An Amalgamation of Things That I Was: An Interview with Hilton Als

Most people who have interviewed Hilton Als since the release of his newest book, White Girls, are based in New York. All of them, it seems, are taking the subwaytheyre reading White Girls on the subway; theyre anxious about the disapproving glances white girls throw at them as they read White Girls on the subway. 

But if his most recent book elicits disapproving glances, Hilton Als casts those glances back. White Girls, published in 2013, works in dialogic opposition to Richard Wrights Black Boy, James Weldon Johnsons Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Toni Morrisons Tar Baby. The title is a reversal; it turns the gaze around. Traversing the bounds of whiteness with biting irreverence, Hilton Als assembles an unlikely cast. Flannery OConnor, Eminem, and André Leon Talley, among others, share a fame enmeshed with blackness, a private mixing that Als publicly confronts.

In April, we planned to take the Metro North, and then eventually the subway, so that we too could interview Hilton in New York. Dont come to NY, he warned in an email. Everyone here has the flu, including me. Its been such a struggle even walking around. And I had to.

By early June the flu left New York, Hilton felt more himself, and so we traveled (Metro North, subway) to meet him for lunch. Here is what we talked about.

—Maya Binyam

YLM: One interviewer asked you if white girls ever “come up to you and say, ‘How dare you talk about white girls in this way.’” Your answer, of course, was “No”…[1]

HA: I always want to sort of laugh when people say the title, because I didn’t actually realize that it would have such an effect. It’s so sweet when girls think they are in the title in some way and come up to me and say, “Oh I really felt this or that while reading your book.” In a weird way I don’t even want people to feel like they’re identifying with the words so much as the feelings. The words just feel like another category to me.

It would be disingenuous to say that I wasn’t being provocative with the title in some way. But then also you forget what the provocation was and the book lives on in a different way.

YLM: Other interviewers make a point of assuring their readers that “when Hilton Als talks about white girls, he doesn’t just mean young Caucasian women.”[2] But Caucasian is sort of a static figure for whiteness. White women populate White Girls, but they can’t be traced back to a sovereign caucus, because their lineage is conjoined with blackness.

HA: Americans are so many different things all at once, and I think it’s crazy for us to pretend that we’re confined. For that reason stereotypes are not only projected but also stupid. We live in a country that’s very complex vis a vis it’s own heritage and lineage. I was just thinking about this recently, when I went with a friend to see Diana Ross’s Mahogany. This friend is a mixed race guy, and the child of Diana Ross introduced the film—the child she had with the black father, not the Jewish father. I thought: it’s only in this country where you can’t even really say what someone is. This daughter isn’t like her sisters. She’s not half Jewish.

Very early American novels—The Octaroon, The Clansman—tried to de-stress these complications. But they couldn’t do it. These books were about the melodrama of race as opposed to its complications. The only thing that I’ve seen recently where the race stuff is brilliantly portrayed is Alfre Woodard’s performance in 12 Years a Slave. Those three minutes are so astonishing, because she is completely schizophrenic and outside of her body. That says more to me than a lot of the other things I’ve read recently.

YLM: It seems to me that these are the complications/linkages readers attempt to negate when they say things like, ‘White Girls isn’t about real white girls, it’s not about you white girls on the subway, Hilton Als isn’t encroaching upon your space.’ At one point in the book you say “She was a white girl, whatever that means.” How does this irreverence toward the bounds of whiteness, the space that white girls take up, inform your practice and your politics?

HA: You know, it’s a very interesting thing about space. One of the things that has always been very difficult for me is to claim spaces and roles. We’re always talking about writers who have a lot of books on the bookshelves—Thomas Wolfe, Norman Mailer. These guys were able to take up space in a way that was not conflicted. I’ve been very conflicted about bookshelf space. I was raised in a way where you put other people first. Modesty was key. So what I’ve been learning with this whole process—and this is such a good thing, even with you—is doing interviews. Learning how to speak as an author has been very hard.

YLM: And different, you feel, than speaking as a writer who is publishing in a weekly?

HA: Yeah. Because publishing in a magazine, it disappears. But with a book, it’s about you. You’re the author. I feel that this is a very hard thing for me to do, and a very good thing for me to do. The project is not only about working through ideas, but also learning how to stand square in my ideas. I think if you work for a weekly, there’s the convenience of being protected by the magazine. A magazine is a communal project. The magazine has its own demands, and then you have your own demands as a writer. I don’t think one is better than the other. That’s a different kind of space.

YLM: In the first essay in the book, Tristes Tropiques, you write that the speaker and SL “felt sad when all those Negroes couldn’t look us in the eye at parties…No narrative preceded us…No one seemed to understand what we were talking about most of the time.” As a joke, you write, the speaker would sometimes wonder aloud to SL if they sounded to these other party-goers like: “Ooogga booga. Wittgenstein. Mumbo jumbo oogga booga, too, Freud, Djuna Barnes, a hatchi! Mumbo lachiniki jumbo Ishmael Reed and Audrey Hepburn.” But that kind of speak only performs as gibberish—its referents are carefully comical. Mumbo Jumbo and Audrey Hepburn are an odd duo but somehow they work together—it’s a hilarious mash-up. What archives do you speak through, and how do you see them mixing, if at all?

