I’ve been using a meditation app lately, part of a new year’s resolution to turn myself into a person possessed of inner calm. At the start of a recent session, the voice guiding me toward serenity made a statement that would have stopped me in my tracks had I not already sentenced myself to stillness: “Happiness,” it said, “is just the absence of desire.”
Is this actually true? I thought about it, derailing my meditation before it began. I imagined my own life without its longings and hungers, wishes and ambitions—and what I felt wasn’t happiness but agoraphobic terror. Weren’t these the very things that gave my life shape and meaning? Just who, exactly, are we without our wants?
In their new anthology Wanting: Women Writing About Desire, Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters—co-editors of the previous collection This is the Place: Women Writing About Home—have gathered thirty-three essays exploring this question from a female perspective. From critically acclaimed writers such as Melissa Febos, Torrey Peters, and Elisa Albert to those in the early stages of their careers, this volume’s contributors all share one thing in common: a willingness to reckon, unabashedly, with their innermost yearnings. In a culture that pushes women to sublimate their appetites, and where female desire has long been defined by men, this willingness isn’t just personally risky but politically vital. Women “want to want,” Kahn and McMasters write in their introduction. “And wanting—which demands hunger and requires autonomy—remains, for women, a dangerous concept.”
What do women want? In this anthology, as in life, the list is extensive, our longings as particular and idiosyncratic as the psyches that nourish them. Erotic desire is, unsurprisingly, a prominent theme here. And yet, each individual handling of the topic feels fresh and revelatory, a testament to the diversity of perspectives these editors have gathered. Divorced mother Angela Cardinale grapples with her reliance on dating apps—and the clandestine sex they lead to—to ease her chronic loneliness, while Sonorah Jha laments how, following the codes of “good” girlhood, she silenced her powerful feelings for her earliest crush. For Keyanah B. Nurse, polyamory offers a deeply fulfilling path to self-discovery, while Joanna Rakoff’s desire has orbited, for years, around one man: the college boyfriend it took her decades to finally return to.
In other essays, desire attaches itself not to a person but an object. But these authors understand—as advertisers love to exploit—that what they truly covet is the transformation these items promise: Our obsessions point the way to who it is that we long to be. In “An SUV Named Desire,” Jennifer De Leon recalls her fixation, as the daughter of working-class immigrant parents, with owning the same car as her preppy collegiate classmates, convinced it was the key to the belonging she yearned for. In “Appetite,” Michelle Wildgen looks back on her youthful quest to track down the world’s most delicious foods. “I wanted to eat, yes, but more than anything I wanted to know,” she writes, recognizing that what she really craved was a grasp on the adult world. And in “Thief,” Jane Wong conjures the urges that drove her to shoplift as a teenager: it wasn’t what she stole that mattered but transgression itself, that delicious release from the expectations of her immigrant girlhood. “I wanted so badly,” Wong divulges, “to be bad.”
There’s an inherent pleasure in reading about desire. It is, after all, what gives narrative literature its stakes, keeping us hooked as we root our protagonists on. To proceed through Wanting is to be swept up, again and again, into moments of urgency, which makes it the only literary essay collection I’ve encountered that I could accurately describe as a page-turner. But beyond this delight, what sets Wanting apart is how uniformly artful these essays are: insightful and poetic, thought-provoking and stirring. They do what all great essays do, which is to push beyond surfaces and make space for complication. Female wanting, in these writers’ hands, isn’t something to conceal or deny, chase or extinguish, but something to value in its own right because, quite simply, it is ours.
Desire may not always lead to happiness, but it is, for better or for worse, what makes us human. And this, I’m beginning to think, is the most radical thing a woman can resolve to be.
Wanting: Women Writing About Desire
Edited By Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters
Published February 14, 2023
Nicole Graev Lipson is the author of the forthcoming memoir-in-essays Mothers and Other Fictional Characters. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Gettysburg Review, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and been shortlisted several times for The Best American Essays. Follow her on Twitter at @NicoleGLipson.