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The Best American Essays 2011

Edwidge Danticat


  * * *

  Title Page



  Foreword: Confessions of an Anthologist


  Buddy Ebsen

  Port-au-Prince: The Moment

  What Broke My Father’s Heart


  After the Ice




  Topic of Cancer


  Long Distance

  What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?

  Magical Dinners

  What Really Happened

  Rude Am I in My Speech

  Lucky Girl

  There Are Things Awry Here


  Pearl, Upward

  Generation Why?

  Travels with My Ex

  A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay


  The Washing

  Contributors’ Notes

  Notable Essays of 2010

  Copyright © 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

  Introduction copyright © 2011 by Edwidge Danticat


  The Best American Series® and The Best American Essays® are registered trademarks of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

  No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without the proper written permission of the copyright owner unless such copying is expressly permitted by federal copyright law. With the exception of nonprofit transcription in Braille, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is not authorized to grant permission for further uses of copyrighted selections reprinted in this book without the permission of their owners. Permission must be obtained from the individual copyright owners as identified herein.

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

  ISSN 0888-3742

  ISBN 978-0-547-47977-4

  eISBN 978-0-547-67843-6


  “Buddy Ebsen” by Hilton Als. First published in The Believer, March/April 2010. Copyright © 2011 by Hilton Als. Reprinted by permission of The Believer.

  “Port-au-Prince: The Moment” by Mischa Berlinski. First published in The New York Review of Books, February 25, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Mischa Berlinski. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “What Broke My Father’s Heart” by Katy Butler. First published in The New York Times Magazine, June 18, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Katy Butler and The New York Times Magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Auscultation” by Steven Church. First published in The Pedestrian, November 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Steven Church. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “After the Ice” by Paul Crenshaw. First published in Southern Humanities Review, Fall 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Southern Humanities Review. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Beds” by Toi Derricotte. First published in Creative Nonfiction, Fall 2010. Copyright © 2011 by Creative Nonfiction. Reprinted by permission of Toi Derricotte.

  “Grieving” by Meenakshi Gigi Durham. First published in Harvard Review, no. 39. Copyright © 2010 by Meenakshi Gigi Durham. Reprinted by permission of Meenakshi Gigi Durham.

  “A-LOC” by Bernadette Esposito. First published in The North American Review, Spring 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Bernadette Esposito. Reprinted by permission of The North American Review.

  “Topic of Cancer” by Christopher Hitchens. First published in Vanity Fair, September 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Hitchens. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Chapels” by Pico Iyer. First published in Portland Magazine, Winter 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Pico Iyer. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Long Distance” by Victor LaValle. First published in Granta, no. 110. Copyright © 2010 by Victor LaValle. Reprinted with permission of the Watkins/Loomis Agency and Victor LaValle.

  “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” by Charlie LeDuff. First published in Mother Jones, November/December 2010. Copyright © 2011 by Charlie LeDuff. Reprinted by permission of Mother Jones.

  “Magical Dinners” by Chang-Rae Lee. First published in The New Yorker, November 22, 2010. Copyright © 2011 by Chang-Rae Lee. Reprinted by permission of Chang-Rae Lee.

  “What Really Happened” by Madge McKeithen. First published in TriQuarterly, no. 137. Copyright © 2009 by Madge McKeithen. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Rude Am I in My Speech” by Caryl Phillips. First published in Salmagundi, Fall/ Winter 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Caryl Phillips. Reprinted by permission of Caryl Phillips.

  “Lucky Girl” by Bridget Potter. First published in Guernica, March/April 2010. Copyright © 2011 by Bridget Potter. Reprinted by permission of Bridget Potter.

  “There Are Things Awry Here” by Lia Purpura. First published in Orion, November/December 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Lia Purpura. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books.

  “Patient” by Rachel Riederer. First published in The Missouri Review, Spring 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Rachel Riederer. Reprinted by permission of Rachel Riederer.

  “Pearl, Upward” by Patricia Smith. First published in Crab Orchard Review, Summer/Fall 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Patricia Smith. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  “Generation Why?” by Zadie Smith. First published in The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010. Reprinted by permission of A. P. Watt Ltd. on behalf of Zadie Smith. Screenplay excerpts from The Social Network© 2010 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Beverly Blvd LLC. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

  “Travels with My Ex” by Susan Straight. First published in The Believer, October 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Straight. Reprinted by permission of The Richard Parks Agency.

  “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay” by Christy Vannoy. First published in McSweeney’s, online, March 10, 2011. Copyright © 2010 by Christy Vannoy. Reprinted by permission of Christy Vannoy.

  “Unprepared” by Jerald Walker. First published in Harvard Review, February 8, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Jerald Walker. Reprinted by permission of Jerald Walker.

