In a feature on essayist Maggie Nelson for The New Yorker, Hilton Als writes of the power of experimentation within Nelson’s The Argonauts:
It’s Nelson’s articulation of her many selves—the poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale, in which the protagonist goes from darkness to light, and then falls in love with a singular knight—that makes her readers feel hopeful.
Through work that has transcended the traditional, Nelson has inspired many emerging writers to explore the essay form. Following in the footsteps of Joan Didion, Susan Sontag and Wayne Koestenbaum, The Argonauts, Als writes, combines ‘memoir, literary analysis, humour, and reporting with vivid instances of both the familiar and the strange’.
The subtitle of Ellena Savage’s debut essay collection Blueberries (Text Publishing) poses the question: ‘What kind of body makes a memoir?’
For Savage, the question forms a platform from which to interrogate the personal in two respects: bodily history within memoir through exploration of trauma, gender and sex, as well as how a collective body of work might be considered within literary sub-genres.
This line of enquiry is also pursued in two other recent publications—Tanya Vavilova’s We Are Speaking in Code (Brio Books) and Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena (Allen & Unwin). All three carry the weight of their author’s experiences, voicing their doubt over which form—if any—is best suited to share these stories. The solution for all three writers is to take the memoir format and bend it, shape it, make it fit best for them. The results make not only for thought-provoking reading but also an interesting marker in the history of the personal essay.
It’s possible to see Maggie Nelson’s influence in the way Savage’s central ideas are marbled through her collection. Sara Marcus writes for the Los Angeles Times that in The Argonauts Nelson is ‘circling away and back again to central questions about deviance and normalcy, family-making and love’. One of Savage’s most cogent lines of enquiry is the nature of being an artist: the class implications, the lifestyle required, the ways in which it is both a distinctive profession and utterly ordinary. An artist is not above human experiences—they simply express them in their own way.
One of Savage’s most cogent lines of enquiry is the nature of being an artist: the ways in which it is both a distinctive profession and utterly ordinary.
Blueberries’ opening essay ‘Yellow City’ sees the essay form melded to provide for internal monologue and doubts as Savage’s sexual assault is relayed (a technique Osborne-Crowley also utilises in I Choose Elena in documenting her violent rape); in ‘Holidays with Men’, two columns provide the reader with dual narratives, each one a critique of the other, which play on the feminine and masculine; and the bullet point format of ‘Turning Thirty’ amplifies the relentless pressure to achieve arbitrary adult milestones such as ‘How did I get here without first learning to wear pastels?’
A traditional autobiography often does not make room for struggle found in the everyday. For a memoir to sell, publishers often believe it must be extraordinary: the life of a celebrity, a high achiever, or an ordinary person in exceptional circumstances (such as the recent case of the Australian doctors who worked on the highly-publicised Thai cave rescue). Tanya Vavilova’s We Are Speaking in Code, however, utilises the contemporary idea that the essay writer can be a shape-shifter. In her case this is also highlighted from the collection’s subtitle: ‘Living on the Fringe with Grace, Humour and Lucid Rage’.
Vavilova’s book speaks of migration and language gaps, gender and sexuality, trauma and chronic illness. By creating a collage of these experiences and questions, We Are Speaking in Code allows Vavilova to write about ‘the fringes’ of her subtitle in ways that an orthodox memoir would flood. Working through vignettes and juxtaposing paragraphs, Vavilova has the freedom to disclose the personal at her own pace; the form doesn’t pressure the author to be cohesive, and it allows the reader to create their own tempo: to pause in the gaps of language Vavilova has with her family members and sit in that place without words—a task difficult to achieve on the page.
While Nelson’s influence is of course most apparent in Vavilova’s chapter ‘The Mean Reds: An Ode to Maggie Nelson’ (which also follows the vignette pattern of Blueberries’ titular essay) it’s the essays that concern Vavilova’s relationship with—and grief over—her Russian grandmother (babushka) that use experimental devices best. Listening to recordings made just before her death gives Vavilova a way to connect to the babushka she was always some distance from, either geographically or linguistically. Vavilova quotes a friend, also of Russian lineage, who says: ‘In my family, we don’t speak a language where we can share complicated things.’
