We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in specific categories. Here, the best in essay writing.
* * *
Freelance writer, “Birth Story” author, motherhood columnist at The Cut, who believes her best work is at The Billfold.
The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison, The Believer)
I did not know who Leslie Jamison was before I read her essay “Empathy Exams” late one night at the pie shop that I use as an office when the library is closed. I was hungry, and it was dark out, and I was very pregnant and needed to get home. But I stayed in that uncomfortable chair and read it the whole way through, bursting with excitement. I G-chatted friends in all caps asking them if they’d read it. I Googled her, saw she had a book coming out, and floated home feeling like, “Yes, let’s do this. Let’s write some fucking personal essays, people!” I think Jamison, especially here, convinced or re-convinced a lot of people of the possibilities and the value of writing in the first person. Of course I think it’s horse shit that it takes a white lady with a veneer of intellectualism to make it okay, but I’ll take it where I can get it. Jamison, for her part, rises to the occasion. She certainly reminded me to hang onto the art of the thing, all the while going deeper, letting the problem of whatever you’re trying to do take up its own space.
How Much My Novel Cost Me (Emily Gould, Medium)
Emily Gould’s epic essay on Medium, “How Much My Novel Cost Me,” made me want her to write a book about the process of writing a book (or just write another book about anything—I’ll read it). No one tells the truth about money, about ambition and desire and the attendant disappointment like Gould does. Critics love to evoke her “gimlet eye,” which is too restrained a phrase for my taste—too abstract. Emily does not like flowery language. Emily DGAF. Her DGAF-ness challenges us all to be better, to look critically at what parts of us are operating just below the surface. You have to really be ready to read stuff from her, because you know there will be a few lies you’ve been telling yourself that you’ll have to let go of after reading whatever it is she’s aimed her gimlet eye / razor tongue / raised brow / man-eating heart on this time. Gird your delusions, various parts of Emily’s face are coming for you.
* * *
Writer and editor living in Decatur, Georgia.
Poor Teeth (Sarah Smarsh, Aeon)
When it comes to narrowing down end-of-the-year favorites, increasingly the only criteria that makes sense to me is, “How profoundly did this change the way I thought about its subject?” And reading this essay on class and poverty and dental care felt like following Sarah Smarsh around as she flipped on light switch after light switch, illuminating not only dark rooms I’d never thought to enter before, but also spaces I thought I knew well but which turned out to be all shadowed corners. It works so well, I think, because Smarsh seems to have sensed that this couldn’t just be a personal essay or a reported story or a piece of pop-culture criticism—to talk about Pennsatucky’s teeth is to talk about her grandmother’s teeth is to talk about her own teeth is to talk about America itself.
‘It’s Silly to Be Frightened of Being Dead’ (Diana Athill, The Guardian)
Diana Athill is 96 and has written so much in her life, but this was the first I’ve read of any of it—and while that now feels like a grave mistake, this essay does seem like an oddly ideal starting point. It’s a miniature memoir of her mortality, from her childhood spent in the long shadow of the mourning-obsessed Victorians (“my mother never went to a funeral if she could help it … and my father vanished from the room if death was mentioned”), through her own brushes with death as a young and less-young adult, and on into the present, when the fickle pendulum of death-acceptance seems to be swinging back towards some saner middle ground. Grappling with death seems to have been a major project of Athill’s life—not one of those things that dawned on her in middle-age after however many decades of careless existence—which is what makes this such a gift for anyone who also first found themselves mucking around in the strangeness of human impermanence when they were very small.
* * *
Fiction writer and essayist and visiting writer at North Carolina State University.
