Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography by Richard Rodriguez (Viking, 2013)
White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s, 2013)
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, 2013)
THE DUSK OF A SUMMER EVENING in London’s Hyde Park, years ago. Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American, is misidentified by a woman he’s passing on the street. She smiles. “Arabie?”
The author smiles, too, shakes his head—no, he is not Arab.
Still, the question of kinship remains. “Now,” he confides, looking back on that scene, “I am not so sure.”
The exchange opens Rodriguez’s fourth book, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, a collection of essays written in the decade following September 11, 2001. After the collapse of the twin towers, Rodriguez became aware that the God of his Roman Catholic faith is “the same desert God [to whom] the terrorists prayed.” With this realization came another: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam locate their origins not only in a common forbear, Abraham, but in a common terrain. The Holy Land, for each, is a desert.
Darling becomes a foray into the desert from which these three faiths emerged—what Rodriguez terms “the ecology of monotheism”—and into the metaphorical deserts of the author’s own religious experience. It is also a study of the nature of kinship itself.
“Ojala,” the first essay in this series, raises a curtain on the “worldwide religious war that Americans prefer to name a war against terror.” Almost immediately, one notices the precision of language: Not “choose,” but “prefer.” Not “call,” or “label,” but “name.” A meticulous stylist, Rodriguez can hardly be read too closely. Cross-reference the acknowledgements section: “I am indebted to two editors…,” Rodriguez writes, “for permitting me a literary freedom appropriate to an age when words literally mattered.” And so one is led to think about the mythic power conferred on human beings in the book of Genesis, the power to name, which is also the power to illuminate or obscure. Here at the start of a collection that points up the layers of meaning hidden in language itself, Rodriguez asks, without asking, if we are mindful of our rhetoric, whether it is born of critical thought or something like convenience. Such moments recall Susan Sontag’s “9.11.01,” her attempt to cut through an atmosphere of anxiety to a saner historical awareness. (Sontag: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”) In this post-9/11 milieu, then, Rodriguez determines to “put away my ignorance about Muslims,” to consider “the customs and thoughts of the one who threatens me.”
As part of his exploration, Rodriguez turns to the Arabic language, “to hear [Muslims’] quarrel with me…to taste their curses on my tongue.” What he doesn’t anticipate hearing is the name of Allah preserved in his mother’s Spanish prayer, ojalá, meaning, “I pray it may be so—an exclamation and a petition.” Spaniards traveling to the New World carried Arabic words, or variants of Arabic words, with them. The result was that
five centuries later, my Mexican mother, as a sort of reflex, would call upon Allah to keep the expected structure of her world intact. Ojalá, Mama. If the department store sale is on. If the fog lifts. If it doesn’t rain. If the results are negative. If we are all here next Christmas.
For Rodriguez, autobiography is not merely self-portraiture; he is, always, a biographer of ideas, of the conflicted histories carried in our flesh. “I want us to be the idea,” he explains in a recent interview, “our contact with each other.” And the pattern of these contacts, these ideas, is remarkably complex. So at the end of this essay, Rodriguez considers the implication of his mother’s prayer, “that human lives are doomed to surprise.” And the word “doomed” evokes the memory of hijacked airplanes, among other things—the assassination of Malcolm X, or the neighbor of Rodriguez’s mother who drops dead outside the California state fair. But the word “surprise” takes the reader back to the “Arabie” incident on page one, and back to the discovery that whatever their differences of belief, Rodriguez shares with the Muslim, along with the Jew, a surprising kinship of language, of landscape, even of love.
The nine essays that follow range widely in subject matter, as is customary for this writer, but these pieces do cohere; there’s an associative logic to the whole. Rodriguez reports briefly on a cancer scare, and on confessing to a priest for the first time in thirty-two years—juxtaposing a medical exam with his own spiritual examen. He considers the lives of the union organizer Cesar Chavez, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa. He writes of the ascendance of the New Atheists, and of “how important it is for me to be told what I believe.” In an era of hyper-connectivity, there is a reaching after the wisdom of the particular—this body, this city—and a lament for its many losses. There are also several occasions of contemporary midrash, Rodriguez applying his imagination, and his wit (see Jesus with the Samaritan woman in the essay “Darling”), to biblical texts. Sometimes, as in parts of “Transit Alexander,” Rodriguez’s collage technique becomes tedious. Mostly, though, one comes away knowing that if classical, long-form essays maintain currency in our short-form age, it is because Rodriguez, and precious few like him, are so good at them.