  “The Washing” by Reshma Memon Yaqub. First published in The Washington Post Magazine, March 31, 2010. Copyright © 2010 by Reshma Memon Yaqub. Reprinted by permission of Reshma Memon Yaqub.

  Foreword: Confessions of an Anthologist

  WHILE SPEAKING AT A PANEL devoted to the essay a few years ago, I was surprised to be introduced as one of America’s noted anthologists. No one had ever called me that before, nor had I ever thought of myself that way, but afterward I began to reflect on the unusual compliment, which I assume it was.

  I had never considered anthologizing as a special talent, but, I admit, I have compiled quite a few. Not just this annual—which is now in its twenty-sixth edition—but numerous collections of short stories, poems, political and cultural commentary, memoirs of movie stars, even historical advertisements. Had my early submissions of poems and stories met with more receptivity or had my first publication, a 1973 college anthology called Popular Writing in America (the title is still in print), which I coedited with a very good friend, Don McQuade, not been a success, I may not have risen to the esteemed rank of a “noted anthologist.” But in publishing (as in so many industries) a success in one endeavor is often followed by an invitation to do something sim
ilar, and so one anthology followed another, but not always successfully.

  I’m certain that no one ever set out to be an anthologist. It is hardly a conventional career path. “What would you like to be when you grow up, kid?” “That’s easy, sir—a noted anthologist.” But I did possess the one important characteristic that qualified me for the job. As far back as first grade, I enjoyed reading anything and everything. I even loved to read the required Baltimore catechism with its endlessly fascinating questions—“Why did God make us?—and all the textbooks the good sisters passed out to us on the first day of every school year. On the opening day of third grade I brought our reader home and finished it that night. Given the typeface and all the illustrations, it was hardly a challenge; I would realize in time that as the books got harder, the print got smaller.

  I was not just a voracious and indiscriminating reader, I was an obsessive one. This sometimes worried my father, who never read anything other than the New York tabloids and daily racing sheets, which of course I devoured as well once he was done. He was concerned that a kid who always had “his nose in a book” would grow up unfit for the rough-and-tumble conditions of our sketchy environment. So I reduced his worries by playing baseball, though there were many times while standing alone out in center field inning after inning waiting for a fly ball that I wished I had hidden a Zane Grey paperback inside my perfectly oiled Rawlings.

  I’m not usually sold on epiphanies, especially of the life-transforming type. I’m more interested in the opposite experience: not those rare moments of startling insight or realization, but—what I suspect are more common—those sudden flashes of anxious confusion and bewilderment. I distinctly recall experiencing one of these reverse epiphanies (is there a word for these?) shortly after I began high school. Before then I had been a regular visitor to our cozy, storefront branch library, where I borrowed book after book, usually biographies of Hall of Fame baseball stars, all through the summer months. But during the first week at St. Joseph’s High School, one of the nuns suggested we obtain a card from the main branch of the Paterson Free Public Library. I had never set foot inside this imposing building with its stately columns that looked a little like the Lincoln Memorial (and no wonder—the same architect, I would later learn, had designed both). I entered the expansive lobby with some trepidation, not yet feeling a sense of belonging; libraries had not yet become the convivial community centers they are today. Libraries then were all about books, and librarians were the stern guardians of those books. An intimidating decorum of absolute silence prevailed as I timidly glanced about, astonished to find more books in one place than I had ever pictured, awed by the gleaming mahogany card catalogues that looked longer than the Erie Railway boxcars that click-clacked by our house hour after hour. As I walked out past the columns and cautiously down the steps, now a card-carrying member of this humbling institution (and, by some sort of worrisome magical extension, an adult), I rejoiced that with so much available to read, I would never be bored in my entire life. And yet with a dizzying sense of unease, I simultaneously felt a terrifying rush of unknown possibilities.

  The word anthology derives from the Greek antholegein, which literally means to gather (legeiri) flowers (anthos). The anthologist in a sense gathers a literary bouquet. Or as the founding father of all anthologies, Meleager of Gadara (now the city of Umm Qais), and apparently my ancient countryman, called his first-century B.C. compilation of short verse, a garland. Despite its unusual etymology, one that very few readers probably know, the anthology has remained a popular publishing product for over two millennia. So we anthologists possess a long literary tradition, though I know of no history that charts our endeavors or the progress of Meleager’s Garland into the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

  The first anthology I remember owning was Oscar Williams’s Pocket Book of Modern Verse. I acquired this while a high school senior and read it for years until it finally fell to pieces. Williams became one of the nation’s most influential promoters of poetry, and his inexpensive paperback collections could be found in the 1950s and ’60s in every bookshop, on drugstore racks, and in countless college classrooms. They are still being sold on, to the accompaniment of many warm and nostalgic reviews, a few of which informed me that my copy was not the only one read to pieces. Any hist ory of the modern anthology would need to include Oscar Williams, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, born Oscar Kaplan. Williams was also a poet about whom Robert Lowell wrote, “Mr. Williams is probably the best anthologist in America today.”

