In 1994, the novelist John Edgar Wideman published a remarkable personal essay about his relationship with his son—who, as a minor, committed a serious crime and was sentenced to life in prison. Wideman writes about the emotional distance between fathers and sons, a gap made even harder to bridge, in Wideman’s case, by physical estrangement. He reflects on the value of memoiristic storytelling as a way of coping with trauma, and of speaking one’s own truth. “I begin again because I don’t want it to end. I mean all these father stories that take us back, that bring us here, where you are, where I am, needing to make sense, to go on if we can and should,” he writes. Personal essays are a way of exploring both what we’ve always known and what was heretofore unseen or unspoken. Wideman perceptively details the tensions contained within a father’s love for his troubled son, illuminating the differences between appearance and lived emotion, and bringing us ever closer to the apprehension of his own singular experience.

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This week, we’re sharing a selection of memorable personal reflections and essays. In “Some Notes on Attunement,” Zadie Smith writes about the influence of Joni Mitchell’s work on her own creative vision. (“As I remember it, sun flooded the area; my husband quoted a line from one of the Lucy poems; I began humming a strange piece of music. Something had happened to me. In all the mess of memories we make each day and lose, I knew that this one would not be lost.”) In “Early Innings,” Roger Angell recounts how he came to love baseball in his youth. In “The Challenge,” Gabriel García Márquez recalls his years as a student and writer in Bogotá, Colombia. (“My favorite café was El Molino, the one frequented by older poets. . . . Students were not allowed to reserve seats at El Molino, but we could be sure of learning more from the literary conversations we eavesdropped on as we huddled at nearby tables and learning it better than in textbooks.”) In “Pilgrimage,” Susan Sontag presents a story about her meeting, as a young girl, with the Nobel laureate Thomas Mann. Finally, in “How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda,” Jiayang Fan chronicles the difficulties that she and her mother, who has A.L.S., experienced as immigrants during the onset of the pandemic. “For what is an immigrant but a mind mired in contradictions and doublings, stranded in unresolved splits of the self?” she writes. “Sometimes I have wondered if these people knew something about Jiayang Fan that had always eluded me. For them, there is not an ounce of doubt, whereas uncertainty is the country where I most belong.”

Erin Overbey, archive editor

Father Stories

A father examines his family and its losses, six years after his son was convicted of murder.

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An image of a faded church etched into the album cover of Joni Mitchell's "Blue."

Some Notes on Attunement

A voyage around Joni Mitchell.

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The author and her mother captured in three family photographs, arranged as a triptych.

How My Mother and I Became Chinese Propaganda

Immigrant struggles in America forged a bond that became even tighter after my mother’s A.L.S. diagnosis. Then, as COVID-19 threatened, Chinese nationalists began calling us traitors to our country.

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A black-and-white photograph of Thomas Mann, holding a pen to his mouth.


Tea with Thomas Mann.

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A sketch-like illustration of Gabriel García Márquez taking notes at an outdoor cafe

The Challenge

A young writer proves himself.

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A view of Yankee Stadium, captured in a black-and-white photograph from the stands.

Early Innings

Boyhood memories of baseball.

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