The Art of Arrival (Rebecca Solnit, Orion)
First published in Orion, this essay about friendship, environmental activism, and journeys has all the pleasures that make Rebecca Solnit a favorite: a landscape you want to inhabit; a demand you pay attention to what is disappearing and vulnerable; elegant, wise sentence progressions that reward rereading, like this one: “In a way, everything is traveling: the planet revolving daily, orbiting the sun annually, the blood traveling within our veins, the ideas traveling within our minds. Maybe being still is how you turn your attention from the logistics of your own trajectory to the passage of all the other beings and their shadows. To arrive, then, is not about immobility but something else, perhaps confidence, clarity, satisfaction, attention.” “The Art of Arrival” is also as tender a portrait as I read all year, both of Solnit’s tough, selfless, welcoming friend, Jo Anne Garrett, but also of Solnit herself, someone trying to find her way back to the best kind of journeys.
52 Blue (Leslie Jamison, Slate)
Everyone who loves essays is talking about Leslie Jamison’s brilliant The Empathy Exams, published this year by Graywolf Press. I trust that someone else will choose the powerful title essay, also featured on Longreads this year, as a favorite. But I like teasers, too, and reading about the way we try to inhabit the minds of animals, so I’ll pick this Atavist single, excerpted in Slate, which introduces you to the human obsession with a blue whale singing at a frequency beyond communication with his species. Of course once you sample the excerpt you’ll need to read the whole essay—a nineteen-part story as riveting as a good novel.
My Vassar College ID Makes Everything Okay (Kiese Laymon, Gawker)
Everything is far from okay, as this devastating, intimate essay about the impact of white racial supremacy makes clear. Had Laymon described only his own experience as a professor at an elite Northeastern college—of racial profiling by white cops, ignorant stereotyping by white students, open hostility from white professors—the essay would be gripping and infuriating. What makes the essay luminous is the way Laymon expands the scope of his critique to include a crescendo of moments experienced by his own minority students that will probably, terribly, never leave them: moments of fear, violence, and willful, consequential misunderstanding. “We are not OK. We are not OK,” Laymon writes, in a style that wavers between a lonely interior dialogue and incisive, withering commentary. But, he suggests, “We are so much better than the sick part of our nation that murders an unarmed black boy like a rabid dog, before prosecuting him for being a nigger.” Better, too, he says, than the “innocent” racism practiced at places like Vassar. This is essential reading.
* * *
Longreads Editor’s Picks (Mark Armstrong)
Dear Kate (Nancy Comiskey, Indianapolis Monthly)
This essay by Nancy Comiskey about losing her daughter ran in the November issue of Indianapolis Monthly, and it just gutted me. It’s not just because I’m a parent, but because I also saw myself in the awkward reactions from Comiskey’s friends when they struggled with how to react to her grief and anger and desire to talk about her daughter—to defiantly not just be “over it.” You lose good friends who don’t know how to react, you gain some friends you never expected. You yearn. She describes this moment with her husband:
On his third birthday without Kate, Steve and I were standing in our kitchen, crying, when he choked out these words: “It’s not that I want her back. It’s not that I need her back. It’s that I have to have her back.”
Comiskey bravely and honestly walks us through these emotions, and we get to know Kate along the way. It is certainly the most moving piece of writing I read all year, and I am thankful to her for sharing this story.
The Case for Reparations (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic)
This is where Ta-Nehisi Coates puts all the pieces together. An incredible history of slavery in America, in all its forms, and a stirring call for “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal”:
We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.
After 2014, it is hard to not see how overdue we are for such a spiritual renewal.
"Only Nineteen", "I Was Only Nineteen" or "A Walk in the Light Green" is the most widely recognised song by Australian folk group Redgum. The song was released in March 1983 as a single, which hit number one on the national Kent Music Report Singles Chart for two weeks. It was also recorded for Redgum's live album Caught in the Act (Epic Records) released in June, which stayed in the top forty of the Kent Music Report Albums Chart for four months. Royalties for the song go to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. It is in the Australasian Performing Right Association's Top 30 Australian Songs of all time.
