Best Canadian Essays 2020, Edited by Sarmishta Subramanian

May 12, 2021

Last year, the Covid-19 pandemic opened a schism that marks what many people now consider a “before and after.” The before: concerts, commutes, handshakes, birthday candles. The after: masks, six foot separations, grocery store line-ups, Zoom.

March 2021 marks one year of this “after,” and in many ways, the writing that has emerged during this time has served to document this tear as it opened. The comparison between writing and weaving is a common one, but nevertheless pertinent: these essays, meditating on the wears in the old fabric of 2019, can help us see where the fabric began to split. As often happens when something is torn, the underlying tensions, nerves and mechanics of daily life become exposed, naked to greater scrutiny. If we are good readers, we can use the clues of the old fabric to restitch and suture stronger seams.

Some of the wears this collection identifies: the stresses of online dating, the trials of living at home, the social-media mediation of the public and private. Some are especially premonitory, given that in 2021 we know how the fabric will give out: Michelle Orange meditates on surveillance capitalism before Zoom and curbside pickup; Michael LaPointe analyzes the physical, intellectual and social dimensions of walking as a “self-satisfied” practice, before it became a cornerstone of our socially distanced lives; perhaps most presciently, in “From Berth to Death,” Andrew Nikiforuk and Amorina Kingdon trace the Spanish influenza’s nautical spread through trade routes and naval maps. All of these conditions have been exacerbated as globalization collapses distance. “We have solid road maps that show how pandemics happen,” they conclude. “And they will happen: Spotting these first signs of trouble would be good.”

The writers in this collection spotted these first signs of the wear and tear; it is only as the pandemic has uprooted all of our lives that the drafts they let in have become palpable. And, as editor Sarmishta Subramanian notes, this has not happened uniformly: Black communities, Indigenous communities, the incarcerated, the disabled, the poor and the elderly, have all been disproportionately affected. As Métis writer Jenny Ferguson chronicles in “Off Balance,” the upsurge in online dating during the pandemic has different implications for those like her, living in a Nova Scotian town “where the storefronts are chic, you can park for free downtown, where there are no stoplights anywhere, and where pedestrians have the right of way,” and where algorithms match her with profiles who require the women they date to be white. Similarly, reading LaPointe’s essay on “The Unbearable Smugness of Walking” in light of the 2020 protests against police brutality encourages us to think about who has historically felt safe to walk and exist freely in public.

The collection also deals with the private, a space that has become for many increasingly charged and contested in the year of lockdowns and bubbles. In “Selfish Intimacy,” Alexandra Molotkow documents the sale of her childhood home and the urge she feels to photograph and “capture” the space. As many of us turn to Instagram to publish the privacy of our confinement, Molotkow’s words accrue greater resonance: “My documentation had an ulterior motive,” she writes. “My phone was a mechanism that could place me at a distance from any shared moment, turn it into a spectacle for parties not present.” At a time where the desire for a return to public life is often debilitating, Molotkow’s words encourage us, at least momentarily, to consider the preciousness of the intimacy that is fostered in private spaces. For those of us stressed to present and perform, her words come as a soothing balm: the personal does not always have to be made public to be meaningful. Similarly, in “The Life-Changing Magic of Making Do,” Benjamin Leszcz responds to Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and our evolutionary urge to “seek novelty, variety, and excess.” Making do, he suggests, is about “taming the reflex to discard, replace, or upgrade; it’s about using things well, and using them until they are used up.” In more ways than one, 2020 has been a year of making do, and we’ve all had to make do differently. Christina Sharpe’s essay “Beauty is a Method,” is a brilliant reminder of this: growing up in a Black neighborhood bordered by wealthy white suburbs, Sharpe shows us that recognizing beauty is a way of seeing. “If the ceiling was falling down and you couldn’t do anything about it, what you could do was grow and arrange peonies and tulips and zinnias; cut forsythia and mock orange to bring inside,” she writes. As we all try to curate beauty in our small lives, Sharpe reminds us that, for many, seeing beauty has always been a means of survival: “Attentiveness whenever possible to a kind of aesthetic that escaped violence wherever possible.”

Each of the essays in this book is remarkable in its own light. In “It’s Too Late to Cancel Michael Jackson,” Carl Wilson unpacks the ethics of separating a person from their legacy, before “cancellation” accrued its potency in the common vernacular. Alexandra Kimball centres on the overlap between medical and social discrimination in “The Loneliness of Infertility.” In her visit to Forest Lawn celebrity graveyard, nicknamed “The Disneyland of Death,” Larissa Diakiw offers a meditation on how to mourn personalities we know but have never met, especially pertinent given the increase of para-social relationships during social distancing. Andy Lamey’s “In the US Campus Speech Wars, Palestinian Advocacy is a Blind Spot” considers the fraught silence around the BDS movement, a piece which is increasingly timely as the Free Palestine movement gains force with the 2020 protests against the annexation of the West bank. In “Confessions of a White Vampire” Jeremy Narby finds himself, as a white academic, caught in the reciprocal gaze of the Ashaninca peoples he has come to study, who have their own assumptions about whiteness as a monstrosity. In “Meritocracy and Its Discontents” James Brooke-Smith also addresses the university’s role in upholding social elitism and urges us to think of education’s place in cultivating human goods, such social cohesion, mental health and crime reduction, rather than economic gain. Finally, Alanna Mitchell’s “For the Love of the Pronghorns” considers the pronghorn antelope as “one of North America’s conservation success stories,” a reputation endangered by the encroachment of climate change.

It is difficult to summarize each essay in this collection under a singular topic. Reading each one in 2021, it is challenging to disentangle what they meant during their writings in 2019 from what they came to mean in this 2020 publication. Further, different aspects of each come to new significance under new light–for instance, even if it is not the main subject of attention, almost each essay addresses the social media curations of “self,” the stresses and joys of the nuclear family, and the insidious undergirding of capitalism beneath many of our everyday activities. Over time, the stories accrue new meaning and new significances, like any set of favourite clothing. The real legwork of making sense of the “before and after” falls to the reader, and has been brilliantly started by Sarmishta Subramanian, the editor who curated this collection. Particularly in her introduction, she meditates on Wayne Grady’s “Syncope,” a slippery term whose usage he defines as “a thing that was there, has been forgotten, and then suddenly is there again.” Like a patchwork pair of jeans, or a stitched and resewn sweater, this collection brilliantly marks what existed, what has been uprooted, and what we must try, collectively, to salvage.

Best Canadian Essays 2020
Edited by Sarmishta Subramanian
Biblioasis, Oct. 2020, 240 pp., $22.95
ISBN: 978-1771963662.

Alexandra Sweny is a student and settler currently living in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). She is completing her master’s degree in English literature at Concordia University. Her favourite colour is yellow.

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