  Although The Pocket Book of Modern Verse was well thumbed and well loved by thousands of readers, it did not approximate the literary impact of Harriet Monroe’s famous 1917 collection, The New Poetry: An Anthology. That authoritative book proved to the public that something indeed had happened to poetry around the start of the century’s second decade. Monroe’s collection was the literary equivalent of the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show, a visual “anthology” that mapped the enormous changes occurring in the world of art. By gathering a large sampling of the emerging poets of her time, Monroe (who included a dozen of her own poems) was able to demonstrate—as no single collection by an individual poet could—that a distinct movement was afoot and that modern readers had better start to swim with Ezra Pound rather than sink with Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

  I’ve mentioned two influential poetry anthologies and I could mention others. Poetry movements have often been accompanied by anthologies that serve as manifestoes. But what about essays? Although there have been a number of excellent essay collections, mostly with a historical sweep—the best of which is Phillip Lopate’s comprehensive and indispensable The Art of the Personal Essay (1994)—I can think of no dedicated, single-volume twentieth-century essay anthology that did for the modern essay what Harriet Monroe’s book did for modern poetry. That might be because the essay was so slow in coming to terms with modernism: as I’ve written before, the essay, with very few exceptions, was the vehicle for understanding modernist literature, not a key part of that literature. Perhaps the most important anthology to showcase essays with a new voice and edge was Alain Locke’s 1925 landmark collection, The New Negro: An Interpretation, which served as the major statement of the Harlem Renaissance. Though multigenre, the collection featured a preponderance of essays that clearly disassociated the form from the popular genteel essay and positioned it solidly in the new century. Another collection that would give voice to a new movement, not essayistic yet closely related, was Tom Wolfe’s and E. W. Johnson’s The New Journalism, the 1973 manifesto/anthology which celebrated a new style of nonfiction prose that had grown out of the ashes of the finally deceased novel.

  But unlike The New Poetry or The New Journalism, there was no twentieth-century anthology entitled The New Essay, no gathering of key selections from a single period that demonstrated a vital literary movement gaining momentum. But as the twenty-first century opened, one young essayist, John D’Agata, noticed a new, hard-to-label form of essayistic prose that didn’t resemble the traditional personal essay or nonfiction narrative or literary journalism. He collected these in a 2003 anthology that he called The Next American Essay. To be sure, some of these essays went back a few decades (such as John McPhee’s brilliant 1975 New Yorker piece “The Search for Marvin Gardens”), but all the selections had something in common: a determination by their authors to push the genre into new territory, to feature prose that—to put it quickly—depends more on poetic fragmentation than rhetorical coherence and discontinuous narrative than straightforward self-presentation. The trick, of course, is to employ innovative forms without sacrificing ideas, substance, or urgency.

  This annual anthology represents no movement or literary agenda and is wholly receptive to the “next” American essay, as can be seen by the fact that nearly half of the authors collected in D’Agata’s fine anthology have appeared in this series. In the 2011 volume readers will find essays of lyric power as well as those that are more dependent upon reflection and re
porting and that do their literary work within more conventional parameters. We will wait and see whether the second decade of the twenty-first century will resemble that of the previous century and introduce seismic changes in the arts, though it is difficult to imagine the disappearance of time-honored essays that narrate compelling personal stories or engage head-on with controversial issues or ruminate about ideas both large and small.

  The Best American Essays features a selection of the year’s outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought. Hundreds of essays are gathered annually from a wide assortment of national and regional publications. These essays are then screened, and approximately one hundred are turned over to a distinguished guest editor, who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the final selections. The list of notable essays appearing in the back of the book is drawn from a final comprehensive list that includes not only all of the essays submitted to the guest editor but also many that were not submitted.

  To qualify for the volume, the essay must be a work of respectable literary quality, intended as a fully developed, independent essay on a subject of general interest (not specialized scholarship), originally written in English (or translated by the author) for publication in an American periodical during the calendar year. Today’s essay is a highly flexible and shifting form, however, so these criteria are not carved in stone.

  Magazine editors who want to be sure their contributors will be considered each year should submit issues or subscriptions to: Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best American Essays, P.O. Box 220, Readville, MA 02137. Writers and editors are welcome to submit published essays from any American periodical for consideration; unpublished work does not qualify for the series and cannot be reviewed or evaluated. Please note: all submissions must be directly from the publication and not in manuscript or printout format. Editors of online magazines and literary bloggers should not assume that appropriate work will be seen; they are invited to submit printed copies of the essays (with full citations) to the address above.