Early on Rodriguez sojourns in Jerusalem and Las Vegas, respectively, where the desert is both atmosphere and analogy, question and answer, poetry and prose. The desert signifies impermanence and, ultimately, emptiness. And whereas one desert “creates warriors,” we find another creates jesters. Whereas one broods over mortality, the other says, “Hey, no problemo.” One is an absence, the other a blithe effervescence. The reader hears echoes of Merton: “The problem today is that there are no deserts, only dude ranches.” It is best, then, to read “Jerusalem and the Desert” and “The True Cross” in light of each other—perhaps one is a photograph (see the postcard of Jerusalem in winter, page 48), and one a kind of photonegative—for the connections between them are numerous and profound.
Or maybe the better word is conversation, the conversation between them. Remember the woman in Hyde Park? She appears to us later in different form, this time as a Dominican nun in a brown wool suit. After Mass, she taps Rodriguez on the shoulder. “She knew my name…. She said: ‘I am a Dominican nun; some days I cannot remember why.’” Thus Darling also becomes an absorbing conversation about the meaning of women, and of homosexuals such as Rodriguez, to the future of the church.
“The Church—I say the Church but I mean the male church—is rather shy in the presence of women,” observes Rodriguez in the book’s title essay. Yet the church depends on women, too, “their faith and their birthrates…. Somewhere in its canny old mind, the Church knows this.” The gay man, on the other hand, “sees himself as expendable in the eyes of the Church hierarchy because that is how he imagines the Church hierarchy sees him.”
The essay is an equation of sorts, an equation in which Rodriguez sees his destiny in the church as linked—another kinship—to women such as the Dominican nun, and to the suffragettes of the nineteenth century, and the feminists of more recent generations. Women like the one he calls “Darling.” Women who have defined themselves outside of received patriarchal formulas and thus encouraged Rodriguez to do the same. Women who know in their own canny minds that what the church deems “the natural law” has been revised before. Women perhaps with an instinct to protect: “I am thinking of David Grossman, the Israeli novelist, who, in a profile in The New Yorker, said: ‘If God came to Sarah and told her, Give me your son, your only one, your beloved, Isaac, she will tell him, Give me a break, not to say Fuck off.’”
By linking himself to feminism, it should be noted, Rodriguez has interesting company, namely Muslim women. Last summer, the scholarly journal The Muslim World published a special edition examining “Muslim Women and the Challenge of Authority,” while a recent issue of The Nation contains an exposé on “The Rise of the Islamic Feminists,” detailing the growing Musawah movement and the ways Muslim women have begun agitating for gender equality from within their own faith tradition. Whether such a movement impacts the status of gays and lesbians in Muslim society remains to be seen, though after reading Rodriguez, one can imagine a symbiosis. Either way, at a time when sexual politics are a global obsession, “Darling” is an essay to contemplate. For while Rodriguez has written about the intersection of sexuality and faith before—“Late Victorians” (Days of Obligation), “Peter’s Avocado” (Brown)—he has never narrated this intersection with such force.
For long-time readers of his work, though, a curiosity lingers. “I will stay in the Church as long as you do,” Rodriguez tells the Dominican nun, before asking himself, in the form of a catechism, “Q: Why do I stay…?”
The question is significant in that it recalls another fraught relationship with another compromised institution. Hunger of Memory (1982) culminates in Rodriguez leaving academia in protest over the “contradictions of affirmative action.” (He was protesting his advantage, not his disadvantage.) Decades hence, the reader wonders, are there not just as many contradictions here? Contradictions equally intrinsic? From Darling: “I get older, but I do not grow wiser.” Why discard one allegiance, then, and cling to the other?
Rodriguez doesn’t ponder the tension between these two versions of himself, not in any direct way. “A: I stay in the Church because the Church is more than its ignorance; the Church gives me more than it denies me. I stay in the Church because it is mine.” What he does, patiently, artfully, is make an honest confession, describing the contours of his faith without apology.
Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is not one to apologize either. His cast of mind is instead like his mother’s, a self-described negress, who “was resolute in making the world confront its definition of her.” First in The Women (1996), and now in his fascinating essay collection White Girls, Als—a black man, a gay man, a White Girl (more on this below)—means to confront and to subvert cultural notions of race, gender, sexuality, of what makes for good art, of what constitutes love. Als means to confront himself, too, to delineate his soul’s own “way of being.” Thus with striking transparency, he sifts through the events and relationships that have led to his self-abnegation, with the aim of wresting from this debris a self that truly belongs to him, that is more than a mask of others’ construction.
Both of his books open with this theme, the self subsumed and still sought after, what Als calls in The Women his desire to make “a gift of myself to myself.” This narrative strategy makes the author’s own story like an oil sheen on the water, coloring the many stories that follow, all that swirls and swims beneath. Indeed, while the other subjects in White Girls are ostensible subjects—Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Eminem, Louise Brooks, Richard Pryor—they are also variations on a kind of tangled sensibility. “There are many stories like this one,” Als remarks in the book’s closing paragraph, “but only one too.” The story of White Girls everywhere.
This is genre-bending work, combining fiction and nonfiction, cultural criticism and meditation and memoir. There is a wildness to Als—at times, White Girls is a feral book, its wandering unrestrained, its rage and profanity uncensored. Some readers will be turned off. But there is a first-rate artistry here, also, and a first-rate intelligence, as Als crafts prose that is often head-shakingly inventive, propulsive, and wise.
That Als makes little effort to strictly define what a White Girl is is part of his shrewdness. A less confident writer might worry this question to death. Instead, like Rodriguez, he makes his logic associative; the idea “has something to do,” he explains elsewhere, “with identification with power and marginalization…. The term is complicated.” Thus the White Girl, as a concept, becomes like the muse in Wallace Stevens’s “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch.” The Stevens poem taught Als that, “the muse is as open to suggestion as the artist who learns from the muse’s receptivity, her no-big-deal willingness to be available to whatever you, the artist, might feel.” In these essays, the White Girl is more a muse like that and less a rigid archetype, a choice that leaves room for Als’s critical projections, as it also leaves room for his audience to see their own white-girlness in the mix of people he describes.
Among the first White Girls Als profiles is a so-and-so reclining on her couch. “Truman Capote became a woman in 1947, the year this photograph was taken,” he writes. The photo is from the dust jacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms, the famous image of Capote supine on a chaise lounge, gazing seductively at the camera. “It is an image that is an assertion, a point, asserting this: I am a woman.” As a woman author, Als argues, Capote “sought to limit or cock block other women writers” in an attempt to annex femininity for himself. So at a time when women “buttoned themselves up on dust jackets in some Hemingway-influenced image of a male American author,” Capote became not only a woman, but “an American woman of style—the vest as opposed to the jacket, his translucent, flat fingernails…his eyebrows plucked or raised in mild astonishment.”
And here is one reward of a collection diverse and tangled as this, for that phrase “an American woman of style” prompts the reader to see Capote, the White Girl, as sharing a kinship with another Als subject, André Leon Talley, once the fashion editor of Vogue, a man consumed, like Capote, with appearances, who “pursues that which the public will perceive, without naming it, as allure.” And when considering Talley, his “romantic yearnings,” the way he is given to the “unrequited ‘crush’ but is immune to involvement,” we see that Talley’s is also a story about the actress Louise Brooks, “whom no man will ever possess.” She was used to being photographed like one of Talley’s models, “photographed and filmed for as long as I can remember,” and now Als has written her, has imagined her voice, as she looks at those photos, saying, “There is my hair, as black as all that, and the crest of my eyebrows, as black as all that, too…. There is my face and there are my eyes,” and if you think about it, are you reminded of Capote’s eyes and face and plucked or raised eyebrows? You may think of him, or you may think of someone else, when Brooks adds, “In my face you did not see death at work but death at play,” for her comment recalls Als seeing death in other faces: in the postmortem photos of lynching victims, “such as the picture of the beautiful black guy with the incredibly relaxed shoulders,” and earlier in the face of his beloved deceased K—who could be angry, like Eminem or Richard Pryor, and who had the “longest neck,” just like the man Als obsesses over, whom he suggestively names SL, Sir or Lady, because he “looked as authoritative as someone you might call Sir, and as beautiful and poised as someone you might call Lady.” Someone you might call, yes, an American woman of style.
