Interview: Hilton Als on “White Girls”

Author Hilton Als tells us about his new book “White Girls”

December 24, 2013

Hilton Als' new book of essays White Girls is about white girls but not always caucasian females—most of the time he's just thinking of the term as a cultural code word that signifies, at various times, bitchiness, sweetness, goodness, badness, strength, weakness, sexiness, prudishness, visibility, invisibility. His subjects are varied: Richard Pryor, Flannery O'Connor, André Leon Talley, Michael Jackson, Malcolm X's mother, Als himself. The essay on Capote is about how a famous early press photo transformed him into a sexualized, feminine entity (“Truman Capote became a woman in 1947,” he writes ); Als' work on Eminem focuses on his infamously complicated relationship with his mother and the mother of his daughter. But the most interesting take of all might be the harrowing opening piece "Tristes Tropiques" that's an autobiographical take on his decades-long platonic relationship with a heterosexual man. Als told us a little bit about how the book, unlike any other in the world, came together. Purchase it here.

You're a theater critic at The New Yorker. Have you always loved theater? I used to say I was going to be an actor. I went to the high school of performing arts.

It’s interesting to hear that, because there’s something really performative about your writing. It’s dramatic, and you can almost hear you pronouncing each line. One of the things that I was always interested in was the sound of the voice and language as a living thing. I feel that language, I was very blessed in knowing early on in my life people who worked in theatre. And so I’ve always been attracted to the sound of language and language as a living thing. It’s just a very living thing to me. And all the characters in the book are real talkers.

Now that I think about it, all the characters in the book—Eminem, Truman Capote, Andre Leon Talley, Diana Vreeland, Richard Pryor—have this really distinct vocal style. Yes, they are all storytellers.

The other thing that unites all the characters in the book is the theme of the “white girl” that you place around them—what do you mean when you say “white girl”? I was thinking about the kind of idea that black people would never claim for themselves. You know, we’ve had Black Boy, by Richard Wright, we’ve had the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, we've had Tar Baby by Toni Morrison. So we never turned the title back on anyone. And in the beginning of the book, there’s some quotes from Shulamith Firestone about the white female identification with the black man. And I said well, what if we had a book that was about a black man’s identification with a white woman? A woman who is marginal but still has some visibility. What if we inverted black maleness? Would we see white femaleness, or would we see something else? So it was a convenient title to talk about visibility and marginalization at the same time. Now if I had written a book called White Dudes or whatever, it wouldn’t really have the same resonance, because it is a world of white dudes.

But what exactly is a white girl, other than just a female with white skin? Someone who is visible and marginalized at the same time.

But it’s also not a fixed thing, as in a female with Caucasian skin—the white girl is also an idea. The white girl is relational—it’s about power, the power of one group compared to another? Exactly. I think relational is a very good word.

Were you nervous about writing a book called White Girls? No. No, I’m not self-conscious in that way.

I was reading it on the subway and people were giving me weird looks. But you’re doing this on a public scale. Do people send you hate mail ever? Do white girls ever come up to you and say, "How dare you talk about white girls in this way?" No.

Never happened? No, it hasn’t happened yet, they mostly want to understand, which I really appreciate.

Are there lessons to be learned from it? Yes. My favorite thing would be if people thought that they could really sort of grow from the experience—if it expanded them in some way. Don’t you think? I think there’s a lot of evil in the world, but I think that we just have to really open our eyes, and specifically our hearts too, to other types of experiences. I think that empathy gets too short shrift in the contemporary world, and if we empathize, if we imagine how other people feel, the world becomes less limited.

You write about Eminem—what is his relationship with the idea of the “white girl”? One of the things that is so profound about him as an artist is really his kind of very strange identification with his mother and his wife, Kim. I really wanted to sort of talk about the feminine in Eminem, that part of what makes him such an angry person is love for the women that he’s always beating up or talking about in his stories. It’s a way for him to get out verbal aggression without being aggressive. I think that he grew up in a black way, which is to say with a single mother. And in his blackness, sociologically, he was able to access what black music might mean to black people who grew up in a way that was not dissimilar from him. And so I wanted to talk about him not head on, critically, as a misogynist, but to talk about the background that would explain his continual interest going back to women and women’s lives.

So white girls become a stand-in for everything that pisses him off. They’re a stand-in for himself. I think he’s really sort of talking about the ways in which he identified with a certain class, race and gender.

As in when he feels powerless, that sort of makes him feel like a white girl? Definitely, oh my god, yes. And how he’s identifying with and struggling against his mother.

