‘Metaphors sustain us’

Hilton Als, White Girls

Penguin, 352pp, £9.99, ISBN 9780141987293

reviewed by Aida Amoako

In ‘You and Whose Army’, the penultimate essay in White Girls, Hilton Als writes:

‘We find truth – human truth – by pretending to be people we’re not. That frees us to explore the metaphor of being.’

Als pretends to be several people in White Girls, writing about his subjects with an emotional intimacy that is occasionally provocative but always illuminating. What Als has often referred to as a ‘Stanislavski’ method of writing is what makes the New Yorker theatre critic’s second book seem novelistic despite being a collection of mostly previously published essays. Even when Als is writing a more traditional journalistic profile, you cannot miss his 'I'.

When he experiments with fiction, as he does in the aforementioned piece on the life of an imagined sister of Richard Pryor, Als explains: ‘I like to mix it up, though. Throw in portions of myself – my thinking – into my character’s voices.’ Als treats his subjects as characters; it’s how he’s able to pretend to be (and therefore write about) such large and elusive cultural figures. It is the point of entry to exploring metaphors of being.

The eponymous metaphor, White Girls, is the through-line that connects a seemingly disparate group of people from Truman Capote and Michael Jackson to Flannery O’Conner and Louise Brooks. The result is a challenging and moving exploration of race, gender, sexuality and culture that reveals those categories too to be shifting metaphors. Maintaining a fluid voice is Als’ modus operandi. It is embodied in his refusal to define: ‘She was a white girl, whatever that means.’ It is visible in the naming of characters: in the nearly 100-page opening piece ‘Tristes Tropiques’, the speaker shares an intense relationship with a straight man referred to as SL (Sir or Lady). It is also in the collection’s defiance of genre: Als blends fiction and memoir in some pieces, memoir and cultural criticism in others. White Girls is hard to categorise.

When it was first published in 2013 in America, a country Als admits is ‘nothing if not about categories’, White Girls caused quite a stir. Is it an invective against the titular group, or a love letter? In ‘Philosopher or Dog’, which is about Malcolm X’s bi-racial mother Louise Little, Als depicts Malcolm’s disdain for his mother’s lightness, her whiteness, which ultimately is also his own. Als rescues Louise Little from the meagre pages dedicated to her story in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He writes ‘Mrs Little did not write anything. I am writing her anger for her and therefore myself since I hate the non-writing I have done about my own mother […] I am writing the idea of Mrs Little. . .’ Als has a penchant for writing mothers into history. Of his own mother, a self-described Negress, he has written in his previous book The Women with excruciating intimacy. Last year he published Andy Warhol: The Series, two previously unpublished television scripts which focus heavily on the life of the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola.

At times, White Girls holds a mirror up to the problematic behaviour of its titular characters. In ‘The Only One’ Als reveals the fashion industry’s cruel treatment of iconic editor Andre Leon Talley, narrating when the late fashion muse Loulou de la Falaise called Andre Leon Talley a ‘nigger-dandy’. Several critics took Leon Talley to be the target of Als’ barbs for enduring such insults with laughter, but in this essay Als acts as the Nick Carraway to Andre Leon Talley’s Gatsby, as if he is saying with exasperated admiration, ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together!’

White Girls is, however, far more about love than about hatred or spite. It is an intense love, an almost claustrophobic love, that Als explores in ‘Tristes Tropiques’. It is a love that would make one sacrifice their very person to be closer to another. The speaker of ‘Tristes Tropiques’, who shares a ‘twinship’ with SL, ‘wanted to grow into one with him.’ Self-abnegation – to set yourself aside for the sake of others – is a recurring theme in Als’ work. The metaphor of anti-being. To be self-less. However, as the narrative progresses through the 80s and 90s, through the loss of friends from AIDS, the speaker begins to discover that sheer force of love cannot make somebody truly understand you; it cannot bridge the gap between two selves. Writing, Als has said, is a ‘tool against your own self-abnegation.’ To write as Als does, to pretend to be other people, ultimately confirms the existence of yourself as a separate and distinct being. Unable to become one with another, the next best thing is simile. ‘Everyone reaches towards the world. Everyone, and when it burns the only thing standing between you and this burning death is the idea of others like myself. . .’

It has been five years since White Girls was first published in the States. Serious discussions about race, gender, and sexuality have opened up space for a work like White Girls in the UK, despite it being rooted in American racial history. White Girls is in good company this year among recent books by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Afua Hirsch. Together they provide a much-needed awakening for a country that has long been reluctant to confront the metaphors it helped to establish. White Girls (whatever it means) may not signify the same things in the UK as it does in America. But Als’ refusal to explicitly define terms means the reader must follow the writer into his experience: into an emotional exploration of the relationships between gay black men and straight white women; between black men and their mixed-race mothers; between black women and the world.