This is by no means a comprehensive list of essays and writers I value, it’s just a curation of some of my favourites: to share, and also so I have all these links easily accessible! They’re good, yo. So good.
Photo by Magda Ehlers for Pexels
Hunger Makes Me by Jess Zimmerman
“A man’s appetite can be hearty, but a woman with an appetite is always voracious: her hunger always overreaches, because it is not supposed to exist. If she wants food, she is a glutton. If she wants sex, she is a slut. If she wants emotional care-taking, she is a high-maintenance bitch or, worse, an “attention whore”: an amalgam of sex-hunger and care-hunger, greedy not only to be fucked and paid but, most unforgivably of all, to be noticed.”
This essay is so powerful. I felt all sorts of things while reading it but my words can’t adequately describe her words, so I’ll just say: yes. This.
Stories from the Wild: Reading and Writing in the Digital Age by Lani Wendt Young
“When we abide by the castle’s rules, we are allowed three Samoan novelists in forty years. But when we don’t wait for permission or approval – we get more books in a range of genres from more of us. Books that we can see ourselves in, where we are the centre and not the marginalised other. “
I was lucky to see Lani give this talk in person at the New Zealand Book Council event in Wellington. And I mean lucky. Lani is a bestselling author and the 2018 Pacific Laureate, and she has five kids which makes her a hero to me with my one. She is hilarious, eloquent, and insightful, and she has this wonderful generosity and grace about her. Listening to this speech made me laugh and I also teared up a few times, which is to say her writing has such emotional breadth and intelligence. This is a long piece but well worth it, especially if you are interested in Samoan writers, women writers, representation of marginalised people, digital publishing, and the publishing industry in general. I think the audio is also available at the link above.
Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid by Rufi Thorpe
“For me, the problem then, is not in some platonic incompatibility between art and motherhood, a conflict between the mundane and the celestial, the safe and the unsettling. The conflict is between the selfishness of the artist and the selflessness of a mother.”
This essay hurts. It hurts in the manner of understanding, of someone else experiencing the complexities of motherhood and creativity, and where those identities and actions clash or connect. It hurts because there’s no real solution and also because we wouldn’t have it any other way. It is raw, and beautiful, and powerful.
Enjoli by Kristi Coulter
“And there’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe some women drink a little. Or a lot.”
I have never had a drinking problem, but I have had multiple prolonged periods of not drinking alcohol, because it has seemed that any drinking is a problem, or at best unnecessary. In this incisive essay Kristi Coulter elucidates some of the many issues with women’s alcohol consumption; newly sober and outraged, with clarity and anecdotes, and deep (but interesting and thoroughly readable) analysis.
In Defense of Single Motherhood by Katie Roiphe
“It’s useful and humbling to remember that no family structure guarantees happiness or ensures misery: real life is wilier and more fraught with accident and luck than that. If you think that being married ensures a good life for your children you need only enter a bookstore and open any novel, or go to the theater and watch practically any play, or have dinner with nearly anyone you know. Suffering is everywhere, and married parents, even happily married parents, raise screwed-up or alcoholic or lost children, just as single parents raise strong, healthy ones. What matters most, it should go without saying, is the kind of parent you are, not whom you sleep with, and even that matters only up to a point.”
So much media space is devoted to how terrible single mothers are and how our children are to be pitied. “Won’t you look at the (shoddy, outdated) research and just NOT be a single mother?” I read this piece by Katie Roiphe at a time when I was so down on myself I began to believe that I was irrevocably harming my child, and oh, she is so right: I am not.
The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser
“Even now I hear the words as shameful: Thirsty. Needy. The worst things a woman can be. Some days I still tell myself to take what is offered, because if it isn’t enough, it is I who wants too much. I am ashamed to be writing about this instead of writing about the whooping cranes, or literal famines, or any of the truer needs of the world.”
This is just an exquisite piece of writing. Really. Read it.
This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense by Linda Tirado
“I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.”
This piece was so frank and revealing. Linda Tirado’s writing reads as if she’s talking.
