Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil’s “Everything is Yours, Everything is Not Yours” in Matter
Wamariya’s and Weil’s essay—about Wamariya fleeing Rwandan genocide, becoming a refugee in America, and then trying to find her way back to some understanding of history and home—is one of those stories whose importance is felt immediately, even in summary. But it’s not how big this essay is that makes it extraordinary; it’s how so small and personal, how it circles around the vulnerability of experience, the truthfulness never cloaked in sentimentality, the truths so harsh it seems they couldn’t possibly become obscured.
But they do, in some ways. Even when her family joins her in America, they do not talk about their past. Instead, she settles into the American system the best she can, eventually earning admission to Yale. There, her philosophy teacher proposes a problem: “Your boat is sinking. One passenger is old and one is young. Who do you save?”
With this, my veneer of decorum started to crack…. “Do you want to know what’s that really like?” I blurted out. “This is an abstract question to you?” Everybody stared.
Stories of her life in America are offset by the stories of fleeing war in Africa—and the absurdity that arises in their contrast leaves both looking surreal. At one point, she thinks, “Maybe this life in Congo was real and before was just a dream?” It’s the type of sentiment that soaks the whole narrative: Was that a dream? Is this a dream? But it’s undeniably real, presented in writing that is precise, unyielding, uncompromising:
You know those little pellets you drop in water that expand into huge sponges? My life was the opposite. Everything shrunk. I was forbidden to play in the mango tree, then forbidden to play outside. Our curtains, which my mother threw open at five each morning, suddenly remained closed. The drumming began, loud and far away. Then the car horns. My father stopped working after dark. My mother quit going to church. Instead she prayed in my room, where my whole family now slept, because it had the smallest window. We ate dinner with the lights off. My parents’ faces turned into faces I had never seen, and I heard noises that I did not understand—not screaming, worse.
Shannon Reed’s “The Compliment Game” in Guernica
This piece captures so well the difficulties of teaching and the complexity of the lives that many students navigate on a daily basis. Teaching is hardly ever just teaching because students often enter the classroom with lives so broken that they need every shred of love and decency and support you can offer. And when you do your best, which for Reed as a playwright means teaching her students how to compliment each other, it might fall short. One of her students is murdered, and the others dedicate the class play to him, a moving gesture accompanied by moving words, but not something that can overcome the plain fact that a young life was so senselessly cut short.
Lili Loofbourow’s “Bull Shipping: On Chilean Mothers and California Gold” in The Virginia Quarterly Review
In this meaty essay, Loofbourow delves into the personal and historical legacy of President John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Chile-California Program, which facilitated various kinds of cultural exchange and “informally, but definitively” paved the way for her own family’s move to California from Chile. Launched in 1963 as part of the administration’s Alliance for Progress, the program was an unprecedented effort to establish a “special relationship” between an American state and a foreign country. Loofbourow considers “the history of how that geopolitical mismatch between a giant state and a tiny nation filtered through actual people, down to me.”
The specifics of that history are rich and complex, featuring a life-altering tumor, Loofbourow’s steely great-aunt, Quela; and some impressive DIY international diplomacy. Along the way, we see how some of the most important turns in our lives result from bits of luck and chance encounters that could just as easily not have happened. “Truth is tricky in my family, where the teller’s ratio of malice to goodwill means a great deal more than anything as prosaic as evidence,” Loofbourow writes (a sentiment familiar to anyone who has been frustrated by foggy family mythology). The evidence she presents here, and the care and rigor with which she offers it, might persuade them to reconsider.