The English word “essay” bears a resemblance to the modern French verb essayer, which means “to try,” but essay actually derives from the Latin exagium, which means “a weighing.” In general, the French writer Michel de Montaigne is credited with “inventing” what he called the “essai,” the “attempt” to sort something out in words. I prefer to think, however, that while essays may be “attempts” to think about things, they also convey the idea that one is not only “weighing” one’s words but also balancing ideas to come to some intellectual conclusion. Or not. Sometimes, an essay can be a short piece intended as a bit of a lark that reflects a writer’s thoughts.
In acknowledgement that the word itself reflects different approaches to the literary form, Signature offers a varied list of women essayists for Women’s History Month. What links these writers, other than their identification as women, is a love for language that shows up in turns of phrase that make the reader want to scribble great lines down to be quoted at the next opportunity.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In a recent interview, Adichie expressed annoyance with those who treat feminism as a fashion accessory, the wearing of feminist statements as if they were hot designer labels rather than words gleaned from hard-fought battles that have cost many women their lives. Adichie has been sampled by Beyonce, and just this week, the New York City government named her novel Americanah as its “One Book, One New York” selection for community read. Dear Ijeawele is written as a series of suggestions to a friend on the raising of a feminist child, something that Adichie is herself engaged in doing. Among the suggestions is this: “‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”
Angela Y. Davis
The second of these essayists to be celebrated in song (by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan), Davis has been known for her intersectional politics since the 1960s, when she first began writing about feminism, race, Marxism, economic justice, and prison reform.
In her most recent collection, Davis knocks down any notion that feminism has accomplished all of its goals — notions of “post-feminism” and “post-racism” tend to be pushed by those who are least affected by the oppression brought to mind by the terms themselves. Feminism is a misnomer. One must always speak of feminisms, multiple philosophies that discuss gender equality. As she writes, “Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think about things together that appear to be separate, and to disaggregate things that appear to naturally belong together.”
“If a color cannot cure, can it at least incite hope?” Nelson asks in one of the small essays — or bluets — that comprise this book. While a meditation on the color blue sounds of interest only to artists, Nelson explores how in the English language, the color blue has come to stand in for a wide range of emotions that include thwarted passion and intense loneliness and hope. Nelson’s most recent book, The Argonauts, garnered reviews that lauded her as a genius (with which the MacArthur Foundation concurred). Bluets demonstrated Nelson’s intellectual acuity and command of language nearly a decade ago.
Roxane Gay demonstrates in writing that is personal, political, and carries a punch that she is not the perfect feminist. None of us are, but Gay makes readers laugh at the idea that any of us could ever be some kind of feminist Stepford wife. We’re too full of our own contradictions trying to negotiate a culture that still hasn’t decided if it even likes women. Most days, it feels as if it doesn’t. And intersectional feminism is not just about women, but is about the various ways that a person’s identity can intersect to create privilege or pain. And calling oneself a feminist is still risky. As Gay writes, women are often called “feminists” as a form of insult, but “I am generally called a feminist when I have the nerve to suggest that the misogyny so deeply embedded in our culture is a real problem requiring relentless vigilance.” Gay may consider herself a “bad feminist,” but most of her peers consider her a funny and terrifically talented writer.
Daphne Merkin has written a lot of celebrity “profiles” for outlets such as the New Yorker. But recently, Merkin’s newest book, in which she details her struggle with depression, has captured the attention of critics who have lauded her for her “excruciating clarity” and humorous prose. The Fame Lunches, released a couple of years prior, is a series of essays that explore the modern-day fairy tale of Princess Diana or the doomed love affair of Scott and Zelda, or writers such as V.S. Naipaul, whom she terms a “brilliant monster.” She begins the Naipaul essay, “It is a truth insufficiently acknowledged that those whom the gods grant special gifts often also get stuck with neurotic difficulties up the kazoo.” Merkin is not intimidated by the gigantic personalities she has interviewed and profiled. The same take-no-prisoners approach that she brings to describing her own experiences of depression populate her essays about people who, for reasons not often understood, are “famous.”
Meghan Daum has a low tolerance for b.s., which makes her a perfect chronicler of modern life. In “The Best Possible Experience,” she writes of one former lover, who, when she had told him that she didn’t like the circle design he had suggested for her new business card, said to her, “If you don’t like circles, you don’t like me.” Not surprisingly, the relationship didn’t work out, and Daum reports that he married the next woman he met who did like circles. She applies her mordant way of looking at the foibles of our culture to reflect her decision to remain childless, and rejects the false sentimentality that happens when you have a near-death experience.