White Girls can elicit an almost manic delight in its interconnections. Of course Als is thinking about more than similarity and difference. He is thinking about the ways culture is inflected in the mind and body, informing the “I” and “we” carried into the world. Or how culture, in the words of the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, “is not merely juxtaposed to life nor superimposed upon it, but in one way serves as a substitute for life, and in the other, uses and transforms it.” Als borrows the title of Lévi-Strauss’s memoir, Tristes Tropiques, for the first essay in White Girls, and indeed the influence of Lévi-Strauss—the great cultural theorist and progenitor of modern kinship studies—is detected here.
As a critic, Als is penetrating, though he occasionally leans on too-familiar information. The O’Connor piece, for instance, adds insight to her conceptions of southern whiteness vis-à-vis southern blackness, but it recounts stock details of her personal life as if obligated to cover them. Even so, Als commands his range of subjects well, as he commands the arsenal that is his voice. And at times he does appear to shake off the mask of others’ construction, the mask of pretense, what he calls the “mask of piety,” the mask he accuses other writers of hiding behind. “When this mask cracks—underneath it, that is writing. How rarely does that happen?”
Too rarely. We who want to write more bravely, to crack the mask of our own piety so we might say something that means something, to ourselves or to others, can learn from Als. White Girls reminds us that the struggle to make a gift of oneself to oneself is worth the bravery required.
“To say this is difficult is understatement,” writes Jesmyn Ward, summoning her own bravery. “[T]elling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Men We Reaped, Ward’s first work of nonfiction, interweaves the history of DeLisle, Mississippi, Ward’s hometown, with her own family history, and with the deaths, between 2000 and 2004, of five young black men from DeLisle whom Ward knew personally. Among the casualties were Ward’s younger cousin and her nineteen-year-old younger brother, Joshua.
Haunted by loss, Ward constructs a memoir that is, among other things, a cycle of ghost stories—“my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that”—with chapter headings that read like tombstones: “Roger Eric Daniels III / Born: March 5, 1981 / Died: June 3, 2004.” The stories here are dramatic ones: a drug overdose, a murder, a suicide, night drives that come to horrific ends. Ward’s imagined descriptions of the moments before each man’s passing are as beautiful as they are disturbing, passages that showcase her lyrical instincts. But this book goes beyond memorializing, as Ward argues that the lives of the deceased were drawn on a common, tragic pattern. “We inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred,” she explains, “and tragedy multiplies.” The “we” are those who grow up black and poor and seemingly without prospects in the American South. The multiplying tragedies, Ward insists, are not only the instances of lives cut short, but of all those forced into a state of savage self-reliance:
My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system…. We did not trust our fathers to raise us, to provide for us. Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.
Men We Reaped opens chronologically, moving from DeLisle’s violent past toward the present. But in the next chapter Ward leaps into the future, telling the story of Roger, the last of her five men to die, first. History thus begins to collapse in on itself from both directions, Ward marching forward through her childhood and early adulthood and backward simultaneously through the litany of men she’s lost—Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald—until she reaches the narrative’s beating heart, the death of her brother in a car wreck in the fall of 2000, “where the past and the future meet.”
Ward’s distress over Josh’s passing doesn’t dissipate so much as knit itself year by year into fresh configurations: “Every day, this is.” That the reader is able to enter into her grief is one of Ward’s tremendous achievements. This is less the case with her four other portraits, which are dark enough to invite the reader’s sadness, but not always developed enough to earn it. Here, though, with Josh, Ward has the advantage of sibling intimacy, and of constructing a character over many chapters, as she traces her family’s difficulties, their many displacements, their money troubles, her parents’ disintegrating marriage. What befalls one often befalls the other, as when Ward’s mom gathers her four children in the living room to announce that their father has left, after which Ward cries in a back bedroom, in Joshua’s bed, and a six-year-old Josh takes to the yard, wailing and running circles around the house until he collapses and falls asleep, his forehead in the dirt.
