Photo: Caleb Roenigk

Lacy M. Johnson’s Five Essayists

This past October the New York Times Sunday Book Review asked, “Is This a Golden Age for Women Essayists?” With books by Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson on so many nightstands, it might seem, at first, that the answer to this question is a resounding YES. But as Cheryl Strayed makes clear in that same NYT column, “As long as we still have reason to wedge ‘women’ as a qualifier before ‘essayist,’ the age is not exactly golden.” The fact is: women have been writing essays as long as essays have existed, beginning, we think, with Margaret Cavendish’s The World’s Olio (1655) — perhaps the first essay collection published by a woman writing in English. My own introduction to the form came relatively late. I was in grad school, writing poems instead of essays. But, as a poet, I always felt a little fraudulent, a little inauthentic, or misaligned, as though I was wearing someone else’s broken-in shoes. Reading the poetry of contemporary prose poets (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Claudia Rankine and Anne Carson) led me to their essays, and in essays I found a form that fit like a shoe made just for me.

So many great writers are “doing” essays these days — the form is having a bit of a moment, and I don’t see it ending anytime soon. It’s thrilling to see the work of women like those I listed above so widely and unanimously celebrated. It’s thrilling, too, to see the essay incarnated into such gloriously varied forms: The list below is meant to acknowledge the essay’s nimbleness and flexibility. The work of each of these writers arrived in my life as a gift, and at a time of great need — intellectual, emotional, material. Now, these recommendations are my gift to you.

1. Mary Ruefle

Last year I attended Tin House Writer’s Workshop, which I attended as a guest. When my editor asked me whom among the teaching faculty I’d like to meet, Mary Ruefle was at the top of the list. I met her, probably at the party on Saturday evening, but could think of nothing — absolutely NOTHING — to say. The next night, Sunday, I was preparing to read, and feeling sickeningly nervous — not only to be reading in front of so many literary icons (MARY RUEFLE!), but also because I honestly feared the person about whom I had written (an ex-boyfriend who kidnapped and raped me and is living abroad as a fugitive to this day) might show up with a gun and shoot me.

There’s a pair of swings outside the faculty dorm on the Reed College campus, and I found my way there. As I was swinging, trying to shake this fear — this paralyzing, long-held fear — Mary Ruefle came up and sat down in the swing beside me. “I’ve been wanting to do this all day,” she said, and started swinging alongside. It was glorious. It was my chance. “I’m nervous about my reading tonight,” I said to her. “Do you ever get nervous before a reading?”

“No,” she said. “I really don’t. I tell myself, this is a thing I made for myself, and they can like it or not and their opinion doesn’t really have anything to do with me or my work.”

This thinking behind this brave idea — such a generous, wonderful idea for a nervous writer to hear before a reading — is, perhaps, what draws me to Mary Ruefle’s essays: a self-assurance in her subjects and interests that always leads her to fascinating places. Take, for example, “My Private Property,” in which she describes her particular passion and interest in shrunken heads. “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads,” the essay begins. From there, Ruefle takes us through the history and practice of head shrinking, into a critique of colonialism, into the heart of her obsession. Along the way, what emerges is a profound essay about desire, and loneliness, and grief. Although some of these essays appear in print — and a set of her lectures is collected in Madness, Rack, and Honey —some don’t appear anywhere at all. I heard her read one essay on imagination as a talk at that same Tin House Writer’s Workshop, and it appears nowhere in print. I’m desperate to have it. I will forever worship at the alter of Mary Ruefle. I know she’s not exactly an emerging writer — though she is known probably better as a poet than an essayist — but she has had such an impact on my understanding of what a poet can bring to the craft of writing essays that I couldn’t leave her out of this list.

2. Rikki Ducornet

I saw on Facebook the other day — all hail the great social aggregator! — that Rikki Ducornet has just published a new collection of essays, The Deep Zoo and I nearly lost my shit. I loved The Jade Cabinet, a mind-bending 1993 novel in which Ducornet writes frankly about about the various kinds of sexuality that threaten girlhood: nascent, adolescent, predatory, pedophilic. Her work is at once infused with joy and despair and social responsibility, and is wildly experimental in form. So I ordered The Deep Zoo immediately, and I’ll be honest: it hasn’t arrived yet. So I’m waiting, and can’t really speak to whether or not I love this book, but I admire her as a writer, not least of all because I realized, as I began waiting for The Deep Zoo to arrive, that this is somewhere in the neighborhood of her twenty-first book. Twenty-first, people. TWENTY-FIRST. So, can we please all read this and meet back here to discuss it same time next week?

3. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

If her name sounds familiar, it’s maybe because you read Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s recent profile of Toni Morrison in the New York Times, The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison,” or her profile of Dave Chappelle in The Believer, If He Hollers Let Him Go,” nominated for a National Magazine Award. She writes consistently and critically about the intersection of personal experience and popular culture, creativity and self censorship, black people and white culture, turning her lens toward subjects such as Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios and the Beyhive. She writes frankly about the effects of institutionalized racism on black bodies. Read everything by Ghansah you can get your hands on. Listen to what she has to say.

4. Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob’s debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, was named one of the best books of 2014 by The Boston GlobeKirkusBustle, and The Millions. Praised by everyone from Emily Gould to Oprah, the novel follows the Eapens, an Indian American family, as they discover what it means, in the author’s own words, “to make a life in a stolen country.”

Personally, I’m beyond thrilled that Jacob is now working on a new graphic memoir. In one excerpt of the work-in-progress, “37 Difficult Questions from My Mixed-Race Son,” Jacob recounts a series of conversations with her six-year-old son, whose obsession with Michael Jackson raises questions of race, and racism, exclusion and belonging. The essay is alternately hilarious and deeply unsettling, proving why there is not nearly enough graphic nonfiction in the world, and I propose we all buy and devour the book when it comes out.

5. Casey Fleming

Casey Fleming is a writer whom I have the profound fortune to count among my closest friends. I’ve known her for over ten years now, and all that time I’ve spent admiring her writing. She is one of my most trusted readers, and I am, perhaps, her biggest fan. Her essays have appeared in Sojourners, Fourth Genre, and elsewhere, but I think that some of her best work appears only on her blog, Nonsecular Girl, where she posts sermons about such topics as motherhood and racial violence, terrorism and fertility.

These sermons, at their core, explore the role of spirituality in our everyday lives: how to make way for the divine without the rigidity of the devout; they are, in her own words, “a deeply reflective and personal dialogue” with the culture at large. For a year, she posted them weekly; now that she’s dedicating most of her time to a book project (keep an eye out for THAT, people), she posts the sermons somewhat less regularly. My favorite one, by far, is a sermon from this past Easter, “Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story),” in which she reinvests a set of Catholic rituals with new meaning tied to her own body, and to the body of her newborn son. Her writing is at once tender and fierce, and unapologetically claims an authority she makes for herself. We all have something to learn from this.


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