BUFFALO: Also Known as the American Bison by Spencer Hall
“It is an outline of a violence that doesn’t exist inside football alone. Football feeds on violence, on consumption of tissue and calories and bone and muscle, on endless expansion of the franchise, on new blood and labor and ever-more-specialized ways of gouging new space out of opposing territory. It’s a fundamentally destructive game of zero-sums and very short lifespans.”
I read this essay years ago, and I was struck by the incredible writing. Spencer Hall covers slavery, football, war, and bison. He covers the natural world and the political one; a scathing assessment of Roosevelt’s violence. football’s violence, racism’s violence, going from action and drama and observation, to poetic analysis and emotion.
Emerging from the “House of Gaslight” in the Age of #MeToo by Monica Lewinsky
“But as I find myself reflecting on what happened, I’ve also come to understand how my trauma has been, in a way, a microcosm of a larger, national one. Both clinically and observationally, something fundamental changed in our society in 1998, and it is changing again as we enter the second year of the Trump presidency in a post-Cosby-Ailes-O’Reilly-Weinstein-Spacey-Whoever-Is-Next world. The Starr investigation and the subsequent impeachment trial of Bill Clinton amounted to a crisis that Americans arguably endured collectively—some of us, obviously, more than others. It was a shambolic morass of a scandal that dragged on for 13 months, and many politicians and citizens became collateral damage—along with the nation’s capacity for mercy, measure, and perspective.”
Reading this essay was the first time I really thought about Monica Lewinsky as a person. I was 11 during the Clinton White House scandal – old enough to hear about it, too young to care or really understand what was going on. By the time I was old enough to understand, it was no longer in the news. When I read this article I was surprised at how articulate and wise Monica Lewinsky is, and then I felt ashamed by that surprise, that she was a caricature in a presidential sex scandal in my mind, when of course, of course she was a real person.
We have a rule in our family by Emmy & Me
(This Facebook post was untitled so I’ve linked it using the first line.)
“And that is where I learned to live. Right there, in all of those lesser-than-them moments. I decided as a human, and if I was ever lucky enough to become a mum, that I would try to do the opposite of all of that.
“So Em knows that if there isn’t enough for both of us to have the same, she will never know the feeling of getting lesser than just because I am in charge. We are a democracy where everyone has equal representation, and is valued and respected enough to never be lesser-thaned.”
Namedrop time: Nichole and Emmy of Emmy & Me are good friends of mine. Great friends. (Some might even say graaaate friends. Ok, no one says that except Nichole. And also me.) This is their most recent post at time of writing, and while it epitomises the grace and thoughtfulness of Nichole’s parenting, and what a marvellous kid Emmy is, I recommend you read… well, everything they’ve ever written. These are two of my favourite people, and I love the way Nichole celebrates her daughter and their life together, while acknowledging the hard stuff they, and others, have gone through. If you want a dose of humour, of beauty, and of authenticity (and who wouldn’t), here you go.
I am grateful, now fuck off by Emily Writes
“I am so grateful for my kids. I can’t even put into words how grateful I am. So I don’t need you to tell me to be grateful. I am. Guess what – I can be so grateful and so tired. I can be so grateful and so fucking over it. I can be so grateful and also imagine not having kids and just pashing and dancing and drinking bourbons till I puke.”
Namedrop brag again: I also know Emily. She is a bestselling author and one of the kindest, funniest people I have ever met. This post went viral and since then she has become one of New Zealand’s best known writers, particularly in the parenting sphere, but she is also brilliant on many other matters such as Alexander Skaarsgard’s V, the mum-shaming of Meghan Markle, capybaras at Wellington Zoo, oh – and serious topics like rape and abortion. I could include a bajillion links here because everything Emily writes is wonderful.
Prime Time by Crappy Living
“When did this begin? When were our desires and transgressions defined, diminished and sold back to us in tiny chunks, labelled fun sized? At 37, I know that anything labelled ‘fun’ needs to involve laughing, or at the very least, being out of breath. I’m talking waking up in Vegas next to a trapeze artist called Jose, and a handbag containing 60 grand in cash and a gun. A miniature bounty bar is just not cutting it guys.
“Hear me: I have best friends and no diamonds. My goal weight is Fuck You. I don’t ever really think about this unless I am writing it down for you like I am right here. I am happy.”
