The elevator doors opened onto the department store floor, but five-year-old Alexander Chee did not walk out alongside his mother. Instead, he stepped back, allowed the doors to close and caught the elevator to another level.
It wasn’t the only scare he gave his mother. As a child, the novelist and essayist liked to hide. To vanish. Into closets, attics, sheds or woodlands. As an adult, he still likes to hide. He was gifted a head lamp and loaned a key so he could enter the library, at a college where he was a visiting teacher, any time of the day or night. But even a train trip can provide the right anonymisation.
“It’s about the way in which when I am alone, and no one knows my name, I feel this sense of limitless possibility in my imagination and that’s the thing I always want to connect to,” Chee says.
“I always think of myself as writing for someone like the boy I was, who would hide out in the library and look for books that would show him how to get on with his life. I feel like I’m always trying to give back to someone like that.”
Chee’s recent essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is a poignant meditation on how vanishing can also be a form of revealing when it comes to identity; how losing yourself can be a way of finding yourself. There’s a recurring interest across the essays in passing, disguise, illusion and the mirage-like boundaries between the public and private self, and the self and the other. Or as Chee states, in one of his many pause-and-read-again sentences: “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.”
The 16 essays traverse the landscapes of Chee’s life – his budding sexuality, the death of his father after a car accident, Chee’s activism in San Francisco during the Aids crisis, his experience studying writing, including at Wesleyan University under Annie Dillard and at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and creating art post-Trump. They are about the identities through which he has understood himself and those through which others have understood him – Asian-American, New Englander, gay, son, brother, partner, writer, teacher.
You do this so you are more human to yourself.
“I am half white, half Korean, or, to be more specific, Scotch-Irish, Irish, Welsh, Korean, Chinese, Mongolian. It has been a regular topic all my life, this question of what I am. People will even tell me, like my first San Francisco hairdresser,” he writes.
Chee is a shapeshifter. The trend starts in his brilliant opening essay about a summer he spent living with a family in Mexico as part of a high school exchange program when he was 15. He quickly becomes fluent in Spanish and spends an evening pretending to be “Alejando from Tijuana”. “I can see I was a boy losing himself as a way to find himself in the shape of others,” Chee writes.
One of the most striking essays, Girl, is about Chee’s first experience in drag, on Halloween evening in San Francisco’s Castro District, in 1990. When he is in costume, he notes he feels “more at home than I ever have, not in San Francisco, not on earth, but in myself. I am on the other side of something and I don’t know what it is. I wait to find out.”
“I think I had been playing more with identity more than I imagined I was. It was definitely a surprise. It was a surprise to see myself,” Chee tells me.
“You do this so you are more human to yourself. I came to have this new kind of appreciation for who I was and the journey I had been on and to think about giving that person more love and less sense of disappointment.”
There’s a quirky essay about Chee’s admiration for actor Chloe Sevigny who is a tenant in his apartment building; another on the passion he developed for growing roses. Chee details his experience working as a caterer-waiter for William F. Buckley Jr, a commentator who founded the conservative National Review, and his wife Patricia (on another occasion he helped Martha Stewart pick out a petit four while Vera Wang and Tommy Hilfiger looked on). It’s not the only side job he has taken to fund his writing. After his father died when Chee was 16, he became obsessed with the occult and the idea he might “never be surprised by misfortune again” and later, when older, he worked as professional Tarot card reader.
Shimmering in the background of the pieces is the writing and publication of Chee’s highly autobiographical 2001 debut novel, Edinburgh, about Fee, a Korean-American from Maine who is sexually abused by his choir director. While Edinburgh was published to acclaim and prizes, the journey was arduous. It took Chee seven years and three jobs to write (mainly while commuting on the subway and working at a steakhouse), and the manuscript was rejected 24 times. He eventually found a small publisher, but then the small publisher went bankrupt leaving him short a significant amount of money. Chee was physically and emotionally spent.
He describes the essay collection as the “backstairs” to his vastly different second novel, a side project he could work on free of pressure and put aside without guilt. The Queen of the Night, a sprawling epic that follows an American opera singer in 19th-century France, was published 15 years after his debut. He halted publication at the 11th hour, during copy edits, after discovering new research details he wanted to include. His editor, Andrea Schulz, tried to comfort him: You only have to write your second novel once.
I’ll always imagine myself to be a little bit like the underwater explorer who comes back with a story when I go back into my own past.
“I think it’s very common for writers to treat their first novel like it’s a fluke, that it was a freak accident that it got published, but it wasn’t. It was you working so hard. Your success makes you feel a little guilty instead of confident. You go into your second novel feeling like you need to prove yourself all over again. I think that’s a very common psychological trap that writers set for themselves, certainly I did,” he says.
Despite the difficulties, writing is a refuge for Chee; perhaps the ultimate elevator door, silently sliding shut and separating you from the world. Each new project, he says, is a form of return to a private space, a recuperation, before publication draws you back into the public arena.
But his essay collection has proven to be a different beast. Chee was not nervous as he wrote them, but when he saw them in their totality, he experienced a new kind of anxiety. The anxiety of “encasing yourself in language”; of critics reviewing him rather than his writing; of readers who had only read his novels seeing a new side of him.
“There’s a remarkable and beautiful safety I feel when I write fiction that is probably akin to that sense of possibility I feel when I’m hidden, even when I am writing something that is based on my own life. You’re out there in a very different way, exposed in a very different way with essays,” Chee says.
If personal essays have had something of a bad rap lately, particularly due to the proliferation online of first-person pieces, Chee’s collection is an example of what they are capable of at their very best. These are not self-indulgent, they are reflections upon our culture, our time and our history, and what makes us who we are.
“I’ll always imagine myself to be a little bit like the underwater explorer who comes back with a story when I go back into my own past,” Chee says.
When we speak over the phone, he is staying at the New Orleans house of his friend, the writer Jami Attenberg, after a stint as the distinguished visiting writer at Louisiana State University. A rooster crows in the background. The teaching season is now over. Chee splits his time between New Hampshire, where he is an associate professor at the ivy league Dartmouth College, and New York City. He has taken a break from his popular blog Koreanish, but, at least for now, remains active on Twitter and Instagram.
The name of the essay collection is a joke on the question he has faced so often about his work, “how much of this is autobiographical”? However, Chee laughs, the title has left some readers who thought it was a “how to” guide perplexed. Yet there are tips on writing to be found (including a list of 100 “things about writing a novel”) – the main key is to work hard and keep working hard.
Chee is clearly still doing that. He is tending to a crop of potential novels, as well as a short story collection. He’s also writing a book about writing, based on lectures and classes he has given, and essays he has published. It should be called, he jokes, Really How to Write An Autobiographical Novel.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is published by Bloomsbury at $22.99. Alexander Chee is a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, April 29-May 5, and will be at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, on Monday, April 29.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald
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