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Winner of the 2014 Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction (Triangle Awards)
One of the A.V. Club's Favorite Books of the Year!
"Named one of Kirkus' Best Books of 2013"
“I read Als not only because he is utterly extraordinary, which he is, but for the reason one is often drawn to the best writers—because one has a sense that one's life might depend on them. White Girls is a book, a dream, an enemy, a friend, and, yes, the read of the year.” —Junot Díaz
"Hilton Als’s White Girls gave me a gift very few books do: of hearing a voice that’s new, that comes as if from a different room. A nonsensical thing to say in one sense: he’s been writing brilliantly and visibly for almost 20 years. But there’s something about the work in this book. It's a leap forward not merely for Als as a writer but for the peculiar American genre of culture-crit-as-autobiography. Its bravery lies in a set refusal to allow itself all sorts of illusions—about race, about sex, about American art—and the subtlety of its thinking is wedded maypole-fashion to a real confessional lyricism. In the way Anthony Heilbut's recent Fan Who Knew Too Much taught me that I and everyone else I knew had a lot of black gay man in us, Als taught me that I have a lot of white girl in me, too, and so does he. And so do you, is where it gets interesting. If you think that sounds like another blurb-job or post-postmodern twaddle, I defy you to read this book and come away with a mind unchanged." —John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
“Hilton Als takes the reader on a wild ride through the complex, often rough, terrain of art, music, sexuality, race. What he writes—especially about Michael Jackson, Eminem, Louise Brooks, Richard Pryor, Gone With the Wind—is riveting.” —Elaine Pagels
"A comprehensive and utterly lovely collection of one of the best writers around." —Boston Globe
"Only Als (theater critic, The New Yorker; The Women) could write about ringworm—“my cruddy friend,” “a dark flower,” “an erotic ‘pain’ I could not wait to get my hands on”—and make it sound good. His first book since 1998 contains 13 pieces, most of them previously published, in which he meanders through fiction, criticism, and memoir along the axes of race, gender, and sexuality. He touches on aspects of his own life and on various cultural figures: Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm X, Eminem, Michael Jackson, André Leon Talley, Louise Brooks, and Richard Pryor, among others—all examined as “white girls” or in relation to them. (Als asks in “Tristes Tropiques,” “How could one be a white girl and hate it?”) On writing about pictures of lynching victims, he admits, “I have become a cliché” by answering white America’s request to “Tell me about yourself, meaning, Tell me how you’ve suffered. Isn’t that what you people do? Suffer nobly, even poetically sometimes? Doesn’t suffering define you?” VERDICT Suffering does not define Als; his art—loping, loopy, yet astonishingly precise language—does. This is a book that readers will want to spend the rest of their lives with: a searching, insistent, and thoroughly wise collection." —Molly McArdle, Library Journal (Starred Review)
"With roots in Barbados and Brooklyn and a deep immersion in the endless identity issues attendant upon being a gay man of color, bold, versatile critic and New Yorker staff writer Als continues the inquiry he launched in his first book, The Women, (1996). Here’s a clue to the layered and spiked complexities of this essay collection: one of the 'white girls' Als portrays is Truman Capote, another is Michael Jackson as well as Flannery O’Connor and silent film star Louise Brooks. Jennifer Lee, Richard Pryor’s widow, appears in Als’ bristling portrait of the brilliant performer. He also portrays with fresh insight Marshall Mathers III, that is, Eminem. Als is pyrotechnic, lifting off the page in a blast of stinging light and concussive booms that somehow coalesce into profound cultural and psychological illuminations. More covertly scorching is the long, wrenching essay 'Tristes Tropiques,' an exploration of love and friendship, fear and fascination during the AIDS epidemic. Whether his subject is his mother, himself, or seminal artists, Als is a fine, piercing observer and interpreter, a writer of lashing exactitude and veracity." —Donna Seaman, Booklist
“It’s hard to know what to say about White Girls, by Hilton Als. These essays defy categorization. They are unwieldy, and meandering and as self-indulgent as they are intriguing. In the first, “Tristes Tropiques,” Als ruminates on his significant relationships with men, and their relationships with men, and the performance of friendship and interracial and intraracial dynamics. Of his friendship with SL, he says, “In short, we were not your standard Negro story, or usual Negro story. We did not feel isolated because we were colored. We did not want to join the larger world through violence or manipulation. We were not interested in the sentimental tale that’s attached itself to the Negro male body by now: the embodiment of isolation. We had each other, another kind of story worth telling.” That might describe this entire collection—not your standard Negro story. Als not only looks inward. His essays discuss Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Jackson and much more. As a whole, the book is an interrogation of blackness and white womanhood. The prose is both intelligent and inscrutable. The essay “Gone With the Wind” is a masterpiece. This was a book I hated as much as I loved it for the incisive cultural criticism that has made me question nearly everything.” —Roxane Gay, The Nation
