‘Dedicated to Tenderness: a review of Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”’, by Léa Antigny

Credit: Bloomsbury

Credit: Bloomsbury


What is the point of writing about oneself? What is the point of writing at all? I will spoil the ending of this review for you right now: I do not know. I am not convinced that there is one. All I can tell you is that when I watch the edges of a cloud turn from yellow to grey in the evening, I feel something catch in my chest, and have an urge to find the words for it. Words for what that feels like, what exactly is caught, and how I choose whether to swallow it down or scream it out loud. I can tell you that when my mind starts wandering, my fingers start dancing over an imagined keyboard. I have always done this – think of certain sentences and imitate the movements of typing them. It’s subconscious. Sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes, I write a sentence that I read to myself later and think, yes, I understood myself. I never feel that I have understood myself when communicating with speech. With speech, I am clumsy, I need more time than it allows. On the page, I can wait. So that is the why, for me, or at least a small part of it. Why I write about myself, mostly only ever to myself. Because to live inside myself—my self—without writing seems dangerous. It would be like hooking a water balloon over the lip of a tap, turning the faucet, and letting it run too long, watching the balloon stretch and sag with the weight of everything inside. It will split into pieces before you have readied yourself for the sound of the snap. But why do we share our writing? What are we really saying when we say, here, have this piece of me? Why do we even try?

In one essay in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, titled ‘Becoming an American Writer’, Alexander Chee is confronted with this question the morning after the unthinkable has come to pass. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States of America. The morning after the election, Chee was expected to deliver a creative writing class. The air charged with a dread that would only intensify as time wore on, a student asked Chee: “What’s the point of writing when this can happen?”

Chee himself has been a student of writing his whole life, which is to say he has been a student of life and he has found the words for what he has learnt. There were stories of psychic mutants written as a young boy, poems as elegies written as a young man intimate with death far too early and far too often, book reviews, essays, short stories. Novels (only one of them autobiographical). In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel—not, it should be obvious, a how-to guide at all—Chee charts a writing life. It is a life in which writing is the product of a singular devotion to paying close attention to the world around him. It is a life in which writing is a tool for making sense of the most earthly, most human of horrors. The loosely chronological collection opens with a gorgeously drawn coming-of-age story set behind the tall concrete walls of a wealthy host family’s Mexico home, where mangoes fall freely from trees and Chee is still blissfully naïve, in the precious flush of youth before truths of class and social hierarchy make themselves known. Throughout, we meet the different versions of Chee that he chooses to present to us: the version that lost his father at the age of sixteen, the version that marched the streets and met with police batons in 1980s San Francisco, the version that fought with his body to prove his life worthy to a government that believed he was less than human. The version that lost friends thanks to that government’s inaction, the version that studied literary non-fiction under Annie Dillard, the version of Chee in drag, the version of Chee behind other kinds of masks. The version that learns the truth of his betrayals, deep and indefensible, decades after they were acted upon him.

In one of the most striking essays of the collection, ‘Girl’, Chee describes the exhilarating freedom to be found in disguise. Made up in drag, Chee discovers a second self, not under a mask but through a mask, through his new reflection. He delights in the sensuality of makeup. His  hands are forced to slow down, they move carefully as they colour his mouth slick. His boyfriend at the time is bewitched and, with the realisation that Chee might ‘pass’ in public, the tension wrought by a lifetime of pained self-surveillance is released. Chee imagines that they might walk through the night as lovers, holding hands, an act of togetherness without being political and without being in danger. Chee learns quickly that the power of successfully performing femininity—what he calls “the theatre of being female”—is hardly a power at all. A woman walks down the street, lips painted, hair caressing her neck and ears, and men perceive her to have power. The men who have perceived power in a woman then feel that something has been taken from them—the power should be theirs—and that this is the woman’s fault. There is a pleasure in making a head turn, pleasure in making someone aware that they want you, and aware that you are aware that they want you, but the pleasure is brief. It can turn deadly. To ‘pass’ is something Chee has been told he should aim for his whole life. He is asked not who, but what, he is. “You could pass,” he is often told. “Pass as what?” he demands. “When people use the word ‘passing’ in talking about race, they only ever mean one thing, but I still make them say it,” he writes.

