Overall, Hilton Als’s startling book remains difficult to categorize. Even though parts of it deal with the life of its author, The Women functions both as multiple memoir and a platform for social and intellectual criticism by the outspoken and opinionated Als. Written in a deliberately unconventional style, the book’s three chapters focus on Als’s mother and his relationship with her, the doomed life of the black intellectual Dorothy Dean, and the author’s interaction with one of his first literary mentors and lovers, the critic and author Owen Dodson.
Thus, a reader who does not mind Als’s almost mannerist style and his deliberate refusal to write a conventional autobiography will find The Women a stimulating intellectual feast. The book is very wide-ranging and reflects on subjects as varied as Als’s boyhood, possible reasons for homosexual behavior, and the author’s critical evaluation of the African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the early and mid-twentieth century.
Als’s commemorative description of his mother Marie Als’s hard but determined life introduces a person whose strength of will seems unsurmountable. Born on the Caribbean island of Barbados, she emigrated to New York City to be near the father of her next four children. Among them was the young Als, who never established a close relationship with his biological father Cyprian Williams. Instead, he grew up admiring the iconoclastic will of his mother and sought to emulate the lifestyle of his unnamed sister, eleven years his senior.
For Als, this identification with his mother and favorite sister, his desire to live in their worlds, was what made him become an “auntie man.” This is the term men on Barbados use derogatorily to describe what they consider an effeminate homosexual. Als takes up the term with pride and unflinchingly reports his encounter with a black janitor, who sexually abused the ten-year-old boy. Yet Als does not view that encounter in these terms; The Women calls it a seduction of the man by the boy. Here, a reader may differ with Als, but the author’s startling statements and ideas force a critical reflection and confrontation.
Similar to Norman Mailer’s apparently paradoxical self- description as a “White Negro” in his Advertisements for Myself (1959), Als calls himself a “Negress.” Als uses this term repeatedly to indicate his self-avowed identification with his mother and his sisters, to whom he applies the word as well. By using this term, usage of which is discouraged in contemporary standard English because of its negative, derogatory associations, Als deliberately tries to shock the reader and establish a certain sense of radical self- esteem. This follows the custom of some homosexuals who have claimed the originally pejorative term “queer” for themselves and is indicative of how close The Women runs along the cutting edge of cultural upheavals in the late twentieth century. Moreover, “Negress” clearly denotes a female sexual identity, which is obviously different from his own biological makeup. By applying the term to himself, Als persistently reminds his readers that he believes that his gender identity has crossed the physical lines of biology. For Als, a “Negress” is a culturally and personally determined position of the self, and in his book, either sex can use this startling description. For the reader, this idea certainly offers plenty of food for thought.
As so often in The Women, the contemplation of his family life, with its special dynamics, serves Als as a starting point for his literary and cultural criticism. Taking his sister’s resistance to her status as “Negress,” and her and his mother’s command that Als act more masculine, Als compares their difficulty with themselves and his homosexuality to the family of Malcolm X. Taking on Malcolm X, Als declares that Malcolm hated his mother because she lived like what Als calls a “Negress.” For Als, Louise Little was an admirable person who was misunderstood by her famous son, and The Women praises her qualities. To present the reader with his vision of Little’s world, Als tries to imagine what she would have written in her own autobiography, taking his cues from quotes of her son’s famous text. This is certainly of interest to the reader, as are many of Als’s critical asides. Yet the question remains to what extent Als projects himself and his own ideas and viewpoints onto this other, deceased, person who has not left such a written account of her life.
As with Louise...
(The entire section is 1890 words.)