Have you come across my friend Emma yet? Sorry, bragging about my cool friends again, but who can blame me? They’re amazing. Emma is #writinggoals. She is SO funny, like laugh out loud funny, like incredibly witty and clever funny. She is also a great human who cares about other humans, and that is a magic combo for consistently excellent writing. She might be a genius, to be honest. If the website isn’t enough for you (it won’t be), make sure to follow her Facebook page too.
The Year in White Motherhood by Amil Niazi
“Now, two decades later, I am a mother myself, grasping for time and money, alienated by the oppressive barriers of my once escapist fantasy. And asking why the lens of modern motherhood is still so pointedly white-washed.”
I felt ashamed, when I read this, that I hadn’t given more consideration to how different the experiences of motherhood can be for white women and women of colour. Then I felt grateful to Amil Niazi for writing a piece like this, so that I could try and understand a little better – or if not understand, at least have the opportunity to listen and pay attention. It is beautiful and bleak and hopeful.
Don’t Carpe Diem by Glennon Doyle
“Anyway. Clearly, Carpe Diem doesn’t work for me.I can’t even carpe fifteen minutes in a row, so a whole diem is out of the question.”
It was really hard to pick just one of Glennon’s essays, because I adore her, and she has written a lot. I own all her books and have pre-ordered her next one months in advance, that’s how much I fangirl. Her life is nothing like mine, and yet I feel like we would be besties if we ever met, which we won’t, but we would, if we did, you know? It’s a gift to be that relatable to so many people. Like Emily above, Glennon shines a light on things that are often kept hidden, and she does it with grace and exuberance and many jokes.
What are some of your favourite essays? Link ’em in the comments, I love reading good stuff.
I love this short essay (was originally a newspaper column) by Bill Bryson, about the fleeting nature of childhood.
I love just about everything that US essayist & cartoonist Tim Kreider has written, but some of his standouts for me include: ‘The Anti-Kreider Club’ (about the pain of being ghosted by a long-time friend; good musings on the nature and lifespan of friendships); ‘Lazy: a manifesto’ (on being ‘busy’) and ‘The Referendum’ (on judging others’ lifestyle choices). Can’t find reliable links online, but go buy a copy of his book ‘We Learn Nothing’, it’s excellent!
Roxane Gay is best known for her feminist essays (and I like them very much), but her humorous essay ‘To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically’ about being a competitive Scrabble player is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. It’s in her book of essays, ‘Bad Feminist’.
I like so many of David Sedaris’s essays, it’s hard to pick one; but here’s a nice reflection on his late mother’s alcohol addiction, which went unrecognised during her lifetime.
I love David Sedaris so much! Haven’t read that one, thanks!
‘Men explain things to me’ by Rebecca Solnit. A classic.
Ah, of course!
I’ll read (and enjoy) pretty much anything by Australian essayist Helen Garner, but a couple I can strongly recommend from her ‘True Stories’ collection are ‘A Scrapbook, An Album’ (about her sisters’ complicated, interwoven relationships with each other) and ‘On Turning Fifty’ (about middle age). She has such a keen observational eye.
Heaps of great recommendations, thanks Kate!
‘She cannot work’ and ‘Can you tolerate this?’ from Ashleigh Young’s book of essays, ‘Can you tolerate this?’ But I like ’em all. Bloody brilliant.
Good rec – I enjoyed her book!
I love anything by Celeste Liddle: https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/loathsome–handmaid–erases-race
This one by Richard Dennis is over a year old, is that ok? (I can’t find the full text online) https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/essay/2018/06/dead-right
Totally ok! Age is but a number 😉
I have found a couple of essays in the Guardian about race (and in particular white fragility)have really stuck with me, and helped me https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/28/confronting-racism-is-not-about-the-needs-and-feelings-of-white-people
This is older but I read it in the last year or so https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/30/why-im-no-longer-talking-to-white-people-about-race
Yes, so good!
And all the articles on food security, the poor and morality that Rebecca Graham has produced for the Spinoff…I keep quoting from these https://thespinoff.co.nz/author/rebekahgraham2/
I know Rebekah! Such a good piece.
Apologies that is Rebekah Graham
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