Drag is only the most explicit kind of mask worn in this collection. The others are much more ordinary, and they are many, and if you say you don’t wear different masks all the time you are either lying or you have not even begun to know yourself. Like Chee writes, “we are not what we think we are…The stories we tell of ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like an ocean. A mask afloat on the open sea.” This is true – we each are made up of flimsy threads held together only by our own narratives. The urge to tell the story of my own life back to myself is one I have felt for as long as I can remember. I feel it so keenly that it is hard for me to fathom that others might not think this way. Telling stories, I don’t mean to an audience, but to myself—at least one of my selves, the interior self—is a way of making sense of life which can, at times, feel comically senseless. But just because telling myself stories might feel as urgent and necessary as drawing breath, it does not mean those stories are truthful. They may be truthful to the self, but it’s possible—probable—they are not truthful to others. I am sure that to some, this way of viewing the world must seem like a desire to exist in a semi-conscious reality. To detach from the real world, whatever that is, to pad oneself with stories as cotton wool. In fact, to confess to playing so many different roles, to wearing and removing masks with ease, is only the beginning of honestly connecting with ourselves, which is necessary before we can connect with the world around us. To understand that we are, most of the time, floating like the tremulous sea foam, can be extraordinarily grounding.

In ‘My Parade’, Chee takes on the exhausting and ongoing debate of whether or not good writing can be taught. He believes that it can, as does his own teacher Annie Dillard (as do I for whatever that’s worth). What that means—to teach writing—is not what most people think. It is, as Chee teaches throughout this collection, about putting in the work: “What separates those who write from those who don’t is being able to stand it.” In urging a young Chee to pursue an MFA, Dillard tells him “you want to delay the real world as long as possible”. But to Chee’s mind, an MFA is “not an escape of the real world but a confrontation with it” – even if it did also feel like a “fantasy” to study under writers including Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, and Deborah Eisenberg to name a few. This marriage of real world and fantasy is apparent in all Chee’s writing. His essays are rich and vivid, full of sentences that insist the reader pause and read twice, insist the reader hold and feel the weight of them. The care with which Chee deploys each word is so clear that, after a short while reading, it becomes near imperceptible. He makes every sentence seem impossibly easy. It is anything but.

So if we believe that writing can be taught—if we understand that means to work hard at paying attention to the world, to listen to which stories are asking to be told, to respond to the flashes of thought when they happen, as in now, as in write it down right now, you won’t be able to summon it later—what, then, is the point of it? Wondering about the point, though, is a distraction. It’s the wrong question. It is by design that we feel despair and that we question our purpose and value. Thinking about ‘the point’ is a trick played on us by the insidious neoliberalism that has crept into every little aspect of creative work, demanding that we operate with maximum productivity as the goal. It is a trick that works. Each time I ask myself, ‘What’s the point?’, I become stuck, because of course there is no satisfactory answer. Chee believes the good writer is the writer that can become unstuck. But I think to unstick ourselves is a lesson we all, writers or otherwise, need to learn. You can let the question of ‘why’ weigh so heavily on you that before long you will be unable to move. To move forward, to proceed in life, requires courage. Courage is a hard thing to hold when Donald Trump is President, when there is a horse in the hospital, when climate disaster is knocking at our door and those with the power to turn it away will let it right in. When each day we give hours of ourselves to the internet, we open our mouths wide and drink it in and it is sour and it is choking us and we need more all the time.

We can ask why all we want. We should also ask why not? “I learned quickly that if you stop writing, nothing happens, but I also learned that I had nowhere else to go,” writes Chee. It is a cliché, but it is also the truth, and it’s a truth we should remind ourselves every time we become stuck: your time here on earth is going to pass anyway. If there is a story asking to be told, listen to it. If there is colour changing at the edge of a cloud; if there is a heavy tulip hanging over the edge of a vase just so; if any of the tiny, tender moments of everyday life lodge themselves in your chest, listen. And tell. Tell it with your dancing fingers, with your tight chest, let the balloon swell but never, ever break. Writing need not save the world or overthrow the government (which is not to say that it can’t, I just don’t think it need be the goal). It is enough that writing might just hold the self together. It is enough that it might move a single reader. It can be small, like most lives are, it can be, like Chee writes, “dedicated somehow to tenderness”. ◆

Léa Antigny is a writer and student completing her MA at Western Sydney University with a focus on creative non-fiction and memoir. She has been published in the Guardian and The Lifted Brow. She is publicity manager at Giramondo Publishing and tries not to tweet at @leaantigny.