The song is a first-person account of a typical Australian soldier's experience in the Vietnam War, from training in Australia to first hand exposure to military operations and combat, and ultimately his return home disillusioned, psychologically scarred and possibly suffering from the effects of the chemical defoliantAgent Orange.
Contrary to popular belief, the subject of this song is a volunteer member of the Australian Army, and not a conscript. Australian men did not become eligible for conscription until the age of 21.
Redgum's lead vocalist-guitarist, John Schumann, wrote the song based on experiences he heard from veterans — particularly Mick Storen (his brother in-law) and Frankie Hunt: "The power derives from the detail, provided by my mate and brother-in-law, Mick Storen, who was brave and trusting enough to share his story with me." — John Schumann
For the live version, Schumann explained the title, "A Walk in the Light Green", as referring to operational patrols in areas marked light green on topographical maps, where dark green indicated thick jungle, plenty of cover and few land mines and light green indicated thinly wooded areas, little cover and a high likelihood of land mines.
The Australian Vietnam Veterans' "Welcome Home Parade" was held in Sydney on 3 October 1987 and was followed by a concert in The Domain where Redgum's Schumann performed his song with veteran Frank Hunt on stage. From this parade, a desire for a War Memorial to commemorate Vietnam Veterans grew into fruition with the Memorial's dedication in October 1992.Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial was constructed in Anzac Parade, Canberra in 1992 and includes a "Wall of Words": "Stele B, the northern or right-hand stele, is adorned with a series of 33 quotations fixed in stainless steel lettering." Amongst the quotations is:
|“||Then someone called out "contact" and the bloke behind me swore, and we hooked in there for hours, then a god-almighty roar. Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon. God help me, he was going home in June.||”|
A "normal language" explanation of each quote has been included, courtesy of the late Brigadier Alf Garland:
|“||This is a quotation from the song 'I was only 19' by the Australian singing group "Red Gum" [sic]. It relates to a fire fight that had lasted for some hours when an explosion occurred. "Frankie", one of the soldiers had kicked (tripped) a landmine. In the song he died on the same day that the US put a man on the moon for the first time. Frankie was supposed to be returning home to Australia on completion of his tour in June of that year.||”|
At the 40th-year commemoration of the Battle of Long Tần, 18 August 2006, veterans were accompanied by Australian Ambassador Bill Tweddle at the Long Tan Cross; following the commemoration a concert was held at Vũng Tàu where Schumann (and The Vagabond Crew) sang "I Was Only Nineteen." He also introduced Long Tần veteran Storen as the source for the song. For an SBS TV special Vietnam Nurses (2005), director Polly Watkins chose "Redgum and John Schumann's song 'Only Nineteen' during the Welcome Home Parade in 1987 because it is integral to one of the nurses' stories." Frank Hunt provides an account of his Vietnam experiences, titled "I Was Only Nineteen", in Gina Lennox' book Forged by War (August 2006).
After Schumann had received letters of request from active soldiers in Afghanistan and East Timor he sought permission to visit the troops but obtained no answer. A reporter published an article on the situation, authorities gave permission for Schumann to tour East Timor in December 2009 and entertain Australian and New Zealand troops. In September–October 2011 he played for Australian troops in Afghanistan.
In 2015, Lee Kernaghan recorded the song for his album Spirit of the Anzacs. That same year, the song was added to the Sounds of Australia Registry at the National Film & Sound Archive (NFSA).
The lyrics include words, terms and place names particular to Australia and Vietnam:
- ANZAC: Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in the world wars. Originally the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.
- Canungra: the jungle warfare training centre near Canungra, Queensland.
- Channel Seven: Australian television network.
- Chinook: Military helicopter.
- Contact!: Military term indicating contact with the enemy. Will also contain direction of contact either contact left, contact right, contact front or contact rear.
- Dustoff: Casualty evacuation by helicopter.
- Greens: Jungle Green Working Dress, the field uniform worn by the Australian Army between the early 1960s and 1989.