Vavilova has the freedom to disclose the personal at her own pace; the form doesn’t pressure the author to be cohesive, and it allows the reader to create their own tempo.
As she listens to her grandmother’s tapes, Vavilova painstakingly works to bridge gaps in history, knowledge and language. While her comprehension of Russian outweighs her ability to speak or write her native tongue, the recordings bring Vavilova a sense of the moments that her and her grandmother could never freely speak of before her death. The recordings—converted from cassette tape to CD-ROM to USB—allow Vavilova to listen to her babushka’s voice over time, and also speak importantly to form: that movement is necessary. Tradition can block access: in this case the inability to listen to a cassette tape, as well as Vavilova’s inability to express her lines of enquiry in a more conventional essay collection. What it feels like to be queer in one country, while the country in which you were born still outlaws homosexuality and being ‘out’ frequently attracts vigilante violence. The conflicts between difference and deviance are constantly questioned. On leaving her babushka after a trip back to Russia for her thirtieth birthday, Vavilova writes:
All I know: we are happiest in the forest behind her house, sitting on a park bench, reading our books, hers in Russian, mine in English, in companionable silence under the same shining sun.
Leaving now, I feel unmoored like a small, rusty boat.
Hollow but somehow cut up, too.
Sometimes, what you have does not feel like enough.
By using the personal as a vehicle to discuss the theoretical nature of psychology, queerness and migrant identity, Vavilova—like Savage—creates a form of personal essay that is firmly planted in cultural critique. It speaks to a form which has evolved from the early 2010s ‘personal essay boom’ propagated by sites such as Gawker, xoJane, the Toast, the Awl and the Hairpin. Speaking to Jia Tolentino for the New Yorker in 2017, Sarah Hepola—who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor—says that to her, the 2016 US presidential election was ‘a reckoning for journalism’:
We missed the story. Part of why we missed it might have been this over-reliance on ‘how I feel about the day’s news’—and now the journalism world recognises that we need to re-invest in reporting.
While Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena is formed out of a combination of the personal confession and journalistic reporting, the book’s central incident of violent rape is not framed as the story itself; rather it follows the emerging trend, identified by Slate features director Laura Bennett in the same Tolentino article: stories ‘that centre on systemic rather than personal trauma’. In doing so it moves away from the clickbait-style essays of the past, into a broader view that provides a cultural critique. This creates a framework for discussion as to how such an incident fits within political infrastructure, prejudices and privilege: a strategy that Savage, Vavilova and Osborne-Crowley all employ.
I Choose Elena is at once personal, but it does not miss the full story—that of systemic disbelief of women’s trauma, both in legal and medical establishments.
Originally an essay published by the Lifted Brow, Osborne-Crowley reports diligently on research proving what is known about how trauma affects the body. She speaks of her own experiences with endometriosis, vaginismus and Crohn’s disease and how it relates to her PTSD. I Choose Elena is the most fluid of the three works discussed here, drawing on all of Osborne-Crowley’s skills as a journalist, essayist, creative writer and legal researcher. The account is at once personal, but it does not miss the full story—that of systemic disbelief of women’s trauma, both in legal and medical establishments.
The personal essay was in many ways reinvigorated by the release of Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection The Empathy Exams. Essayists, Jamison says, connect with readers because of their ability ‘…to bring together very different kinds of expression—personal and critical and journalistic—without getting dismissed for their subjective stances or excessive first person’. These are writers, in other words, whose voices have been historically marginalised or undercut. While the works discussed in this piece have come from (white) women writers, the personal essay is not only the domain of writers who identify as women—Wayne Koestenbaum was an enormous influence on Maggie Nelson; Hilton Als and Hanif Abdurraqib are both significant contemporary writers in this area. All writers—noticeably—are queer (Koestenbaum and Als), or people of colour (Als and Abdurraqib).
What the personal essay offers is a home to the outliers, to Vavilova’s people ‘living on the fringe’. A safe space to speak to the personal and how it relates to society more broadly. A place to develop as an artist by bending the rules. A form open to interrogation of the ideas and concerns of the day. But as those writers who have guided the way (Didion, Sontag, Koestenbaum) have shown, while the subject matter may evolve when it comes to the personal essay, change is the only constant.
We Are Speaking in Code, Blueberries and I Choose Elena are all available now from your local independent bookseller.