On Essays 🖋
This is number 100.
“You hate anything linear,” my husband said to me while we were walking the dog one morning. He was saying it as a joke, to bust my balls, but of course he was right. “Everything is a constellation!” I replied in a bratty tone, a studied response from a writer. A writer, almost exclusively now, of essays, who is often referred to as an “essayist.” Mira que fancy, I can hear my brother saying to me.
Another way of saying “constellation” is “archipelago,” which is one way (of many) Brian Dillon characterizes the essay in his book Essayism: Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction. I read this book when the form of this newsletter had begun to take shape, back in the late spring and early summer of 2020, buoyed by that $600 per week that provided me with the most leisure of my adult life while disease loomed.
Though I’d written plenty of essays—some good, many not; the same ratio applies now—I had never before been allowed so much room. Suddenly all the me was no longer being edited out by someone else in favor of the publication’s voice. Suddenly my voice was naked, bared to the world. What happened is that I spent many weeks writing in a tone I rarely take now: harsh, sure of itself. Eventually, I’ve loosened up. An essay can be anything, and I have nothing to prove.
But here arises a conflict inside the essay as form: it aspires to express the quintessence or crux of its matter, thus to a sort of polish and integrity, and it wants at the same time to insist that its purview is partial, that being incomplete is a value in itself, for it better reflects the brave and curious but faltering nature of the writing mind.
Well, if that isn’t the case entirely! Having one’s cake and eating it, too—the essayist’s way. It’s also a great space for “the infraordinary,” as Georges Perec puts it in “Approaches to What?”
The daily papers talk of nothing except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer questions I ask or would like to ask.
Édouard Glissant encourages “archipelagic thinking,” a “way of thinking born of the archipelago form was marked by unpredictability, multiplicity-in-oneness and ambiguity.” I very much relate to the necessity of understanding the “multiplicity-in-oneness” and ambiguity of the world, as a blend of origins and colors.
In a conversation with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist published by Isolarii, Glissant says,
...we have a duty to try to navigate our suffering—and to imagine what this suffering can become: art, justice, liberty. This is our duty in the world. Not as Americans Germans, Italians, Frenchmen, but as elementary particles of the One-World, of the Tout-Monde.
Navigate our suffering and imagine what this suffering can become—for me, this is for what the essay is a great form. As well, the relentlessness of this project, of writing some missive every week that ranges from 600 words to 3000 at times, has been a fantastic exercise at, simply, thinking. My thoughts have certainly changed over time, and so have my focal points. I care far, far less about mainstream food media and a lot more about people doing work. I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll be embraced more by academia than the media in which I’ve spent over a decade working (although once I feel peace with that, inevitably someone with a PhD calls me a blogger—mira que fancy). I am happy to have a place where I can insert a parenthetical with quotes from the book I just read that came out from a tiny publisher into an essay ostensibly about food culture, because I am portraying the reality of my intellectual experience.
There’s also, I think, a weird idea that to write something is to believe you’re chronicling something totally novel, writing something totally new. I never think this, but I’m also not embarrassed not to know things, to be late to a party. (What a masculine way of thinking that is, to fear not knowing!) The process of having this newsletter as the foundation of my work means that I’ve learned so much through doing it, through rabbit-holes and recommendations. It’s touching just to have people coming along for the ride.
I also relate to how Sarah Manguso characterizes her diary in Ongoingness: The End of a Diary:
More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.
These essays: a defense, a show of thought. The point is to not get cocky. Who would care about my show of thought were I not endlessly searching, learning?
When I lived on Long Island and wrote a lot about literature in translation, I remember feeling like nothing could ever be better than the day New Directions sent me Bolaño’s nonfiction collection Between Parentheses without my requesting it. Taking it out of the mailbox was, I swear, one of the best days of my life. A girl from Patchogue, being sent books from a prestigious yet independent publisher!
I didn’t underline much in the text—something predictable about writing being about going to the bottomless abyss. What is interesting to me going back to it (following the muse when I tell myself, “write the hundredth essay about essays”) is that Bolaño positions food as a pleasure in contrast to the abyss. I think my project, if I have one, is going to the bottomless abyss for food. Seeing food and our relationships to it as literature as well as part of the everyday, the ordinary. Where do food’s significance and necessity meet? That’s where these essays are, where I ask the questions I want to ask. As writer Davey Davis put it over the weekend:
Like pleasure and pain, flavor is biomedical reality, social construct, cultural memory, and the substance of our days—the composite of living.
What will the next 100 essays bring? I don’t know, because I don’t know what life will bring—what readings, flavors, travels, experiences. These are a document of life, and so the prospect of more only excites me.
Last week’s podcast featured writer Angela Garbes. This week, I’ll be talking to Andrea Hernandez of Snaxshot about the hurdles of working from her home in Honduras, the potential of web3, working independently, and much more. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or adjust your settings to receive an email when it’s out.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen for paid subscribers will be a recipe for vegan bagna cauda, meaning “hot bath” in Italian—a dipping sauce usually made with anchovies. See the recipe index for all past recipes available to paid subscribers.
Nothing! But be sure to subscribe to Prism’s “The Meat Issue,” for which I’ve served as editor-at-large. Launching May 17!
Aside from what’s listed above, I’m still in Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin.
Nothing of note. Something that was great was a take on this white bean–fennel dip that I made with carrots and dill.