"Cultural critic Hilton Als might have written the essay collection of the year with this month’s White Girls (McSweeney’s), if indeed it were merely a book of essays. Instead, each piece explores so many genres—melding fiction with fact, the deeply personal to the staid journalistic profile—that Als isn’t so much playing multiples chords at once as multiple pianos. The book opens with a piece called “Tristes Tropiques”—the title suggesting a moody emotional travelogue—that follows the writer through his own love and losses and sets up the many ruptures and reconfigurations of identity to the point that even the titular taxonomy of “white girls” eventually comes to describe a black, male lover or Truman Capote or so many cinematic, streetwise women searching for their place. Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Pryor, lynching photographs, André Leon Talley—each serves as a separate starting point on an authorial trek to undo the conventional read for a much more complicated set of possibilities. Als has created a work of art." —Christopher Bollen, Interview Magazine
"[E]verything Als is saying is a vivid, bright truth" —Lambda Literary
"Brilliant." —NY Journal of Books
"brilliant lunacy" —Bookforum
"Als is one of the most consistently unpredictable and surprising essayists out there, an author who confounds our expectations virtually every time he writes." —Los Angeles Times
"Effortless, honest and fearless" —Rich Benjamin, The New York Times Book Review
"Hilton Als’s White Girls (McSweeney’s)—has reached out and grabbed me by my lapels." —Library Journal
"Als’ work is so much more than simply writing about being black or gay or smart. It’s about being human." —Kirkus (Starred Review)
"Mesmerizing." —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Nothing short of masterful." —HTML Giant
"We all have a little white girl inside us, some of us more than others. That might sound like a joke, but New Yorker critic Hilton Als will make you believe it's true. He begins his captivating new book, White Girls, by examining the role white girls played in his life as a gay black man living in New York during the early years of AIDS. Then, in a series of essays, he claims that a diverse range of historical figures — Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, even actual white women like Flannery O'Connor — were shaped by their relationships or identification with white girls. There's no overarching manifesto: 'White girlness' isn't presented as good or bad; it means something different to each of his subjects. But his theories are so original they'll make you think differently about race and gender whether you're a white girl or not.
White Girls' arguments don't always work. For example, Als plays Freud with Malcolm X and Eminem, insisting that both men needed to reject their white mothers in order to 'marry' their careers. (Huh?) But his willingness to rankle conservatives and liberals alike is thrilling, and his sharper ideas will be debated for years. Take his analysis of Truman Capote's novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, whose cover shows the author posing like a pinup star. At the time, he notes, most female authors posed like men on their dust jackets, hoping to earn male peers' respect. 'Capote became a woman in 1947 just when 'real' women would not or could not,' Als writes. Debatable? Sure. Fascinating? Definitely. Or take the chapter where Als admits to falling for Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. 'I would have made her forget that I was colored...because I knew I could make her love me,' he writes. 'But how do you get people to ignore their own history?' Of course, he knows how to get people to remember their history, and own up to their place within it: write a book about identity that challenges people as much as this one." —Entertainment Weekly
"This book will change you." —Chicago Tribune
"[Als] is a poet on the page, and his insistence on breaking the essay form defines his liberation as a writer." —The Rumpus
"[Hilton] Als interweaves personal revelation with cultural touchstones, sometimes hopping from topic to topic at a breakneck speed, other times examining concepts so strategically and methodically his words become scalpels, flaying open unacknowledged bias, privilege, and conflict where he sees it." —The A.V. Club
"[Hilton Als] is above all a writer fascinated by people: their little habits and turns of phrase, their multi-layered sexualities, and their unfathomable relationships to each other or, in the case of his famous subjects, to the world." —UTNE
"Mr. Als is a national treasure." —the New York Observer
I loved looking at him. I loved listening to him. In 1999 he said about me to me: "You have infant schema. Children and animals will always love you." In 2000 he said: "The downside about what you've written is the special pleading angle. You're not greater than the subject." In 2001 he said: "Are we codependent? Beyond." He also said: "I don't care." In fact, "I don't care" was his most frequently spoken phrase. That was the worst kiss ever, I don't care. I'm so glad you like my pictures, maybe the world at large will never see them, I don't care. From 1999 on I wondered how I could make him care. I saw our twinship dissolving in words I could not control, words that stressed SL's Billie Holiday, don't-careish attitude, even as my I stressed itself on page after page. Neither of us could stop himself: by 2002 we were breaking out of our we casing through an explosion of self-expression, and the disavowal of self-expression the world would not look at his pictures, and his love, the world, would see me no matter how much I tried to hide in my universe of stage sets and the crud behind it. I would not leave him, and yet he felt I had already left him, the words were going out into the world more and more frequently from 2003 on, even as I loved SL's pictures, body, and voice, more than my words, and always more and more; but that wasn't the point, the attention I received wasn't happening to him, and in any case, SL implied, as our talk went on, even as it dried up, that, as an unreconstructed seventies lesbian, the commercial world of magazines and praise was corrupt, why would I want any part of that, why care, I don't care.
