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Hilton Als Essay Format

You’ve spent a big part of 2017 thinking and writing about the work of Alice Neel, as well as curating a show of her work. How did it happen?

It happened because I had always thought about her and loved her. And I had just an idea. I went up to David Zwirner six years ago and said, “It would be great if you did a show on Alice Neel’s people of color.” At the time there were various things with the estate that were shifting, so it would finally be possible to do it. It was a thought I’d had many years ago. The thing that was so fascinating to me about her art was that it was so inclusive of so many different kinds of people. A lot of modern day portraitists only paint the inner circle of people that they know. I think the broadness of Alice’s vision is really kind of profound. There is an incredible relationship to emotional accuracy or truth that I love in her work.

Your writing manages to be incisive from a historical perspective, but it’s also deeply personal. That seems like a delicate dance for anybody writing about art.

What I am trying to do for myself, always, is honor the delicacy of complication—the idea that people are not really one thing or the other, that there is this amalgamation of all sorts of nerve endings and truths. One of the reasons that I loved Alice Neel so much was her ability to gather all of this information and turn it around in a certain way; make it not literal, but emotionally metaphorical.

Another thing I love so much about Alice (and try to do in my own work) is that she honors the copyrights people have on their lives. They are the author of their own lives. Your job is to not rewrite it, but to make it really important in some way, to show it. To understand that the fictions that are put forth are there to protect themselves, generally, or to give us an idea of something other than the self. Wasn’t it Blanche DuBois who said “I know I don’t tell the truth, but what ought to be truth.” That’s kind of a great thing for people to know about themselves, that the truth is not an empirical thing; just as the “I” is not an empirical thing. I think that’s what I love investigating the most—how we put ourselves together.

In your new book about Alice Neel you write:

“Neel believed the world existed on its own terms, and it was our duty—as citizens, as artists—to know as much about it as possible, in order to better live in it and navigate it; to exist among all the broken glass and bottle caps and boys on the street, in a kind of unsentimental wonder.”

It feels like as much a statement about your own work as it does about hers.

It’s such an incredible opportunity to be an artist. Our job is to empathize with other people, to understand their story, but also to reveal ourselves. We have this luxury—this is our job. It’s a luxury to have the time to investigate our own consciousness to understand it better. That’s kind of like a million dollars right there. So if we have this luxury, why wouldn’t we exploit it? It’s our job, really. That’s what I feel.

For you, is writing—whether it be essays or criticism—a way of figuring out the world?

Oh, for sure. I mean, I don’t really understand what I’ve said until I’ve written it. I don’t know what I think about something until I’ve written it down, or found another piece of writing that can articulate it. So I feel, again, that we’re in this extremely privileged position of our work being that very thing which is not knowing. Our work as artists is exploring.

In addition to doing different kinds of writing, you also teach. Does teaching serve as a form of investigation?

I think so. Right now I’m teaching one class, it’s called “Black Male,” and it’s all about the black male figure. I had worked on “Black Male” with Thelma Golden at The Whitney a long time ago, and I always wanted to explore it from a literary vantage point. The class involves the writing students at the Columbia graduate school. We’re reading people like Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison. It’s an opportunity to understand that there’s not one figure, but many, many different figures. Through writing we come to understand something about America, and how the black male figure became seen as this or that. I felt very passionate about having students from other disciplines in the class as well, so there’s a painter, a photographer. It’s very important for me to have a kind of cultural diversity in the class because I find that, also, the visual people often tend to actually read more or have a different perspective on reading. All the perspectives are important.

How do you orchestrate your writing life? And how do you balance your own personal work with your professional work?

I was just telling someone that great George Balanchine story about when someone asked him what inspired him and he said, “The union, dear. I have to be finished by six o’clock.” I always have a deadline that I have to honor in some way, and that helps me. It not only grounds me, but it also frees the imagination in a certain way because you have to be creative in a certain limited amount of time. I think for longer writing projects I’m very disciplined because… well, they just take a long time. You have to be, otherwise you don’t get it done. Writing just takes a long time compared to curatorial work, which involves other people and ideas. In my work, I love how one thing feeds off the other. It’s really just kind of one thing having to do with communication and community.

