the tiny white people in our heads

black subjectivity, elaine de kooning, autofiction

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Hello friends—

In 1967, MoMA published In Memory of My Feelings, a posthumous illustrated volume of selected works by the poet Frank O’Hara. The illustrations were done by a cadre of thirty American artists in their signature styles and modes. The MoMA website has an online portfolio of the pieces including some preparatory drawings that are really as stunning as the final work. Especially a piece by Reuben Nakian that’s so melancholy and yet playful. The black is so smooth and deep. A swirl or swoop, like an unfinished thought left suspended in some rich medium. Fantastic stuff.

Press Release for In Memory of My Feelings, MoMA

The pieces that struck me most were the preparatory drawings that Elaine de Kooning made for her entry. There is something gestural, preconscious almost about the stroke work. Something furious and tonal. But at the same time, there is this incredible elegance and refinement to the drawings. When viewed as a sequence, a figure emerges out of all the curves and slashes. You can see the sharp cut of a coat, shoulders, a broad-brimmed hat at a jaunty angle. Like a fashion sketch. The drawings have a ghostly intensity, and there is something angular and improvisational about them like a Justin Peck solo. All that gesture, all that thrust of hand and wrist, as if wrenching itself free from the firmament, but never growing too broad or wide. But then, as if many such figures were laid over each other, it attains a spectral three-dimensional intensity. Phases and forms of life. Stacked like scarves in a case for the summer months.

Unused Preparatory drawing for In Memory of My Feelings 1967, Elaine de Kooning

Unused Preparatory drawing for In Memory of My Feelings 1967, Elaine de Kooning

Unused Preparatory drawing for In Memory of My Feelings 1967, Elaine de Kooning

What coheres is an incoherent tangle of black streaks, as feral and dark-bright as memory itself. The drawings feel like things attempted and then scratched out. And in that way, they have the delicate, tensile strength of memory. Or, the process of memory. The act of memory. They are preparatory, stages leading to something else, experimental forays into something. That same something that Hamlet speaks of when he says:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

I know that something well. I’ve been thinking a lot about that something and what it means. The inarticulable. The inky dark that runs suspended beneath everything that we can see. The context of one’s life. The unspoken. The unintended. The mystery of it all in which some people find their reason for being. And others, I guess, the terror of life’s sundry requirements. Who can say. The quandaries that haunt us when we sleep.

When I was in the thick of publishing Real Life last year, people kept asking—either directly or in reviews of the novel—why I had chosen fiction instead of nonfiction to tell the story. It’s a silly question to ask any artist. Instead of the thing you made, why didn’t you do it in this other way that would be a completely different thing? The question, in the context of my novel, really boils down to the presupposition that what I had written in the book was true and therefore I had done something deceptive by calling it a novel. Or, that the set of experiences at the heart of the novel were somehow the formative experiences of my life and therefore suited to memoir. They were asking me, I guess, why I had subordinated the truth to fiction, which is itself a silly idea. I mean, one of the goals of my fiction is to attain the resonance of truth via invention and imagination. I am interested in writing fiction that summons by indirect means the rhythms of living in the world. I wrote a novel because I wanted to write a novel, and while it is true that I took certain objects and events and relations from my lived experience, the novel itself is invention. No one accuses a painter of subordinating truth to invention when they don’t go generate their own pigments or build with their own hands the objects that they portray in their work. But somehow, my writing a novel is deceptive.

I have been thinking about this question of why fiction and not a memoir ever since I published my novel. The answer I gave most consistently was that I would never write a memoir. And that is true. I would never write a memoir. For one thing, I’ve seen the way people look at me when I tell them the most inconsequential story from my childhood or adolescence. On a video chat with a friend recently, I told a story about some bad behavior I engaged in during my first year in university. I had been too forward with another gay man, and then he showed up at my dorm to tell me never to speak to him in that way again. And then I said, “I looked him up years later, and it turned out he died.” And my friend’s face went white and his eyes widened. I’d said it casually, in an off-hand way. And I saw, briefly, the horror of it.

Another time, I was telling a story to a friend’s daughter. I was telling her about how I had two dogs growing up. And then I went to explain how we’d come by the second dog when I realized that the story involved us finding the dog clinging to life in a ditch, covered in ants. And that I’d begged my dad to save it. And his solution had been to put the dog in a bucket of water in our backyard. “If he makes it, we’ll see,” he said. And we waited a night and half a day. Then I kicked the bucket over. And the dog came out, all curled up and pitiful looking. We assumed it would die. But then by the end of the day, the dog was able to move on its own a little. And bit by bit, we brought her back. Her name was Saturday. Our other dog was Sunday. The story seemed like a happy one. But then I realized I couldn’t tell this small child about finding a dog covered in ants and clinging to life and almost dying. So I said, “We found her in the woods sitting on a stump. And we kept her.” Another time, I told a friend about the time my uncle had fallen down in his trailer and laid there for several days and almost died. He would have died had my father and I not broken into his trailer and found him there with his underwear around his ankles, face down, covered in blood and shit. It was a story about my last summer at home before I left for the Midwest. A lot of strange, awful things happened in those years.

