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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee is a series of essays about his career as a writer and how that is intimately linked to his identities. It is in the first essay that Chee introduces us to his multiple and complex identities. He is a Korean American who is half white, and he is also a gay man. He is from Maine where he is often made to feel out of place, less than human, and exotic. He is puzzled when he passes for Mexican while living as an exchange student in Mexico. As a young boy, he is introduced to the arbitrariness of race and identity. In his hometown he is seen as foreign, and in a country that is foreign to him he is seen as “ordinary at first glance.” From this jumping point Chee considers how art and identity are woven together. Furthermore, he postulates that identity is a performance.

The second essay considers Chee’s experience as a Tarot card reader. He is engrossed in the act of Tarot card reading because it forces one to look objectively outside of themselves. This is perhaps Chee’s methodology throughout the book. It reads as though he is providing a balance between personal self reflection and objective observations.

In later essays we learn that Chee lost his father due to complications following a car accident. Chee attributes his pursuit of reading and writing to the trauma of losing his father, which inspired him to seek solace in the words of fellow writers. Chee goes on to express his inner struggle following 9/11. He, like so many artists, is completely at a loss following the atrocity. He feels distant and useless when placed up against so much struggle and pain. However, Chee ends his series of essays encouraging fellow writers to keep writing. He references his earlier musings on his childhood and the arbitrariness of identity. He urges writers to keep writing because you never know who may connect to it. He believes that writing is a central method through which cross cultural barriers can be overcome.

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1852

Author: Alexander Chee (b. ca. 1967)

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (New York). 288 pp.

Type of work: Essays

Award-winning novelist Alexander Chee’s first collection of essays reflects on his life, his relationships with family, friends, and lovers, and the path that he took to becoming a writer.

For a writer, a person who has devoted his or her life to literature, it is difficult to look back at that life and not see it in terms of the journey undertaken to arrive at that vocation. This is because for a writer, life and literature are so completely intertwined as to appear inseparable. Not only does one’s life consist of a path taken toward writerly success, but the author often takes the materials of his or her life and recasts them into fiction, altering the literal truth to get at greater symbolic truths.

Such is the case for Alexander Chee, the American novelist who published his first novel, Edinburgh, to much critical acclaim and several awards in 2001, but did not complete his next book until a decade and a half later. When The Queen of the Night finally appeared in 2016, it was widely lauded too, and the time seemed right for Chee to follow up with a collection of essays, exploring the hugely difficult and highly unpredictable process of writing and literary success.Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Because for Chee, the private life and the writing life are so intimately entwined, the book begins with an essay detailing the foreign exchange program he was in when he was fifteen, an essay that only has a tangential relationship to his later career. In that essay, “The Curse,” the teenaged Alexander spends a summer in Mexico with a well-to-do family. Because of the nature of the program, he has little to do except learn the language, which he does readily, and hang out with his handsome seventeen-year-old host brother, Miguel, and his friends. Two of the tensions animating Chee’s young life come to the fore in these interactions: his status as a mixed-race American, with a Korean father and white mother, and his budding homosexuality. When the boys hang out, a certain sensual, homoerotic languor hangs over the proceedings, which the young Alexander picks up on, although nothing ever comes of it. Meanwhile, because of Alexander’s ambiguous appearance and fluency in Spanish, Miguel and his friend Javier bet on Alexander’s ability to “pass” for Mexican, telling some friends who do not know him that he is from their country. The friends believe the ruse, and Alexander is left with an odd sense of his own racial identity. These anxieties over race and sexuality are threads throughout the book, continual concerns of both Chee himself and the books he would come to write, and are established powerfully in the book’s first essay.

If the book’s title, which is also the title of one of the essays, leads the reader to expect a how-to writing manual, then those expectations are largely thwarted. (Although Chee does provide great, useful insight into the writing process.) But the book itself stands as something of an autobiographical work in its own right—if not a novel, obviously, then something like a memoir in essays. The pieces are arranged roughly in the chronology of Chee’s life, proceeding from childhood, to his early education as a writer, to his efforts to write his first novel, and ending with him firmly established as a successful writer with a regular teaching job. Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It is a long path, though, and Chee takes us through each step with a retrospective understanding that things were never going to be as easy as he thought they would be. In an early essay, “The Writing Life,” Chee discusses his time studying with the legendary writer Annie Dillard (who herself published a book with the same title as the essay) while an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. Upending conventional expectations about the writing process, Dillard taught Chee and his classmates some hard truths about writing, but also provided plenty of affirmation. “You are the only one of you,” she tells the class. “Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters.” Perhaps the most important bit of insight she provides into the writing life is in her conception of writing as “the job,” as she puts it. It is a long, arduous process of putting words down on a page day after day and those who succeed are not necessarily those with enormous talent, but those who continue to do the hard work without giving up. This is a lesson that Chee learns well and keeps in mind throughout the book.

