For a long time, I railed against the idea that a book of essays had to be cohesive or themed. I suspect this is partly due to my love of the essay as a messy yet contained thing. I’ve loved many essay collections, and many dubbed “memoirs” or “memoir in essays.” I’ve read up on how hard it is to publish essay collections. Publishers want a unifying theme or message, which is unfortunate for both writers and readers. The mark of a good essay is its meandering nature and fully formed story and message contained within the parameters of the piece, and collected essays offer a set of experiences unrelated to each other that can be consumed together or alone. Yet I’ve also witnessed reviewers and readers – apparently expecting something more memoir-esque – express distaste about the lack of cohesion in some collections. In my mind, essayists – already a misunderstood and oppressed subgroup of writers – deserve better from publishers and readers.
Of course, this attitude is something I learned from being an essayist around other essayists; I took entire courses in grad school dedicated to how squishy and misconstrued the genre is and how hard it is to be taken seriously. I secretly loved those laments and all of our shared angst over The Essay. My point in bringing you into all of this is to preface the fact that Alexander Chee’s collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, challenged my thinking about essay collections.
I’m struggling with how to describe the connections between the essays in HTWAAN. On one hand, it has a sort of chronological feel, and the topics – identity, being a writer, relationships -- ruminate near the same kind of topics and ultimately present a unified offering. I knew from publisher’s info and the reviews I’d read that the sum of the parts explores identities, and it seems as though this is how the book was marketed – perhaps to address the trouble with essay collection publishing, I don’t know. But I do know that rather than being simply a book about identities, this collection seems to me to be a wonderful resource for writers and an exceptional study on humanity and living in the world today. Since finishing it, I’ve been thinking more and more about how it seems to be an example of a perfect essay collection.
That chronological feel starts with the initial essays covering Chee’s youth and his leap into writing. He meditates on his relationship to tarot in one essay and offers an ode to Annie Dillard in the next. The latter begins lay the groundwork for his layers of insight into writing. That essay, entitled, “The Writing Life,” does the incredible work of offering readers some of Dillard’s best writing advice while pairing that with Chee’s keen observations about her and about writing. As a fan of Annie Dillard’s work, this essay is like a wonderful gift. I get to see her – “her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile” – and I get a feel for what it was like to be able to sit in her class.
Because the first several essays seem to mostly tell a story in order – growing up, writing, getting an MFA, moving to New York – I admit I felt a little startled when the perceived cohesion shifted. After “Mr. and Mrs. B” comes “100 Things About Writing a Novel,” a list of, well, things, followed by “The Rosary,” which begins two years before “Mr. and Mrs. B.” It annoys me that I noticed this and the very specific years in many of the essays that followed, as I wanted to appreciate the collected, stand-alone pieces within. Yet when I considered the full collection after finishing it, I see that what holds it together is more than just time.
Many of the gems of this collection relate to writing, offering both writerly wisdom and Chee’s own perspective on writing, MFAs, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and so forth. Like “The Writing Life,” each piece feels like being granted an opportunity to sit in on a valuable writing course, and each reminded me of the earned insight I’ve loved hearing from other favorite essayists. The beauty of the essay is that earned insight – a life lesson of sorts, believable only because the writer pulls you along until they arrive at it. I think this is what we mean when we talk about self-awareness is essays, and I think that this previously indefinable aspect is what Chee excels at. For instance, “My Parade” is all about the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It describes the whole process of applying, getting in, attending, etc. In the wrong hands, or more accurately, in lacking self-awareness, this could feel…icky, for lack of a better word. Superior. Snooty. Braggy. At least to me, a writer sort of in awe of Iowa yet in no danger of ever going and who thinks she has an idea of what it’s about. Yet the speaker in the essay is genuine, and the essay is not deliberately challenging misconceptions about the MFA program or even making a case for or against an MFA. It reads more like an unraveling of that time period in search of a kernel that essentializes what that time meant to him. And in that unraveling and exhuming, readers have the chance to both watch Chee’s mind at work and see the full spectrum of one Iowa writer’s experiences.
