hilton als has some issues with the word 'woke'
In White Girls, the Pulitzer prize-winning author explored race, sexuality, André Leon Talley and Eminem. He discusses its impact -- and potential sequel -- with Paul Flynn.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The New Fashion Rebels Issue, no. 352, Summer 2018.
Prior to the release of Hilton Als’s astonishing book White Girls, he gave it to his friend Jean Godfrey-June. “She’s a beauty editor,” he clarifies. “I’ll never forget her response. She said, ‘I’m sitting here with your beautiful book.’ It really gave me the courage to go on.” It is odd now to think of any nerves or reticence on the author’s behalf towards a book as audacious as White Girls. But Hilton Als is not quite the man he appears to be on page. There are few more fearless, thought-provoking writers at work today. In person, he is quite the gentle soul.
White Girls was first published in 2013. It is a collection of essays framed at the beginning and end by two passages of stark personal biography. In the first five years of its published life it has assumed the mantle of a modern classic, predating, upending and often taking a literary pick-axe to unwieldy hot-button topics connected to the author -- race, gender, sexuality. When reading one excerpt that he helped edit, the author Dave Eggers told Hilton that he got so immersed in the work he “wanted to wallpaper [his] room in it”.
During White Girls’ lifespan, Hilton -- a storied journalist of 30 years who defied his everyman Brooklyn background to ascend to the top of his profession -- has picked up a Pulitzer for his day job as The New Yorker’s theatre critic. That is his trophy. White Girls is his legacy. He has further come to defy an early observation in the book that “the public only has space for the obvious”. Hilton Als is not an obvious author, yet now he finds himself in the strange place of becoming a famous one. “I never wanted to be a famous writer,” he says. “Only a good writer.” On both counts, he’s worked out alright.
“I was wrestling with feeling very outside of things, outside of the black and white worlds. I wanted to be able to speak in a way that wasn’t fiction, wasn’t non-fiction, it was just a voice, just writing.”
Sandwiched between the selective bookends of autobiography in White Girls is a crafty and unusual examination of the self, told through the examination of others; some famous, some not, the occasional one even imagined. If it feels like Hilton has at times come to crush his heroes, like James Baldwin, that is only because he works on the silent maxim that you can only honestly criticise that and those you love. White Girls is a book that gleefully defies stylistic convention, swerving between non-fiction, fiction and polemic. At its heart is a discernible, non-chronological diary. Chapters unveil their motives at unusual right angles. Each page in White Girls presents a new, beautiful surprise.
I’ve read the book twice now and still have no idea what it is, just how it made me feel. “That’s the accurate response,” he says. “I think to make some sort of definitive statement about it is really to miss what the book is. It’s a series of experiences as opposed to something you can sum up.” While growing stealthily accustomed to talking about his dazzling prose self-portrait, Hilton has learned something of its retrospective purpose. “What we can say about the book is that it is the quest for people who have been forgotten or marginalised.”
One memorably short chapter, named in honour of the vaudeville actor Buddy Ebsen, begins each of its paragraphs bar the last two with a hook-line as hummable as any chorus: “It’s the queers who made me.” There’s certainly a key in there to its substance.
Hilton’s subjects are as eclectic as his style. Ebsen is joined by Michael Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Pryor’s sister, unguessable others. His essay on US Vogue’s André Leon Talley has caused some contention. “I really love him,” he says, not that there is much doubting that in the chapter. “I guess what we’re always writing about is some version of ourselves. Even if they were famous, there was something about all of them that spoke to my own experience, whether it was [Truman] Capote wanting to be a girl, Eminem’s mother identifying with him to the point that he thought he was sick. And so that’s what this book is. It’s a mosaic and it’s aspects of myself. So, at one point there’s a nose, there’s an ear, a chin.” By the end, there is a man, complex and rich, saturated in profound thought.
There are a lot of firsts in White Girls. The last chapter, a brief exposition of two key events from Hilton’s childhood was, he says, “the first piece of real writing I did.” It was written when he was 30, 28 years ago, while working at The Village Voice. “I was wrestling with feeling very outside of things, outside of the black and white worlds. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to speak in a way that wasn’t fiction, wasn’t non-fiction, it was just a voice, just writing.” The André Leon Talley chapter was the piece that got him hired by The New Yorker’s then editor Tina Brown when he was 37. The lengthy first chapter was the last piece he wrote for it.
That the writing in White Girls, old and new and across a panoply of genres, works so seamlessly together is testament to the clarity of thought underpinning Hilton’s written tone. “I think the intention was to write something beautiful and useful,” he says. “Those were really the things that I was thinking about.”
In White Girls Hilton Als seems to be answering a question that the world isn’t quite yet ready to ask itself. Where do we go after woke? When societal advancement moves beyond trend into something more substantive and intellectual. He is not personally a fan of the word. “Oh god, I just wish that people would stop using it,” he says. “The wrong people are using it. I heard this story about a Hollywood person who felt that they were ‘woke’ now.” He pulls a displeased face. “Oh. Stop it. Don’t say that. Just say ‘enlightened’ or ‘illuminated’. Please don’t do that. It’s almost like the cultural equivalent of a Kardashian thinking they’re Beyoncé. Just don’t do that. Yes, you should be awake. Hopefully, you’re awake reading this.”
Fans of White Girls will be pleased to know that a follow-up is imminent. “I’m working on it,” he says, in anticipation of a late 2019 publishing date. “When you come from a magazine culture, one of the things we love about magazines conceptually is that they disappear, right? To get your head into making books is a different story.”
Learning to appreciate the value of his own work has taken Hilton Als a moment. It will come. “I don’t feel ownership of the project, in a weird kind of way. I’m so used to the magazine, it being its own thing then going away, so books... I’m still learning to make the leap into owning my own stuff. It feels slightly out of body. But I’m getting there.”
White Girls by Hilton Als is published by Penguin Books.
Photography Ekua King