- The Grand Hotel: A hotel in Vung Tau that had been converted for Army use.
- Light green: parts on a map which indicated supposedly more dangerous areas for soldiers to patrol as there was little dense foliage and cover and an area which was more likely to be mined.
- Nui Dat: Village in Bà Rịa province in Southern Vietnam, and the main base of 1st Australian Task Force from 1965 to 1972.
- Puckapunyal: Former Army enlisted soldier recruit training centre in Victoria.
- Shoalwater: Military exercise area in Queensland.
- Sixth Battalion: (aka 6RAR) Australian army battalion, whose D Company had been involved in the Battle of Long Tan during a tour three years earlier.
- Slouch hat: Parade head-dress for the Australian army.
- SLR: Standard 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle issued to Australian infantrymen during the Vietnam War.
- Tinnies: Cans of beer.
- Townsville: City in Queensland, home of the Australian Army's 3rd Brigade & RAAF Base Townsville. Also at the time the embarkation point for troops shipping to Vietnam from all around Australia, because it was the biggest port in Northern Australia.
- VB: Victoria Bitter (beer). Was also used as a reference to one's comrades in arms aka "Venerable Brethren." e.g: "We made our tents a home VB with pin-ups on the lockers, and an Asian orange sunset through the scrub." (A reference to the defoliant, "Agent Orange" used prolifically in Vietnam).
- Vũng Tàu: Coastal city in Southern Vietnam which was the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group base and a rest area for troops based at Nui Dat.
When the song was first released, Rick Melbourne, a breakfast radio announcer, produced a parody version of the song, including the lyrics "God help me, she told me she was sixteen". Australian country singer John Williamson recorded a live version as "Only 19" and released it on his 1984 vinyl LP, The Smell of Gumleaves (rereleased in 1996 as a CD under the title Home Among the Gum Trees).
The song's and album's producer, Trevor Lucas, performed his version as a member of his United Kingdom-based group Fairport Convention at the 1985 Cropredy Festival. On the show Fast Forward, Gina Riley, in character as Eleanor LaGore, performed a swing version of the song.
The song was covered by Australian Army Band The Lancer Band in 2015 in the lead up to ANZAC Day. The cover gained positive widespread attention in the media.  It differed from most covers as it was performed by soldiers and sung by a female soldier.
In 2005 a hip hop version of the song (called "I was Only 19") was produced by The Herd, voted in at #18 in the 2005 Triple J Hottest 100 playlist.
This song also plays a symbolic role in the 2006 book World War Z by Max Brooks.
- "I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green)" (John Schumann) - 4:19
- "Yarralumla Wine" (Michael Atkinson) - 2:33
Single version "I Was Only Nineteen" (March 1983) – 4:19
Only Schumann and McDonald of Redgum played on this track:
- John Schumann – lead vocals, guitar
- Hugh McDonald – violin, vocals
- Brian Czempinski – drums (later became a member of Redgum)
- Trevor Lucas – backing vocals, producer
- Peter Coughlin – bass guitar
Caught in the Act live version, "I Was Only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green)" (1983) – 5:57
Schumann introduces the song and explains the phrase 'A Walk in the Light Green' which he gives as its title. Recorded at The Rose, Shamrock and Thistle Hotel (aka Three Weeds Hotel) in Rozelle, New South Wales:
- Michael Atkinson – guitar, mandolin, piano, vocals
- Hugh McDonald – violin, vocals
- John Schumann – lead vocals, guitar
- Verity Truman – flute, tin whistle, vocals
- Trevor Lucas – producer
- Jim Barton – engineer
John Schumann released the song as an acoustic single on iTunes to commemorate 30 years since the song's original release. The single was the version recorded for the 2008 Vagabond Crew album Behind The Lines.
- ^ abcd""I Was Only Nineteen" at APRA search engine". Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA). Retrieved 2008-10-30.
