2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays

Screenshot 2016-12-21 12.43.40.png

We asked our staff, editors, and authors to name the essays, published in 2016, that were most transformative and significant to them. The following essays represent a sampling of favorites.

We hope you find them as exciting, inspiring, and essential as we do.

A Tape Doesn’t Change a Goddamn Thing
by Karrie Higgins for Full Grown People

“I can no longer distinguish between the Trump campaign and sexual abuse. I can no longer distinguish between the past and the present.

just, adj:

based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

just, adv:

barely, by a little; very recently, the immediate past

I can no longer distinguish between tattling on my hometown’s Jerry Sandusky and voting for Hillary.

I am going to talk to that reporter. I am going to name names. I am going to say what I want to say. I am going to let the words fall out.

How We See One Another: Our Guest Editors Castro and Sukrungruang in Conversation

by the editors of Brevity

“I prefer compression.  I like the way compression and short forms are more possible, more available, for writers in straitened circumstances.  If you’re doing manual labor all day, or taking care of a child or elderly person, your mind can be turning over sentences and paragraphs; you can revise and revise and revise.  But you can’t hold long texts in your head—at least, most of us can’t.  Then, when you have five or ten minutes at the end of the day, you can write down what you’ve been composing in your head.  You can produce small gemlike pieces far more readily than long texts, which require—at least in my experience—more time, more solitude, more peace than poor people are usually afforded.”

But We Never ask Why Rapists get to be Anonymous Gorillas

by an anonymous contributor for Entropy

“Public conversations relentlessly revolve around the well-being of the rapist and not us: Whether or not he is believed. Whether or not someone is oppressing him by accusing him. Whether or not he was abused, too, and whether or not he was troubled with depression, oppression, or social problems. Public conversations demand we take every last step to understand and be empathetic to his psychology, even though he is an autonomous adult, fully capable of making the choice not to rape.”

When you Handle Poison

by Jennifer Tamayo for Mice Magazine

“Sitting with a group of women and sharing, one-by-one, our stories of abuse and assault and harassment in NYC’s poetry circles was upsetting though, at moments, empowering too. Voices cracking open a room saying you are not alone. And yet, later, walking home from the meetings, living with those accounts while doing dishes or taking the train, I felt and feel demoralized. Of course you are not alone. The proof is your bodies. There are many of them. Many more of them than you even know about or will know about.”

You Will Find me in the Starred Sky

by Keema Waterfield for Brevity

“You break teeth and dislocate your jaw in your sleep. Grinding, your dentist says. But: There might be more to it, your hypnotherapist says when you go in to quit smoking. So you regress to your three-year-old self and remember the first time you bit down. You were waiting for Ray to come back. You were ready to bite his throat out. Ready to protect yourself and your sister, one year younger, and you knew he would kill you for it. He never came back, but there you were with your jaw clamped ever after.”

10-sky

On Coupling: An Inventory

by Melissa Mathewson for Guernica Magazine

“I look to animals for proof that monogamy is an unnatural arrangement. I want their stories to align with mine, to find that they wander and digress so I can say, “See, I’m not wrong! All animals like to screw around.” It’s difficult to work out this complicated mess of biology, emotion, sexual freedom. There must be some kind of instinctive or innate justification that what’s real and true is our fundamental nature to roam and multi-partner.”

Not Wanting Kids is Entirely Normal

by Jessica Valenti for The Atlantic

“Today, American women have more public images of themselves than that of a housewife. We see ourselves depicted in television, ads, movies, and magazines (not to mention relief!) as politicians, business owners, intellectuals, soldiers, and more. But that’s what makes the public images of total motherhood so insidious. We see these diverse images of ourselves and believe that the oppressive standard Friedan wrote about is dead, when in fact it has simply shifted. Because no matter how many different kinds of public images women see of themselves, they’re still limited. They’re still largely white, straight upper-middle-class depictions, and they all still identify women as mothers or non-mothers.”

I Am Not Muslim But

by Ayşe Papatya Bucak for Asteri(x) Journal

“My mother is American; my father is Turkish. He is not a Muslim either. If they reopen and we are taken at least we will be in the camps together. My brother, too. I suppose I should wish for their freedom, but instead I wish for their company.

I don’t speak Turkish or Arabic, don’t know how to pray, don’t know how to be anything other than American; internment will be its own foreign country. But maybe I’ll have a lot of time to read, to study Turkish, to learn to pray.”