Also, in regards to writing, you have to support yourself and you want to do it the best way… you don’t want to be embarrassed. I think of that great Joan Didion line, something like, “Writing involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” That’s one thing that kind of saves us. We don’t want to look ridiculous to ourselves, let alone other people. Even though we usually earn a lot less money than most people, as writers we also have diversity of mind; that our minds and our work can explore different avenues is such an amazing thing, too. I’m feeling more fortunate about writing than I used to be because I can see how people get messed up in the corporate world. Thinking about Alice Neel was so helpful to me in that way. She worked for many, many decades in obscurity. It was just about the work for her, and I respect that. That is something to aspire to. Do your work.

Has your way of working, or your approach to when you have to sit down and write something, changed much over the years?

I think it has. I think I’m much more serious about it now, about writing in general. I feel more honored by it and cowed by it. And as I said, it just takes such a long time that you can’t be half-assed about it. I think I wasn’t really serious about it until the end of my 20s. I think perhaps I spent too much time alone doing it, but that was the only way that I knew how to do it or become better at it.

Your approach to writing criticism is direct. How do you approach talking about someone else’s art—answering the questions: Was this good? Was this successful?—in a way that feels helpful and that doesn’t denigrate the work in some way?

I feel like it’s a communication with another person. When I criticized someone’s work, I didn’t feel that it was denigrating them. I felt I was trying to talk to them and communicate with them. So I always felt it was more of a conversation than criticism. I just felt like I was talking with someone that I, on some level, wanted to respond to. That the work, either for good or ill, demanded a kind of response. That’s what I’ve always felt.

Does writing criticism feel different from, say, writing an essay about your own life?

Yes. You are limited by facts when you’re writing criticism, and you’re limited by product. I think that when the product is your own mind, you can just dream. And sometimes that is harder.

Your essays frequently defy traditional genre. You play around with the notions of what an essay can be, what criticism can be, or how we are supposed to think and write about our own lives.

You don’t have to do it any one way. You can just invent a way. Also, who’s to tell you how to write anything? It’s like that wonderful thing Virginia Woolf said. She was just writing one day and she said, “I can write anything.” And you really can. It’s such a remarkable thing to remind yourself of. If you’re listening to any other voice than your own, then you’re doing it wrong. And don’t.

The way that I write is because of the way my brain works. I couldn’t fit it into fiction; I couldn’t fit it into non-fiction. I just had to kind of mix up the genres because of who I was. I myself was a mixture of things, too. Right? I just never had those partitions in my brain, and I think I would’ve been a much more fiscally successful person if could do it that way. But I don’t know how to do it any other way, so I’m not a fiscally successful person. [laughs]

I was struck by this quote:

“I believe that one reason I began writing essays—a form without a form, until you make it—was this: you didn’t have to borrow from an emotionally and visually upsetting past, as one did in fiction, apparently, to write your story. In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical “I” but about the collective—all the voices that made your “I.”

Do people ever ask you about writing a novel?

No. I could try, but It feels like a very big, weird monolith to talk about your consciousness as an “I” without being interrupted by other things. That’s what I don’t understand. That it’s just “I” and the world as I see it, when there are a zillion other things coming in. Fictional things that I’ve written I’ve not been satisfied with because I didn’t put in the real life stuff, too. So maybe I should just go back and do that. But I don’t think that one exists without the other for me. Fictional worlds are interesting, but real life is impossible to ignore.

Recommended by Hilton Als:

Looking at a special friend’s articulate big toe in repose.

Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner: artists of the first order who have done much to change the lives of other artists using humor and compassion.

Jane Bowles’ writing. The weirdness of her syntax and point of view.

Sheryl Sutton’s voice on the original recording of Philip Glass’ and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. Acting taken to a new level—the real.