The collection and the writing themes culminate in the searing, “On Becoming an American Writer.” This one opens on the 2016 presidential election and the question, “How many times have I thought the world would end?” The emotional pages that follow dig into what it means to write and to teach writing in the aftermath. Chee provides additional examples to highlight the ways writers must negotiate cultural context, including 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “What’s the point?” he demands, again and again. And he deconstructs that question and reminds us why we write and why we should continue to write. The placement of the essay at the end feels natural and essential. It’s the essay that I find to be the best example of the earned insight I mentioned above, and the ways in which an essayist’s insight can move and inspire. And it’s just a good fucking essay that made me bawl all over the place.
In some ways writing is the unifying idea through each of these essays. The “I” in every one of them is a writer; even when he is not writing or talking about writing, there is always the sense of the works in progress and words that need to be written. But there are also additional themes that sometimes seem more like ghosts, but that also add a kind of beautiful harmony. These include Chee’s identity as a gay Korean American and his history of activism, but perhaps the most prevalent is his devastating proximity to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s.
The losses he incurred from AIDS is recounted most excruciatingly in “After Peter.” While it’s a lovely ode to lost love and to a significant figure in Chee’s life, it also bears witness to the devastation of AIDS on the gay community. Chee explains early in the essay, “I am…a minor character, out of place in this narrative, but the major characters of all these stories from the first ten years of the epidemic have left. The men I wanted to follow into the future are dead.” Even in “My Parade,” the specter of AIDS colors the essay as he sees literary heroes dying from the disease, “facing another, newer kind of erasure.” These essays and others – notably, “1989,” a brief piece that highlights the brutality of police during a protest – provide an important look at the AIDS epidemic and the early activism that has shaped the LGBTQ community today. In this Chee makes another crucial contribution with this collection. For me, his narrative has become an incredibly important foundation in my conception of queer activism.
But for all the ways that I could explain why this book matters in its content and contribution, what I want to talk about is how effectively it functions as a collection of essays. Even as I want to rebel against the idea of cohesion for the sake of readers, HTWAAN shows that a collection can cover a range of topics and time periods yet the essays can still communicate with one another by providing context and character through connected themes. I realize that as I’m saying “themes,” what I really mean are passions and ideologies, traits and hauntings.
I would suggest this book to (or perhaps even push it on) writers who are looking for book on craft. I would suggest it to readers who want to know more about the history of LGBTQ rights and the activists who laid the groundwork for today’s advocates. If I were teaching a class on the essay, I would talk about this book as an exceptional example of what an essay collection can accomplish. The order of the pieces makes perfect sense and complement the essays around them. The balance of topics – writing, identity, loss – works to achieve the right emotional balance. Some of these essays are extremely emotional reads, but it’s never too much. One of my favorites, “The Rosary,” is ostensibly about the narrator’s quest to grow roses but ends with this remarkably intimate moment where he reveals how gardening actually transformed him. (Side note: I’ve never cared a fig about roses, but “The Rosary” made me truly consider planting a rose garden.)
Then there’s the matter of the beauty of Chee’s writing. I have not read his novels and instead found him thanks to his (now anthologized in Best American Essays and in this collection) essay “Girl.” It’s a stunner that I found compelling on my first read and each and every essay in this book offers the same level of lyricism and precision. I’ve talked to fellow word nerds about the trouble with loving quotes. What do you do with them? Where do you keep them and how do you access them when you need them? It is an especially big issue with HTWAAN because it brims with wisdom and excellent quotes. In this case, though, I don’t think you need to take the quotes out and store them anywhere. You can just re-read any of the wonderful essays for quick access to life-altering insight. In short, this book is a gift, and you would be remiss not to read it. Apparently all the year-end lists about “best” things got the memo, and I’m really glad about that.
As for me, all I really want to say is that it’s a goddammit of an essay collection and I’m forever glad – as an essayist and a human – that it exists.