Brace yourself, readers. This ain’t no walk in the air-conditioned mall. These ain’t your grandma’s essays. Year after year, the submissions to our annual nonfiction contest prove, at least to me, the ability of the essay to confront our age’s accumulated untruths, to disentangle the nonsense that passes for common wisdom. For example, our winner: at once a work of cultural criticism, indictment, ridicule, political parable, and a reckoning, Scott Russell Duncan’s “Mexican American Psycho Is in Your Dreams“, chosen by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, slices through layer upon layer of hypocrisy in a voice as authentic as a fist. Similarly, “A History of Fear” by Laura Price Steele, and “World Peace 101” by Laura Distelheim, our runners-up, demand of readers an honesty we are usually reluctant to fully bring to bear on the circumstances of our lives; both essays restore to us the kind of lyrical beauty that can only be had by humbly seeing things as they are. Finalist Tej Rae takes us to Rome; not the Rome of monuments and cathedrals, but the world of refugees from Romania, Dakar, Senegal, trying to find their way in a place strange to them.
Our “Editor’s Picks” by Deborah Schifter and Steven Harvey round out what must surely be our finest gathering yet of essays that will challenge, ground, excite, and delight our readers. I feel confident in saying that these are among the best essays being written in America today. Think that’s empty bragging? Hyperbole? Read them and you’ll see.