 HA: [laughs] I’d forgotten that. That’s a good question. I think when I’m writing, I’m writing, on some level, from the subconscious desire to communicate something of my past. My past was an amalgamation of all these things that I was, or that I was interested in. Fran Leibowitz said something interesting about writers, that there are usually no prodigies among them as there are among musicians, because writing requires life. You need to have the experience of living. One of the things that I was able to bring into this book was the experience of living. That means having a variety of experiences as much as a variety of people that are in you.

Did you have enough to eat? I’ve been watching and they have delicious homemade potato chips. We should get some.

YLM: Yeah, definitely, lets do it.

HA: Let’s do it.

YLM: Something that struck me about Tristes Tropiques is the exhaustive use of cultural references—how these references create a structure of feeling and begin to mediate the speakers’ processes of identification. To what extent do these references predicate experience? Is twinship produced through a desire for twinship?

HA: You mean how did I replicate, or produce the dream of twinning, while I was having the experience of twinship?

YLM: Yeah.

HA: I was always looking for the dream of twinning. The experience of love doesn’t make you require less. It makes you require more. Love can produce a feeling of unfulfillment as much as fulfillment. There’s something that you want, but even if you have it, it feels out of reach. Built into desire is the idea that it’s never really possessable. Since the character (I call him the character) can’t really possess SL, he has a weird feeling of always of being bereft. His feeling of love is an elegy. He’s feeling bereft, and so he looks for ways to fill up, or identify that feeling of unfulfillment. He looks to Plato, or to the girls in Three Women.

YLM: James Baldwin seems to be a kind of exception, though: you’ve said that he fulfills the “we” that you were looking for in the book. In the third essay, This Lonesome Place, you lament the aborted meeting of Baldwin and Flannery O’Connor. “They could have laughed together…what a discussion they could have had about whiteness!” O’Connor refused to see him, for reasons you cite as having to do with restrictions of time and space. A physical meeting between you and Baldwin, like that between him and O’Connor, was impossible, perhaps due to those same restrictions, and yet you formed a union. How did you become a “we,” and what does that partnership signify?

HA: I think this is to the point about the character always feeling bereft. He’s always going to have an elegiac love; it’s something he can’t possess. I think history falls into that elegiac form as well. Baldwin is always trying to rewrite everything so that it becomes more cohesive. But he can’t do it, because he can’t rewrite history—he can’t change the past.

The character, too, is always having these weird moments of trying to change his feelings of loneliness. I think his whole thing, throughout the entire book, really, is a feeling of loneliness that can’t really be altered. And this loneliness has to do with consciousness. He’s a conscious person, and that means he’s a kind of lonely person. I’m going to have another chip.

YLM: If the character is in that conscious state of seeking love as an inevitable elegy, then writing about, or putting the character at the center of this form is also a way of taking ownership of these people, the ones he loves. 

HA: He loves through the distance of reading, or memory, or whatever.

YLM: But White Girls has been interpreted in a bunch of ways that are at odds with that reading of affection. In his review for The New York Times, Rich Benjamin calls your criticism a relative of throwing shade.

HA: Oh. I never read his article, but my editor told me, and I was like, what? He said that I was throwing shade on André and all these people. What’s his writing like? I haven’t read him. You may quote me.

YLM: It’s a little weird.

HA: A lot of people thought it was weird.

YLM: It was really weird. Benjamin starts by quoting “the exquisite black and brown queer kids cavorting about Christopher Street.”[3] It’s like Paris is Burning. They tell him what it means to read someone or throw shade.

HA: [laughs] Oh wow.

YLM: Your essay on André Leon Talley is often described as harsh or unfeeling, a biting     critique of the singular space he occupies in the fashion industry (Rich described it as “personal and mean”, Salon as a “brutal” portrayal), which is surprising to me, because I was struck by the intimacy of the information you glean—details of his “melancholic” romantic yearning, his “immunity” to involvement. The moment of interaction between you and Talley is always obscured, as if these small verbal intimacies—a passing observation (“This is a major moment, child”), a cheerful reprimand (“My dear, we do not discuss the vulgar)—occur without you. There’s a kind of unstated physical proximity in your writing about Talley: he addresses you—his “child,” his “dear”—but there’s no reciprocal response. Or maybe the reciprocation is in the writing.

HA: Exactly. The way that you get to feel the love that you didn’t feel with the actual person is to create something out of it. But that falls short of real feelings. You can’t replace real experience with aesthetic experience, but you can certainly work through the feelings of why this connection felt smaller than you wanted it to feel. I think art is one of the ways in which people get to be connected and alone at the same time. It’s like reporting: you’re really with the person you’re reporting on, you’re connected to that person, but it’s finite. The job will be over and then you’ll both move on.

YLM: There’s that dinner scene…

HA: I don’t remember. What happened?

YLM: You’re in New York, eating dinner with André and…

HA: And Sandra Bernhard!

