Our Favorite Essays, Stories, and Poetry About Family

In lieu of having our own family holidays, let's revisit some Electric Literature work about the ties that bind

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As we head into a holiday season unlike any other in our lifetimes, many of us will be thinking of our families, the ones that we may not be able to spend the end of the year with. Instead, spend some time with these stories, essays, and poetry about family relations.

“Pestilence” by Jonathan Escoffery

Escoffery’s short story shows us the world of first-generation Jamaican-Americans as two young brothers navigate their neighborhoods, their worlds. Fittingly for 2020, this story is about a pestilence—locusts, not viruses—but it’s also about families, how they love and touch each other, and the stories they tell each other.

There’s an alternate ending to my father’s goat story, but on this occasion, he punctuated it with unbridled laughter, and my mother slapped him with the dishtowel, saying, “You’re too cruel, man,” but her eyes brimmed with love.

“You’ll Be Honest, You’ll Be Brave”
by Kelli Jo Ford

Kelli Jo Ford’s “You’ll Be Honest, You’ll Be Brave” is a ghost story, as much as it is a story about mothers and daughters. The story deals with the role reversal of a daughter having come back home to take care of the mother, and all that has changed in the home that she has left.

Lula had the seizure while she was out on one of her countryside drives, taking in scenery she’d seen a million times—probably on her way home from McDonald’s. Thankfully, she’d only run through somebody’s barbed wire fence. No one was hurt, though she was still having the seizure when a man stopped and called 911. Lula came to in the back of the ambulance and demanded to be brought home.

“I Can Only Save My Grandparents’ Home by Preserving It in Fiction” by Donna Hemans

In this essay, Hemans faces down the possibility of losing her grandparents’ home in Montego Bay. She digs deep into her grandparents’ personal history, her family’s immigrant experience, and the history of Jamaica to discuss how she’s given all of this a home within her own writing.

The fate of the abandoned house in my novel—and that of my family—is not a unique story. It is a story most every immigrant in America can tell of family land left alone too long or lingering in limbo, of migrants who had great plans to return home but who, after years abroad, find it hard to return to a place they’ve long left, a town empty of friends and family.

“Mixed” by Jessica Care Moore

“Mixed” is a poem by Jessica Care Moore that talks about lineage, and how the actions of our family stick with us. “Mixed” also showcases the theme of identity, and the importance of being true to oneself.

I pray
on my great GrandFather’s feathers
—the ones you don’t respect—
That you never dare call me
Mixed

“Why Do We Keep Telling Sister Stories?” by Tia Glista

In this essay, Tia Glista writes about how stories revolving around the dynamics of sisters have always fascinated readers. From the March sisters in Little Women to the Lisbons in The Virgin Suicides to the Kardashians, sisterhood exerts a powerful gravity on culture.With this essay, Glista explores the role that sisters have played in film and literature, and asks what role sisters should play in art.

Maybe this is what storytellers find so perplexing about sisters—that they cannot conceptualize a world in which women rely more on each other than they do on men. Where notions of female friendship, love, or solidarity have seemed too radical for our culture to grapple with, we instead access the bonds between women through sisterhood, and find an easy way to reroute women and girls back to the heterosexual, patriarchal, nuclear family.

“The Artist Formerly Known As” by Hillery Stone

Two years after Prince’s death, Hillery Stone muses on another disappearance: her mysterious and troubled cousin who introduced her to the singer’s work. Stone connects Prince’s catalog and history to her own personal and familial loss.

He was also a master of the disappearing act, the epitome of reinvention, receding and returning from rock god to mystic to sex kitten in the blink of a gold-shadowed eye. At some point, I saw Prince and I saw my cousin, not a physical likeness so much as a shared absence — a part in each of them that had existed and been taken away.

“After My Grandfather Died, I Met Him for the First Time in Poetry” by Jeevika Verma

Verma contrasts the stoic grandfather she knew as a child with the romantic, deeply emotional young man she discovers in his poetry after his death—and realizes that by teaching her to love books, he gave her the tools to get to know him through his writing.

My mother, knowing I would feel lonely and distant upon his death, pulled me aside to show me something…It was a book of poetry, which in itself was not surprising. I had graduated from college with a degree in creative writing, and had a few poems in small journals and zines. My mother must have known a book of poems would cheer me up. And it was Nanu, after all, who by turning me to books, had led me to poetry as the one friend I always turn to in times of distress.

“I’m Reading About My Mother’s Addiction Because I Don’t Know How to Write About It” by Anna Held

Alcoholism memoirs don’t exactly help Held understand her mother’s drinking—but, she says, books like Mary Karr’s Lit, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering help her to give shape and structure to her family’s story, and envision a more hopeful end.

In these memoirs, relapses are absorbed in the rhythm of the story. Personal history is arranged into a structure of how things got to where they were, their undoing similarly templatized. The narratives follow identical trajectories, a characteristic that gets them panned in critical reviews but celebrated in the comment section on Goodreads and Amazon. “It feels like this book was written about me,” readers say. The drama of addiction becomes mundane, the same moment again and again. What feels acute and personal is neither. It’s just part of it, a story every addict has.

“The Neighbors” by Shruti Swamy

The narrator of “The Neighbors” is getting to know Luisa, who is new to the block. When she notices the “ghost of a bruise” on Luisa, she decides to try to reveal her own bruise, hoping that they can share their secrets with each other. 

The man put his hand on her head, right at the nape of her neck. She looked so vulnerable there, at the back of the head, with her hair so short, short like a baby’s, so close to the soft skull. His hand there was familiar to me, the gesture full of the brutal tenderness of husbands. I couldn’t see her face to tell if she was happy or sad.

“Randy Travis” by Souvankham Thammavongsa

In “Randy Travis” by Souvankham Thammavongsa, the narrator’s mother is completely enthralled with the country singer Randy Travis. This story is about how a refugee family tries to live out their American Dream, which includes trying to cross paths with the country singer whom the matriarch has grown to love.

The only thing my mother liked about the new country we were living in was its music. We had been given a small radio as part of the welcome package from the refugee settlement program. There were other items in the box, such as snow pants, mittens, and new underwear, but it was the radio she cherished most.

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