Electric Lit’s Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2021

Melissa Febos, Elissa Washuta, and Michelle Zauner top the list of 25

Collage of cover images of Best Nonfiction of 2021

From searing critiques of colonialism to exhortations of Black joy; from meditations on art and grief to the origin story of American chattel slavery and its long-lasting legacy, the books on this year’s list demand to be read. They are vast and wide-ranging, yet deeply personal and profoundly reflective—a worthy gold standard in any year. Electric Literature staff and contributors voted for their favorite nonfiction titles of the past year. Here are the top three, followed by additional favorites (there were many ties!) in alphabetical order. 

The Top 3 Nonfiction Books of the Year

Girlhood by Melissa Febos

In her essay collection Girlhood, Melissa Febos questions received wisdom about what it means to be a woman—and her questions have proven strikingly resonant not only with women reflecting on the limits of consent, but also with writers reconsidering “the circumferences we may place on the stories we tell of ourselves.”

White Magic by Elissa Washuta

Elissa Washuta’s latest essay collection White Magic covers everything from land and colonization, to video games and Twin Peaks, to spells, tarot, and witchery. Described by fellow nonfiction favorite Melissa Febos as “a bracingly original work,” Washuta’s unpacking of personal pain, also discussed in an interview with Electric Literature and live in our virtual salon on magical feminism, is not to be missed.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner 

Also known as the indie rock star behind Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner has written a memoir about food, mourning, race, music, and what it means to be Korean. From the first sentence and the title, the reader knows that Zauner’s mother will die and that Zauner will “cry in H Mart,” but the loss stings on every page. This memoir highlights themes like alienation in youth, and food as an expression of love and grief. Plus, in addition to gorgeous writing, Zauner’s book cover (designed by Na Kim) made it to the semi-finals of Electric Lit’s annual Book Cover of the Year Tournament.

Electric Lit’s Other Nonfiction Favorites

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib is no stranger to our Best of the Year lists. In his latest work, A Little Devil in America, a National Book Award Finalist, Abdurraqib celebrates Black performance and Black joy in a collection that the author himself thinks pairs especially well with other art forms, including the music of Merry Clayton and the performance of a good game of basketball. 

The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life by Kyle Beachy

Skateboarding is, perhaps, a historically underexplored topic in literary circles. In The Most Fun Thing, Kyle Beachy does for skate culture what William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days did for surf culture, addressing both specific questions about the history of the sport’s development and broad theoretical questions like, “How does one live authentically as an adult while staying true to a passion cemented in childhood?”

Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome

In his debut memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods, Brian Broome recounts his childhood growing up Black and queer in a community that endorsed racial divides and narratives built upon shame. In unpacking the ripple effects of his early education, Broome considers the impact of teaching young boys formulaic “lessons” about masculinity epitomized by adages like “walk it off” and “rub some dirt in it.” This electrifying memoir pulls no punches—but it’s worth every second of heartbreak.

Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief by Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang is, first and foremost, a poet, and Dear Memory rings with lyrical prose. In collecting letters written to family, past teachers, and fellow poets, Chang delivers a collage in which the pieces, though only fragments of a narrative, ultimately deliver a gorgeous approximation of a “whole” ancestral history. 

Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti

In her essay essay collection Southbound, activist and organizer Anjali Enjeti writes about developing and claiming her identity as a mixed-race woman in the Deep South. For further discussion of South Asian identity and definitions of heritage, check out an interview with Enjeti. (And, if you really can’t get enough, Enjeti acted as the interviewer in another great conversation about cultural appropriation and racial identities with Ladee Hubbard.)

Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford

Ashley C. Ford isn’t a new name in writing circles—her resume boasts bylines in just about every news and culture outlet you might think of, from The Guardian and the New York Times to Slate and Marie Claire. Still, for a first book, Ford truly knocked it out of the park. Somebody’s Daughter is a memoir about a childhood marked by racism, rape, incarceration, and—above all—complicated love. 

Pedro’s Theory: Reimagining the Promised Land by Marcos Gonsalez

In this experimental memoir, Marcos Gonsalez tells the stories of multiple Pedros, some real, some imagined, some replicas of Gonsalez himself. In all of these tellings, Pedro traverses a specific environment: an elementary school, a queer club, the streets in a small town, higher. But in every setting of Pedro’s Theory, Pedro is looking for the same thing—the Promised Land—and finding something else. Read an interview with Gonsalez here.

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones

Whether most appropriately categorized as a work of history, journalism, or something more experimental, this collection of 18 essays, 36 poems, and selected short fiction is, at the very least, a dynamic reframing of the American origins story. From the opening Pulitzer Prize-winning essay penned by editor Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project is filled with eminent literary voices, including Ibram X. Kendi, Claudia Rankine, Wesley Morris, Yaa Gyasi, Jesmyn Ward, and ZZ Packer.

Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer by Rax King

Have you ever secretly loved something profoundly uncool? If your answer is no, you’re lying—but this debut essay collection is perfect for everyone, even those not yet ready to confess. And, when you’re done reading Rax King’s absorbing thoughts about Creed, The Cheesecake Factory, and Guy Fieri, check out our incredibly fun interview with King here.