My mother

I will never forget the first time I had one of those “moments” with Hilton Als. It was years ago, and we were younger of course, and I was bringing in some measly article to the Village Voice and there was Hilton, laying out pictures and watching everything. I noticed that he was as amused by the editor who was ordering both of us around as I was. Our eyes met and we shared a moment of silent laughter. It was instant sibling-style symbiosis. We were both upstart kids in downtown New York who had been reared by uppity Caribbean matriarchs. It wasn’t long before I was calling Hilton at three in the morning to rant about men, and he’d call me at equally odd hours to ask for recipes and home remedies. Every time he’d publish one of those acerbic profiles in the VoiceVibe, or The New Yorker I’d breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t the victim, and tell Hilton that he was destined to become the James Baldwin of the 21st century.

The Women, his long awaited first book, confirms my predictions. Hilton’s writing glides among genres, spanning autobiography, cultural theory and non-fiction essay. At one moment we’re listening to the story of his coming of age as the effeminate son of a Barbadian immigrant, doted on by myriad sisters; then we’re drawn into a discourse on the positions in which West Indian and American societies place black women; and finally we find ourselves in the middle of a haunting tale about a black woman who was the doyenne of New York’s gay literary underworld before Stonewall. Hilton’s prose is elegantly restrained, tender at times and necessarily pointed at others. Once I had gotten over my initial feeling of being overwhelmed by such remarkable talent, I drummed up enough nerve to insist that we have lunch (getting an appointment with Hilton isn’t always easy), so I could interview him.

Coco Fusco In The Women, you deal extensively with the theme of silence and finding voice. You talk about the figure of the Negress, notably your mother, and the silence of the Negress, which is partly socially coded and partly self-induced. It seems to me that the book is a study on how you find a place and also how you develop a sense of self—and all that is expressed through your act of finding voice.

Hilton Als Right.

CF So Hilton, why don’t you talk to me a little about voice and silence?

HA I think that most first books or projects that are more ambitious than magazine articles tend to be about the writer himself. The writer is trying to discover what he sounds like after many years of apprenticeship, imitation, and so on. There are two things going on in my book. One is the ostensible subject, which is listening to a particular kind of feminine presence that doesn’t usually have a voice in the world, and the issue of me trying to let them speak without too much control. And then there’s also the simultaneous issue of my trying to learn how to speak, not just for other people, as in my reporting or memoir-type writing, but learning to speak for myself.

CF You start out by talking about your mother as being engaged in a protracted suicide, in that you see her silence as a kind of suicide. It seems to me that you’re linking your desire to live with your being able to speak …

HA Exactly.

CF … and by extension, being able to write.

HA One of the things that writers do is try to understand what their life is through writing. Part of the sadness that I felt in the book was that I was writing about people who had never really had that experience, either because of circumstances or because they were too afraid. I had to write about these people so that I could leave them—in order to speak. I grew up never contradicting people, women in particular, obviously not the healthiest thing to have to overcome in order to be a writer. The first section of the book, about the Negress, was a way of overcoming how inappropriate it has always felt for me to discuss anything private with my mother, including our relationship to one another when she was alive. That was the first difficulty, perhaps, in writing the section. The second difficulty was learning to see her for who she was, or had been. She was a very kind woman, very intelligent, and funny. I had to honor those things about her, and also try to make sense of how I responded to her. But one thing I knew I couldn’t do was lie about any of it. She used to say, “You’re only fooling yourself” when I tried to get away from telling the truth about anything. It was weird to apply her standards to her, to make her the subject.

CF Is this an autobiography? And if it is, what kind of autobiography is it?

HA Oh that’s good, I’m so glad it’s not easily classifiable. What’s the French word for essay—essai, “to move?”

CF And essayer means “to try.”

HA Right. And the trying aspect of writing was to move through linguistic space in a not easily categorizable way. Partially why the book was so difficult and took so long to write was that I hadn’t seen any precedent for it in my reading. Form and style is one’s voice. So you have to find the form, really. And one reason this book had to be an amalgamation of so many different genres—essay, autobiography, literary criticism, and so on—was that my mind doesn’t see a subject in one way. I like to read more than I like to write. And in reading, one covers a variety of different forms. One thing connects with another. This book wouldn’t be a reflection of my mind, such as it is, if I had stuck to one genre of writing; and besides which, the complexity of the subject matter demanded that I try to cover it from as many angles as possible. I was always anxious about doing justice to the subject.

