A laptop sits in the corner of a room for my video-call with Alexander Chee, specially positioned so the room’s mess is out of frame. He’s calling from Positano, Italy after a final lunch with his students at the Siren Land Workshop. Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a sketch of his life and practice, a collation of published and un-published work that moves from childhood to the present. For many, Chee is a type of mentor: through the page, in his teaching and appearances. The book’s final essay ‘On Becoming an American Writer’ grapples with this role, and Chee’s position in the canon of North American writing; I reflect on how these things might manifest at home compared to abroad, our conversation starts here.
‘There was an interesting moment at Siren Land,’ Chee tells me. ‘One of my students said the experience helped them decided to pursue an MFA. I said, “you should absolutely do that, but don’t come to America right now”. For students of colour coming to the US as international students, it’s terrible what they’re going through. I have a student from Nigeria who’s in the process of legally applying for citizenship with his whole family, and he was the only one who was not given a green card. He’s the youngest person in the family. It seems like a piece of the very deliberate and cruel things that the administration is doing to immigrants of colour. I’m dealing with it on the other side with my students in America. I’ve had to add to my repertoire: Do I know lawyers that can help them? It’s the first time that I’ve ever really had to think of that, especially in an undergraduate education context.’
‘With “Becoming an American Author”, I was getting at how when you’re teaching people to write, you’re also teaching them to keep writing. Part of that is how do you organise your life, and increasingly it’s how do you organise your life in a way that’s not disrupted by the regime? It’s weird. I did an event with my ex-pupil Angela Flournoy, she’s telling the crowd how we went out for tacos to talk about a story after her class. She and I were chit-chatting, she recalls that, “suddenly he starts talking to me, like, so when the novel’s out it’s going to be like this and you’re gonna do that”, and she was like, “look, I just got you some tacos, you don’t have to talk to me like this, there’s no need to be so excessive about when the novel’s out.” She wasn’t thinking of herself like a published author yet.
‘When you’re teaching people to write, you’re also teaching them to keep writing. How do you organise your life in a way that’s not disrupted by the regime?’
‘The novel was The Turner House, which became the great novel I thought it would be – the sensation I thought it would be. I wasn’t buttering her up in any way, I was just trying to give a sense of what I thought was possible, what I thought was ahead. What’s funny to me is that I don’t remember too much of that conversation’s details, because to me it was a really ordinary one, where I was just talking to her about her future. I never try to go past what each student’s situation calls for. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is believe in their future…in this way that they may not even be ready to, in a way that I don’t often know I’m doing.’
I reflect that the essays in How To Write An Autobiographical Novel are peppered with beautiful objects and people that arrest and disarm: Roses, the Tarot, Chloë Sevigny; even in essays that have been written decades apart. Chee chuckles at this, and shows me his temporary Positano apartment; Thoughtfully positioned off-white drapes, ornate wooden lamps and an imposing bed-frame are among other painstaking details. Mint green slatted doors lead to a sun-dappled balcony. ‘As you can see, I do like pretty things. I’m a little bit of a crow that way, and I always have been. When I was a kid, I was so fascinated with my mother’s jewellery that she gave me the job of cataloguing, because I was paying so much attention to it.
‘The objects scattered through the collection is nothing compared to my last book The Queen Of The Night; if you’re an opera singer in 19th century France, yes, you have a lot of costumes and gems, so I went nuts with that. So do all your friends, your enemies and your rivals. When that book’s launch was happening, the MacDowell Colony threw me this wonderful party, and I asked my mother if she would wear a cocktail ring – because she has this collection that I think are beautiful – so she did, and I was thrilled. I think I am also a frustrated visual artist, as I describe in The Writing Life essay: how I’m trying to be an artist and a writer. I think I’m still very enchanted by the visual.’
‘I’m talking about what I saw as the power that femme beauty offers, and wanting to participate in it, wanting to seize the reins of that kind of power.’
Chee reclines on a mango-yellow divan as our conversation moves to his relationship with feminisms and femme identities. ‘I think I get at it in the essay “Girl”, where I’m talking about what I saw as the power that femme beauty offers, femme beauty culture. And wanting to participate in it, wanting to seize the reins of that kind of power. I grew up with a mother and a sister who were both beauties. My mother was my first exposure to a feminist, she was the kind I don’t think we see too much of anymore. She was a Republican before she became a Democrat; She left the party in the early 80s when the Bush family embraced evangelicals in order to win. That was her exit line, she couldn’t tolerate that and everything that came with it. Often she would tell me stories about friends she had, how they left for California from Connecticut and drove across the country, got new jobs out west, having all these adventures along the way.
‘And then a sad story of one friend in particular, who was trapped in a bad marriage, with a husband who was getting her pregnant every year; It was doing something awful to her mind. So my mother just drove a car to that woman’s house and was like, “get in, we’re leaving”, and helped her get out of that situation. These kinds of stories were always around. I was always watching the way people reacted to my mother and my sister. I was sort of interested, amused and horrified by it. Whatever it was, it was always an education. So it probably begins there: these strong women in my life who were possessed of this kind of magnetism, you know?’
Though used sparingly, intense physical action punctuates Chee’s book. The essay ‘1989’ recounts a San Francisco protest at government inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic; its four pages are vivid with descriptions of police brutality. On writing action, Chee reflects: ‘I’ve been talking about something all week with my students, it’s been on my mind: how little people describe and address what they need to. I think of the theatre, establishing a sense of landscape for the reader. So that when I fill the theatre, the action has the audience as context. Then I put myself or my character, depending on if it’s fiction or non-fiction, through the implications of not just my actions but the theatre itself, and how it relates to my actions. If it’s fiction, it hasn’t transpired yet, I can think about “does the character do this or that?” – what the most likely movement through the theatre is. If it’s non-fiction, instead it’s, “how was I changed by that place?” That’s my way into thinking about the action I describe.’
‘I think of myself as a very social person, but I have a tendency to go outside to the balcony to be alone. But I am also a sucker for beauty – the balcony is where the view is.’
From the mechanics of action, our focus shifts to the role of silence in Chee’s writing; ‘I wonder if I trust it’, he says, before sitting in thought for a moment. ‘I’m interested in silence, I think I come at it from several directions. Marilyn Robertson, my former teacher, has written about the importance of silent moments in a piece of writing. I think of it as those moments when a character is alone, when there’s a chance to occupy themselves in a different way to when they are dealing with people. Those moments have always interested me: the private moments of a character. But there’s sometimes a silence in the absence of speech, where characters are doing things without talking, the actions are the language. I think of myself as a very social person, but someone here noticed I have a tendency to go outside to the balcony to be alone. Whenever the group is getting together, I look around and sneak out. But I am also a sucker for beauty – the balcony is where the view is. I do like silence, this is true; I don’t know how deep that is though. Is it any different from saying I like to be unbothered?’
At our interview’s close, Chee offers me a view outside his Positano dwelling. A momentary bleed to white, as his camera adjusts to villas on cliff-faces sloping down to a vivid sea; deep blue, sharp white, green and orange. ‘When I left the restaurant I was like wow, this girl really knows how to throw off her winter cloak’.