YLM: And you tell the pair that you fell in love with André in Paris. There’s a silence, one that Talley refuses to fill, and he…

HA: He freaks out.

YLM: Yeah, he gets angry and exclaims “You did not fall in love with me! You were in love with Paris…It wasn’t me! It wasn’t! It was Paris!” When you first met Talley you were interested in him in part because of what other black folk in the fashion industry said about him, “on the way they had pointed him out as the only one.”

HA: I was interested in talking about how it happens that this very intelligent person ends up feeling defensive when you love him. Was I like that? That’s one of the implications. Was I the only one who loved him? Was I the only one like him? I felt that that piece was more a feat of identification than anything else. So when I heard that this guy Rich criticized it, I was like, wow, this seems besides the point.

YLM: Jorie Graham came to speak at Yale and said something along the lines of what you just mentioned about writers being paradoxically connected and alone. She said that the goal of writing was to become a part of someone’s privacy.

HA: Oh, wow. That’s a great phrase.

YLM: Part of what feels special about the criticism in the book is that these people have already become a part of your privacy. They’re introduced as a part of your privacy in the first essay, Tristes Tropiques.

HA: Thank you. I’m so glad you noticed that, because every person that I talk about in the rest of the book I talk about in the first essay.

YLM: Is giving back a mission that you articulate to yourself? It seems to be an important part of writing profiles—carrying a desire to give thanks.

HA: For sure. I’m the most disgustingly beholden-feeling person in the world. I was thinking about that today. One of the writers I love is Marianne Moore. She always talked about why she quoted so much in her poems; she said ‘If someone said it better, why wouldn’t you [quote them].’ And so I feel like a lot of these people just said stuff better. The quoting is a way not only of acknowledging them, but also having a talk with them.

Reading is a way of communing with people in a deep way without having to be social. I don’t think I ever moved past that feeling of wanting people who weren’t there. And I don’t mean in a psychedelic, James Merrill kind of way. I mean that it was always important for me to acknowledge people who would otherwise be forgotten. I guess this goes back to my mother, the people I grew up with. I was always obsessive about remembering them, writing down dates. I feel that way about a lot of the people in the book, even though some of them are famous and some not. I have this kind of weird longing for them to be recognized. It’s not a romanticism. Or maybe it is romantic. I think it goes back to twinship—this consciousness of a you that is separate from you. I really believe that I’m not myself when I am writing. I’m not speaking to the outside world so much as I’m speaking to the people I’m detailing in the story, whatever story I’m telling. I feel that I’m talking more to them than I am to the world.

YLM: I love your critique of Virginia Woolf in A Pryor Love; she always uses blackness as a dead metaphor. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf “writes a kind of fairytale”: she conjures up Shakespeare’s unrecognized sister, and in her imagining she gives this woman named Judith a voice. “Suicide Bitch,” you write, “probably made Shakespeare’s sister up because she never knew a bitch—including herself—whose gifts were obscured by any living man,” but this critique, paradoxically, is spoken in a voice that is not your own: it’s uttered from the imagined interior space of Richard Pryor’s sister. How do your projects of imagining—inhabiting an interior space that has material realities but is not your own—differ from those of Virginia Woolf? Are you writing a fairytale?

HA: That’s a good question. It’s probably not very different at all, in the end, except that I created that character as a way of talking about siblings and fame. I don’t know where that idea came from except that I know when I read A Room of Ones Own, what she was saying stuck in my head, as well as a number of other things that she assumed to know. I didn’t feel I could assume knowing Richard Pryor’s sister, but her voice was something that was very clear to me through a friend of mine, an actress who I talk about at the end of the book, Candy Alexander. Candy is an amazing storyteller on the telephone, and I wanted to capture the cadence of her voice, but also the weirdness of being a black actress in Hollywood. It really grew out of this sense of knowing that it was an incredible uphill battle to be an actress of color in a world where age let alone race is a huge thing.

YLM: And Virginia Woolf’s imagining is utopic. You imagine a sister, but…

But the fame is something she wants, too. What’s interesting to me about her is that she lives in that dual world that a lot of Americans live in. They want to be acknowledged for their work, but there’s a puritanical relationship to fame, too.

YLM: This is an aside, but did you know that Virginia Woolf dressed in blackface?

 HA: No, I never knew. Actually I think I maybe read that or something. Did you ever see that weird picture of Coco Chanel in blackface? With Cole Porter at a party. I almost used it as the cover. But then I realized, you know what, this is too much.

 

[1] Frank, Alex. “Interview: Hilton Als on “White Girls”” The FADER. N.p., 24 Dec. 2014. Web. 01 July 2015.

[2] D’Addario, Daniel. ““White Girls” Author Hilton Als: “People Aren’t Telling the 150 Percent Truth — They Tell 80 Percent”.” Salon. N.p., 29 Nov. 2013. Web. 01 July 2015.

[3] Benjamin, Rich. “Shades of Influence.” The New York Times, 08 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 July 2015.

Interview conducted by Maya Binyam, Jake Orbison, and Andrew Wagner