CF But an autobiography is usually one’s own story …

HA But not strictly …

CF Am I totally wrong to see the book as autobiography?

HA No, not completely. And no interpretation of anything is “wrong.” There are autobiographical aspects to it. I was interested in creating a critical response to my own story, to my mother’s story, and to the lives of women that haven’t been written down before. I wanted, in order not to sentimentalize it, to remove it from the context of the strictly personal, and to have a lot of intellectual inquiry going on. Everyone has a story to tell.

CF You construct a figure—the Negress—you talk about your mother in relationship to the figure of the Negress, and then you deconstruct the figure of the Negress.

HA You always have to kill off daddy, only in this case it’s mommy—anyway, they can be one and the same.

CF Much of the book is about your relationship with your mother. There’s affection and sympathy expressed but there’s also, I sense, quite a bit of resentment. You seem to be asking, Mom, why did you choose suicide and silence, why didn’t you choose life and to have a voice?

HA That was going to be my job. The example of her life and the lives of my sisters taught me that it was very important to become expressive of the personal and the intellectual.

CF In the book you do seem to be expressing some anger towards them. Do you think that your family tried to suppress you?

HA Yes, about sexuality, definitely.

CF But only about that?

HA Mostly, yes. It was never about my life as an aesthete. It was almost always about the fear that they had of homosexuality. And what’s really interesting is that I think they would have been extremely uncomfortable had I been heterosexual.

CF Did they know when you were a kid? Is there something in particular that happened that made them anxious?

HA It was my friendship with Owen. But to them I would never have a sex, I would always be just a little … something.

CF How many sisters do you have?

HA I have four sisters, five including my first cousin who grew up with us. And I have one brother. It was a pretty intense household—emotionally, physically, intellectually. Have you ever lived with a group of girls? They not only share physical things after a while—menstrual cycles and boyfriends—but certain principles that are difficult to reason with from the outside, as a boy. I didn’t necessarily understand the physical changes they went through as young girls becoming women, but I did try to understand what that meant in the world, and to them emotionally.

CF Is your brother younger than you?

HA He’s the baby, he’s two years younger.

CF Did he get any of this treatment or was it all put on you?

HA No, he was much more interested in my father than I ever was.

CF You were more in the mother camp …

HA Yes.

CF There are two very important archetypes in your book. You talk about the Negress and Auntie Man, and West Indian ideas of gender and gender positions. Both of them involve self-sacrifice as part of the identity. The archetype that seems most similar in African American literature is the imaginary notion of invisibility—of the invisible black man or the invisible black woman, depending on whether you use the Ralph Ellison trope or Michele Wallace’s revision of it. Michele argues that binary racial paradigms offer no place for black female subjectivity. She talks about the place of the black woman as the place of invisibility. Can you relate your style to Ellison’s or Wallace’s?

HA No, I can’t relate myself to Ellison or Wallace; how could I, coming from a completely different generation? And not being, really, an American. I like Ellison’s essay for Ellison—as a turn of his mind, but not for me. I never felt invisible; in fact, when you come from a family as large as the one I come from, you’re always under scrutiny. Writing was a way for me to learn how to observe without being observed—almost a relief.

One of the things I wanted to do was write something that was not so much defined by the politics as defined by intellectual qualities that had been formed by emotional relationships to this archetypal figure.

CF You begin an ethnography of personas and explain as you go along, through your own experience with these personas, how they relate to these cultural archetypes.

HA Another way of expressing this is to say that the idea of the Negress was the central motif on which many things had to hang, literary criticism and history and memoir among them.

CF Why is sacrifice so important to the Negress and the Auntie Man? Where does this self-abnegation come from?

HA In any matriarchal society, which my story people grow up in, there’s always the issue of survival, first and foremost. And in a certain way an internalized sense: you have to make do with what you’re given, or make do with what you’re able to achieve. One of the really sad and interesting and true things about me—there’s a whole negro style that grows out of this, a certain kind of depression. You know, clothing and environments and so on that become important. So I wanted to get to the sense of rooms and textures that these women were involved with, while letting them explain what the self-abnegation was about. Mostly it was about surviving. If they stood up and said what they really thought, they’d be dead. And this is something that has been imparted to their children who have more freedom. I have more privilege to say what I think.