The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner

In this collection, pulled from an archive of over 20 years worth of writing, Rachel Kushner’s latest demonstrates again her respectable writing chops. The Hard Crowd has all the subversive political flavor readers will remember from previous work; fans of The Mars Room and The Flamethrowers will not be disappointed. 

The Book of Difficult Fruit: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly (with Recipes) by Kate Lebo

In twenty-six essays and accompanying recipes, Kate Lebo’s genre-bending book—is it a memoir? A cookbook? Food writing?—draws inspiration from 26 different fruits, one for every letter of the alphabet. From aronia to zucchini, The Book of Difficult Fruit takes readers on a journey across medicinal, aromatic, historical, cosmetic, culinary, and cultural borders. 

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

In her memoir, Nadia Owusu, a Ghanian-Armenian-American, examines the aftershocks of her global upbringing. Beginning with a childhood spent following her father, a Ghanian civil servant with the United Nations, across Africa and Europe, and ultimately covering her coming-of-age and adulthood in the United States, Aftershocks does for racial identity what Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts did for gender identity. Owusu’s memoir, and this interview with the author discussing its inception and continuing relevance, are not to be missed. 

Pop Song: Adventures in Art & Intimacy by Larissa Pham

Pop Song centers love and art, and features the work of, among others, Anne Carson, Frank Ocean, and Agnes Martin. Larissa Pham’s breakout might be described as a memoir-in-essays, but it’s probably more accurate to describe it as a love song—to intimacy, restlessness, vulnerability, heartache, and cultural connection.

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke

In the midst of a pandemic caused by a virus, Kristen Radtke takes a close look at a quieter disease ravaging the American public: loneliness. In graphic novel form, Seek You searches for an explanation as well as an antidote to societal isolation. Radtke’s interview on Electric Lit about the very Americanness of being lonely, the special brand of pandemic loneliness, and her buoyant hopes for the world’s reconnection post-pandemic is also worth checking out.

Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the traditional writing workshop was designed by white men for white men. In his investigation into the history of craft—and his prescription for rethinking today’s literary landscape, Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World unpacks a series of important questions: How can we better reach writers with diverse backgrounds? How can we better include diverse storytelling traditions? In short: how can the writing workshop be better?

Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes by Albert Samaha

With a journalist’s keen eye and an immigrant’s unique perspective, Albert Samaha’s Concepcion examines centuries of family history from pre-colonial Philippines to Trump-era America. This Filipino American memoir confronts privilege, sacrifice, and the legacy of colonialism. For further discussion of the book’s main question—i.e., how to balance current prosperity against the sacrifices of previous generations—read an interview with Samaha on Electric Lit.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

One of two texts on craft featured on this list, George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain encapsulates a course on the Russian short story that he’s been teaching to his MFA students at Syracuse University for two decades. Each of the seven essays is paired with an iconic story and, as a whole, the text offers a technical and engaging approach to what makes for “great” writing.

Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 by Sarah Schulman

After twenty years spent writing, Sarah Schulman’s effort has been hailed as the most comprehensive political history ever assembled of ACT UP and American AIDS activism. Let the Record Show features more than 200 interviews and provides an unvarnished look at an exceedingly controversial group. Be sure to also check out our conversation with Schulman about AIDS narratives, grassroots organizing, and the political use of anger.

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan

How should we have, talk, and think about sex? These are the central questions of Amia Srinivasan’s debut work The Right to Sex, which contemplates not only the act itself, but the limitations and consequences of the act on both an individual and societal level. Drawing on her expertise in political philosophy and feminist theory (Srinivasan is a professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford), each of the collection’s six essays are characterized by a deep and careful intellectualism. 

Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India by Suchitra Vijayan

Suchitra Vijayan’s Midnight’s Borders offers a modern view of India in a form reflective of its writer. Suchitra Vijayan is a barrister by training, an award-winning photographer, and the founder of a hybrid research and journalism organization. Unsurprisingly, then, her work of narrative reportage is genre-bending, following the lives of India’s displaced and stateless with an amalgam of stories, encounters, vignettes, and photographs. Read an interview with Vijayan discussing the seven-year, 9,000-mile journey that went into the making of this work of novelistic nonfiction here.

Pessoa by Richard Zenith

The only biography on this list, Richard Zenith’s Pessoa is an in-depth (the book clocks in at over 1,000 pages) look at the life of Fernando Pessoa, one of the world’s most enigmatic poets. As an acclaimed translator of Pessoa’s work—for which Zenith won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation—and the recipient of Portugal’s Pessoa Prize, Zenith is undoubtedly the perfect biographer to unravel the poet’s dozens of alter egos and imagined personalities.

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman

Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters analyzes 11 iconic female monsters, offering a fresh and celebratory spin on the outdated belief that monstrosity is something to be feared. In considering closely the “engine of Greek mythology,” Zimmerman makes an argument for rebuilding and repurposing myths for the twenty-first century. For further discussion of monsters (and culture, the Male Gaze, and topless murder), check out an interview with former Electric Lit editor-in-chief Zimmerman here

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