The Bookshelf: Alexander Chee on Identity, Class, and the Writing Life

Aug 3, 2018

In his first novel, Edinburgh, Dartmouth college professor Alexander Chee wrote about a difficult subject: child sexual abuse.

"Part of the reason why I wrote it was because I hadn't seen anything that really dealt with the rage that people feel afterwards, and I wanted to show that in some way," he says.

The novel's protagonist was a Korean American boy who, like Chee, was sexually abused. The novel was well-reviewed, but Chee says the most meaningful response to his novel came from a man serving time in prison for pedophilia.

"A friend of mine had sent him my novel and he wrote back about how he had not spoken for four days while he read the book," Chee says. "What he wrote to my friend was: 'This was the first thing that ever showed me what I did was wrong.'"

This experiencethe writing of "Edinburgh" and the responses it generatedare among the personal experiences covered in Chee's new collection of essays. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel explores the difficulty of writing about this kind of abuse.  We spoke in his office at Dartmouth recently, surrounded by shelves of books and a poster of the cover of his new book, which contains essays on money, class, identity, his life as a writer and the gay rights movement.

In one essay, called "After Peter," Chee writes about a charming young man he knew in San Francisco by the name of Peter D. Kelloran. It was inspired by a prompt from another writer. 

 

(Scroll to the bottom to read a top five reading recommendation list from Alexander Chee)

CHEE: He invited a bunch of writers to participate in an anthology he was creating called "Loss Within Loss" and he asked us to write about an artist we knew who had died of AIDS and to try to take stock of not so much the cost of the AIDS epidemic but to try to weigh the loss of the AIDS epidemic, culturally, in some way. When I thought about it, I knew that there were more famous artists that I could have chosen, but I thought that I would instead choose someone I knew who had died before he could have become prominent. And in that way I was trying to look at what is cut off when an artist dies young. 

NHPR: There are a few essays here that are about money and class. One thing you wrote, and it appears in two essays in different forms, was: "I would become a class traitoras all writers are, no matter their social class." I wanted to ask you about the writer as a social class trader. What does that mean?

I think it means showing up for a relative's wedding and knowing that your clothes might not be as nice as everyone else's. Perhaps not being able to afford anything on the registry. It means living without health insurance for most of your young life or not having kids sometimes.

There's all these class expectations that you grew up with where you think, "Oh, I'm failing at life because I'm not married." Or: "I'm failing at life because I don't have a secure job." Or: "I'm failing at life because I can't afford X. I don't have my own house. I don't have my own car." Etc. Etc. And when you're trying to make it as a writer, the only thing that can matter is getting the writing done, plus however much else you have decided to care about off to the side. And I think what betrays a lot of writers, especially when they come from the middle class, is this attempt to try to replicate the comforts of the middle class with a writer's income.

So now I have I would say a lot of the trappings of middle class or even upper-middle class life, but I think, you know, even then I know that I'm not committed to it in the same way as the other people in my class because I know, having been a writer, I'm not at ease in this circumstance, and I think part of the reason to be a class traitor is to have to work against the intense income inequality in this country.

You write about "the election," which you put in quotes and you don't have to specify what you mean when you say it, and you write about the purpose, point, and value of writing in this current climate. What advice do you give up and coming writers about making their writing matter to the world and our culture today?

Where it all begins is: I speak to them about whether they're telling the stories they see in life but they don't see in literature. If not, why? Can they start writing those stories? I think those are the stories that remain still to be told, those are the stories that can have the hope of creating change in the world. The experiences that went into my first novel that allowed that convicted pedophile to come to an awareness of what he'd done wrong—that was something I'd never foresaw. If I allowed my own despair in beliving this person was hopeless, that he'd never see what he'd done wrong—if I allowed that to control me or even stop me, then what then? 

Alexander Chee's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li. "This book of essays is a searing investigation of despair and depression, and the way the writer, Yiyun Li, found her way through it, through books—and her favorite writers. I think of this as the sort of book that will re-introduce you to new ways of seeing things you’ve perhaps taken for granted, like the role of a favorite writer in your life, or the act of reading itself."

2.   Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans. "These stories make me think of that impossible writing advice from James Baldwin, 'Write a sentence as clean as a bone.' As if it were as easy as that. I think few writers see America as clearly as Danielle Evans, and I read for that vision, the pleasure of those sentences, and the profound intimacy she can bring forth on the page. Time and again in her short stories she writes those amazing sentences and we are brought deeply into the truths of her characters, and through that, to our own."
3.   The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg. "A tiny book of essays that is a giant inside, and written by one of Italy’s great post-war writers. I own it both as a book and an ebook, as I love to read one of the essays when on a train or in flight, impulsively, and so I like having it in my phone also. The essays are observations about the raising of children, or of wearing old shoes, or of having a friend who becomes a famous writer. In the introduction she mentions how all of the essays were directed to a specific and unnamed person, who she thanks, and I will wonder, always, who that is.

4.   Violation: Collected Essays by Sallie Tisdale. "Tisdale is one of my favorite essayists, a remarkable writer capable of summoning both that old fashioned 'let us consider this notion' sort of essay out of seemingly the most modest details, or the darkest ones, and also deeply personable, a good companion on the page. This collection of essays is a remarkable summary of her career and a wonderful introduction to her as a writer, if you’ve never read her."

5.   Ghost Month by Ed Lin. "Ed Lin is one of my favorite writers, and Ghost Month—a literary thriller named for the month of August in Taiwan, when they honor their dead—is about a young man named Jing-nan who works in the night market in Taiwan and is drawn into solving the August murder of an ex-girlfriend from high school, a young woman found murdered far from the prestigious New York City academic program where she was supposed to be. Dark, fascinating, and beautifully rich.