Spotlight: White Girls by Hilton Als

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Whenever I read excellently penned memoirs, I entertain the idea that my own life could be written in a similarly hypnotic vein. Then I remember, being more mouse than girl, that I shy away from trend-setters and starlets; on the whole I have avoided more often than collided with life. But then Hilton Als, in his essay, Tristes Tropiques, describes himself as “half living life so I can get down to really living it by writing it”, and I think aha! just watch me!

My raison d’être is to be where no one notices me like in a bookstore on a saturday night just before closing. Which is where I was when I saw White Girls with its capitalized title, defiant and oddly familiar. Not being able to pinpoint the arc of his story – messy, contradictory, and addled with cultural references – I was drawn to it.

From Tristes Tropiques, “what is grace but the desire to forget one’s body, or share it with others?” Als describes a need, a craving for love which transcends ownership, or even, at times, touch; our search for a “we” or a “I” that acts like a mirror, reflecting back our double, or twin.

He describes a white girl (one of many in the book) he calls Mrs. Vreeland because “she was stylish, and everything she wore was unfussy and the opposite of fashion and what did the first Mrs. Vreeland say about style? ‘It helps you get down the stairs’.”

These days, I yearn for the time to write the essays, poems, plays whose bits rattle about in my brain. When I was young and had the time and money I worked grunt jobs instead of pursuing my craft; I felt that I had no right to write, I had to live first.

Now, I try to imagine what this new ideal would look like. If I wrote all day, would I dress up my limbs and paint my face to go out to the bars and cafes at night?

Because writing often flits between subjective and objective desire. We are so much in our own heads, we have to feel the world’s eyes on us in return, to feel desirable, and to make the isolation of the work worthwhile. When Hilton Al’s muse says, “what readers crave most, what fills them up, is the story of love, and how it ends,” she speaks for all of us who are watching our lives and loves take root and unravel, while simultaneously putting it all down on paper.

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