DEFYING CATEGORIZATION: An Interview with Hilton Als

by Kira Akerman

“We find truth— human truth— by pretending to be people we’re not,” writes Hilton Als, the New Yorker writer, in his new book White Girls, his first major work since “The Women” in 1996. White Girls is a collection of profiles from Truman Capote to Eminem to Michael Jackson that explores who we are when our seams are undone, and we are not all stitched up and made to behave properly. In White Girls, Als unties memoir, fiction and cultural critique in what he calls “a kind of intellectual whodunit.”

“White Girls” might be considered a state of mind.  Can you describe what it is about?

I would call it a philosophical novel–a kind of intellectual whodunit. How did so and so become a self, and why? How does the world inform who we are, and how do we make a  world out of who we are. The book is about consciousness.

If I were to feature a passage in White Girls, which would you like me to select and why?

I think I would recommend the passages about denying memory in the last piece–“It Will Soon Be Here.” It was the piece I wrote first, years ago, and it was my start as a writer, really, or, more specifically, when I first started feeling as though I had a voice. I think the section on denying memory is true–you don’t know who you are if you deny your past. This book is about becoming–becoming a self. And connecting to other selves.

 An excerpt from “It Will Soon be Here”: 

The Wall surrounding memory misremembered is clean and wide and high, similar in effect to the wall one finds in certain airports in other countries, clean and wide and high like that, banking on or letting go those who want to remember clearly or don’t. Passengers coming or going in the field of memory are a tangle of arms and legs, hands, heart, hair and minds that — if you don’t stand too close or listen too carefully— speak a shared language, remarkable in its oppressive loneliness, its denial: What a horrible memory, and so forth. Regardless of where many of us believe we land — in that field encumbered by not too much baggage or entirely too much — we all come from the same place, which is a road rutted by experience so banal, nearly remarkable, that memory tricks us into remembrance of it again and again, as if experience alone were not enough.

You write, “America is nothing, if not about categories.” Do you think categorizing is inherent in being American? Can you tell me about that in the context of White Girls? Do you think categorization goes hand in hand with a cultural tendency to forget? 

 America was founded in part on the slave trade. And we have yet to get past those categorizations—black, white, their respective meanings, etc. You can look at Kara Walker’s work and see how imbedded it all is in the consciousness. When it’s eradicated, I will say something else, write another kind of book.

I felt that each profile was defined by what respective characters seek in love.  Can you tell me about that?

I think love is such a defining principle–love, acceptance, approval. Despite the fact that most of these characters are fairly isolated doesn’t mean they don’t want to be loved; in fact, the drive to connect is fairly important to all of them, even if it’s only through work.

 You write, “Like most people, I respond to stories that tell me something about who I am or who I wish to be, but as reflected in another character’s eyes.” You ask Eminem – and I ask you – “Why the anger over how humanity has fucked up the Garden of Eden, a place that is nothing if not a metaphor for love?

We all like to dream about idealized spaces, no? A “perfect,” space that makes us feel perfect, realized, ourselves? That’s what the Garden of Eden means in that context.

How does performance factor into your writing?

It plays a big part. I think performers are very brave; they expose themselves in un self conscious ways that can show us that language is a living thing.

In Tristes Tropiques you write, “SL and I lived for the actor Morgan Freeman when he said he didn’t play black, he was black.” Can you explain what you and SL are responding to? 

The fact that Morgan wasn’t willing to caricature his blackness; his blackness—like his maleness–is integral to who he is, not a performance.

In This Lonesome Place, you quote James Baldwin, who said “‘This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again —”’ meaning that blacks, as artists and men, could no longer be confined to the self contained enclaves that produced them.“ Do you feel you are following in Baldwin’s trajectory? 

 Oh, I wish I was that good! A vital and true artist and thinker. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to that?

Can you describe your process for finding your voice? How do you feel like your voice in White Girls changed from your last book, The Women?  

I think it’s just work, you know? And it takes years to find your tone–the voice that truly expresses who you are, and who mean to be.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever been given, and what advice would you give?

Keep going!

This interview was originally published in Neutrons Protons