Before she gave voice to the creatures in Animals Strike Curious Poses, Passarello performed the amazing trick of throwing her voice onto the page in such a way that her words echoed. In this collection of essays about aspects of sound, Passarello identifies the Pittsburgh “Yinzer” accent (“a dialect of squarshed vowels and muddied consonants,”); analyzes both the “Rebel Yell” and the “Dean Scream;” and, how to identify the “Wilhelm Scream,” which is heard in “Reservoir Dogs,” “Spaceballs,” “Kung Fu Panda,” and “Thank you for Smoking,” but which originated in “Charge at Feather River.” Her essay about Judy Garland’s 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall will convince a reader that they witnessed it, even if it occurred before they were born.
Terry Tempest Williams
A book that can be read on its own, or as a bookend to her earlier work, Refuge, When Women Were Birds is based on Williams’ reading of her mothers’ journals. The journals were empty. Distressed by the silence her mother had left to her after her death, Williams set out to explore what it is to speak as a woman in the world. As she said in an interview, “I believe it’s not just a woman’s struggle to find her voice, but a human struggle to speak from a place of integrity and authenticity. It is never easy. What is unique to our voices as women is the power when we do choose to speak.”
Ehrlich has published many collections since this 1985 publication, but her essays about Wyoming in this slim book are startling in their beauty. In describing the laconic speaking style of the cowboys, she says that “Sentence structure is shortened to the skin and bones of a thought.” Elsewhere, “The seasons are a Jacob’s ladder climbed by migrating elk and deer.” Like Solnit and Williams, what Ehrlich seeks from the land is a space of quiet in which she can find her voice. Her language conveys the rough magic of Wyoming’s challenging terrain.
Solnit’s expertise ranges from the photography of Eadweard Muybridge to the resistance to President Trump. Her work explores the intersection between art and action, politics and passion, and women and wilderness. The mother of all questions is the question nearly all women are forced to answer: whether to become mothers. The privileging over the maternal function of the female body over any other capabilities that women have is insidious. Just this week, when Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney spoke at the United Nations regarding genocide, magazines focused on what clothes she was wearing to hide her pregnancy.
Jo Ann Beard
“The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream,” begins “The Fourth State of Matter,” Beard’s essay about her experiences working as an editorial assistant for a science journal at the University of Iowa. What begins as an essay about Beard’s sick dog turns into a devastating essay on physics and the measurement of time — the fourth state of matter of the title. The other boys of her youth include her husband, childhood friends, and roommates. Beard’s debut collection is timeless.
Jamison’s essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” examines how the stereotype of the wounded woman is scattered throughout literature. Despite the prevalence of real pain in women’s lives, the wounded woman has become an object of scorn rather than empathy, causing women writers to develop an ironic way of diminishing their own pain and denigrating those who hurt. In this and other writings, Jamison explores pain, suffering, and the development of empathy in herself and in our culture.
Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold
While the collection was edited by two men, this bounty of essays are taken from the site Essay Daily, which allows writers to engage with others writers’ essays by writing responses, ruminations, or riffs. It features everything from Elena Passarello reflecting on her love for the Book of Days to responses to writing from Joan Didion, Claudia Rankine, and Alison Bechdel. Chelsea Biondolillo has written an essay in response to Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, an essay she admits made her angry the first time she read it. To read the collected essays here is to feel invited to a salon. Regardless of whether one has read the source material for each essayist’s words, the new essays evoke opinions, emotions, and a desire to be part of the conversation.
The collection will be released on April 11, to mark the anniversary of an entry in Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, in which she wrote “too much and not the mood” to describe her own struggles to assert her own authority and to not make her work smaller in response to criticism.
Durga Chew-Bose writes in piercing prose and courage about her own decision to push back against those who have made her question her work. She writes of the tensions inherent in being a child of immigrants, of the random acts of erasure that occur when strangers cannot pronounce her Indian name. In that essay, “D as In,” she puts into words the quandary of writing in the first person: “How can an ‘I’ contain all of my many fragments and contradictions and all of me that is undiscovered?” Her work will resonate with those whose own coming of age involved the discovery of the authority to assert “who I am.”