All that joins them makes all that tears them apart the more keenly felt. And they are parted, slowly, by cultural norms that differ for women and men, by mismatched educational opportunities—like Rodriguez, Ward was a scholarship kid, then a student at Stanford—and thus by disparate beliefs in what the future might offer them. In high school, Ward retreats into books, while Josh moves to Gulfport to live with their father, selling crack to pay for basic necessities. Later, Ward returns from college to find her brother trading one service industry job for another, as the two of them make a ritual of driving together into the surrounding environs to recover their closeness. By now Ward thinks of herself as the younger sibling, and one recalls Skeetah and his little sister, Esch, in Ward’s 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, sprinting through the woods behind their house in Bois Sauvage, Skeetah pulling Esch forward, smiling to show the razor tucked between his cheek and gum. After Josh is killed while driving alone at night, his car hit from behind by a drunk driver, Ward tells of their last ride together. And this is where she is at her best, where the past and the future truly meet, as Ward captures the gravity of Josh’s presence, the sting of his absence, and the affliction that is the feeling of having been spared.
Which returns us to the notion of kinship. The word, Als notes, “evokes a narrative.” But what is the story kinship tells?
Eula Biss, in her essay titled “Relations,” writes, “We do not know ourselves, and, worse, we seem only occasionally to know that we do not know ourselves.” Like the algebraic x, we are often that unknown quantity “solved for” using the numbers or letters that surround it. And so we search ourselves out in others’ faces, we of the unknown quantity; we search for a you that is a me, as Hilton Als might say, and what we glimpse in another’s quality of mind, in their countenance, in the texture of their wounds, in the questions that occupy them, may be disturbing or confusing or calmative, may be an accusation or a long-awaited promise. All we know is that we will find someone who implicates us (“Arabie?”) eventually. The story of how we are implicated is the story kinship tells.
It is the story these authors tell, in their own ways, as they write their lives alongside figures tragic, glamorous, or devout. Each of these books opens in first person singular; they each close leaning on the plural. They share a telos in this respect at least, a turning toward the relations that define us. “I take my place in a pew as I would take a seat within a vast ark,” writes Rodriguez. “Going where? We don’t know. All we know is that one Sunday we will not be here.” Sitting with the congregation at Mass, Rodriguez finds a kinship not of like personalities, nor of like opinions. He is bound to those gathered instead by shared need—“We are hungry; we are sinners”—and by a shared reckoning of value: “We all matter. No one can matter unless all matter.” Kinship is more than likeness, the reader remembers; it is interdependence. Kinship is Rodriguez consoling the woman called Darling after her divorce, taking her shopping, then confessing, “I cannot imagine my freedom as a homosexual man without women in veils. Women in red Chanel…. Without women. Without you.”
Kinship is interdependence, and also complicity, as when Hilton Als accuses himself and Malcolm X of betraying their mothers in essentially the same way. “The fact is, my nonwriting couldn’t contain my mother’s presence. The fact is, Malcolm knew his nonwriting couldn’t support Mrs. Little. I am writing the idea of Mrs. Little…in the hope that every fake word, idea, gesture, lie I ever told about my mother and others like her will vanish.”
Our stories find their heft, these writers remind us, at the places where the me and the we intersect. Here the self is decentered so as to make room for another’s experience. Decentered, deconstructed, complicated, but also enriched. Here, too, one finds the courage to see oneself as more than a first person singular, and the courage to say, as Ward does, “Hello. We are here. Listen.”
Read together, then, we could say these books possess a kinship of their own. For they each finally pose the same question. “To whom do we belong,” Als asks, “in this ruined kingdom we all want to belong to, no matter how wrecked, how stultifying?” It is, of course, kinship’s question: To whom do we belong and who belongs to us? We of shared blood or belief, of a shared consciousness or a shared curse—it is a question implicating each of us. A question to answer, then ask again, if we intend to know ourselves at all.