The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash NonfictionNonfiction
Reviewed By Brian Wallace Baker
- Rose Metal Press (2020)
- 276 pages
Although virtually all of the eighty-four flash pieces in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction are available for free on Brevity’s website, there was something savory about taking these selected essays off the screen and holding them in my hands, underlining and annotating as I read. More importantly, even readers familiar with Brevity will find gems they otherwise might not have excavated from the journal’s vast archives.
The first essay in the anthology, Brenda Miller’s “The Shape of Emptiness,” is one I’ve loved since it was first published in Brevity’s 56th issue—so much that I later taught it in freshman English classes. It tells of Miller’s experience with a student who has just lost his mother, and who, for his final presentation of the semester, brings small lumps of playdough for each member of the class. He instructs each student to squeeze their playdough to reveal “the shape of [their] holding”: “The boy stands aside and begins to read, his voice soft at first then growing more forceful. He asks us: What is the shape of emptiness? Then he pauses, allows the question to remain unanswered. We gaze at our playdough impressions, see how we all have different ways to hang on.”
It’s no accident that the anthology begins with this essay because it metaphorically frames each essay that follows. The Best of Brevity is a collection of playdough lumps, each squeezed by a different hand, revealing the different ways people endure the struggle of being human.
I was happy to see other familiar essays in The Best of Brevity, such as Joey Franklin’s “Girl Fight,” about a boy defending the honor of his crush and some of the gender stereotypes imposed on children from an early age, and Rajpreet Heir’s “An Indian in Yoga Class: Finding Imbalance,” a witty yet powerful piece about “an Indian from Indiana” who turns to yoga to better connect to her heritage, only to endure obtuse cultural appropriation: “The cultural appropriation in me,” Heir writes, “bows to the Indian in you.”
Other essays in this anthology, like the late Brian Doyle’s “Imagining Foxes,” were new to me. This essay describes a childhood memory of the narrator’s older sister taking him and his brother to a patch of wilderness surrounded by urbanization, where they saw all kinds of wildlife, but the essay is about the foxes they didn’t see: “We spend so much time mourning and battling for a world where kids can see foxes that we forget you don’t have to see foxes. You have to imagine them, though. If you stop imagining them then they are all dead, and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?” Including this essay in the anthology is a fitting homage to a writer who contributed so prolifically to Brevity (seven essays by my count) and to the flash nonfiction genre as a whole.
The driving force of this anthology is its vast diversity. Editors Zoë Bossiere and Dinty W. Moore do an excellent job of providing a broad sampling of the human experience, as shown by the quite helpful “Alternate Table of Contents by Subject and Form” in the back of the book, which lists essays under such headings as “Disability and Illness,” “Gender,” “LGBTQIA+ Perspectives,” and “Race and Ethnicity.”
This is more than just tokenistic, checkbox diversity. It’s a main feature that is sustained throughout the book, and it goes beyond what we might most readily think of as diversity to include things such as age, religion, and, in the form of translated work, language.
If that were the full extent of the variety found in The Best of Brevity, it would be more than adequate, but another exciting part of this book is its diversity of form. “I’m done predicting what is possible—and what is not—in the flash form,” Moore says in his introduction to the anthology, “because each issue brings along the unexpected.” This is evident throughout the anthology, which contains a wide range of traditional and experimental work. There are found essays, such as “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” by Torrey Peters, which lists in harrowing detail the brutality perpetrated against trans people. There’s also Nicole Cyrus’s “Hairy Credentials,” which takes the form of a resume: “Training: skilled at leading discussions on a range of topics unrelated to her job or the company’s mission, including but not limited to: black hair textures, black hairstyles, and black hair etiquette to mostly white male audiences.”
There are also braided essays, collage essays, a graphic essay, a one-paragraph essay, an essay told entirely in footnotes, and the list goes on.
Reading The Best of Brevity is like going to a party with eighty-four unique guests. Some are old friends and acquaintances. Many are strangers I want to know better. But at this party, instead of chitchat and small talk, people speak openly about the deepest parts of themselves—their wonder, hunger, and hurt. Imagine what kind of world we would live in, what kind of connectedness and healing might be possible, if we all so openly trusted each other with our stories. The Best of Brevity offers a microcosm of that world, inviting us to feel the soft shape of another’s grasping, and implicitly, maybe, inviting us to share our own.
Brian Wallace Baker is a poet and essayist from Erda, Utah, who holds an MFA from Western Kentucky University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things column, Split Lip Magazine, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and daughter.