection as "brave," claiming that the edition "skews heavily toward personal essays in which people face up to life's overwhelming sadness." Again, echoes of Danticat's proclivities as a writer rumble beneath the pages of these pieces. I kept imagining her reading them, nodding, knowing. But there is more than sadness: there is redemption and resolve, not resolution, mind you, we are talking here, after all, about essays. And with a piece titled "A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay," one of two pieces Danticat directly highlights in her introduction, the shape of a Danticat-edited essay collection begins to form, to have a voice, and that voice is at times poetic, honest, matter of fact, disorienting, reminiscent, redemptive, searching, and confessional -- and the strongest ones contain multitudes. It's a good collection, so much so that after reading the first few essays, I emailed my managing editor with the words, "My Bookslut review of Best Essays may read something like: So fucking good you have to put the book down after each essay and stare out the window."

The range of topics, as pointed out by Atwan, is a valid claim; these pieces are much more than reflections of Danticat's proclivities. The approaches to the essay range from journalism, such as Charlie LeDuff's "What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?," an indictment of justice and education in the Motor City; to confession, such as Victor LaValle's "Long Distance," which provides insight to phone sex relationships and how the lonely may seek alternatives in the absence of love; to the academic-minded commentary, as in Zadie Smith's "Generation Why?," a struggle against Facebook and a comparative analysis of the real versus the filmic Zuckerberg (a piece complete with endnotes); as well as literary-influenced pieces, including Susan Straight's "Travels with My Ex" (Steinbeck) and Caryl Phillips's "Rude Am I in My Speech" (Othello). Overall, healthcare dominates the discussion -- with essays devoted to Medicare (Katy Butler's "What Broke My Father's Heart,") spending a season in the hospital (Rachel Riederer's "Patient,"), and the realities of abortion in a pre-Roe v. Wade America (Bridget Potter's "Lucky Girl) -- as it did much of the media, congress, and town hall meetings as these very essays were being written. Add to that plane crashes, ethnography, post-nature, race and culture issues, along with turn off your device(s) entreaties, and you have an ambitious collection. Danticat's selections are timely, to be sure -- an accurate representation of the art of the essay and the year it captures.

Upon completing the collection, I realize that writers like what they write, meaning that we are drawn to the essays that echo our own longings, our losses, our leanings, and our language. But an anthologist's task, as I see it, is to chart an objective landscape in order to showcase how the essay is currently being surveyed and how it is measuring our times. For me, just as she did with her memoir, Danticat has redeemed this series by opening it up to an expansive and variegated map of strong essay writing.

Coming back to "Chapels," in which Pico Iyer notes, "Our explorations were only as rich as the still place we brought them back to." It's a line applicable to every piece in this collection, rich and still and bringing the reader back to place that only he or she may be able to name. The reader will definitely listen, just as Fitzgerald hoped.

The Best American Essays 2011 edited by Edwidge Danticat and Robert Atwan
Mariner Books
ISBN: 978-0547479774
272 pages