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Hilton Als, New York City, 2005
Hilton Als, New York City, 2005Photography Dominique Nabokov

Pulitzer-winning author Hilton Als on his seminal work, White Girls

The essay collection features Eminem, Michael Jackson, and André Leon Talley, amongst others

When Hilton Als published his book White Girls in 2013, Michael Jackson, André Leon Talley, Eminem, and Truman Capote seemed like the least likely characters to form the focus of its chapters. But they were – in a stunning analysis of contemporary culture – art, music, fashion, the Aids crisis, is covered over 13 short essays. Five years on, White Girls has finally been released in the UK.

Born in 1960 and raised in New York, Als is a writer at The New Yorker as well as the author of The Women, which he released in 1996 – 16 years prior to White Girls. Last year, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, "For bold and original reviews that strove to put stage dramas within a real-world cultural context, particularly the shifting landscape of gender, sexuality and race", and he’s also been compared to James Baldwin.

In an afternoon hosted by The Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, Als sat down to explain his book and the themes that lead it. Below, we present the best takeouts from what is undoubtedly one of the most important books of our times.

WHY HE CALLED THE BOOK WHITE GIRLS

“There's a wonderful playwright in New York called Branden Jacobs Jenkins, and he was talking to Deborah Treisman, the Fictor Editor at the New Yorker, about books that I should do. He said, ‘I really think Hilton should do a book on black boys.’ And she said, ‘Oh, he should maybe do white women as well.’ He was telling me the story, and I said, ‘Oh, I'll just write a book called White Girls'. And we laughed and that was the end of the story, and then I thought, ‘hmm, that's a good title’ (laughs). When I worked as a fashion reporter, I never understood why the models were called black girls and white models were not referred to as white girls. And so, it really started to make me think about the culture of language around women, in particular, and also the ways in which women were further marginalised by words. When I started to think about the book, I thought of a particular friend of mine who was white and had passed away, but black people would refer to her as a white girl. So I wanted to make a book that was a strange combination of deformation and praise.”

“The book is a weird gender-free zone. The title means one thing and then when you start to read and discover, you realise it's applicable to certain men who identified as women like Truman Capote, early on in his life, or who had a particular relationship to white girls, like Malcolm X, his mother was considered quote-on-quote white. So there are ways in which society, as a rule to defines someone, and who that person defines themselves as.”

WHY WHITE GIRLS IS ONLY BEING PUBLISHED IN THE UK NOW

“There was interest now. Something that’s happened in the past five years, culturally, is that these issues have become much more translatable. I remember first coming to England and staying with people like Isaac Julien (filmmaker and artist) who was trying to make films about racial identity, and there really was no way to translate this to English audiences then, or there was not enough of an audience for it, I should say. And that's because the discussion around empire had sort of started with the Sex Pistols.. but coming to London, in the late 80s, it was a very angry place, politically. And so, the discussions were starting then, but the stuff about gender and about the confluence of race and gender really wasn’t, in my experience, other than people like Angela Carter (novelist) was not so much in the air. I think, with this new generation of people, it's much more part of the dialogue.”

“All we have as writers is our experience” – Hilton Als

THE DEEP INFLUENCE OF HIS MOTHER ON THE BOOK

“She's not with us, but she was a really extraordinary person and a deeply constructive listener. You could tell her something about yourself and she would be really interested in your story. And before you'd knew it, something about your life was changed because of her. She used to bring home homeless women in our neighborhood to give them a bath and to eat sometimes. She was deeply concerned about the plight of women in particular.

“She was my first editor. She was my Diana Athill. I began writing because I had four older sisters and I could not get a word in edgewise, so I started keeping a little notebook of responses. I would hide the notebook under my bed. There was a Jewish family in my building – I loved them so much, Mr and Mrs Schwartz – and they had asked me what I wanted to be, and, at first I said I wanted to be Jewish (laughs). My mother just sort of rolled her eyes and said, ‘No, he wants to be a writer’. So they gave me their son’s typewriter, this college manual, and I started to type the stories that I had written and I would leave them for my mother on our dining table. In the morning she would write her comments, and then I'd wake up and read them. And that's what we did. To this day, my editors follow the same format. We never discuss it, I hand it in, she’ll do a little comment, and that’s the extent of editing to me.”

ON FINDING HIS VOICE

“All we have as writers is our experience, and, like actors, it’s the story that we live – that we try to express. Whether that be of the mind, or of the heart. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I had a story that was worth telling. If you grow up, as I did, in a way in which modesty is really sort of enforced, you don’t think that your narrative is something that is or should be, particularly interesting to someone. So it takes a long time to come to that voice. I hope it’s worth telling…

“Maybe in my obituary, it would say, “he felt he was ahead of his time” (laughs). But I think that the stories  I was telling, and I was fortunate enough to have The New Yorker as the platform, were a bit ahead of their time.

“This discourse that really began in universities, with Foucault, Barthes, started to become something else (with your generation). The discussion around sexuality became less theoretical, more personal and therefore more directly political, and it just made more room for writers like me. I feel very fortunate that your generation emerged.”