When I tell friends about my life, even stories that are funny to me, I always try to preface it by saying that I grew up in a Southern Gothic novel. I think most of us who grew up with trauma or working class or, more commonly, both, often have this experience of trying to hammer out the unruly shape of our lives to present to others. There’s this feeling I get sometimes of trying to make my history legible, neat. When I find myself selecting out certain stories or presenting them in certain ways that won’t make my audience too uncomfortable. It’s strange to say this, but for the most part, the shame and discomfort I feel about my past and the things that happened to me in my family and home aren’t because of what happened to me. Instead, the shame and discomfort come from the response I’m anticipating in others. That they’ll think I’m being too much. That my life is too messy, too painful for them to listen to. Once, when my mother was dying, a lab mate asked me how she was. I turned to the lab mate and said, “Oh, it’s not good. She’s really struggling with the chemo, and I think she probably only has a few months to live.” And the person said, “That’s awful. Don’t tell me anything else about it. That’s too much. Don’t tell me anything else. No. I do not want to hear it.”

On the one hand, I thought, How refreshing! What honesty! At least I know what you do not want to hear! But on the other hand, it was kind of annoying. She had asked me. She had asked for me to tell her something about what was happening. I told her the truth, which she found too upsetting for her and totally shut down the conversation. And, I mean, I think that is probably the wise thing to do. But then I wonder, why ask me a question if you do not want to know the answer. I don’t ask a lot of questions because there are things I do not want to know and do not want to perceive. It’s more productive for everyone involved if I don’t go around digging at people’s lives just out of the sake of perfunctory social chatter. I think I must sometimes come off as distant and uncurious about the lives of others. And maybe I am. But I feel like that’s more honest than pretending to be curious about the lives of others in ways that I am not. I figure, why should I be minding other people’s business. I am a deeply un-nosy person. And I think some people might say, oh, but that makes you bad at fiction. And maybe that is true, too. I lack reportorial zeal. My point, I guess, is that people are largely far less curious about the lives of others than they pretend to be. And when confronted with information that extends beyond the narrowly prescribed set of datum we’re expected to share socially, casually, they abort the whole enterprise of communication. I sometimes feel that we don’t really talk to other people as much as to our unstable projection of what we would like those people to say to us in return.

I’ve spent my whole life watching people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking. Eventually, I just stopped talking. But then I wrote a novel, and suddenly everyone wants to know what parts of the novel are real, as in from my life, as in literal transcriptions from the record of my living. It’s strange because when I read I am very seldom interested in or aware of the resonances between the book and the life that made the book. I don’t go rooting around for facts and alignments of fact. I have so little investment in the biographical material and the set of chemical and mechanical operations that turn that material into fiction. And so when I find those lines of inquiry directed at me, I’m left a little perplexed, to be honest. I mean, who cares if any of it is real or made-up. 99% of it is made up, by the way, since I know there are probably some people out there who are only reading this to find out the answer to the question of what in my novel is real or fake. The biographical fact of a novel is, to me, much less interesting than the novel itself. Though, I do know that in today’s parlance, such an idea is one that extends from privilege.

Privilege in the sense of being able to ignore the biographical context of a work of literature or at least pretending to ignore since biography is inextricable from the work of literature itself. It would be like ignoring the root system of the tree in one’s description of the forest. And, like, okay, yeah, sure, okay.

Unused Preparatory drawing for In Memory of My Feelings 1967, Elaine de Kooning

But something really weird happens with Black art where people grant biography primacy over the matter of the art. Where one’s biography extends out ahead of the text and therefore everything one encounters in the text is filtered through biography. And not just biography, but the whole matrix of systems that act upon biography. That is: race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. A black man painting an apple has painted an apple, the italics denoting some set of complex signifiers and operations. I mean, the truth is that every rendering of an apple is an apple, being that to make art is to produce a record of one’s own subjective experience of the world. But somehow, when it’s Black art, our own subjective experiences are really a collective subjective experience. A kind of translation happens, and we become, somehow, objectified. At least in America. All that slavery and colonialism business. Anyway, when I read novels, I don’t really think about the author’s biography in terms of facts. I don’t think of the author at all in fiction. Nonfiction is different for a whole host of complicated and technical reasons. But in fiction, I don’t try to suss out what has actually happened to the author and has been translated into fiction.

