“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee— Man, Writer and Activist

Chee, Alexander. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays”, Mariner, 2018.

Man, Writer and Activist

Amos Lassen

I fell in love with Alexander Chee’s novels “The Queen of the Night” and “Edinburgh” and I have now fallen in love with his “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”, his first collection of nonfiction. I don’t know what I was expecting from Chee as an essayist but she sure knows how to pull a reader in and with nonfiction that is not always easy.

He writes of his adventures in life and literature and of course politics and how these topics come together. He also writes about the books he has read and how reading them have influenced both his life and his writing. He shares growing from a student to a teacher and how he deals with the various identities he has—- a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. Of course to reach those identities, he has had a life filled with experiences that he also shares with us.

In this collection of sixteen essays, Chee writes of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction and a life lived and lives created by writing fiction. While this is a look at writing, it is also part memoir by the author who sees himself as politically engaged. He has advice for us that he very willingly shares and this includes how to convey action and the use of verbs that say precisely what you want them to say.

As a writing and a literature professor, I have always thought that it is impossible to teach someone how to write. At best, I could furnish the tools necessary to be a good writer but talent comes from within and we, as teachers, can only hope to enhance it.

Chee looks at some of the main events of recent American history and writes how these have been formative parts of his life— the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that he had in order to support his writing, the actual writing of his first novel, the election of Trump and the more personal death of his father. I cite this because all of us were affected by most of these as well and I believe that it is safe to say that they also affected our writing as well. Chee asks us how we see and create ourselves in different ways and for different venues and professions and how we react and fight when what we hold to be true is attacked. (Interesting that I just read another review of this book and it says almost the same thing as the above sentence).

Chee tries to help us get to the core and heart of how we create and how we defend our identities to both ourselves and the rest of the world. I believe that understanding how we see ourselves is instrumental in understanding how others see us.

There is great wisdom in these beautifully written essays. Chee brings together activism and artistry and unites them with his deep exploration of the intersections of identities and experiences.

I had the chance to meet Alexander Chee at a Lambda Literary Workshop this year but got lost trying to find the location (I wonder if I will ever understand Boston neighborhoods and streets and why every town has at least one Washington Street) and never got there. This is a major regret. But now I have this book of essays and it sits in a very prominent place on my desk where I can consult it easily.

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