In his open, omnivorous writing on literature, visual art, and performance, Hilton Als has made critical analysis and introspection a conjoined practice. The essay, which he has called “a form without a form,” is his primary mode, and he invariably interweaves family and friendship, American fixations on and lived experiences of race and sexuality, metaphor and reality. In “The First Step of Becoming an Art Historian,” one of Als’s earliest published pieces, from 1985, he describes coming “to realize a desire to relate the illusion of memory, based on [others’] facts, to the illusory present.” It may still be as good a statement of his purpose and methods as any.
Als was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1960, and grew up there with his four older sisters and younger brother. He attended the High School of the Performing Arts, and his first forays in art criticism were published in Ballet Review and the Brooklyn City Sun when he was in his early twenties. After editorial stints at the Village Voice, Vibe, and the New York Times, he was appointed a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1994 and has served as its chief theater critic since 2013; he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for that writing in 2017. Als published The Women in 1996 and the collection White Girls in 2013, each a hybrid of memoir, portraiture, and criticism. Many of his essays are uncollected, but his voice is unquestionably influential: when Als received a Windham-Campbell Prize, in 2016, the jury cited his “ingeniously provoking” essays that take “enormous risks in content and form” and “break open standard narratives of gender and race.”
Als has also written screen- and teleplays, self-publishes the broadside project “After Dark,” and has curated exhibitions of the art of Alice Neel and Christopher Knowles, as well as a three-part show of his and others’ visual work. (His widely followed Instagram account is yet another forum for his curiosity about the human as a living work of art.) Playing across these varied subjects and forms is an eye that resists sentimentality but is fascinated by all of our vulnerabilities—and by the grammar of this scrutiny. As he puts it in the opening essay in White Girls, “I, you, me, us, words let alone concepts I struggled with.”
Our conversations took place last winter: once in the offices of The Paris Review and twice at Als’s West Village apartment, a space filled with books and talismanic pieces he has gathered and been given, including art by Kara Walker, Judy Linn, and Diane Arbus, a bronze bust of James Baldwin, and an ornate mirror that once belonged to Laura Nyro. These sessions capped a fantastically busy few years of work and travel for Als, and he was thinking about changes professional and personal. His rich voice, in person as in his writing, was palpably alive and emotive in the questions that he, too, asked, and in his searching interest in working out answers together.
What does home mean to your writing?
It’s a great question, because I now, at last, have a grown-up apartment, the first place where I can really work—and sort of drift around. I had a desk built in, made for me. The first thing I said when I got the Windham-Campbell Prize was, I can move now. It was a bit like 1988, when I lived in Brooklyn and heard about an apartment in Tribeca. I had no money, but I said, I’ll take it—and the next day I got a raise and a promotion at the Voice.
And the home you grew up in?
My little brother pointed out not too long ago that we moved so much when we were young and that our mother must have done it in part to protect us. And because there was no capital and we were always at the mercy of some landlord, we had relatively little control over where we landed. I remember feeling very vulnerable to the relatives—my mother’s siblings, et cetera—we sometimes stayed with. One of the great things about becoming an adult was having my own space. My mother was very intent on my independence. It is a great sadness to me that she didn’t live long enough for me to take care of her, to give her a house of her own.
We grew up under the yoke of social services. The government issued food and caseworkers came into your house, to see if you had a radio or if there was a man there. So there was no real privacy. My sister Bonnie and I would go pick up the food, and it was very shaming to her. I think all of these things added up for me. For years, in my place on Beach Street, I never locked my door. Everybody was welcome, in part because I never wanted anyone to feel excluded. My mother used to bring in homeless women and give them a cup of tea. I still don’t want anyone to feel excluded, but I know now, too, that it’s okay for me to lock my door at night or when I’m working. This apartment feels like the step before buying my own home. If you don’t come from capital, or don’t have a partner who does, how do you understand how to do this?
“Where am I from?” and “Who made me?” are questions you continue to ask in your work.
At one point, I was writing a fiction about my grandmother, my father’s mother. Her name was Frances Williams—Rolston was her maiden name—and she was the only daughter. She was born in Barbados, of a certain class. Well, I don’t know for sure, because the sad part is that this history only goes back as far as your parents, and they never tell you. But they were all very light-skinned. Her mother was Irish, maybe, or half something. This much I know—my grandmother was attracted to darker men of color because of her politics, and she married Lisle Williams, my grandfather. My middle name is Lisle. They lived in Bridgetown, the capital, in Saint Michael parish. Truly, these are the only facts I can confirm. Maybe there was some strife about them coming together. She was very clever, and she had a beautiful house and an incredible sense of how to stretch money. My mother used to say, Mrs. Williams can take a handful of peas, throw it in the pot, and feed everybody. I really loved her, she was my go-to person, but she was fixated on my father, who was the middle child and continued to live upstairs, in her home, as an adult. My mother snatched me out of that environment and made me a hard worker.
I also really want to write about my aunt, my father’s sister, who had been a brilliant pianist with perfect pitch but ended up as the powder-room attendant at the Rainbow Room. She wanted to play jazz, but my grandfather said jazz was for whores and stopped her. Some members of my family wish I would stop writing, I’m sure! My mother also had a sister who was left behind in Barbados, which was such a heartache to her that I borrowed some things about my aunt for my mother’s story, when I was working on The Women. Even though my mother was dead, I was still so sad for her about her sister that I couldn’t say in my writing why she had been left.
How do you grapple with that instinct to protect elders? How is it related to negotiating queer differences at an early age?
The damage suffered by people I know and love is almost always based on the trauma of the only elder they had treating them badly or being interested only in their silence. And what you’re left with, by the grace of God and some miracle, is this inner self. Our experiences are painful and sometimes annihilating, and if we have the strength to crawl out of and excavate that wreckage, we have to ask ourselves how to describe the truth of it.
Your work has often been a kind of wrestling with the idea of facts through the imagination.
For me, writing is a way of struggling through the intricacies of an antiempirical sensibility. And there must be words other than fiction and nonfiction. I see fiction not as the construction of an alternate world but as what your imagination gives you from the real world. Toni Morrison is a novelist, but I’ve been to her hometown, Lorain, Ohio, and seeing it made those books seem truer than if she were writing nonfiction. Those gorgeous early novels are inventions and acts of reporting, all at once. On the other hand, I wonder if there’s a way of writing the truth when you’re queer that’s different than if you’re straight. Is there a way of writing the truth if you’re of color, if you’re Afro-Caribbean, that’s different than if you’re white? I’ve never read anything that helped me with this issue, except by the people who do it. I’m trying to learn how to be of service as a writer. I know that if my family got as upset about The Women as they did, the book must have had some fundamental emotional truth. I thought I was writing them a love letter. I think the difficulty for them was that I was talking emotionally about how I was reacting to them, particularly when it came to how my mother was treated, which often wasn’t well—or well enough for me.