Rebecca Harkins-Cross on Hilton Als

‘I come from the Stanislavski school of writing,’ said Hilton Als, delivering a keynote on ‘The Role of the Critic’ in 2010. ‘You become the subject.’

A theatre critic for the New Yorker since 2002, it’s no surprise that performance metaphors abound in Als’s essays too. But the notion of the non-fiction writer embodying their subject as an actor would is radical, profoundly shifting the way we define the designation. Isn’t acting always a fiction? Stanislavski’s revolutionary approach taught performers how to build characters through mind and body, excavating emotional memory in order to truly experience the role – a precursor to method acting, renowned for its invasiveness. Stanislavski gave us psychological realism as we know it today. In search of truth, Als writes not with the journalist’s objective distance but the actor’s holistic immersion.

To call his new book, White Girls, an essay collection is to try and tame it, for in ‘becoming the subject’ he stretches form to breaking point. The way Als merges ideas and genres is audacious, exhilarating; at times it’s dizzying, trying to retrace the winding roads you’ve traversed within one piece, ending up so far from where you started. Remarkable technical and intellectual dexterity are required to pull off such a style, one which combines autobiography, cultural criticism, magazine profile and speculative fiction. ‘The truth is pretty specious’ he told an interviewer. ‘With this book, I wanted to say that as long as you tell the emotional truth, that’s what we’re really looking at.’

The most striking example is ‘You and Whose Army?’, a complete fiction written from the perspective of Richard Pryor’s sister, a figment invented by Als to help him try to understand the comedian further. Pryor is a figure of black masculinity who’s long fascinated him; she’s an unrecognised actress doing voiceovers for pornos to get by. Similarly, Als’s profile of classical Hollywood actress Louise Brooks is written in the first person, giving voice to a woman often made mute in silent films. ‘I am Louise Brooks, whom no man will ever possess,’ he repeats, like an incantation. In ‘Philosopher or Dog?’ he draws out from the margins Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, whose pale skin Als claims was crucial to her son’s sense of identity and politics.

White Girls is a provocation, but not necessarily an incendiary one. Being a ‘white girl’ is not a matter of race or gender, but rather another performance: a posture, a mask. To be a white girl is to be visible but simultaneously powerless. Trying to evoke a friend who he refers to as ‘Mrs Vreeland’ – nicknamed after the Vogue editor because of her style – he tries on several descriptions: ‘No, she was a white girl, whatever that means. No, she was colored because she preferred colored men to most white people. No, she was words, and they always came up short against her presence.’ Als throws up such binary frameworks in order to show their inadequacy, challenging the way we understand language: ‘The words currently defining our epoch are otherness and difference. Appropriate definitions of these words are “beside the point” and “never mind”.’

Als’ ‘white girls’ are diverse: Truman Capote making himself into a woman on the dust jacket of his 1948 debut, Other Voices, Other Rooms, who Als says didn’t become a man until the publication of his ‘big’ book, In Cold Blood, in 1966; rapper Eminem, ‘this white boy not a white boy, this nasal sounding harridan hurling words at Church and State’, the white trash iconoclast who never owned the privilege of his race or gender; fashion editor André Leon Talley, a mordant portrait of the shallowness of Parisian haute couture; Michael Jackson; Flannery O’Connor.

Returning to Als debut, The Women, an experimental autobiography he published in 1996, one finds the seeds of thought that would grow into White Girls – a book 17 years in the making. Here the figure of the Negress is his rallying point, an ‘emotional being’ who ‘lives one or several cliché-ridden narratives’. His mother is the Negress par excellence, a fascinating figure who Als continues to identify with. Born and educated in Barbados, she left her husband and moved to Manhattan chasing Als’s father, a man she refused to marry but continued a love affair with. Sometimes his mother is the disenfranchised immigrant and single mother, at other times she steadfastly refuses the Negress’ narrative. Like his ‘white girls’, Als’s women are myriad too: again Truman Capote and Malcolm X’s mother, as well as queer personality Dorothy Dean and Harlem Renaissance poet Owen Dodson, who became Als’s teacher and lover. Amidst this cacophony, writing is how Als rises above the din and finds his own voice.

Als can be placed in an impressive pantheon of contemporary non-fiction: he has some of the lyricism of Rebecca Solnit, the acuity of Wayne Koestenbaum, the radical politics of Chris Kraus and the playfulness of Geoff Dyer. And yet, like these startlingly original writers, his style is completely his own. Moreover, Als offers a tenderness that can seem at odds with his wry humour and fierce mind. In White Girls’ introductory essay ‘Tristes Tropiques’, a paean to a 30-year platonic friendship with a straight black man he nicknames ‘Sir or Lady’(SL), he reveals his vulnerability before this great romance, his ‘opera of feeling with a very small audience’, and his need for validation through writing. Stanislavski asks the performer to dig deep; Als is compelled to deliver.

In the process of ‘becoming the subject’, Als often uncovers new facets of himself, his ideas and his obsessions. His description of Flannery O’Connor’s ‘electric vision’ could equally apply to his own – a unique voice articulating the ‘uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars’.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer, journalist and critic based in Melbourne. She was recently shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers.