How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, a new essay collection by Alexander Chee, is a book that will leave you breathless, as much for its vulnerability as for its exquisite sentences.
Chee is no stranger to the kind of writing that leaves you aching. He’s the author of 2001’s Edinburgh and 2016’s Queen of the Night, and he tends to write the kind of rich, sprawling books that take years and years to put together — hence the decade-and-a-half-long gap between his two novels. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel works on a smaller scale, but it’s no less ambitious or moving.
Its essays cover Chee’s life: his time as a 15-year-old foreign exchange student in Mexico (where “when people looked at me, they saw me, and they didn’t stare at me as if at an object”), his father’s death, his time in college and grad school, his time as a cater waiter working for the Buckleys, his time as a published novelist, and up through the 2016 election (“the election that for now we all speak of only as ‘the election,’ as if there will never be any other”). Much of the book delves into Chee’s struggles as a gay writer of color, but the heart of it comes toward the end, in a string of three essays built around the writing of Edinburgh.
The original plan, Chee writes, was for Edinburgh to be his easy book. He was desperate for cash after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and throwing together an easy, formulaic book seemed like the way forward. “I’m just going to write a shitty autobiographical first novel just like everyone else,” he decided, “and sell it for thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Instead, he spent five years writing a novel about his own trauma, layered with images borrowed from Japanese mythology and plot structure borrowed from operas. “I set about making up someone like me,” Chee writes, “but not like me.”
Edinburgh is about a boy soprano who is sexually abused by his choir director. And writing it, Chee concludes, “let me practice saying what I remembered out loud until the day I could remember all of it.” It created a space in which Chee could wrestle plainly with what happened to him.
But there’s a certain ambivalence in the catharsis Chee finds in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. In the title essay, Chee warns, “Write fiction about your life and pay with your life, at least three times.” Writing Edinburgh meant destroying the version of himself that he presented to the world, to his closest friends and family, and creating a new self, one he’s not entirely sure is any more true than the last one.
And Chee is willing to immerse himself in this ambivalence, to explore fully how writing his autobiographical novel both wounded him and healed him. And what he concludes is that the project of writing holds immense value. “All my life I’ve been told this isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that it could never matter,” Chee says. “And yet I think it does.”