- ^ abKent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992. St Ives, NSW: Australian Chart Book Ltd. ISBN 0-646-11917-6. NOTE: Used for Australian Singles and Albums charting from 1974 until ARIA created their own charts in mid-1988. In 1992, Kent back calculated chart positions for 1970–1974.
- ^"Redgum". Passagen.se. Australian Rock Database (Magnus Holmgren). Archived from the original on 20 February 2012. Retrieved 30 April 2014.
- ^ abSchumann, John (August 2006). "I was only 19 - The John Schumann story"(PDF). Retrieved 2007-10-28.
- ^"Dimensions Episode 20: John Schumann". Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). 18 June 2003. Archived from the original on 20 May 2007. Retrieved 2 November 2007.
- ^Kruger, Debbie (2 May 2001). "The songs that resonate through the years"(PDF). Australasian Performing Right Association. Archived from the original(PDF) on 17 May 2008. Retrieved 2 November 2007.
- ^Tuoi, Tre (6 September 2006). "John Schumann – an artist of anti-war songs". VietNamNet Bridge. Archived from the original on 2007-03-28. Retrieved 2007-11-03.
- ^Schumann introduces the live version of the song with an explanation including "...it's about two mates of mine who went to Vietnam, came back Agent Orange victims...".
- ^"Australia and the Vietnam War - Conscription - The Birthday Ballot". commemoration.gov.au. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
- ^Schumann, John (2004). "Redgum – Against The Grain album insert". Sony Music.
- ^Miller, E: "The Sun", page 23. Academic Press, 2005
- ^"Welcome Home". Digger History. Retrieved 2008-01-23.
- ^ abMcKay, Gary; Elizabeth Stewart (2002) . Viet Nam Shots: a photographic account of Australians at War. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86508-541-3. Retrieved 2008-01-23.
- ^"Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial". Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia.
- ^ ab"Quotations from the Wall Of Words at the Vietnam Forces Memorial". Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. Retrieved 2008-01-21.
- ^Radio operator Private Frank Hunt did not step on the M21 mine on 21 July 1969, at Hoi My, South Vietnam, but was so seriously injured by the blast that he was repatriated to Australia. It is uncertain in what sense the songwriter had meant that he was going home in June, the month before.
- ^"MEDIA ALERT Frankie kicked a mine; mankind kicked the moon"(PDF). awm.gov.au. Retrieved 2011-02-26.
- ^"Radio National: 40 years on - Long Tan". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2008-01-21.
- ^"Storyline Australia behind the scenes: director Q & A". sbs.com.au. Archived from the original on 2006-08-30. Retrieved 2008-01-23.
- ^Lennox, Gina (August 2006). Forged by War: Australians in Combat and Back Home. Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing. ISBN 0-522-85171-1.
- ^ABC Local Radio, South Australia on 891AM, 18-11-2009
- ^Yahoo News. Retrieved 2009-11-19.
- ^Facebook Facebook album
- ^Soundcloud website John Schumann talks about his November gig with the Vagabond Crew in Canberra Retrieved on 5 January 2012
- ^"Vietnam war anthem I Was Only 19 added to Sounds of Australia registry". abc.net.au. 18 November 2015. Retrieved 31 October 2016.
- ^"Home Among the Gum Trees". MusicMoz. Retrieved 2007-10-11.
- ^ ab"Redgum: I was only 19". Reinhard Zierke. 5 March 2005. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
- ^WORLD WAR Z ALLUSIONS AND CULTURAL REFERENCES Retrieved April 1, 2016
- ^""Yarralumla Wine" at APRA search engine". Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA). Retrieved 2008-10-30.
- ^Schumann, John. "John Schumann Official website". Retrieved 2007-11-02.
- ^"Three Weeds Hotel". WikiMapia. Retrieved 2007-11-01.
- ^ABC Music John Schumann on ‘I Was Only 19’ - Thirty Years On + Acoustic Single