Soniah Kamal’s “The Reluctant Writer” in Catapult
At 14, Sonia Kamal, like many girls her age, was inspired by a woman on television and decided that she wanted to be an actress. Her parents, professional, conservative Muslims raising their family in Saudi Arabia and then Pakistan, told her absolutely not. Again, when she was approached by a teacher who thought she might have some acting potential, her father said again absolutely not—but you can write.
So she did. She wrote fiction and poetry, even with some success. Kamal’s essay is a meditation on family obligations, independence and opportunity. She lingers on the difficulty of compromising your dreams.
If you really love something, do you ever miss your boat? Is it ever too late to live some version of your dreams? Pakistani women grow up being told that, once they get married, they are free to fulfill all their interests. Once I got married, I was technically free to indulge in my “true calling,” to “fulfill my dreams,” if not on the big screen or on TV, then at least in an amateur theater group and, if not that, then would I yet not have practiced monologues, gone through scripts, something, anything to remain true to myself?
It isn’t until she’s an adult, with children of her own, that she recognizes what inspired her in the movie she saw when she was a child wasn’t the job of acting, but the strong, independent woman the actress was portraying, realizing that she had, in fact, done that.
Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” in The New Yorker
The subtitle of Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” simply states: A week in the author’s life when it became impossible to control the course of events. This isn’t misleading, of course, as there are many things in her life contributing to a sense of chaos. Her husband has moved out after 13 years, there is a family of squirrels living in her spare bedroom, the health of her eldest dog is failing, and Beard is up three times a night to bring her out and change her blankets. She is having a hard time, and going to work seems to be the only place where she feels like herself, where things seem normal.
It’s not until halfway through the piece that Beard hints at something more sinister, and through context clues, we realize that the pictures of people, unmentioned at this point in the story thusfar, are the victims of a mass shooting at the University of Iowa, where Beard works.
It’s November 1, 1991, the last day of the first part of my life. Before I leave I pick up the eraser and stand in front of the collie’s picture on the blackboard, thinking. I can feel Chris watching me, drinking his coffee. His long legs are crossed, his eyes are mild. He has a wife named Ulrike, a daughter named Karein, and a son named Göran. A dog named Mica. A mother named Ursula. A friend named me.
Her prose is so seamless, sad but funny, that this could’ve been seven thousand words about the end of a marriage. What sets this piece apart from the many longform reportage pieces so readily available online in the aftermath of mass shooting after mass shooting, is not only Beard’s proximity to the event and relationship to the victims, but how she sets up the vulnerable, precarious position she inhabits. A week in the author’s life when it became impossible to control the course of events is an understatement. It should instead come with a disclaimer: Queue up an episode of Cheers to relieve the emotional devastation of a week in Jo Ann Beard’s life.
Elane Johnson’s “Math of Marriage” in Creative Nonfiction
Creative Nonfiction’s Best Essay winner begins at an appropriate place for an issue about marriage: a bride is about to walk down the aisle, and perhaps, seems nervous. The title, “Math of Marriage,” suggests a ledger of the additions and subtractions being married brings to one’s life, the pros and cons, or perhaps what happens when two individuals combine personal finances. But Johnson’s story is more about probability and counting. She counts each of her marriages, confidently and without regret, acknowledging but not giving in to the judgement associated with a woman’s third or fourth marriage.