CF You talk about the social and economic pressures that enforce black womens’ silence. Your mother, an educated woman, arrives and finds out that the only job she can get is as a …

HA … Servant.

CF Many of the key people in this story are silenced. Do you feel there’s a place from which black women can speak now?

HA Absolutely. Courtney Love talks about being a rock star, and that a lot of women are afraid to have the power, to take the power. But things have changed substantially since I was a little boy, living with these various types of women. People felt then that they didn’t have access to power or speech. This sounds very hokey, but, their lives served as an example for people like us to not take it lying down.

CF Where do you situate yourself in relationship to other writers? The book is about people and the sensibilities that shaped you in your personal life. What about intellectually? Which black writers, gay writers, or any sort of writers would you call important influences?

HA A writing life is a reading life. So it’s very hard to name the names in the trajectory, but influences?

CF Yes.

HA Proust was an enormous influence because he taught me how the internal world is not very different than the ways in which one perceives the external world. Or the internal world actually forms the ways in which one perceives the external world. Jane Bowles taught me how characters speak to one another; and also about rooms and internal life being, again, not very different than the external. I guess there’s a leit-motif running through my choice of favorite writers. Proust, really, is the seminal influence.

CF I keep joking with you, saying you’re the James Baldwin of the 21st century, but the link for me is the love/hate relationship with family. I was just watching the film version of Go Tell It On the Mountain, and I kept thinking about your book. Baldwin’s story is different, it is about his stepfather whom he hates, but he also works with the notion that he can’t get rid of him, or any of his family: they’re in him. They’re in us.

HA Right.

CF But also, he has this, “I am an angry, social and geographic exile” voice. You’re not a geographic exile, but you do talk about displacement, about leaving Brooklyn and going to Manhattan, as a kind of immigration. You say, “My mother went from Barbados to New York, and I went from Brooklyn to the piers.”

HA Right. I covered the waterfront.

CF Do you see any connection between yourself and Baldwin?

HA His early work is enormously important to read, because one learns about the essay, form, and how to stop talking at a certain point and allow the silences to weigh as much as the rhetoric.

CF Your book describes you in relationship to people from an older generation. What about your peers? How do your peers influence you intellectually or aesthetically?

HA By reading what I’m working on and by my reading what they’re writing.

CF Okay. Now we go deep into the heart and soul of blackness, which you completely shoot out of the water from the first page of the book, where you make some very negative appraisals of black Americans and a certain sensibility in African American literature, that you characterize as a kind of false piety. According to this model, you claim the characters have to be perfect. You express an ironic disdain for that. Maybe we should first talk sociologically about the boundary lines that mark the differences between a black American and a West Indian view in your mind.

HA I could be wildly general about it and say that, fairly simply, African Americans don’t come from anywhere else, they come from America. And Caribbean based people come from somewhere else—the ones who live here. The tension that exists, between adopting a country and having a country, is enormous to begin with. And race plays less a part in that equation than the fact that cultural difference always defines people.

CF Many people do talk about the difference between coming from a place where blacks are in the majority to a country where they are the minority, and growing up inside of that. The impact of life in the islands is self-government. There’s relatively more opportunity for a power hierarchy being organized and carried out by blacks in the Caribbean than here. You deal with blacks in positions of power and not as tokens of power.

HA As a black person, you get to be a very ordinary person, instead of the exception, in the Caribbean.

CF Other differences become more pronounced, as a result of that. The difference of class—other West Indian writers have pointed this out. The black middle-class emigrating from the islands has a sharply defined class sensibility that looks askance at African Americans as working class without the proper aspirations.

HA I think that that’s just shit that’s been absorbed by Caribbean based people through the British and the French and the Dutch.

CF You mean those are European values.

HA European values about hierarchy. One of the things that one hears often is how haughty Caribbean immigrants are when they come here. And in a way, that’s a good thing, because to be imperious means that you’re not insensitive to discrimination.

