I’ve found, after reading roughly half the volumes of The Best American Essays, a series that goes back to 1986, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps it’s because the essay itself is such a slippery form, meaning so many different things to so many different people, but I’ve found each volume to be less a sampling of the wide range of examples of the form in any given year, and more a sampling of the tastes of each year’s guest editor.
This schism between definitions of the essay is nowhere more apparent, in my opinion, than in the transition between BAE 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens (RIP), and BAE 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat. I can almost imagine Series Editor Robert Atwan telling himself, “OK, last year’s essays were predominantly academic, historical, and/or polemic, so I need to balance that out with some memoir and personal trauma essays this year.”
Enter Danticat, whose stunning, elegiac memoir of her uncle’s and her father’s immigration to the U.S., Brother, I’m Dying, probably won her the editorship of this year’s volume. Of her twenty-four selections, fifteen are primarily memoiristic and a full twenty focus on personal or communal trauma (including Hitchens’ own essay on his diagnosis with esophageal cancer).
I’ll focus many of my coming questions on specific essays, but I wanted to start by asking if anyone else felt this volume to be a bit, well, heavy? (Though not literally – at 242 pages total, it’s actually one of the shortest volumes in the series.) This isn’t a complaint, mind you, but rather a reflection on the cumulative effect the essays had on me. The only volume I can think of that could match it would be 2006, edited by Lauren Slater, in which every single essay seemed to be a meditation on death and grief.
So, what say y’all? What were your general impressions from the volume?