First of all, congratulations to Anne-Marie Oomen, winner of the Michael Steinberg Nonfiction Prize for her essay, “Four Winds,” and to the contest’s runner-up Herb Harris for his “To Belong in a Garden.” Of “Four Winds,” judge Megan Marshall writes that it is “an impressive feat of writerly empathy that draws us ineluctably into the author’s mission and her young subjects’ precarious lives.” Of Harris’s “To Belong in a Garden” Marshall writes, “we must all, eventually, fall out of Eden, but this allegorical memoir recounts a young Black child’s painful expulsion from a garden of privilege at the center of our nation’s capital through no sin of his own in a narrative that is both timely and, sadly, timeless.”
I know it is unacceptable these days to describe depression as other than a genetic predisposition to chemical imbalance, but it’s hard not to think that outrage plus helplessness results in something very similar. Call it despondency. Or sorrow. Or just plain sadness. Whatever you call it, the disempowerment, the discouragement, the inability to remove the shadow of this pandemic results in a kind of half-life, a low-grade misery that stretches out as far as… what? The cliche’d light at the end of the cliche’d tunnel? A vaccine? And what of the murderous display of unapologetic racism? The exposure of the rot at the heart of our institutions, from the courts to the congress to the precinct stations? The state violence unleashed against citizens objecting to murder? Who would deny that it is dispiriting?
All of the essays in this issue were written before the present state of affairs took hold. The writers here discover skeins of consequence, layers of ironies, echoes, illuminations, shadows, that offer us a deeper understanding of the way we were living until a few months ago, in lives we hope we might return to. And yet, rereading these essays, spanning from North Carolina to Mogadishu, I am not so much reminded of the world pre-Covid as I am excited to recall how essays, in the hands of writers as fine as these, can shrink the distance between places, times, cultures, customs. How they can situate us once again in a world of meaningfulness, where significance offers itself like wild fruit. The present, the weird timelessness of this pandemic, remains to be explored, maybe only after some time has passed, when this long and dreadful moment becomes memory and can be interrogated, weighed, put into a context. Nevertheless, the fine essayists in this issue are offering us more than memories of the before-times. They are offering us hope, by reminding us that language honestly and carefully brought to bear on experience can move us from isolation to community, renew our faith in one another, and brace us for whatever is to come. And for that I am very grateful.
— Richard Hoffman