CF That’s the sociological part of it, but then there is a literary part of it. You express a lot of direct emotion in the book, and you express affection for people, and an enormous amount of sympathy for women, but there are moments of great irony, great distance, of poking fun at things and individuals, and whole ideologies. The notion of blackness is something that you elevate and destroy at the same time. There are key moments in your book where you go after a black American literary tradition for being too sincere and heartfelt and not ironic enough.

HA Or not complicated enough, really. One of the problems with the books that I’m talking about—most of Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman and Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara—is a sort of earnestness that answers what white people expect, as opposed to what the person, the writer, thinks.

CF Is that an African American problem, or is that just a black literary problem in general?

HA It’s been a black literary problem forever.

CF Who are you writing for?

HA Exactly. You have to write out of your own sense of self. Or as Djuna Barnes says, it has to be you, otherwise it’s not worth it. One of the great problems I had with each of these subjects was to avoid the sentimental or the simplistic. I had to make the book as complex as possible to show the different shadings (no pun intended) just with three people, let alone the 20 million black people who are in America. It’s all about the individual life. It’s not about ideology.

CF This is a book about your becoming an intellectual and what shaped your sensibility. And what’s not there is school.

HA Yeah, I never liked school. It was another system that I had to escape. I didn’t finish college.

CF Didn’t you leave SUNY Purchase and go to Columbia?

HA I was at Purchase for a year when I was 16. Then I dropped out of school for three years and ultimately I went back to Columbia and studied art history, but I didn’t finish. I wasn’t a very good student. I don’t think I’m a very good student of anything, except other people’s lives.

CF So, what, you sit around and let people talk to you about themselves?

HA Yes, I do actually. I’m not interested so much in my day-to-day reality. I know what I feel and think about stuff. I’m interested in what other people have to say.

CF So did you used to sit around and listen to your mother and your sisters?

HA Yeah, I liked to listen to them talk. I love to listen to women talk to one another, because there are so many levels going on simultaneously.

CF I have strayed from talking about individual moments in the book, because I don’t really want …

HA You want people to read it.

CF Yeah, but if there is a moment that you want to highlight, that you consider to be key, paradigmatic, or central to defining what you wanted to do with it—

HA There’s the section in the Dorothy Dean piece, where I talk about what a fag hag is, and what it means. It was a very tricky passage to write. It took a long time, only because I had to be absolutely clear about what I had observed.

CF Why did you pick her?

HA Dorothy interested me for several reasons. In order to tell her “story” I had to develop a style of writing that is unfamiliar to me: strict, hard-edged reporting. If I intruded on her story with my “feelings” it wouldn’t have worked—Dorothy would have laughed at me, this black woman who had graduated from Radcliffe in the ’50s and galvanized the social life—gay social life—around Cambridge. Dorothy was an observant conversationalist who never really did anything more out there than that—that and fall in love with gay men. She wouldn’t want me to sentimentalize her story because she wasn’t sentimental about the choices she had made for herself, like being only comfortable with gay men, gossiping, etc. I thought that she was so assiduously emblematic of herself, that she couldn’t really be compared to any of the women I had ever read about in black American literature.

CF But she’s somebody who couldn’t write.

HA But she had the mind. And so it was just giving voice to her words, actually.

CF First you focus on your mother who is socially excluded from the mainstream and who imposes silence on herself …

HA And who is especially ambitious …

CF … and then you look at Dorothy Dean, someone who is in the field, but who chose not to participate, as a writer. So she, too, is silenced and can’t speak. And then you turn to Owen, a man who silences himself … And then you’re left with you. Is that an evolution that you are somehow tracing?

HA Not so much an evolution as it is a passing through in order to learn how not to live. I don’t want to live in that way. So I had to leave them, get rid of them, in order to understand those aspects of myself that were like them.

CF So what’s the new book about?

HA It’s called Miss God, which is a quote of Auden’s. After he converted to Catholicism, every time he would write to Chester Kallman, he would say, “We haven’t heard from you in a long time, but Miss God forgives you.” Everything was feminized. Anyway, the book is about the end of careers in New York.

CF The end of careers?

HA Yes, it’s the end of a certain literary mindedness and the society built around that.

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