“The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter” by Alumna Sasha Bonét '16 Named Essay of the Year by 'Longreads'

BY Audrey Deng, February 17, 2020

Longreads announced their Best of 2019 in Arts and Culture recently, which asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories across the web. For Arts and Culture, Longreads columnist Soraya Roberts picked “The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter” by nonfiction alumna Sasha Bonét ’16. The essay was also selected by Longform as one of the best essays of 2019, alongside picks from the New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.

About her selection, Roberts commented, “Few of the multitude of articles I read each year stick, and the ones that do tend to hail from magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian. It makes sense: Those are places that not only have the resources to nurture the best writers, but also to carve their work into its greatest form. Which is why I didn’t want to pick anything from those places. I realize that Topic magazine isn’t the biggest underdog of all, but it’s a start. And I had never heard of Sasha Bonét before I read “The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter”. But that’s a story that I remember. It’s a story I sent people.”

In the essay, Bonét describes the black artist Camille Billops and how she abandoned her 4-year-old child in the ’60s to pursue her art. According to Roberts, “Bonét illustrates how Billops, following the initial rejection of her own family, adopts a community of artists as her chosen relatives.” It is a stunning essay, composed of primary sources and interviews with Billops. Bonét takes great care to humanize all subjects in this long, complicated, and heartfelt story.

While employing various mediums for storytelling, Bonét’s work explores the ways in which race, gender, and art influences cultural norms and the way we experience them. With an anthropological approach, Bonét shifts from criticism to profiles to poetry with one objective in mind, to illuminate the nuances of humanity.

Bonét is currently at work on a collection of nonfiction narrative essays on Memory + Motherhood in America, and she is represented by Alice Whitwham of The Cheney Agency.