The last few months have inadvertently been focused on Asian-American writers and memoirs/creative non-fiction type works — and I have no complaints about that. The latest text is Alexander Chee‘s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel that I had seen highly raved about around the internet. I tend to pick up these hyped books months later but then I always wish I had picked it up earlier because usually the book ends up being so good. Chee’s book was no different. This book was an unexpected success for me, not because I doubted that I would enjoy Chee’s writing, but because I wasn’t expecting it to resonate in the way that it did.
If you are expecting a review of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, this will not be one in a strict sense. This book was very personal to me, so the reflections on it will be more personal than my last few posts. There are plenty of professional reviews available online that I suggest you take a look at if you want to gauge whether to pick this up. If you would like something a little more raw, then that you can find here.
There is one passage near the end of the book where Chee touches on the relationship of sorts between reader–book–writer and what comes out of that triad:
“When the act of writing works best, I feel like I could poke one of these words out of place and find the writer’s eye there, looking through to me. If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: when I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow, or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die…Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this. It is not my memory, not yours, and it is born and walks the bridges and roads of your mind, as long as it can. After it has left mine.” — How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, 275.
We are used to encountering some memories in writing, like the snowstorms of our childhood, and we are used to the idea that someone else has had these memories, too. But there are other types of memories and other types of lingering affects that some of us are not used to seeing on the page. I poked through the words of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and I was startled to see something looking back at me — an eye that gazed back in understanding and compassion.
People would maybe scoff at the notion that a piece of writing can suddenly freeze and crack everything around you. These are just words, they could say. But maybe people like that haven’t experienced complete silence; a dearth of language that you, or anyone like you, could use to try to make sense of who you are. There were no Alexander Chees and no Rowan Hisayo Buchanans for me when I was growing up. Even now, finding anyone biracial writing anything at all that I can get my hands on still feels like winning some sort of jackpot. Being mixed is one type of experience that I couldn’t find in literature growing up and I am happy to say that, over the years, I have been finding more of these voices.
But what really left me a bit more vulnerable, and shocked, than I like to admit is harder to pin down, because it’s something difficult to articulate by its very nature. I write elsewhere, outside of this space and outside of social media, about my own trauma and how the majority of my life was patterned by things that happened from the time I was a child through my college years. The specifics are less important than the residue left in its wake: something hollow, blank, a mask with nothing behind it. And the feeling that you are a singular person who experienced a singular continuous thing, alone, and that made you something horrible and ugly by extension.
I began by liking Chee’s prose and by the end I found myself close to screaming Where have you been?
I wonder what would have happened if I had read ‘The Guardians’, in particular, when I was a teenager and during my college years. I wonder if the words would have stunned me then like they did when I read it now, if I would have dropped the book like a glowing coal because someone else in the world knew. I was so used to being strong, to putting on the air of strength he writes about, that it feels like a visceral lurch to suddenly encounter yourself –the part of you that felt marked as something sick, so you hide it from everyone for years– in a book you picked up on a whim. Masks, the android version of yourself moving around, “associations that didn’t associate”, the doll you crafted to take your place out of fear. Your secrets, the way you saw yourself for the majority of your life, right there in a book someone else wholly separate from you wrote.
Would I have been able to recognize myself in what he was saying back then or does the recognition only come with time? Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to see myself in it like I do now because all I was back then was the mask, completely hollow. Maybe I would have been able to gloss over it all as “his experience” in order to continue the denial necessary for survival back then. In all honestly, I probably wasn’t ready.
The book ends with an essay unpacking writing in the post-Trump world and what it means to write. For me, the answer to that question is this entire post, but more concisely: I have read many things on trauma and PTSD as a sort of linguistic study, trying to learn how to talk about things by seeing how others write about them. I devoured everything from testimonies, novels, poetry, academic texts, psychology books. I incorporated trauma studies into my first master’s degree because even then I was always trying to constitute myself in a way that moved beyond what happened before. I have read things written by other victims of trauma, even traumas that are similar to what Chee touches on here, ones that differ from mine. But no one did it like this, no one else articulated my inner mechanisms like that.
And I did cry.
Part of it was probably due to a measure of pain, but I think it was mostly relief. ‘The Guardian’ means that while I was going through what I went through, there was at least one other person on the planet who knew what this all felt like inside. And I think that is one of the most important things for me in my own journey of unpacking the past. For so long I thought it was just me and the fact that someone out there was writing this thing means I wasn’t. And once you can imagine one other person understanding these feelings and that mode of being, then it’s easier to imagine more people who felt that way, too. Suddenly, you feel less grotesque, less singular, because there are more of you out there. And you can imagine encountering these people like you, you can imagine that you would not see them as horrific or disfigured on the inside. You would probably be kind to them because you saw them differently than you saw yourself — you could see who they are in spite of everything that happened, not as defined by what happened.
But if they are like you, why wouldn’t you give yourself that same kindness?
Chee writes that, as a writer, you never know who the reader will be and what they’ll do with the work. In some ways I’m maybe not the person the book expected to touch when I grabbed it off the shelf; I’m not a gay man, I suffer with PTSD and trauma from a different set of horrors, I grew up in a different place. Yet in one essay for the first time I found someone who understood. Who approached things the way I did back then for similar reasons as my own.
I can’t tell how past-Julia would have faced what she read in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. She may have pushed it away or ignored it, separating herself as much from it as she did other things she pushed down for years. But she may just as easily have felt relief. To have seen a recognizable face, features that make-sense-and-don’t-make-sense in the same way hers did growing up, and then to have opened the book and seen the words themselves moving before her eyes. Maybe that would have made the process different somehow. Past-Julia didn’t get the chance to see this, but so many people who have experienced similar things, or similar-but-different traumas and pains, will be able to read this and know that what they feel is not an anomaly. Recognition, a little bit of feedback from the outside to break the relentless repetition of what we tell ourselves on the inside, can do amazing things and the fact that Chee’s work is able to touch so many people is incredibly powerful.
It’s true that writers never know who their work will influence. But from this one person who happened upon a book she thought would just be a really great read, I hope writers continue their work in our time, regardless of how terrifyingly absurd the world is. If there is nothing else to hold on to, I think that touching just one person and making the world more bearable for them is as worthy a cause as any.
Here at the end I will include a more conventional mini “review” for anyone who still wanted something a little more concrete: beautiful prose, a really genuine and open way of presenting his narratives and bringing the readers into his world, a really keen ability to parse out his own pain/experiences in an illuminating way for the rest of us, a knack for making me want to try rose gardening. Also, he liked Dune as a child, so bonus author goodness points for that.
*All quoted passages are from Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (New York: Mariner Books, 2018)*