Papatya-Islam-booklet-1-1050x615.jpg

The Mule Deer

by Debbie Weingarten for Vela Magazine

“Perhaps because I am an almost-mother, I do not think before scaling the fence. I am running into the open desert surrounding the farm, stepping across deep grooves the water has cut. The creosote bushes wear layers of sparkling silt. By the time I reach the clearing, the dogs have torn a hole in the side of the baby mule deer. Her round glassy eyes are wide, and she is screaming. The sound is almost human. She goes silent when she sees me.

Our dogs loll their pink tongues at me, sides heaving, drunk on the chase and the catch. They are saying, Aren’t you proud of us? Aren’t you? The alpha female, a gangly white giantess, stands nearest to the deer. Our two beloved mutts stand a few feet back in the brush, watching.”

Arabian-desert_Bill-Strain.jpg
(Source: Bill Strain, via Vela Magazine)

I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump

by Jonna Ivin for Stir Journal

“I understood their fear and frustration. I’ve spent a great deal of my life living in poverty. It’s scary being poor, worrying that one parking ticket would mean I couldn’t buy groceries, or deciding whether I should see a dentist about a toothache or pay my trailer park fee. It’s humiliating and terrifying, but sitting around and crying about it isn’t an option because we know that the only thing more pathetic than someone living in poverty is someone living in poverty and crying about it. How many times have we been told to get a job, or that if we just worked harder we could improve our situation? Work harder. Work harder. Work harder. American society has made it perfectly clear: if you are poor, it’s your own damn fault.”

Arizaboesu

by Elizabeth Miki Brina for Hippocampus Magazine

“My mother’s name is Kyoko, which means “respectful” or “apricot” or “echo” or “from heaven” in Japanese depending on how it’s written. My mother was born in Okinawa in 1948, three years after the end of WWII, three years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, three years after the horrific Battle of Okinawa that destroyed one quarter of the island’s population and ninety percent of its buildings and infrastructure.”

Picture-1.jpg

Marilynne Robinson talks religion, fear and the American spirit

by Michael Schulson for Salon

You write sincere books. What does it mean to be a sincere novelist?

I don’t know, I’ve never been called that before.

You’ve never been called that? Okay, am I totally misreading you here?

I tend to mean what I say. I think there is a self-protective impulse that takes the form of cynicism very broadly in the culture now. You make yourself vulnerable by suggesting that there’s anything you actually believe in.

People talk about American values. Yes, there are American values, things like democracy and generosity and so on. If we cannot say that these things are possible or characteristic, we don’t have them to orient ourselves by.”

US author Robinson smiles during an interview in central London
(Source: Reuters/Dylan Martinez, via Salon.)

Poetry Betrays Whiteness

by Lucas De Lima

“To inherit this blood-soaked history means many things.  As a writer, I need to go beyond the narratives of immigration or U.S. imperialism that are expected of me.  But neither is it enough to acknowledge my colonial lineage.  The guilt of proximity to whiteness is not enough.  White guilt is no recipe for aspiring race traitors.  What I need is something most of my elders don’t have.  I’m talking about a blueprint for solidarity and transformation.”

Gratitude is my Terrain: Maybe:”

by Renée E. D’Aoust for Sweet

“Sample of my daily list:

○    Do Chris Pei QiGong
○    Post review of Valerie Fioravanti’s book Garbage Night at the Opera
○    Faccio i compiti per il corso d’Italiano
○    Walkies
○    Finish Rain Taxi book review of Sarah Einstein’s Mot
○    Write
○    Grade papers from ENGL 101 & 102
○    Buy plane tkt MXP > AMS > MSP > GEG
○    Drink 2 cups of coffee max
○    Cuddle Tootsie”

My President was Black

by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic

“In our conversations, Obama said he didn’t doubt that there was a sincerely nonracist states’-rights contingent of the GOP. And yet he suspected that there might be more to it. “A rudimentary knowledge of American history tells you that the relationship between the federal government and the states was very much mixed up with attitudes towards slavery, attitudes towards Jim Crow, attitudes towards antipoverty programs and who benefited and who didn’t,” he said.”

55bff0d18.jpg
(Source: Pete Souza / White House, via The Atlantic)

Apocalypse Logic

by Elissa Washuta for The Offing

“From 1953 to 1968, the U.S. government tried to wipe out some tribes by ending their relationships—withdrawing federal recognition of these tribes as sovereigns, ending the federal trust responsibility to those tribes, allowing land to be lost to non-Natives. The tribes terminated, for the most part, were those the U.S. government considered to be successful because of the wealth within their tribal lands: timber, oil, water, and so on. Terminating a tribe meant fully forsaking all treaty responsibilities to them.”

aunt-virginia-miller

(Source: “Aunt Virginia Miller” by Edward Curtis, 1910 courtesy of Library of Congress, via The Offing.)

