“The story of my body is not a story of triumph” begins the second section of Roxane Gay’s recently released Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I have been a Roxane Gay fan since her early Tumblr days, but this particular line hooked me into Hunger, and kept me from putting it down for several days. As a fellow fat black woman, I was profoundly impacted by her deft negotiation of the shadowy space between diet culture and a body-positive movement that struggles to be fully inclusive. But as an essayist, I was especially interested in her upfront refusal to package her lived experience into the neat boxes we have come to expect of memoir and personal essay.
My mind jumped straight from the content of Gay’s work to the potential significance of her structural choices because, as a twenty-six year old writer, structure and significance trouble me the most while I am composing an essay. The question that all writers ask at some point—what what would happen to this work in six months, or a year?—takes on additional weight when the raw material of the story could shift completely based on the writer’s lived life. Maureen Stanton calls this elusive final component of a good essay “insight,” which only comes with time to discover how an experience has “sculpted” the author’s perspective.
In the Internet age, where quicker responses to current events are often considered more favorable for publication, it’s quite tempting to try to force the insight we need to make an essay work by taking action. The modern essay begs you redeem, redeem! Seek out the long-lost friend, sprinkle your mother’s ashes over the seas, as you promised. As personal essays have become accessible through online venues like the New York Times’ “Modern Love and Thought Catalog,” so have the arcs that these stories often take. Frequently, we get to leave personal essays with the movie-like satisfaction of watching the writer-protagonist taking the higher road, the better path.
In her cultural commentary “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over,” Jia Tolentino opines bravely about the role that online publications and navel-gazing culture have played to create this predictably “ultra-confessional” manner of writing, now in rapid decline. But perhaps in the wake of this shift away from the depoliticized personal essay, we should look not just to fill in the gaps left behind with more objective journalism, but also new models for essay writing that are capable, as Gay’s memoir is, of rejecting the need for raw confessional, redemption, forgiveness. Essays that rely on insight and trust in the reader’s critical faculties rather than on perfectly wrought endings and clear next steps. Essays capable of moving with great intention towards a grayer, murkier space—one that resembles the world we are in now, the world as it has always been.
Perhaps the essays we need today are the kind that adhere to the secondary definition of the word essay, which I learned quite recently: an attempt, or effort. Let us remember that to essay has never been to leave tidy or perfect—merely to try.
Read Yasmin's essay, "I Tried to Tell You My Darknesses Lived Here."
Yasmin Boakye is a writer raised in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. A 2014 Callaloo Fellow at Cave Hill, she is also a recipient of NYU Abu Dhabi's Global Academic Fellowship in Writing and a 2017 VONA/Voices alumna. Her prose has been published or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb, TRACK/FOUR, and the Puerto Del Sol Black Voices Series. She is currently based in St. Louis.