The University of Iowa’s Essay Prize nominations include the piece by Jenny Boully published in TriQuarterly Online 138. The annual prize was launched in 2006 with a specific intent to honor “the work that best exemplifies the art of essaying—inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and change—the Essay Prize emphasizes the activity of a text, rather than its status as a dispensary of information.”
The reader who nominated “A Short Essay on Being” for the Essay Prize focuses on Boully’s use of transitions: “It’s during her transitions that she expects the reader to hang out in uncertainty. The paragraphs themselves are straightforward enough but in between them, something transformative happens.”
I am drawn to Boully’s restraint, in the writing and in her approach to life, as when she writes,“You move about quietly. You don’t show others their errors—you let them eventually come to learn the errors of their ways and have them come to you for forgiveness later." Later in the essay, she comments, “I can’t figure out why authenticity has been linked to snobbery any more than I can figure out why, in an essay that set out to explore my being in terms of being Thai, I first launched into a tangent about Thai food and then digressed into preferring food that is authentic and true.” Her personal process of learning and change is mirrored in the structure of the essay itself.
The Essay Prize’s website also includes Boully in another feature of the site, in which writers offer lists of their own favorite essays. She comments on why she chose them, saying, “I think my choices were based more on how these writings changed my life or opened up possibilities for me in terms of thinking about writing.” Interestingly, she stretches the bounds of what constitutes an essay in those choices, themselves a lesson against preconceived limits.