Grady McCallie's Reviews > The Best American Essays 2011

The Best American Essays 2011 by Edwidge Danticat
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Mar 08, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: essays
Read from March 07 to 08, 2012

I found this one of the most moving entries in the Best American Essays series. Editor Edwidge Danticat writes in her introduction that "the stories we dare tell others about ourselves...can also totally strip us bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are to words." Danticat's editorial filter sharply favors essays that exercise this power.

As a result, this entry shows the narrowest stylistic range that I can recall in this series. Most of the essays are deeply personal, autobiographical accounts. Even those that are not, such as Charlie LeDuff, What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a muckraking analysis of Detroit's dysfunctions, center on powerful individual human stories. Issues of economic, social, racial, and gender justice are implicit in many of the essays, but few of the essays are polemics. For example, Bridget Potter, Lucky Girl, recounts the author's harrowing pre-Roe experience of an illegal abortion; Susan Straight, Travels with My Ex, conveys the author's family's experience of race-based harassment by police; Toi Derricotte, Beds, explores the ways physical abuse by her father has twisted the author's sense of self. Not surprisingly, many of the essays are searing. The one essay that didn't make much sense to me was Zadie Smith, Generation Why?, a mediation on the inadequacy of Facebook and perhaps social networking more generally; but even that essay offered some thoughtful insights. The collection lacks scientific explication, travel stories, gently humorous entries, or anything from a conservative point of view. On the other hand, this collection has far more voices of color than previous entries, which is a major improvement.

Over the long term, it would be a shame for future entries in the series to remain so narrowly focused on a single kind of essay, but that won't happen, since there's a new guest editor each year. Thanks to Danticat's editorial filter, the 2011 Best American Essays is a fascinating and bracing collection that -- rare for this series -- adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
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