Collection

by Chelsey Clammer for Hobart

“The concept of dust collecting on ashes intrigues me. Dead human skin cells accumulating on dead human body ashes. Fascinating. Mirroring my reaction to dust, I become curious about the story of what’s inside that little wooden box—the ashes, their abstraction. What parts of my dad—his body—I now keep near me. This time, my intrigue isn’t rooted symbolism or metaphor. This isn’t about religious beliefs or spirituality. It’s not about the cost of burial, or where we can go and what we can do to remember our dead.”

On Slaughter and Praying: An Essay in Two Parts

by Carol Ann Davis for The Georgia Review

“Again we’ve dragged the boys to midtown Manhattan, the both of them inclined instead toward the park or street food, toward anything else, but we go to Picasso Sculpture at the MOMA, explaining that rather than the flat paintings they critique as not as good as what we do they’ll be seeing sculpture, ideas made plastic. Some of the pieces, I’ve heard or read somewhere, are just folded paper napkins Picasso made to please a bored sister at a restaurant, the kind of thing the boys do when they’re feeling generous. I say this partly to entice and partly to annoy them. We’re inside an ongoing debate about the efficacy of modern art in general; their interest in winning it means they will be quiet through the rooms, assembling arguments for the drive home.”

What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone

by Heather Plett for Uplift Magazine

“To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.”

holding-space_circle-1.jpg

Consider the Lobster Mushroom: being a brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction

by Heidi Czerwiec for Brevity

 “Remind yourself of two things:

1.If you can’t deal with the mushroom now, it will come back. It will always come back, popping up whether you want it to or no, because it’s part of a larger system, mycelia feeding on what’s rotten, what lurks, always, beneath the surface. If you decide in the future you’re ready to pluck it and make something of it, it will be there, mushrooming.

2. You don’t have to reveal the source of your mushrooms. Few enthusiasts do, going to great lengths to conceal their sites by lying, covering their tracks. But most are happy to share the fruits of their labors, the fruited mushroom, the finished product, however fraught. You can share, without sharing everything.”

Watching And Reading About White People Having Sex Is My Escape

by Esther Wang for Buzzfeed

“I still don’t know what drew me in. It could’ve been boredom: I was a voracious reader, having little else to do but read, as my parents eschewed things like television, pop music, and movies — not out of any sort of cultural elitism or skinflint immigrant desire to deprive their children of as many opportunities to waste time as possible, but simply because they were too broke and too tired from working 12- and 15-hour days to think that we might want those distractions.”

Coming Apart

by Rebecca Solnit for Harper’s Magazine

“For many longtime residents of the Mission District, the fires, the evictions, the exploding housing prices, and the police killings of brown, black, poor, and homeless locals are not arbitrary events. They are instead related forces, all meant to drive out people like them. The anguish is so intense that five people camped in front of the Mission Police Station this spring, refusing to eat a bite, as part of a protest they called Hunger for Justice. The fast, which obliged throngs of restaurant and bar patrons to walk past starving, outraged people for several weeks, took place almost directly between Foodhall and the former food hall.”

I was Raped / I was Battered

by Kelly Sundberg and Melissa Ferrone

“Survey of the Damage:

One ceramic bowl shattered.

One busted foot.

One marriage over.

One fatherless son.

One homeless mother.

One career ended (hers, not his).

One yellow flier with a list of services available to victims.

One phone call to the community domestic-violence shelter.

One email from the director of residential services. She wanted her parking permit back.”

A Politics of Mere Being

by Carl Phillips for Poetry Magazine

“There are countless aspects to a self; race and sexual orientation are only two of them, it seems to me, neither the least nor the most 
important. It’s more accurate to say there’s a constant shifting of 
hierarchy, depending on any given moment in experience. Am I a gay black man when roasting a chicken at home for friends? Sure. But that’s not what I’m most conscious of at the time. Am I necessarily, then, stripped of political resonance at that moment? Or is not the sharing of food with others a small social contract analogous to the contract of giving and taking — of interaction — that we call citizenship in a democratic society? Is this a stretch? Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?”

armando-veve
(Source: Armando Veve, via Poetry Magazine.)

“All the Fierce Tethers

by Lia Purpura for the New England Review

“Often, however, the most intricate systems are identified first by way of their ruin. One comes to know them only briefly in their magnificence, before news of their loss takes up its platform, then overtakes the conversation—and rightly, since the conversation is finally urgent.

The snowshoe hare once lived by a system perfectly emplaced, a fluent method, ardent, elegant, brimmed with muscle, cunning, and flight.

