We may live in the age of the text and Tweet, but 2011 produced great essays:
- The late Christopher Hitchens's searing look at his cancer.
- Katy Butler's personal examination of the health care system in light of her family's decision to turn her ailing father's pacemaker off.
- Chang Rae Lee's memory of his immigrant Korean family's first Thanksgiving turkey, and their confusion about the stuffing.
- Victor Lavalle's essay, which begins with the line, "the most loving relationship of my early 20s cost me 99 cents a minute."
All these stories are from the collection, "The Best American Essays Of 2011," edited by writer Edwidge Danticat.
As Danticat told Here and Now's Robin Young, "some of these essays, people are talking about as if they were published last week, like Zadie Smith's 'Generation Y,' her take on the Facebook generation, which has become part of the cultural conversation. I run into people who want to sit down and talk to me about it for an hour."
Book Excerpt: The Best American Essays Of 2011
Edited by: Edwidge Danticat
Introduction, by Edwidge Danticat
Through recent experiences with both birth and death, I have discovered that we enter and leave life as, among other things, words. Though we might later become daughters and sons, many
of us start out as whispers or rumors before ending up with our names scrawled next to our parents’ on birth certificates. We also struggle to find, both throughout our lives and at the end, words to pin down how we see and talk about ourselves.
When my brothers and I first learned, in the fall of 2004, that our father was dying, one of my brothers bravely asked him a question which led to my father narrating his life to us.
“Pop, have you enjoyed your life?” my brother wanted to know.
Stripped bare of any pretense and fully vulnerable, my father gifted us with his life experiences to do with as we pleased. We could use them, as such statements are often said to do, to inform, instruct, or inspire ourselves, or we could simply revel in them, or in the fact that he was even sharing them with us, then move on.
Seven years later, we have still not moved on. I can’t say that I remember every single word my father uttered on his deathbed, but every story somehow feels like it’s still within reach.
Such is the power of the stories we dare tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct, and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are to words.
Having written both fiction and nonfiction, I sometimes have my choice of the shield that fiction offers, and perhaps bypassing it, when I do, leaves me feeling even more exposed. As most people who take on this task know, along with self-revelation often comes self-questioning of a kind that is perhaps more obvious in some essays than others. When we insert our “I” (our eye) to search deeper into someone, something, or ourselves, we are always risking a yawn or a slap, indifference or disdain. How do we even know that what interests or delights us, alarms or terrifies us, will invoke a raised eyebrow in someone else? Perhaps the craft, the art, in whatever form it takes, is our bridge. We are narrating, after all (as my father was), slivers of moments, fragments of lives, declaring our love and hatred, concerns, and ambivalence, outing our hidden selves, and hoping that what we say will make sense to others.
The beauty of this series is that it reminds a handful of the many persistent and gifted practitioners of the various forms of this craft that they are being heard. Essayists, it seems, occasional or regular, are a bit more vulnerable these days, and as if the backlit screens of computers or smart phones were a metaphor for this, essays are now read under an even more glaring spotlight. This also forces us to push beyond certain boundaries, to be less formulaic and stereotypical, however that might manifest itself. But essentially we are guided in part by what Ralph Ellison in his groundbreaking essay“Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience” calls “art hunger,” and what he defines as our urgent desire to put faith in our ability to communicate with others both directlyand symbolically.
The Best American Essays 2010 guest editor, Christopher Hitchens, who is a contributor
to this year’s edition, recently wrote a moving essay about what it means for a writer to have a “voice” when he has lost his ability to speak. “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed,” he wrote in the June 2011 issue of the magazine Vanity Fair. I hope you feel, as I did, personally addressed by each of these essays.
In the beginning, it is biblically said (not a flawless transition from Mr. Hitchens), was the word. And no matter where we are along the span of our existence, we are perhaps all searching for that word, the one that is sometimes conciliatory and sometimes contrarian, enlightening or disturbing, the one word that will launch us stumbling into a sea of other words, most of which we will discard and some of which we will keep, as we write ourselves anew.
On January 12, 2010, I was home in Miami — as I am most days — trying to get a bit of writing done while looking after my two young daughters. If thirty-five tumultuous seconds had not rattled Haiti, the country of my birth, at 4:53 p.m., that day would probably have blended into all the others, except that my girls and I had been scheduled to take a photograph that afternoon.
I did not want to take the photograph. I had grown photo-averse because of some baby weight that I just couldn’t seem to shake. My girls, however, were very excited. A friend had given them identical embroidered white dresses and they wanted to wear them. (At least the older one did; the one-year-old did not get a vote.) So off we went that afternoon to a photographer neighbor’s studio to get our picture taken.
Of all the pictures we took, my favorite is one of my five-year-old leaning her head ever so gently on my shoulder as her younger sister tries to choke me by yanking the heavy necklace around my neck. When I look at that picture now, it further deepens for me the sadness of that day. Looking at our serene, alf-smiling faces reminds me how much we instinctively trust the banality and predictability of daily life. Until something larger shatters our world.
After the photo session, I drove to a supermarket in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood and picked up a few things for dinner. As soon as I cleared the checkout aisle, my cell phone began to ring, and from that moment on the lives of 10 million Haitians and others, and to a much lesser extent my own life, have never been the same. Losing two family members and countless friends who had no time for last words was the least of it. Watching hundreds of thousands of others continue to struggle to survive adds daily to the weight of those losses.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the novelist and essayist Joan Didion famously wrote. We also tell ourselves stories in order not to die. And at any moment these stories can change.
In “Port-au-Prince: The Moment,” Mischa Berlinski recalls surviving the January 2010 earthquake. However, his essay, which poignantly and powerfully describes the height of disaster, echoes an instinct we might also display even as we attempt to capture the quietest, most predictable moments: our yearning to preserve our words. Berlinski was working on his novel when the earthquake struck. When his chair began to roll, his first thought was to press Control+S on his laptop keyboard and save his novel. He started leaving with his laptop, then went back and put it on the table, reasoning that the book would be safer inside than outside. Though we might disagree on some things — that, for example, “without the presence — and the guns—of the United Nations, the [Haitian] government would have been nothing but a band of refugees and exiles” — reading, like writing, is never a dispassionate act. Essays, in the end, are not monologues. Whether we are nodding our heads or shouting back or writing protest letters in response, the most compelling essays often demand a reaction, either instantly or much later, when the words have settled inside us, under our skin, within us.
In “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay,” Christy Vannoy writes, “I am a Personal Essay and I was born with a port wine stain and beaten by my mother.” Thankfully, essays like the twenty-four included in this collection are brilliant examples that the essay, port-wine-stained or otherwise, continues not only to survive but to thrive.
-- Edwidge Danticat
“Introduction” by Edwidge Danticat from THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2011. Introduction copyright © 2011 by Edwidge Danticat. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
- Edwidge Danticat, author of "Krik" Krak," and the family memoir, "Brother I'm Dying." Danticat edited and wrote and introduction to "The Best American Essays Of 2011."
This segment aired on December 30, 2011.