Hilton Als has been a critic at the New Yorker for almost 20 years and a contributor to the magazine for more like a quarter century, since the Barbadian-American was barely 20, filing stories for the "Talk of the Town" feature. A New Yorker himself, he came of age (and, not incidentally, came out) in the midst of the churning '70s arts scene of the city, and in his latest book, "White Girls," he gamely explores novel resonances of identity between gay black men like himself and white women. The book also connects public figures such as Truman Capote, Richard Pryor and Eminem through their relationships with and playing the role of white girls. The book also looks at relationships among people who fantasize about and often seek out the people who are their opposites, their mirror-images and their imaginary long lost twins.
Mr. Als will read from the book Monday night as part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series at the University of Pittsburgh.
Your parents are from Barbados. You grew up in New York. Do you consider yourself West Indian?
I think so. I think it'd be like people say, they come from the South or "my family comes from the South." It's like coming from I don't know, Sweden or something, a different part of the world.
In terms of having a relationship to those places?
Yes it's like coming from any other part of the world. So I think wasn't it Toni Morrison who said ... No, no, she didn't say it, but I'm saying it: all the different parts of yourself, you can name them.
How did the West Indian heritage of you and your close friend "S.L.," the two main characters in the book's first piece, "Tristes Tropiques," factor into the way you explore twins and mirroring?
I think it was germane to who I was and I think the characters are interested in most aspects of each other. So, sure it would be an element of his interest but not necessarily a spectacular element of the character. I think it was an element to it, that he would be interested in it, just as he would be interested in his sisters or whatever. That's what made it germane to the person.
And by person you mean you, the "writerly I," the character who is standing in for your point of view?
How did you originally get the idea for the "White Girls" essay collection?
Well, I had been avoiding a collection for a really long time. I didn't feel that I had any thing comparable to the great essay collections, which often have a big unifying theme. I'm thinking of "White Album" by Joan Didion and ... I didn't have any real theme until one day I was talking to a friend and he mentioned that another friend said, "Hilton should write a book that's a book between black men and white women and I said, "Oh, let's just go call it "White Girls." And the minute I said the sentence I realized that I had built certain narratives around race and identification and I had missed what was missing: that one piece of the puzzle -- which was ["Tristes Tropiques"], the first piece in the book. And once I wrote that and I wrote it relatively quickly, I realized the various ways in which the book would hold together as an idea. Also in "Tristes Tropiques," I mention everything that is to come in the rest of the book.
Do you think that there are lessons to be learned from examining the blurry dividing lines and differences between people's gender, race and class identities?
No. I think that when I'm telling a story, I'm doing the best I can to tell the story as fully as I can and if there are various fractures that happen in the story then that's just the very thing that the story is as opposed to my looking for avenues of difference in one story. They just really do exist. For me anyway.
How would you categorize "White Girls"? As more of a book of personal reflections like Montaigne's essays, or a book of short stories that together form a novel, like Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"?
Let's just call it a novel. It's just easier. I really think it's easier. In the way that Faulkner wrote "Go Down, Moses" or [Jean Toomer wrote] "Cane." All those books are problem novels. And one of the things that I like about the book is that it reflects a certain kind of mind that's not really at rest with itself. So the jumpiness, the fractured technical aspect of it is something that I really like, because I think it's more reflective of the way we think than not. So let's call it a novel.
In your story/essay on Eminem, you stop short of calling him a white girl. Why?
Because I was focused on his mother. She was the white girl in that essay.
Have you visited Pittsburgh previously?
A long time ago, Mark Bradford, an artist friend, he had a show there. And that was lovely. And I haven't been back and so I'm happy and looking forward to coming back.
It's often said that LGBTQ rights have progressed so much in the U.S. of late because everyone knows someone who isn't straight, in their family, neighborhood or workplace. Do you think that the position of the "white girl," is more relatable for a similar reason?
I think it definitely creates more space to identify with. People who have a little bit of power but are not oppressors -- or, political oppressors. One of the things that interested me was the ability that all of the characters have to pass in the world quote unquote, in the world but they felt something different emotionally. I really wanted to express how it must feel to feel a sense of difference and at the same time pass as part of the status quo. Would you still feel isolated? Would the person that identifies with you feel your difference, or your power? I loved all of those variables. When I started thinking about those levels of identification, I really wanted to explore that.
Do you think the rise of audience interaction on Twitter, Facebook and other social media is a net gain for journalists and writers?
I think that writers are best served by sticking to their writing. Not having loads of theories about the best way to position the writing. I think that if the writing is good and the point of view is strong, the writing is going to take care of itself. ...
Do you intend to do fiction going forward or critic in the day, novelist at night?
Sure. Why not. We're all doubles. So, I think we should try to sort of fulfill each part of ourselves as much as possible.
Is that fulfillment as a writer ... is your writing your twin now?
I think so. That's very clever. Yes. I would agree with you, my twin now is my writing.
What will you be reading from when you come to Pittsburgh?
I was going to read the Louise Brooks piece. But I think that the kids might be too young to remember who she is. So I think I'm going to read a little of "Tristes Tropiques."
Former Post-Gazette staff writer Philip A. Stephenson writes about lifestyle for Quartz, the Atlantic's digital business news site. He teaches in the media culture department at the College of Staten Island. Follow him at @phantomath.