Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee has a deceiving and perhaps ironic title. It is not, as it would suggest, a how-to instruction manual. It is instead a series of essays that link Chee’s life through writing. He uses self-reflection as the method through which he examines how art makes up our everyday lives.
In the first essay, “The Curse,” Chee begins to weave identity and art together. He is an exchange student in Mexico and has a lack of intellectual stimulation, as he doesn’t have to take classes. This is the start of his exploration in art. Like many artists, moments of confinement, solitude, or boredom are what inspire some of his most precise and in-depth art. Chee feels isolated in his mix of identities as a gay, Korean American living in Mexico. As a high schooler, he unintentionally exemplifies how art is inherently blended with identity. Chee decides to play a trick and pretend to be Mexican, and he is able to pass based on his excellent Spanish. He becomes intrigued by the fact that he is able to pass as Mexican in Mexico, a completely foreign country to him; however, in his home state of Maine he is seen as exotic and an outsider. Thus he explores the arbitrariness of race, origin, and the performance of the two. This is the beginning of his argument that art is drag.
Chee goes on to argue that art is essential to allowing humanity to move beyond trauma. We learn that Chee has faced difficult times. He lost his father when he was a teenager, and the trauma of losing him carries with Chee all the way through college. The loss of his father is what inspires him, and at many times deeply saddens him. through his life and career. He attributes the death of his father to his decision to move from a reader to a writer.
His last essay is titled “On Becoming an American Writer.” He posits the question many artists ask themselves, “Why do we write?” He returns to his earlier explorations of race and identity. Because identity is ultimately a performance we all are putting on all the time, we can connect across an infinite number of cultural lines. Chee argues that writing and reading are essential to cross cultural connection. This is one of the few parts of the book where Chee directly provides advice to writers. He encourages writers to continue their art form, as they may never know who will connect with it. It is writing and then reading that allows us to move beyond trauma.
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