White Girls by Hilton Als: The physical effects of power on resistant bodies

These pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his b

White Girls
Hilton Als
McSweeney’s, 338pp, £14.82

This is not an easy book, though that shouldn’t stop you wanting it. It feels incendiary, like a box of fireworks that might go off in one’s hands. It’s beautiful and deeply intelligent, but also profoundly resistant to being simplified or boiled down. Indeed, it sometimes seems to have been written in a language of such density and opacity as to deliberately replicate the complexity of the ideas with which it tangles.

Hilton Als is the New Yorker’s theatre critic and White Girls his long-awaited second book, after 1998’s The Women. As the title suggest, this roving collection of essays is preoccupied with race and gender. But it will come as no surprise to regular Als readers that the idea of the white girl is not confined exclusively to the bodies of white women. Instead, he uses the concept to pry open larger issues of colour, masculinity, power and sexual desire. Tacking back and forth between memoir, profile and cultural criticism, his white girls include Michael Jackson, Eminem, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm X, Truman Capote and Richard Pryor.

The opening three words, “Sir or Lady”, serve as the name of Als’s first subject, a beloved friend: the platonic twin by whose companionship and example the writer discovers and assembles his own self. “We were, in short,” he writes, “colored male Americans, a not easily categorisable quantity that annoyed most of our countrymen, black and white, male and female alike, since America is nothing if not about categories.”

Exploring these categories and particularly the places where they rupture under pressure has always been Als’s speciality, his special style. In a profile of Michael Jackson, he notes that in the 1970s, before the singer’s physical transformation, black gay men “began to refer to Jackson as ‘she’ and, eventually, ‘a white woman’ – one of the slurs they feared most, for what could be worse than being called that which you were not, could never be?” Later, discussing the black comedian Richard Pryor, he quotes one of Pryor’s ex-wives, who explains how women “saw themselves in him, in his not fitting in, the solitude of it all, and his willingness to be vulnerable as women are. And disenfranchised, of course, as women are.” There is a gap between these two statements, between solidarity and mutual mistrust, and it is to this space that Als applies his formidable attention.

Much of this necessitates looking at the body, and these pages are populated by black male bodies in multiple guises: in drag, on stage, in the act of sex. Certain images return with a cumulative power more commonly associated with the novel. Pryor, in the depths of drug addiction, pours brandy over his body and sets himself on fire: “And my smoldering chest smelled like a burned piece of meat . . . ‘Is there?’ I asked. ‘Is there what?’ someone asked. ‘Oh Lord, there is no help for a poor widow’s son, is there?’” This image and vernacular returns hard on an earlier essay on lynching, in which Als examines images of maimed and burned bodies while challenging the desire of white editors who pay him to look, to perform his distress, “to be a Negro on the page”.

Both these incidents also connect to one of Als’s most acute moments of observation. It occurs in a profile of André Leon Talley, the flamboyant creative director of US Vogue During a shoot, a white woman refuses to be photographed unless “André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy”. “None laughed louder than André Leon Talley. But it seemed to me that a couple of things happened before he started laughing: he shuttered his eyes, his grin grew larger, and his back went rigid, as he saw his belief in the durability of glamour and allure shatter before him in a million glistening bits.”

This ability to witness and record the physical effects of power on resistant bodies is combined with an almost incantatory knack for language. Als’s sentences are gorgeous, adorned, antagonistic, slippery and driven. As to what drives them, in a companion to the Pryor profile, he creates a monologue from the imagined point of view of Pryor’s sister, a voice-over artist for porn films. In between describing barebacking and money shots, she turns her ferocious gaze on “Suicide Bitch” – Virginia Woolf and the casual racism of her work. “Listen,” she says, “my job depends on my physical invisibility but never my absence. My voices are real because I believe in them enough to apply my interior voice to their reason. I resent Suicide Bitch. I resent her talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room.”

From Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, to Marshall Mathers III, the boy who became Eminem, all Als’s subjects have been spoken about at one time or another as if they weren’t in the room. In taking up their stories, White Girls stands as both a work of reparation and a call to arms: an act of audacious magic that summons voices where there seemed to be none.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)

White Girls explores issues of colour and gender. Image: Gallerystock

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism