The subjects in “The Best American Essays 2022” are diverse, the writing inventive and sensitive, and in some cases, quite compelling.
Here are a handful of selections from this anthology that I enjoyed. I recommend them to you for your reading pleasure into the new year.
⋄ Brian Blanchfield’s short personal essay “Abasement” opens with the writer being told he is under arrest for breaking and entering. B&E of a house he (and his partner, John) intend to buy. The author thinks of his action as a lesser infraction – trespassing. He slept overnight in the house. The essay shifts to a wider discussion about being gay, about the need for circumspection in public regarding gayness and about the rights of gay people in Idaho.
Blanchfield is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of Montana.
⋄ Elissa Washuta’s “Drinking Story” penetrates the depths of the author’s painful struggle with the roller coaster ride of coping, and not coping, with alcoholism. To read the essay is to feel the writer’s hurt. “By the end, I wasn’t drinking very much most nights,” Wasuhtu writes. “No more passing out on the bathroom floor with an empty belly and the spins. Only occasional brownouts, or blackouts, but I wouldn’t know.” The author, a member of the Cowlitz tribe in the Pacific Northwest, is an associate professor at Ohio State, where she teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing.
⋄ “Ghosts” by Vauhini Vara is a magnetic mashup of nine mini-stories within this one essay. Each story presents Vara writing the expanding openings (shown in bold face) and a computer – an Artificial Intelligence model called GPT-3 – completing the story. Each mini-story starts with the same first sentence but expands along different descriptive paths: “My sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when I was in my freshman year of high school and she was in her junior year.” Her sister died four years later, in 2001. Vara, born in Saskatchewan, Canada, to East Indian immigrants, was raised there, in Oklahoma and in the Seattle suburbs. Her debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao,” was a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
⋄ “The Gye, the No-Name Hair Salon, the Coup d’Etat and the Small Dreamers” by Jung Hae Chae. To understand the connecting elements of this fascinating personal essay, you probably should deconstruct the title. A gye is an early form of a savings club for the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised. In the essay, the author’s mom and grandmother are members of an all-female gye in 1970s South Korea. It meets monthly in a nameless Seoul hair salon. The coup refers to an overthrow of the Korean government when the author was a child. The small dreamers are assumed the club’s members, and by extension, the author. The essay opens a window into South Korean culture. The author, a Korean-American, won the 2021 Crazyhorse Prize in Nonfiction. She is currently working on a memoir exploring the matrilineal han in the Korean diaspora.
⋄ “It Had to be Gold” by Justin Torres. The author declares that he loses things, calling himself a chronic loser. Never a hoarder. He loses everyday stuff. And essential stuff – a passport, a birth certificate, licenses, a Social Security card, even a laptop that had the only copy of a manuscript he’d been working on for many years. “But never in all that time did I lose any of my chains, or my gold cross. Until one day I did,” Torres writes. The essay invites the reader into his family. His father’s rarely revealed “work costume” included a gold cross, gold chains, a gold watch. And then there’s the young pretty boy “uncle,” whom Torres had never met before nor would he again, wearing a diamond stud earring, chains and a gold watch loosely worn. Torres ties his early fetishizing to his ambivalence about his identity as a gay person, how he sees himself and how others see him. Torres wrote the best-selling novel “We the Animals” and is an assistant professor English at the University of California/Los Angeles.
⋄ Naomi Jackson’s “Her Kind” is one of the more emotionally powerful pieces in this anthology. It opens this way: “Three springs ago, I lost the better part of my mind.” The essay takes the reader into the author’s roller coaster of extremes – from rage (picking fights), fear (having panic attacks), the blues (skulking around the house in a nightie), to overheating (hoping no one would call the cops because she feared, as a black woman, that she might not make it out of the encounter alive). During one of her hospitalizations she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But she says she was unsure what that meant by definition or what it meant for her particular case. Even with that diagnosis, Jackson continued to behave erratically. Slowly she bounced back and accepted that she has a disability that comes with its own stigma. Since her son’s birth, she has resumed writing “with ease and urgency.” Jackson’s first-person perspective lets us see her urgency to manage her symptoms and her life. Jackson wrote the novel “The Star Side of Bird Hill.” She is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.
Alexander Chee edited the anthology. In the introduction, Chee explained that he thinks of the volume as “almost an anthology of elegies. Many of us had our dead on our minds, whether or not we were writing about those lost to the pandemic – the recent dead, the long dead, the family spouses, friends, and even strangers we could not forget.” Chee is an essayist, novelist, poet and journalist.
A curiosity: The anthology has 23 essays by 23 writers. Seems likes an odd number for a “best of.”