Best Nonfiction Essays

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This fall, I taught my freshman composition classes through a pop culture lens.

Many of my students had been indoctrinated with the false promises of the five-paragraph essay and began the year with the certainty first-person point of view had no place in professional or academic writing.

The Point, Notre Dame Magazine, Transition, and Prism received a lot of attention, and they’re also ones that are not likely to be on your radar, so pay attention: they’re publishing good stuff, and being recognized for it.

Don’t be too overwhelmed by the numerical place of each of these journals: the number doesn’t necessarily denote quality, it just means that the leaders in the industry (as represented by the guest editors of Best American Essays) have consistently labeled essays from that journal as being top notch. What is fantastic for the journal editor might not be an interesting read for you, and might also not be a good fit for the type of nonfiction you’ve written.

There is happiness in recalling the way her mom showed her how to eat Jolly Pong, but H Mart also ignites anger for Zauner.

In the food court, she cries again at the sight of an old Korean woman eating, asking “[w]hy is she here slurping up spicy jjamppong noodles and my mom isn’t?

This year, I read several different essay collections, and dozens of essays online, but this is the piece I keep returning to, the one I’ve thought about most. The intimate details of the rituals of faith and grief, an inventory of the things a family sends for sustenance, when clearly it is love that sustains them. In the last five years, Michelle Zauner lost her mother and aunt to cancer.

Crying in H Mart is her emission of grief, an act of collecting memories of these women, “evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when they did.” She walks through the aisles of this asian grocery store telling us the Korean words for the sundries she picks up and then — more importantly— the memories of her childhood that they ignite.

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