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The Epistolary Essay in Troubled Times

pencils lying on a table
November 13, 2016

This semester, my introduction to creative nonfiction class has been reading the work of James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Rebecca Solnit, among others. The essay has become one of the predominant literary forms of our particular moment here in America, because in muddled times, people seek out some form of the truth. Whether that’s the writer’s personal truth told in the form of memoir, as in Coates and Baldwin’s examples, or the historical and social truth discovered through reporting and research, as in Solnit’s, we as readers look to writers like this as guides through confusion.

The morning after the election, I’d been fielding emails from students all night. They were sleepless, tired, confused. One of them told me she wasn’t ready to come to class unless we had time to talk about the election. I had no lesson plan prepared in case of this result. As I walked across campus, what I noticed was the silence: our normally boisterous and noisy sphere had been muted. How to speak to that?

All but a few students ended up making it: bedraggled and tired-looking, but with laptops and notebooks. We’d been reading Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell -- a history of how communities come together to respond to disasters. And I thought about how Coates and Baldwin, several generations apart, had used the epistolary form to respond to the disaster of racism in American history.

So, I asked my students to write a letter. To Trump, Clinton, their parents, families, friends. Write a letter to anyone. Say what’s going on here in Berkeley. Say what you heard and saw last night. And they did. Some cried, some were stalwart. They were all writing. When we finished I asked them to share whatever they were comfortable with sharing in pairs, then we broke this open into class discussion.

It’s a small seminar, and they’ve come to know one another’s writing fairly well. And some said it was cathartic, and some thanked me, and some were silent leaving the room. But at moments when we’re all a little confused and perhaps even lost, letters are a way of testifying, of sharing something internal, of unloading, of finding common ground, and also of raising your voice. 


Kaya Oakes (College Writing Programs)