Alexander Chee on the Perpetual Importance of the Essay
The Editor of Best American Essays Talks to Steve Wieberg Ahead of the Writers for Readers Festival
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’ve edited the annual Best American Essays anthology, Alexander Chee did some brushing up.
He studied selections for previous editions. He reacquainted himself with some of his own favorite works, from Joan Didion’s “Sentimental Journeys” revolving around the infamous Central Park Five assault and rape case of 1989 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 foisted its culture on her native Antigua.
“It’s remarkable,” Chee says of Kincaid’s 1991 piece. “Those sorts of moments in a culture are what I was hoping to find.”
Chee, the celebrated novelist, essayist, and teacher of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, pored through more than 1,500 essays from last year and chose 23 for The Best American Essays 2022, released November 1. He travels to Kansas City, Missouri, to discuss the anthology and other works of note 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, provides scholarships for two students in UMKC’s MFA program in creative writing who’ll teach a range of free writing classes at the library. It also underwrites the annual Maya Angelou Book Award presented by the library, UMKC, and five other Missouri universities. Inaugurated last year, it recognizes authors and new releases of American fiction and poetry focusing on social justice and inclusion and comes with a $10,000 stipend.“The essay can sustain a great deal of shape-changing and transformation.”
The prize goes this year for a work of fiction. Four finalists were announced in October, chosen from a field of more than 100 submissions: Percival Everett for The Trees, Jason Mott for Hell of a Book, Buki Papillon for An Ordinary Wonder, and Kirstin Valdez Quade for The Five Wounds.
While Chee carries his own fiction-writing credentials as the bestselling author of Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, his most recent book was the 2018 essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. Twice, in 2016 and 2019, he has cracked the Best American Essays lineup.
The form, he says, is flourishing “in spite of what are the regular, the almost annual insults on 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 sustain a great deal of shape-changing and transformation.” Chee recalls opening up an online class on essay collections at Dartmouth a few years back and getting three times the 100 or so signups 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 Melissa Febos’ “The Wild, Sublime Body” and Vauhini Vara’s “Ghosts.” Anthony Veasna So’s “Baby Yeah” hits especially hard, underlining the brilliance of a 28-year-old writer lost far too soon. It recounts his close friendship with a fellow graduate student at Syracuse University who died by suicide—and was published in n+1 magazine after Veasna’s own unexpected death in December 2020.
Resonance, echoing the impassioned and astute works of the great James Baldwin, is an important element. Chee points in particular to another of his selections for the anthology, Aube Rey Lescure’s “A Bend in the Road.”
“Her piece on walking the pilgrimage in Spain and being an Asian woman in public, basically at risk for the assaults aimed at her, was the kind of essay that was very important for me to include in this horrifying era of anti-Asian racism,” he says.
“You couldn’t map it directly back to anything Baldwin wrote. But acknowledging those problems in that way, how we live with them, that’s where his tradition in the essay matters to many of us.”
Chee will join University of Missouri-Kansas City associate professor Whitney Terrell and the University of Minnesota’s V.V. Ganeshananthan, co-hosts of the Literary Hub podcast Fiction/Non/Fiction, in the featured Writers for Readers discussion of The Best American Essays 2022 in Kansas City.