Conversational, but thoughtful, Alexander Chee consistently demonstrates an interest in empathy and earnestly engaging with the world in his first collection of nonfiction, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which groups together sixteen personal essays that reflect upon his growth as an activist and a writer.
Chee moves at a measured pace in these essays, steadily drifting from subject to subject, scene to scene, memory to memory. In one of the most memorable essays of the collection, “The Writing Life,” Chee reflects upon the time he spent as Annie Dillard’s student, while he studied writing as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. The start of the essay’s second section begins with what Chee calls his “clearest memory of her”:
[I]t’s spring, and she is walking toward me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile. I never ask her why she’s smiling—for all I know, she’s laughing at me as I stand smoking in front of the building where we’ll have class. (45)
The monosyllabic words make the pace of the writing even, while the absence of almost any adjectives or adverbs reduces the memory to its core elements. As is often the case, Chee’s understated language lends his work an unhurried and contemplative quality, even as it elevates action above description; the writing is at once deliberate and economical, sparse and thoughtful. The smooth flow of the writing helps Chee drift without interruption from sketching the scene outside the classroom sometime in spring to recollecting his first class with Dillard to discussing the Pulitzer-winning author’s philosophy on writing as well as its impact on his work. Each subject of the section morphs into the next and receives the writer’s careful attention, with none feeling superficially considered or disjointed from the others. Chee’s high level of concentration tacitly argues for approaching writing as a way of patiently engaging with the world, fostering deep connection and understanding in so doing. In this regard, Chee shares the viewpoint of his former mentor:
The literary essay, as she saw it, was a moral exercise that involved direct engagement with the unknown, whether it was a foreign civilization or your mind, and what mattered in this was you. (49)
Be it in his exact pace, attentive focus, or associative patterns of structure, the very form of Chee’s work frames the literary essay as capable of leading to the conscientious “engagement with the unknown.” All his essays implicitly protest the doubt of American society that writing has the power “to reach anyone or to do anything of significance” (273), a belief that Chee critiques at length in the collection’s brilliant concluding essay, “On Becoming an American Writer,” a meditation on American anti-intellectualism and the value of writing in an increasingly unstable society.
The essays also recall each other, lending the collection a cumulative force. An idea raised in one essay will be expanded upon in another, a memory referenced early on later fleshed out. Most notably, Chee references his experience of sexual assault as a child near the start of the collection, but only toward the end, in an essay entitled “The Guardian,” does he finally elaborate on the experience in its entirety. The clarity and candidness with which Chee approaches his past trauma is incredibly moving, and the essay stands out as the collection’s best.
The essays that focus on Chee’s identity as Korean-American rank amongst the strongest in the collection as well. Especially of note is “Inheritance,” a thoughtful reflection on his father’s premature death. Chee considers his ambivalence toward the trust fund he received in the wake of the tragedy, in addition to detailing his family history and his relationship to his relatives. He dwells in his conflicting feelings about the opportunities afforded to him by the inheritance, instead of trying to will them away, and he discusses how his father’s death has complicated his relationship to his Korean heritage. One of Chee’s greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to be comfortable with ambiguity and embracing the unknown: it makes his work read as authentic and honest, in a way that few other writers I know of match.
Chee’s at his best when he allows himself enough space to delve into the nuances of his material, be it family history or his activism during the AIDS epidemic. The weakest essays, though few in number, are those that rely on a gimmick, as in “100 Things About Writing a Novel,” a list of 100 tips that feels a bit superficial. But most of the essays in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel embrace thoughtfulness, making the work a welcome change from the many fast-paced essay collections currently on the market.