Alexander Chee on the perpetual importance of the essay ‹ Literary Center



Before settling into a role once held by Gay Talese and Susan Sontag, by half a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners and a succession of other literary notables who edited the annual Best American Essays anthology, Alexander Chee made some alterations.

He studied the selections of previous editions. He found some of his own favorite works, from Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Voyages” revolving around the infamous 1989 Central Park Five assault and rape case to Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time” , in which she angrily reflects on a visit to the country that had colonized and imposed its culture on her native Antigua.

“It’s remarkable,” Chee says of Kincaid’s 1991 play. “These kind of moments in a culture are what I was hoping to find.”

Chee, the acclaimed novelist, essayist and professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth University, sifted through more than 1,500 essays from last year and chose 23 to The best American essays 2022released on November 1. He travels to Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss the anthology and other notable works as part of the Writers for Readers Event at the University of Missouri-Kansas City on November 16.

The annual literary celebration, co-presented by the university and the Kansas City Public Library, offers scholarships to two students in UMKC’s MFA program in creative writing who will teach a range of free writing courses at the library. He also underwrites the annual Maya Angelou Book Award presented by the library, UMKC, and five other Missouri universities. Launched last year, it rewards authors and new versions of American fiction and poetry with a focus on social justice and inclusion and comes with a $10,000 stipend.

“The essay can withstand a lot of shape changes and transformation.”

This year, the prize rewards a work of fiction. Four finalists were announced in October, chosen from more than 100 submissions: Percival Everett for TreesJason Mott for Hell of a bookBuki Butterfly for An ordinary wonderand Kirstin Valdez Quade for The Five Wounds.

While Chee carries his own fiction writer credentials as the best-selling author of Edinburgh and queen of the nighther most recent book was the 2018 collection of essays How to write an autobiographical novel. Twice, in 2016 and 2019, he cracked the Best American Essays line up.

The form, he says, is thriving “despite regular, almost annual insults to its character”.

Writers and publishers—and for that matter readers—are increasingly embracing what he calls “a very elastic art form…a form that can withstand a lot of shape-shifting and transformation.” Chee recalls opening an online essay collections course at Dartmouth a few years ago and getting three times the hundred enrollments he expected. “That, to me, was a sign of how things had changed,” he says.

Among the works that made his Best American Essays cut are “The Wild, Sublime Body” by Melissa Febos and “Ghosts” by Vauhini Vara. Anthony Veasna So’s “Baby Yeah” hits particularly hard, highlighting the genius of a 28-year-old writer lost far too soon. It recounts his close friendship with another Syracuse University graduate student who committed suicide – and was published in n+1 magazine after Veasna’s own unexpected death in December 2020.

Resonance, echoing the passionate and artful works of the great James Baldwin, is an important element. Chee particularly highlights another of his selections for the anthology, “A Bend in the Road” by Aube Rey Lescure.

“Her article on the pilgrimage walk in Spain and being an Asian woman in public, fundamentally at risk for the assaults she suffered, was the kind of essay that was very important for me to include in this horrible era of anti-Asian racism,” he says.

“You couldn’t relate it directly to anything Baldwin wrote. But acknowledging these issues in this way, how we live with them, is where his tradition in the essay matters to many of us.

Chee will join University of Missouri-Kansas City associate professor Whitney Terrell and University of Minnesota’s VV Ganeshananthan, co-hosts of the Literary Hub podcast. reality fictionin the Writers for Readers discussion on The best American essays 2022 in Kansas City.

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