Alexander Chee shows himself to be a profoundly important voice in these confoundingly divisive times.
Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is part memoir, part socio-political history and part guide—both for young writers and those coming to terms with their identity within the LGBT community, and a country more often than not at odds with all that entails. It’s a heavy subject matter to be sure, but Chee’s ability to get to the heart of the story and present it in an imminently accessible, humanistic manner helps cut through the labels to present a group of people struggling to exist in a country that perhaps ironically touts itself as the home of the free and the land of the brave. Given the current social and political climate, his account of a time nearly 30 years ago during the height of the AIDS crisis feels unsettlingly relevant now, as we are faced with an indifferent governmental system far more concerned with its own self-interest than that of the diverse citizens it claims to protect.
Chee’s prose is so vivid and yet utilitarian that you feel as though you are right there in whatever moment it is he is describing. Whether it be Halloween in San Francisco in the early ‘90s when Chee ventured out for the first time in something more than mere drag and found he was able to “pass” (“Girl”) or the crippling self-doubt that descends upon anyone who ever even remotely considers writing as a viable career path (“My Parade”), his ability to draw the reader into a scene is like few others. Even as he is writing about just this rare talent as viewed through the eyes of his many teachers and mentors over the years – chiefly among these Annie Dillard, whose clear-eyed advice peppers “The Writing Life,” an obvious nod to her popular work – he manages to do so in a way that is at once both literary and accessibly conversational.
This latter quality is particularly beneficial when discussing his years spent as a gay rights activist in the midst of the AIDS crisis in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. It’s a world that not many can necessarily relate to directly, but through Chee we are able to feel the frustration and desperation as an entire nation essentially turns its back on hundreds of thousands of its own. As a gay Amerasian male who grew up in Maine but truly discovered himself – a constant theme throughout How to Write an Autobiographical Novel – in the streets of San Francisco as he protested the government’s lack of action in the face of a clear epidemic, Chee’s is a rare voice in terms of experience and the ability to clearly convey his worldview, one increasingly relevant now.
Yet despite the heavy-hearted nature of many of his essays, Chee never adopts a victim’s posture. Instead, he pragmatically reports from the front lines of a personal and social struggle that has seen an equal number of successes and setbacks over the past several decades. What lies at the heart of each piece is a human heart which, if given the chance to connect with a disconnected country, would help each of us see that we are all essentially doing the best we can with what we’ve got and simply looking to survive and, if possible, thrive in a complicated and indifferent world.
Thus, although most of the book deals with a time nearly 30 years removed from today, it feels very much of the moment. Essays like “1989,” “Mr. and Mrs. B” (about his time as a cater-waiter for William F. – a noted homophobe – and Patricia Buckley – an equally revered fundraiser for AIDS causes) and the heart-breaking “After Peter” should be mandatory reading in 2018. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee shows himself to be a profoundly important voice in these confoundingly divisive times.