Blame it on capitalism. Despite SL's Laura Nyro–like abhorrence of business and his utterly touching and captivating struggle with modesty, he tied himself up—as he tied himself up in a Comme des Garçons shirt, or lovely turban—in a debate about the meaning of his I, the ego as a form of aggression. He would not put that fellow—his I—forward; he gave SL the spiritual creeps. And yet there was his I, who was a superior artist, and art must be seen for it to matter to other people. In any case, what colored person has ever handled attention well? For years there was no Michelle Obama. And the colored people we saw become famous—Jean-Michel Basquiat and the like—could not reconcile all that love with their former degradation. I could not handle the attention I received for my writing; it was not separate from SL's relative invisibility on the art market. Despite the fact that SL always married stars who knew he was a star, the world can absorb only the obvious, and for whatever reason I was more obvious to the world at that time than my twin, the same as me, only different.
SL's struggle for recognition became my own. I didn't mind. In fact, I loved the process. It all felt like an Earth, Wind & Fire song, full of effort and hope. One helps, and there is sometimes less of oneself, or one's I in the effort. SL and I were comrades, we would get through it, the world would love him as much as I did. But the world would not. Once, after we became friends and SL moved on from the weekly where we met to a magazine that was part of a big, lady-centered corporation—they published magazines whose major themes were weddings, eyebrows, and the like—SL would describe how few black men worked there, and how they never talked to one another. Some time later, I got a job at the same company—by then, SL had quit to pursue his own work—and as he waited in the lobby for me one day, SL looked on as I talked to two black men who worked in fashion. As we walked away, SL exclaimed: "Oh, my God, when I saw that, I couldn't believe the building didn't explode!" Presumably the city's cultural life—which, after 1980 or so, was dominated by white female gallerists, curators, critics, and the like—would have exploded if it had accepted SL's photographs and video work along with my praise, and that is how they treated him: as being too much. In 2001 his pictures were too much. In 2002 his appearance was too much. In 2003 his morals showed people up too much. Where was this man of high principles supposed to fit in the highly unprincipled worlds of art and fashion that he aspired to and disdained, a world where success was based as much on personality, body type, and eye color as it was on any recognizable skill (sometimes more so)? And by aspiring to those worlds, was SL not returning to Europe in a way, hankering to love that which he could not be, which is to say a white woman?
Since I have always preferred to live in the next generation of hope, it was the children of those art-world ladies who worried me. Living in their male-identified world of having it all, the mothers who toiled in the corridors of photography and literature and the like couldn't be bothered with feminism because what is feminism but humanism; they didn't want their children—particularly their girl children—to make the mistake they'd made at Brown or Yale or Berkeley or whatever, which is to say believing feminism and thus humanism had any value at all, and would get them anywhere in this stinking world. So they let their daughters say whatever they wanted under the guise of free "self-expression," but what amused those mothers—the same mothers who would not mother SL's longed-for career—was listening to, and watching, their daughters' aggression. One such little girl told me that if I shaved my beard, I'd look like CeeLo Green. Another little girl told her mother that she didn't like the way I smelled. Another asked how I could be happy, considering that I looked like a gay Unabomber? These were the children of the mothers SL longed to kiss, and protect, even as my wounds would not heal and shall never heal because now I have the hatred of a white woman and if SL doesn't think his unconditional love of them and ultimately wary love of me didn't contribute to the immense loss of our love, he's crazy.
Excerpted from White Girls by Hilton Als. Copyright © 2013 Hilton Als. Excerpted by permission of McSweeney's Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. Tristes Tropiques
2. The Women [Truman Capote]
3. This Lonesome Place [Flannery O'Connor]
4. Gone with the Wind [About a show of lynching photographs]
5. Philosopher or Dog [Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X]
7. Michael [Michael Jackson]
8. The Only One [Andre Leon Talley]
9. Darling [Adrian Piper]
10. I Am the Happiness of this World [Louis Brooks]
11 Buddy Ebsen
12. A Pryor Love [Richard Pryor profile]
13. You and Whose Army? [Richard Pryor's sister]
14. It Will Soon Be Here