“The Writing Life” is clearly well-written and engaging, but it will probably be of most interest to other writers. Many of the other essays, while tying in thematically with his portrait of his literary career, are less explicitly writerly and more of general interest. The essay “Girl,” for example, which was selected for The Best American Essays of 2016, deals with identity in a way that mirrors the concerns of Chee’s writing but is less explicitly about the literary enterprise. In this essay, which deals with the question of identity, Chee begins by recalling Halloween night of 1990 when he dressed as a woman. When his boyfriend first sees him in drag that night, he is entranced and kisses him. Chee realizes that he is playing out a classic scene where the “beautiful girl receives her man’s adoration”—a scene he never thought he would get to act out.

All at once, the tensions of Chee’s life, those he first outlined in “The Curse,” are erased. “In this moment, the confusion of my whole life has receded. No one will ask me if I am white or Asian. No one will ask me if I am a man or a woman. No one will ask me why I love men.” This newfound sense of freedom is one that proves intoxicating to him, but it is one that he knows cannot last. He will not dress as a woman every day, and it will not always be Halloween in the gay-friendly Castro district of San Francisco. Ultimately, he must learn to live as himself and internally reconcile his conflicting feelings. Nonetheless, this moment allows him to move forward and find out who he really is. “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask,” he concludes in a moment of wisdom.

Having lived in San Francisco and New York in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the AIDS crisis was a big part of Chee’s life, with many in his community affected. Several of the earlier essays in the book deal with that time in his life, specifically focusing on Chee’s activism and the deaths of friends, the latter most notably in a moving tribute to a deceased mentor and lover entitled “After Peter.” The most powerful moment of any of these essays, though, occurs at the end of a short piece entitled “1989.” The piece details young Alexander’s participation in a protest in San Francisco against government inaction on AIDS and ends in a brutal police crackdown. After his friend is leveled by a police baton, a news crew comes to interview him and he describes what he has seen. Chee then ends the essays with a startling moment of realization that registers as a real coming-of-age moment: “After [the news crew] leave, I think about how, up to now, I have thought that I lived in a different country from this. But this is the country I live in, I tell myself, feeling the metal against my fingers. This is the country I live in.”

As the book proceeds, Chee’s attention does turn more to the writing life, because as he gets older and more established, it becomes the professional milieu in which he finds himself. One of the book’s centerpiece essays, “The Autobiography of My Novel,” which tells the story of how he came to write and publish Edinburgh, brings all the strands of the book skillfully together. Because it was such a long journey—he begins work on the book in 1994—the essay covers much of the same time frame as the rest of the book, switching focus while touching on many of the same events and concerns. The essay also offers the most insight into the novel writing process of any piece, not just in terms of its exhaustive detailing of the steps needed to do it, but in terms of larger realizations. To write the novel, Chee has to come to an understanding about autobiographical fiction and he finally does. “The story of your life, described, will not describe how you came to think about your life or yourself, nor describe any of what you learned,” he writes. “This is what fiction can do.” In other words, a person cannot simply write down what happened and expect it to be great literature. Instead, the writer must refract that experience get at larger truths and to spin a narrative that reads compellingly for the reader.

Coming up with the proper way of telling his story is especially fraught for Chee because Edinburgh deals with child sexual abuse and Chee himself experienced abuse as a boy. For years, he was unable to face the memory of what happened and only by writing about it, first as fiction, was he able to eventually face it. But the process of doing so, and the relationship between what happened to him and the way he wrote about it was incredibly tangled. In a moving essay entitled “The Guardians,” Chee details this complicated relationship and finally faces his abuse head-on for the first time in writing. It is a powerful gesture for Chee and one that illustrates the different roles of fiction and nonfiction. In adapting this experience for his novel, Chee was able to address the abuse while keeping his distance. Here, in the essay, he has nowhere to hide and must speak about what happened to him in his own highly recognizable voice.

Review Sources

  • Kim, Crystal Hana. “The Trailblazing Writing Life of Alexander Chee.” Review of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. The Washington Post, 20 Apr. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-trailblazing-writing-life-of-an-openly-gay-korean-american-writer/2018/04/20/401a80f0-434d-11e8-bba2-0976a82b05a2_story.html. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
  • McCormack, J. W. “Writing as Drag: Alexander Chee’s Essays Consider the Novelist's Craft.” Review of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. The New York Times, 27 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/books/review/alexander-chee-how-to-write-an-autobiographical-novel.html. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
  • McIntosh, Fergus. “How Fiction Helped Alexander Chee Face Reality.” Review of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. The New Yorker, 9 May 2018, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/how-fiction-helped-alexander-chee-face-reality. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
  • Stockton, William. Review of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. Lambda Literary, 8 Apr. 2018, www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/04/08/how-to-write-an-autobiographical-novel. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.
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