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This Is the Year to Read Some ‘Best Canadian Essays’

An eclectic collection brings new meaning to things from the ‘Before Times.’

Dorothy Woodend 27 Nov 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor for The Tyee. Reach her here.

As we’re edging towards 2021, it’s an excellent time to reflect back with the eclectic new collection Best Canadian Essays 2020. It’s the kind of selection one can slide into like a pool of water, immersive, encompassing, edging deeper into places where your feet leave the ground and you’re buoyed along on eddying currents of words.

From writer Wayne Grady’s elegant examination of syncopes (fainting, in the common parlance) to Michelle Orange’s dissection of democratic ideals in “How Free Is Too Free?”, each essay is a self-contained vessel of issues and ideas.

Nestled together, works from writers as varied and idiosyncratic as Benjamin Leszcz, Christina Sharpe, Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk, Amorina Kingdon, Michael LaPointe, Carl Wilson and Andy Lamey form a larger portrait of where we were and where we might be headed.

In her introduction, editor Sarmishta Subramanian offers an eloquent assessment of the year.

“This book — like most that have found their way into the world this fall — began life in the Before Times. These essays were written in a long-ago 2019, and I read many of them, and others, in an also distant 2020 in a café with an elegant sofa, a cup of bergamot-scented tea on the table before me. Sometimes (glorious to think of now) I’d be annoyed by the music — dramatic French songs or bad contemporary pop that I would never listen to at home — or find myself distracted by a years-old New Yorker left on the table: the sort of accidental diversions we used to encounter in those times, a consequence of sharing spaces that were not our own with people we didn’t know. The loss of novelty is not the point, but rather of unpredictability, the unknown, the uncontrollable, the unpatrolled.”

“Exactly the opposite impulses guide us today. At some point along this book’s journey, the world changed.”

That was then and this is now.

The Tyee posed a few questions to Subramanian about the process of putting the book together in this most remarkable of years. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The Tyee: In your introduction to the book of essays, the line “It reads a different way in a new world” is striking. Many of the essays lend themselves in curious ways to the new paradigm that we’re all experiencing. Did some of these developing and ongoing resonances surprise you?

Sarmishta Subramanian: They did, although maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The year’s events have been so dramatic — the pandemic, but also protests over racial justice, climate fires, an epic American election campaign. For long stretches it was difficult to think of much else and, for many of us, things from the Before Times have been suddenly overlaid with new meanings. 

Wayne Grady’s essay on syncopes, by the time I read it, seemed written for these times — a disruption to rhythms after which nothing is the same! Christina Sharpe’s essay, when I re-read it in lockdown, post-George Floyd, went from being a stunning piece about growing up poor and Black in America and finding beauty in precarity to a piece that was poetically universal but also vivified these new conversations we were having about race and justice.

Do you think people are reading differently in this pandemic period, perhaps wanting something more expansive as an escape from the daily doomscrolling of the news cycle and social media?

The doomscroll is so entrenched a habit, and there is just so much doom to scroll now! But yes, if the spike in book sales in 2020 tells us anything, it’s that we are also craving comfort, escape, meaning, understanding. We seem to have bought more social justice books, more bucket-list books, more fiction, more summer reads, more kids’ books, more everything. I think there is a hunger for understanding and, in a sense, for connection — even if, or because, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on personal connection of other sorts.

You make reference to the original meaning of the word essay, meaning an attempt or try. How important was it in terms of the selection process to look for work that pushed the boundaries of the form or explored issues and ideas outside of the mainstream?

This is a really good question. I think I went for writing that took me somewhere new, whether it was through poetic first-person narrative or robust argument or philosophical rumination or travelogue or all of the above. Perhaps unfashionably, I leaned toward essaying in the sense of working through ideas in interesting ways and exploring perspectives I didn’t see in other places — whatever the form. And I think, like many other readers right now, I gravitated toward writing that tried to make sense of some of the big questions of our time, and writers who had something original to say about things we’re all trying to understand.

When selecting work for the collection, were there any ideas that you wanted to have included from the outset or was it a more serendipitous process of happy discoveries?

It truly was a serendipitous process. I came to this exercise as a long-time magazine editor and, as you know as an editor yourself, when you are editing, you are thinking actively about the ideas you want to put out into the world, about factors like mix. Curating this collection was more a process of bobbing along and discovering ideas that were out in the world and collecting the ones that I found most resonant, most urgent, most thought-provoking.

What factors did you take into consideration when selecting work?

Much of this happened organically too, though I did strive for variety in subject matter, perspectives, writing style, tone. I probably had a bias toward longer pieces when I read, but there were short pieces that contained worlds.

The most important factors really were the quality of the writing and the ideas, and a resonance in this moment. Of course, if I had read an obscure but excellent 4,000-word essay on elevator buttons, I would have included that. And, now that I think of it, a 4,000-word essay on elevator buttons probably would have some real resonances for this moment! Anxiety around new technology, the future of urban density, intimacy with strangers. Everything connects.

Many of the selected essays begin with a personal approach to larger ideas, whether it’s Grady’s experience of syncopes or Carl Wilson’s examination of cancel culture via the figure of Michael Jackson. Do you see this approach as a way for writers to ground more abstract concepts within the writer’s own lived experience?

I think the personal is a natural springboard for the exploration of more abstract ideas. And there’s a long tradition, starting with Montaigne, of thinking about the world by starting with one’s corner of it. That said, I didn’t necessarily seek out that personal element, and I’m also always happy to discover essays that don’t rely on it.

When I read the first few pages of Sontag’s On Photography for the first time, I was struck by how unapologetically she declared the world as she saw it. There was no couching anything, no attempt to confine her observations to her own experience, no elegant essayist version of “IMHO.” There’s an arrogance about that, certainly, a lack of concern that her experience may not be universal or with perspectives she might be missing, but, especially in a woman writer, the confidence is bracing! Ideally one gets to read a mix — beautiful and funny personal essays; essays that tie the personal to the global or political; more dispassionate critical essays.  

What would you like for readers to take from the selection of work in its entirety?

I talked in the introductory essay about the disappearance of the accidental in these strange times — how the element of chance has become an element of risk, and so everything we do now has to be very intentional and careful and planned.

One of the delights of reading an essay collection is its very randomness. It’s not even like a prize-nominated novel that’s on the year-end lists, a known quantity of sorts. It’s a variety of pieces on a variety of subjects from a variety of writers, some of whom you might know and like and agree with, others of whom might surprise you. So, I say: revel in the random, the accidental! God knows I miss those moments from my old life.  [Tyee]

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