One of the Great Disappointments of my 2019 will be having missed Alexander Chee at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. Sadly, it was only after the festival had come and truly gone that I came across his essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel - a book that has completely changed my understanding of the power of a personal essay.
You don’t have to have lived a particularly exciting life to write a fascinating essay, but it probably helps. And as a gay Korean-American artist and activist living in America, Chee has lived a remarkable life to date, and it is through some of these experiences that he distills his reflections on the many facets of himself: son, lover, sexual abuse survivor, friend... “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask” he writes in the essay Girl.
J. W. McCormack of the New York Times wrote that in this collection, “Chee has written a moving and personal tribute to impermanence, a wise and transgressive meditation on a life lived both because of and in spite of America…” These essays do feel very insightful, brimming with hurt and honesty and hope. It is a testament to Chee’s mastery of the form that not once do they veer into being bullish or preachy. The essays are at times urgent and insistent - “To this day, I can’t tell you if we were trying to remind them of our humanity or their own. My time there felt more like a preview of the end of the world” Chee writes of his years protesting during the AIDS crisis. But always the essays come from a place of humility and courage; they always manage to bloom with gentle resistance against the hardest hard places of American - and more generally human - life.
Some of the life lessons in this book came following difficult experiences – in After Peter, an essay about his lover/mentor/fellow activist who passed away with AIDS, Chee writes “As children, we thought Superman was brave to stand in front of a train. That’s not brave, though. Superman never stood before anything that could destroy him. Peter did.” But other reflections are ones that Chee arrives at while doing simple things like growing roses in his garden. In the essay The Rosary, Chee writes: “Roses… appear delicate but have adapted to most climates. They can be made to bloom all through the year until winter. The more they are cut back, the faster they grow and the stronger they are. My role models, at last, I think...”
Chee also writes several fascinating essays about the art and business of writing, recounting his journey as a writer one story at a time. In The Writing Life, he describes what it was like to learn from Annie Dillard who saw literary essay as “a moral exercise that involved direct engagement with the unknown, whether it was a foreign civilization or your mind, and what mattered in this was you”, who encouraged students to “compare yourselves to the classics”, and to find their places on bookstore shelves. In the essay My Parade, Chee concludes that “the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”
The ability to endure no matter what challenges surface… that is perhaps a quality that you need to become a writer. But it’s also an asset that will no doubt be immensely important in navigating this earth with curiosity, empathy, and persistence. And it is this quiet strength to open your eyes to everything around you and keep going that is the most precious of everything How To Write An Autobiographical Novel offers to its readers. In My Parade, Chee writes: “Your imagination needs to be broken in, I think, to become anywhere near as weird as the world.” The essays in this book will take your mind to places you didn’t even realise you needed to go. Places that might break you in parts, but ones that change you for the better. And help you keep moving on.Support Villainesse