AWF17: The Art of the Essay: Roxane Gay, Ashleigh Young, Teju Cole

The first thing to know about this session is that the queue started forming an hour beforehand – for this, a panel discussion about essays. And it wasn’t just a few die-hard fans sitting to fight to the front of the room – by the time I arrived, around 10:05 (the session due to start at 10:30), the line wound up along the ramp to the main atrium, doubling back on itself. I talked with those around me, and we wrung our hands – would we get in? Was the wait going to be worth our while?

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We did – and it was. The room was packed – all seats taken and the last of the late arrivals standing or cross-legged in the back of the room – but all rapturously attentive to the figures on the stage.

All three panellists were international faces, including the New Zealand representation.
Roxane Gay is a writer for myriad formats and forums as well as an English professor at Purdue University in Indiana. Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer and noted art historian, with a column in New York Times Magazine and several books to his name. His awards include the PEN/Hemingway Award and the mysterious but lucrative Windham-Campbell Prize. And then, of course, is Ashleigh Young, a name that surely needs no further explanation to readers of this blog or familiar with the contemporary New Zealand literary scene. She is a 2017 recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize.

‘We’re here,’ Simon told the packed house, ‘to talk about essays!’ So they did, spinning a broad discussion of craft, of influence, of intent.

Teju spoke about the privilege of the essayist – the fact that being in a position to take the time to sit down to think about things deeply and put pen to paper is quite a luxurious position to be in. Ashleigh described her writing process as very rarely starting with any great insight, commenting that ‘an essay is me trying to write my way out of bewilderment’.
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The issue of reliable narration in a non-fiction format was bounced around the three panellists. It is something that Ashleigh seemed to grapple with. ‘All I can write from is quite deep inside my own experience. I’m always trying to be honest about the truth as I experience it.’ Teju spoke of ‘productive discomfort”, describing his style of essay creation as ‘always writing subjectively, but not always super personally’. Continuing on the same vein, Roxane was asked ‘Do you see yourself as a truth teller?’ – which she responded to simply and clearly. ‘No – I just see myself as a writer. I don’t overcomplicate it beyond that.’

There was discussion about the ways in which an essay will develop – whether there’s a specific end point in mind, or whether the end makes itself known through the process of the writing. ‘When I start the essay, I have the answer – but by the time I’ve finished it, I’ve misplaced it,’ Teju said – to knowing laughter from some of the writers in the room.

‘Generally, the ending is something I do not know when I start,’ Roxane said. ‘But when I get there, I know then – this is what I want to leave the reader with.’ She went on to describe the best essays as being ‘dazzling without being ostentatious’.

‘Isn’t that a fine line?’ Simon asked.

‘It’s a very fine line,’ Roxane agreed. ‘But you know it when you see it.’

All three writers read a piece of their own writing – all very, very different pieces, representing the breadth of what the form can be. Which is, for Ashleigh, part of the appeal – even describing the essay as a ‘generous’ form. ‘I suppose the thing with the essay is that nobody’s been able to quite define it just yet. It’s a baggy monster of a form.’

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Simon WIlson, Teju Cole, Ashleigh Young and Roxane Gay onstage. Photo by Sarah Jane Barnett, copyright Pantograph Punch

Teju read ‘What It Is’, a short piece that ran in The New Yorker – a response to news in the modern world, that, while bleak at times, had the audience in stitches. One of the two women I spotted knitting in the audience laughed particularly uproariously at the line ‘But the burning question no one has raised yet is whether Ebola is the Newsweek of halitosis.’ – a line that you’ll have to read the full piece to get the glorious context for. It’s only just over 400 words.

Ashleigh read an excerpt from ‘Witches’, one of the essays in her collection Can You Tolerate This? – a beautiful and lyrical piece reflecting on the move from wild and fearless childhood to self-conscious teenage years.

Z_feministRoxane’s excerpt came from ‘Typical First Year Professor’, one of the first essays in her collection Bad Feminist – looking at her first days as a fully fledged English professor in the middle of Indiana while being who she is – a black woman with immigrant parents, a feminist, a liberal thinker, a queer woman. ‘Nuance is really important to me,’ she said later. ‘Most of the people in my immediate life disagree with everything that I am.’

The panel reflected on the certainty of one’s self and strength of character that need to exist in order to write essays. ‘There has to be a fundamental boldness, the knowledge that this is worth talking about,’ Teju said.

Roxane agreed. ‘You have to have the audacity to believe that the way in which you narrate the world matters and deserves to be heard.’

Thank goodness for Roxane’s audacity, and that of Teju and Ashleigh. Our literary world is enriched by the contributions that each of them make – and listening to the three of them in conversation with Simon was an absolute treat.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

You can catch Roxane Gay in her solo event Sunday at 10.30am – 11.30am
Ashleigh Young has one more event, Saturday evening from 6.00pm – 7.00pm
See Teju Cole talk about Photography Favourites 12noon – 1pm, Sunday 21 May

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