You’re courageous about generalities. You say that Eminem "grew up in a black way." What do you mean by that? Eminem’s identity is never going to be one thing. The book is about shape-shifting, right? In the 21st-century, we should be allowed to be whoever the hell we want to be. And the only limits that we’re playing on in this new generation of self is the old prejudices of the past. And I refuse to be limited by that.

Do you yourself sometimes identify partly as a white girl? I think that the emotional identification that I have with particular white girls is a true identification. I’m not a white girl, but there’s an emotional identification with some of the white girl characters in the book. And then at the same time, I’m removed because I’m a black man. I think that the removal allowed me to write what I wrote and to move forward.

There are also moments in this book where you are reading people to filth, and I’m curious about the idea of the read to you—calling people out, being rough with them. I don’t feel that I’m reading so much, but I feel you’re right, that I can be sometimes impatient [laughs]. I can be impatient with people who are telling other people how to be. I think my greatest irritation is with people who assume they know better than I do, or you do, about who you are or who you want to be. That’s when I get nasty [laughs]. Like Janet Jackson.

Your piece on André Leon Talley called “The Only One” about being one of the few black professionals in a fashion industry filled with white girls is a bit rough, no? No, I love him. This is what is so weird about that piece. I feel like if I’m condemning or criticizing anything, it’s the world that he was living in at that time. I think it was more about that than it was about, you know, André, who was in a weird way kind of innocent. I really thought that that piece was almost like Candide in a weird way, where this person is kind of innocent in a world of pernicious, not-so-great people. And you know, that’s just how I felt.

There's an actually white girl in that piece, Loulou De La Falaise, and she calls him the n-word at the end of the piece. Does that make the white girl in that piece a villan? Yes. I think André is innocent in it. I think that people that were around him were corrupt.

One of the things that I really respond to in your writing is that you give value to a diversity of relationship experiences. Your essay about your relationship with a straight man, who you call SL in the book, isn’t about someone that you were married to, it wasn’t even about someone you had a sexual relationship with, but that relationship is as important in your life as anything more official. I think of a lot of amazing things that people can do for you. He lived a lot of my history—you can’t really jettison people like that. And we live in such a Grindr world that immediate gratification is, Send me some of your body part and I’ll see if I like you. What we’re missing is that idea of empathy, and I just wish that we had an idea of being with someone. I wouldn’t say he was the relationship of my life, but he was and is a very significant person in my life. And I’m having awful difficulty in the real world finding other people like that because people just don’t relate on that level any more. They want to know what it all is before they open the package.

Did you tell him that you were writing about him? Oh I did, and he read everything. People have a copyright on their own lives. I sent him parts of it, and then the whole thing, and he said it’s like a train, you can’t stop it, you have to keep going. He’s an artist too, so he knows what it is to make art. I wasn’t so excited for him to read it, I was scared, but I just felt it was time in our friendship to talk about these things. And because the friendship has been so long and complex and great, it just wasn’t a problem.

I want to ask you about some of the white girls you found interesting in 2013. Can you explain to me, why do I dislike the woman in Arcade Fire so much, Regine whats-her-name. I think because she’s smug. She projects a kind of smugness that I hate. And I think that I’m critical of white girls where she assumes that because she’s related to power, which is to say the bandleader, she is powerful too. That’s one person that gets on my nerves in 2013. (Laughs) And I want to say her, Girl, do not rely on that man to carry you through life, because men retain the option of leaving.

Why do you think you’re so interested in white girls in general? They’re a good visual [laughs].

What about Miley Cyrus? You know what, I feel more upset by Kanye West than I do Miley Cyrus. At least there is joy in Miley Cyrus. Kanye's an asshole.

You think he’s an asshole? I do, and I think his music is boring, and I think that he’s the great appropriator of black style, not Miley. She is just enjoying it. But Kanye is the great appropriator of black rap attitude and style. He’s just a punk.

You think he’s a phony? Yeah. He just has nothing to do with quote-unquote "authentic" blackness. My granny was harder than Kanye West. What a dick. And at least Miley is having fun with it.

What about Kim Kardashian? Oh my god. You just want to go from bad to worse with this interview, don’t you? No comment.

Who was the first white girl you ever remember loving? Ann-Margaret.

Who are some of the key white girls for you, throughout history? Oh, Jane Bowles, great writer. Marcel Proust, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro. Any white girl that speaks with a black syntax, I’m in love with. I love it. I can’t help it.

Interview: Hilton Als on “White Girls”