Monday, December 11, 2023

Nicole Walker on the Insistence of the Essay

I subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and my local paper, The Arizona Daily Sun. Unless you’re talking about how families receive $7,000 vouchers to remove their children from the public school system with no regulation for where and how they use that $7,000, the Daily Sun is a relatively safe space with stories about rim to rim to rim Grand Canyon hikes and when the new In and Out burger joint will open. But The Times and The Post offer less safety. Last week, I spent three rough days delving into investigative reports that warned each time that these stories were not for the faint of heart. That I had to prepare myself. That, for the first time, they were going to show images that papers usually don’t show.
The first article I read was a no-holds-barred article in The Washington Post, “Terror on Repeat: A Rare Look at the Devastation Caused by AR-15 Shooting.” A police officer, entering the elementary school after the massacre said, “I thought at first it was an art room because I saw a lot of red paint all over the walls and in the far left corner I thought I observed a pile of dirty laundry.” And then he realized those were not clothes. Or not only clothes. The clothes held the bodies of dead children who had huddled together to try to protect themselves from the shooter. Other images of blood streaking down the school hallway. And there were other photos from the Las Vegas massacre with another pile, this time of spent bullets, pyramiding in an empty room.
Next, I read in The Times the article, “They Started Playing Football When They Were Six,” about children who had played football as young kids and had killed themselves in their teens and early twenties. One element to this multimedia article showed a video of a young boy, as clean cut and together-looking as a kid could be, as he recorded himself saying that his brain had become increasingly uncontrollable. He could not stop his depression, his anxiety. He said, “Dad, I know you’re capable of doing this,” then he asked his dad to, after his open-casket funeral, donate his brain to science. He wanted them to see proof of what he believed: the many concussions he received while playing football caused his mental illness. Then, he turned the camera off and shot himself.
The third article was about children dying in Gaza. Another warning reminded me that these images might be too difficult to bear. In the article itself, an image of a mother holding her shrouded child in her arms was deemed the safe one. But if I clicked below, I could see the unbearable image. I clicked. Seven children lie under a blanket, their bodies covered to their necks, their faces exposed. Five of the faces looked dead, their heads bent in unlikely positions. But two of the youngest kids, maybe four and five, looked like they were sleeping. I could look at those faces a second longer than the others. One second.

What can the essay do in the face of these tragedies? The articles have been written. The photos finally revealed to make the horror plain. Can my words provide more horror? Can I say better what The Times and The Post have said? They say, usually, we don’t show photos or videos like these, but now is the time.
I usually write braided essays, pairing a personal story with something research-based and informative. My hope is that by toggling back and forth between two kinds of stories, elements of likeness appear between the two, articulating that the personal story streaks through the bigger world and that the larger world reveals its nuances in the personal story.
But the Israel-Gaza war does not call for a braid. The war doesn’t need our opinion. It doesn’t need a political history lesson. What the essay can do is insist. Essays require a different kind of time and space. In fact, they make time and they make space. To read an essay is to give yourself over to the possibilities. They recount survivor’s stories. They describe the photos of bodies. They imagine the author signing up to work for the Red Cross. They image the four-year-old hostage whose parents were killed in the October 7th attack and wonder to what home that child might return. They think of the seven bodies and wonder what if those children had just been allowed to sleep. They imagine what peace might look like. They imagine water running freely from the taps of faucets like it never had before with Israeli-restricted water rations. They imagine that good story of a mother from Israel and a mother from Gaza bringing hummus and lentils and baba ghanoush and pita to each other at the border and sitting resolutely as the bullets fly overhead and feeding each other with their hands until suddenly, hummus looked better than bullets to the soldiers.
The essay, as has become cliché to say, means to try. It tries to see something others can’t see. It tries to believe something others don’t yet believe. The essay says, Look at what’s happening. It says, Do not look away until you see the things you didn’t want to see. Then the essay says, Look until you figure out how to make it better. 


NICOLE WALKER is the author of Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster; The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet; Sustainability: A Love Story; Where the Tiny Things Are; Egg; Micrograms, and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. You can find her at Twitter: @nikwalkotter and website: and TikTok @nicolewalker263


This essay is part of the feature "The Essay in a Time of Genocide"



  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Andrea. I think the crux between beautiful and horrible is where we live now.