Stay with me now. I’ll slow it way down.”

Of Mice and Memory

by Staci Schoenfeld for The Manifest Station

“When you get home (after a stop at the bakery for cupcakes), you open the package and pull open the back of the trap, and proceed to slather it with the name-brand peanut butter you have always loved. Only the real thing for this Midwestern mouse. If you were in San Francisco still, you would have gone for the organic stuff. After you maneuver the back panel back into place, a feat requiring more intense hand-eye coordination than you would have expected, you set the trap on the stove where you last saw the poop and you wait.

You expect the mouse will be caught that evening.”

bottles-331753_1280.jpg

Untethered from Product or Object: An Interview with Diane Seuss

by Emilia Phillips for 32Poems

“When I sit to write, my body/mind seems to naturally visit this pool, and others like it, spring fed sites that have garnered the energy of archetype through years of revisiting. Even if I am not writing that scene, it primes me for a dive, and I guess, for me, that is the source of everything, where the unbearable gives birth to language and imagination. Maybe that’s the baby my father’s ghost is carrying. This is probably less muscle memory than the figurative poetic muscle you reference. It represents a memory site of complex, incompatible feelings—tenderness, resistance, fear, love, horror, sweetness—that the language in poems can approach.”

Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid

by Rufi Thorpe for Vela Magazine

“It was pure joy to see my friend after so long. Just laying eyes on him made me glad; he had grown a Freddy Mercury mustache and was wearing a weird child’s size sweater and I loved every inch of him. Out of our mouths flew sentences too fast to filter, so desperate were we to tell each other everything, to make clear what had happened in the last ten years. I found myself, as I crammed my thighs into my shapewear, saying, ‘Oh, well, I love my husband, he is the perfect man for me and it was love at first sight, but I would never willingly enter into this state of servitude again.'”

mother-billboard.jpg

(Source: Siestas, via Vela.)

Literary Juneteenth (or Why I Left The Offing)

by Casey Rochetau for The Offing

“Later that same day, I went out to dinner with two other black women poets, one of whom had invited Darcy to join us. I was wearing a shirt that reads “Ratchetness as Praxis” and, in all likelihood, talking too loudly in mixed company — go figure. At a audible downslope in the conversation, someone asked what praxis meant. I offered an adequate definition that included a Foucault reference, but Darcy still insisted on looking it up on her phone. I guess she thought I would wear a shirt emblazoned with something I couldn’t define, or maybe she assumed my field of expertise was ratchetness. Her behavior may sound minor, but evidentiary information sometimes does. In that moment, I barely batted an eye. In fact, it was only upon reflecting on all the instances that led up to the tweet, and my subsequent resignation on Twitter, that it even struck me as out of pocket.”

Black in Middle America

by Roxane Gay for Brevity 

“Friends in cities have long asked me how I do it—spending year after years in these small towns that are so inhospitable to blackness. I say I’m from the Midwest, which I am, and that I have never lived in a big city, which is also true. I say that the Midwest is home even if this home does not always embrace me, and that the Midwest is a vibrant, necessary place. I say I can be a writer anywhere and as an academic, I go where the work takes me. Or, I said these things. Now, I am simply weary. I say, “I hate it here,” and a rush of pleasure fills me. I worry that I can’t be happy or feel safe anywhere. But then I travel to places where my blackness is unremarkable, where I don’t feel like I have to constantly defend my right to breathe, to be. I am nurturing a new dream, of a place I already think of as home—bright sky, big ocean. I know the where and the why and even the who might be waiting there. I just need to say when.”

C201405-C-Roxane-Gay-6778f8dd.jpg

(Source: Chris Strong, via Chicago Magazine.)

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

8 thoughts on “2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays

  1. Brian says:

    FYI, the link for “Consider the Lobster Mushroom: being a brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction“ by Heidi Czerwiec leads to A Politics of Mere Being by Carl Phillips.

  2. HeidiC says:

    Hi! Thank you so much for including me on this list — I’m gobsmacked! Someone pointed out that the listing for my piece “Consider the Lobster Mushroom” above actually links to Carl Phillips’ work, instead of to my essay — the correct link is here: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/consider-the-lobster-mushroom-being-a-brief-theory-of-the-craft-of-creative-nonfiction/

  3. […] loved perusing “2016 30 Most Transformative Essays” from the Sundress Blog. This is a compilation you don’t want to […]

  4. […] to see that Renée d’Aoust’s essay “Gratitude is my Terrain” has been named a 2016 Transformative Essay! We first spoke in 2011, and I am so happy to invite her back to talk about her fabulous essay, a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: