When Alexander Chee was teaching a course on the graphic novel at Amherst College, he gave his students a powerful exercise: put on a mask and wear it as you go about your day. “Now that you feel disguised, what do you feel is possible?” Chee asked his students.
This is classic Chee. Author of the bestselling novel Queen of the Night, an elaborate masquerade set in the world of Second Empire French opera, and the award-winning Edinburgh, an autobiographical novel about sexual abuse at the hands of a choirmaster, Chee recently stepped out from behind his own novelist’s mask in his first book of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which deals, through many lenses, with his art and his identity as a gay, Korean-American writer.
Back at Amherst, Chee (who now teaches at Dartmouth) donned the mask of the famous Mexican wrestler the Blue Demon. “It felt absolutely insane to do that,” Chee says. “But it was interesting and useful to think about just what you would have to feel about yourself to be a superhero.”
In “Girl,” an essay about the time he successfully passed for a Barbie-like white woman, Chee follows the theme further. “Sometimes you don’t know who you are, Chee writes, “until you put on a mask.”
While Chee was still a teen, his father died of complications from a car accident that had left him partially paralyzed for three years. Grief followed Chee like a shadow through his college years at Wesleyan and then to San Francisco, where it enveloped the entire gay community during the AIDS crisis.
“A number of these historical events that I tried to write about, which took place in the 1990s, really just before we had the internet, are still weirdly submerged in the culture,” Chee says about the protests he helped orchestrate with ACT UP and Queer Nation, detailed in the essays “1989” and “After Peter.” During the AIDS crisis, if a news outlet failed to cover a protest, “it was as if it hadn’t happened,” says Chee, who with fellow activists “started thinking about the ways we could create protests that could survive that media eraser.”
Chee feared that more than protests would be erased. In 1991, he moved to New York City and took a job cataloguing the stock of a mail-order gay and lesbian bookstore, which, he writes in the essay “My Parade,” amounted to “a catalogue of the kinds of gay writing that had succeeded and failed—what the culture allowed and what it did not.” About famous gay writers (such as Gore Vidal, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag), Chee writes, “How had they managed to survive against whatever it was that had erased so many others?”
Erasure is more than a literary question for Chee. Two of his creative heroes, artist David Wojnarowicz and filmmaker Derek Jarman, were publicly dying from AIDS in the summer of 1991 and were “facing another, new kind of erasure in the process,” that of government inaction around the crisis. This inaction, Chee says, was “a kind of de facto death squad,” resulting in “structural death: a preview of the approach conservatives would take for the next thirty years.”
“I was born out of it,” Chee says about this era of protest and its undeniable urgency, which How to Write an Autobiographical Novel helps, in part, to restore to collective memory. Having recently created, with Christine Lee, the Lambda Justin Chin Memorial Scholarship, in honor of the gay Malaysian-American poet who died in 2016, Chee’s activism is ongoing. “I want these other young writers to act,” Chee says. “To do more, to write more, to create more work about us.”
“Of course a novel is also a mask,” Chee writes in “100 Things About Writing a Novel”: “Not for the novelist. Not for the reader. But for something else the novelist brings in from the back of the tent like a lion on a chain.”