ON THE AUTHORS AND ARTISTS WHO INSPIRED HIM

“There's an amazing book called On Reading and it's by Proust – it's a book about translation – and in the beginning of the book, it's just very long, incredibly beautiful, vivid description of being a boy, reading books. It has nothing to do with translation or the extensible subject matter, and it had an incredible effect on me.

“James Baldwin was very important to me in terms of, again, not just talking about the self but making it a larger issue to place it within the context of your history and the world's history and culture.

“Tennessee Williams was very important to me in terms of just bravura speech and description.

“Diane Arbus, for sure, was a huge influence in terms of looking and shape-shifting in order to meet the subjects she said, “I never ask the subject to rearrange themselves, I rearrange myself to suit the subject. So there are lots of ethos and aesthetics that were very important to me as a writer, in terms of freeing me to see the way that I needed to see.”

ON EMINEM

“He’s not one (a white girl, it’s) his mother. He fits into the book, because in some weird way, the book is really about language, and he has a real sensibility as a writer. When I first listened to him, a lot of his stuff was about his mother, and about the complicated relationship (they had), and also her identification with it. I wanted to write something that not only expressed my interest in that identification but really the destructive influence that she had him on him, in terms of identifying with him. There’s a quote from one of his lyrics that describes how she would always say he was sick and have to take him to the hospital, when in fact it was her. So I wanted to talk about that merging and how her anger about her circumstances at the moment really made the artist. But I really realized that I was writing about myself; this mother and this child, sort of merging. The ways in which the artist becomes the voice of the parent. My mother loved artists and art and so I think in some ways I became her voice too.”

ON ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY

“I always loved André Leon Talley, I think he's an amazing person. For many years, he was the editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, you've probably seen him on television where he's often interviewed. He's an extravagant, very sensitive black man, who was raised by his grandmother and became a protege of Diana Vreeland when she was the Head of Costume Institute at the Met. I was working at The Village Voice when I wrote him and said, ‘I would love to write a piece about you’, and it turns out that we were being taken under his wing at the same time – me and John Galliano, who had just come from London. I went to Paris and I met (his friends) and I just started to spend time with him and I really fell in love with him, in a way, as a person, because outside of the public persona there was this extraordinary vulnerability. And I say that in the book.

“What I didn't like were these ways in which he was treated as a performance. And so the piece, really, was a kind of emotional view of how he was being treated as a figure in that world. And the seriousness I learned about him – he's a deep reader – really wasn't the point. He was selling something else to that community of people, and so that's what I wrote about. Initially, I heard that he was very happy with it because he was particularly interested and happy about the ways in which I talked about racism in the fashion world. But other people didn't like it.”

(They didn’t like it because you’d exposed something?)

“Yeah, or maybe the ways in which he was being treated by them.”

“It took me a long time to accept the fact that I had a story that was worth telling” – Hilton Als

ON MICHAEL JACKSON

“He was very much influenced by Diana Ross in style, and in the black communities in Brooklyn where I grew up, there was a lot of criticism about Ross, that she was a white girl because she had crossed over and had this mainstream success. And so Michael was emulating that with something. But then literally, in the transformation of his face and body, it was an extreme physical example of wanting to be an image of something. And so I thought that he was prime material for that book – that he was going from a kind of blackness to whiteness and a quote-on-quote ‘femininity’, and, for sure, he needed to be in there.

“I think that when you try to adapt your body to an idea, as opposed to living the fact of your body, or the fact of your inner self... I don't know if it was his inner-self or if it was an image. And that's what's so complex, right? Many of us, nowadays, brilliantly, people can say who they are. I don't think he could say who he was but he wanted to show it to millions of people and that was shocking to me, that he would rather get up onstage and show it behind the veil of ‘I’m ill’, or whatever, and not have the wherewithal to say ‘This is how I feel’, without risking the fantasy that you've built. I thought that those signs were so complex. There was no way to really write about it without writing a book, which I didn't have the time to do. I felt that he was such an example of what was happening leading to your generation: these sort of gnarly shortstops in the soul.”

ON BEING COMPARED TO JAMES BALDWIN

“Oh, that's Mount Everest, really. I only feel this way because (Baldwin) said it first, and actually some asked me this years later, but when I saw this interview with him I really did feel this point of identification, and it's really very humorous, it has nothing to do with me elevating myself. The interviewer says, ‘Mr. Baldwin, you were born gay, impoverished, and black. Did you feel that the chips were against you?’ And he just starts to laugh, and he says, “No, no, no. I thought I'd hit the jackpot.’ (laughs) It was so outrageous you couldn't go anywhere else. I feel that point of identification and it’s freeing, actually..

“I feel very moved by the example of his courage to go to Paris with 40 bucks, and to see what his life would be. I feel similarly very freed by the love of friends, the love of a lover, and having worked hard to build the tools to do the kind of writing I want to do.”

White Girls is published by Penguin