Autofiction makes this tension explicit and part of its aesthetic project. In that way, every black writer is a kind of autofictionist. I mean, if you accept the primacy of a presumed white audience, anyway. If you don’t accept the primacy of a presumed white audience, then that’s different. But the minute you acknowledge the existence of a white audience, you find yourself othering your own subjectivity. You become object. You’re a black apple. You are no longer writing about what it means to contend with the imponderables and unruly quandaries of life. You are writing about what it means to contend blackly with the black imponderables and the unruly black quandaries of black life. I feel that there is a difference between writing about life as a black writer and writing about black life as a black writer. I don’t think it’s helpful to problematize either strategy, but I do think it’s helpful to note that they are different. One deals in the subjective experience and one deals in the objectification of the subjective experience. In Northrop Frye’s formulation, centripetal and centrifugal:

One direction is outward or centrifugal, in which we keep going outside our reading, from the individual words to the things they mean, or, in practice, to our memory of the con­ventional association between them. The other direction is inward or centripetal, in which we try to develop from the words a sense of the larger verbal pattern they make.

The centripetal black writer writes of their subjective reality, whereas the centrifugal black writer writes of black subjective reality. Sometimes I look at black art and I think, they really got us out here thinking that a confrontation with the white man is somehow anything other than a waste of time. They really got us out here thinking that refining an argument against racism is somehow a good use of our time and energy. They got us out here thinking that talking about whiteness and the white gaze is somehow the same thing as craft.

We become very fluent in arguing about who black art is for and how it isn’t authentic because the black artist made it for white people. I think sometimes we forget that black people consume black art made for white people because inside of those black people there are white people looking at black people. We problematize black art because we can see the tiny white man in it looking out at us and we act like, somehow, that tiny white man isn’t talking to a tiny white man inside of us. I mean, I guess it’s all a posture to make us feel good about ourselves. If we can point the finger at black art “for white people,” then we can feel good about our art which is “for us.” And then we go around saying, this is for us, this is not for us, this is for us, this is not for us. And, like, I get it. But also, like, what?

I think for a long time I wanted to be centrifigual. I wanted to capture what it was like to be black and queer in America. It felt urgent to prove to some exterior gaze that we could be gay depressives too, and that this was as worthy a subject of art as anything else. I wrote in a kind of argumentative, rhetorical way, the moves and impulses of my work dictated by some representational framework. When I look back at those stories, they feel narratively schematic. Sketched-in, thin. The actual work of them beyond putting a black gay character in scenarios I enjoyed from “white fiction” did nothing to articulate the subjective experience I had moving through the world. There was nothing in those stories beyond a little representational geometry. They had no feeling in them. No humanness. No singular experience of what it is to be conscious. Alive. What I had made were a series a figures who bore no relation to anything real in the world except they could have applied to them signifiers: queer, black, etc. I was obsessed with proving to white people that I did not think about white people, and somehow I’d tricked myself into thinking that this was the point of black art and black subjectivity. An adversarial reckoning or confrontation with whiteness.

But of course, that is silly. I was substituting white subjectivity for my own particular subjectivity and calling it black subjectivity. I was an object in my own mind.

Preparatory drawing for In Memory of My Feelings 1967, Elaine de Kooning

But what I’d like to do is something as free and gestural, associative, as Elaine de Kooning’s preparatory drawings. To feel for once that when I set down a black character onto the page, I am not engaging in a series of foreclosed possibilities and outcomes, that I am writing a free human. A person who can expect some engagement with the deep, inky mystery that awaits us all. Hamlet’s something after death instead of a black something after black death. I sometimes wonder if my characters, my black and queer characters, are being forced to enact certain postures of subordination because I feel that I must, in pursuit of realism, recreate those certain postures of subordination. I wonder sometimes what a freely mobile black character would be like. I imagine that I am free of all my racial baggage. That I can write frankly about black characters in time and space, but then, somewhere around page five or six, I realize that there is a white person in there somewhere and I have to do something with that because otherwise, I am engaging in a lie. I sometimes let the racism happen up front so I can get on with my business, all that stuff I want to write about. Art and what it means to try to make art today.

I just want to make something as urgent and elegant and vicious and delicate as Elaine de Kooning’s ink on acetate. And have it be seen as such. Not as black struggle with the forces of racism and evil and all that. But one person grappling with the difficulty of trying to express. Sometimes, I hear people say things like I want a black existentialist novel! or I want a black novel of consciousness! or I want a black internet novel! And I wonder aloud to myself and in my groupchats is if such a thing existed, would we even be able to point our finger to it? Would we even be able to recognize it as such? Would we even be able to see such a novel? Or would it, like so much of our art, pass under the primacy of the racial element as dictated by the tiny white people in our heads? Maybe we should stop letting them live rent-free up there or something. Maybe we should evict them. True landlords of the mind.

I want to make a perfect stain of my inner consciousness before all the race stuff gets in the way. But there’s a tiny white man in the way of my subjectivity. And everyday, I argue with him and sometimes he moves out of the way and sometimes he doesn’t, and what results, I guess, hopefully, in the meantime, is art.


Also, we’re just a few weeks away from Filthy Animals. I’ll drop a preorder link here and remind you that preorders (especially for stories!) matter a lot, and if you felt so inclined, I’d appreciate it, but also no big deal if not.