Tag Archives: Essays

Hilton Als – White Girls (2013)

WhiteGirlsWhile the collection of essays is titled White Girls, to simply call it a book about white girls both true and false. The subjects of these essays, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and Richard Pryor are all ‘white girls’ in some respect, according to Als.

This collection was very dense and theoretical and I sometimes got lost amid all of Als writing. I understood what he was trying to do but for a general audience (Als is a staff writer for the New Yorker), if feel like readers might find themselves a bit in over their head. It’s not exactly theory, but it’s not far off.

Throughout his collection Als interweaves his own personal memoir and reflections on society with biographies of major cultural influences. Essentially as a gay black man, Als writes about other gay black men’s desires. “White Girls” are the absolute opposite of gay black men, yet the symbol with which they most identify with. It is within this paradigm that Als fits cultural icons into, treating them as the “White Girls” that he wishes he could be.

Its a worthwhile read for anyone studying culture in an extremely critical way. He takes notions of race and gender and upends them quite successfully. It’s dense and tough to get through at times, definitely not a beach read, but quite worth it if critical theory is your thing.

Rebecca Solnit – Men Explain Things to Me (2014)

MenExplainThingsToMeRebecca Solnit’s book, published in 2014 has been has been lauded as having “become a touchstone of the feminist movement.” As I find with many collections of essays, some are a hit, while others miss the mark. Most however are strong, well thought out and provoke heated debates.

Her first essay, the titular “Men Explain Things to Me,” is so on point it’s hard to believe that no one had really vocalized this before. Basically Solnit details her experiences with various men who patronize women and “Mansplain” things. In fact this piece is credited with launching the term “mansplaining,” which has found its way into popular vernacular.

Her essays dealing with rape culture and sexual violence as well as the notions of gender equality are no less important, and she carefully balances thought provoking arguments with hard facts in an emotional plea for justice. She reiterates a widely held perception; that we live in a world that teaches don’t get raped instead of don’t rape, something that needs to change. In one of her more nuanced pieces, Solnit challenges opponents to gay marriage stating that such opponents do not want to preserve traditional marriage, but rather traditional gender roles. A same-sex marriage is a union between equals, and that is more threatening to right wing conservatives than simply the idea of “gay” marriage.

Solnit however is hopeful. She writes about the ways in which rape culture is being dismantled on college campuses and does acknowledges that she knows many kind, gentle, and decent men. Still her essays are important for showing us not only how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.

David Sedaris – Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)

DressYourFamilyInCorduroyAndDenimCoverI love David Sedaris so much, but I just don’t think any collection will ever be able to top Me Talk Pretty One Day. I’m moving chronologically through his publications, and so far, that one is such a stand out collection. These stories however are still hilarious and I especially love when he talks about his relationship with his sisters. I wish he wrote more about Amy, I’d love to know more about what she was like growing up and as a teenager. My favourite story in this collection was definitely when David Sedaris is working as a house cleaner and is accidentally hired by someone looking for an “erotic housekeeping” service. His stories are funny, but he also exposes the frailty of emotional connections and has some poignant moments, especially when he writes about his partner Hugh. Overall, it’s a collection of short stories by David Sedaris. If you like his other works you’ll like this one also.

Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist (2014)

BadFeministI have very mixed feelings about this book. I really admire Roxanne Gay, her writing and her ability to speak so passionately about important issues. Gay provides commentary on a number of subjects ranging from reproductive right to her thought on The Hunger Games. Throughout her writing Gay also remains very aware of her own privilege; She is a woman of colour, but acknowledges that she grew up in a middle class household and was afforded her certain opportunities.

Privilege is something that I am also keenly aware of. Throughout my undergraduate work studying the effects of slavery and free Blacks in Antebellum America caused me to examine my own privilege; was there any way I could possibly understand the lingering effects of slavery? In grad school, studying the Black experience in Upper Canada, I was also constantly reminded of my own privilege, especially from my Grad supervisor. While I am aware of my own privilege I do not think that believing The Help and Twelve Years a Slave to be good movies makes me a terrible person.

The portrayal of Black suffering in film is something that really angers Gay. While I found myself totally agreeing with her in her beliefs about feminism, and was moved when Gay described her own experience with sexual abuse, this is where she lost me. I liked The Help. Is it totally self-congratulatory towards white people? Absolutely. But Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis both stood out to me with their Oscar worthy performances. Gay is also critical of 12 Years a Slave, and I share some of her gripes, most notably the use of Lupita Nyong’o’s character (and body) to move along the story of Soloman Northup, a male. Still the movie is the first representation of the Black experience, as written by a Black man, and the movie deserved the accolades it received from The Academy.

Gay complains that there needs to be a different presentation of the Black experience; one that does not focus on suffering. I understand this, and I whole-heartedly agree. Other ethnic groups face the same issue. Almost every single movie to deal with the Jewish experience nominated for an Oscar, has dealt with the Holocaust. (Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and even the Italian language film Life is Beautiful.) While there definitely needs to be more examples of the Black experience in popular culture that move away from one of suffering, these movies are historical (although The Help takes great liberties) and the fact that they portray Black suffering in a historical sense is accurate and should not diminish the quality of these films.

Gay made me feel a number of things with her collection of essays. I agreed, I disagreed, I was moved, and I was outraged. For me, the mark of a good book is that it makes to feel something, and so with that said, I think Roxanne Gay did a good job.

Rating: 3.5/5