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How to Write a Review of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: EssaysHow to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel took me on an incredible journey through Alexander Chee’s life, dotted with rose gardens, cater-waiter gigs, AIDS activism, pedagogy, and more. As the book shifts from Bildungsroman to Künstlerroman, its subject (Chee) likewise grows from a Wunderkind to the mature author and teacher he is today– Chee first recognizes his own unique beauty and talent (he is a Leo), harnesses it, then learns to foster similar qualities in others. I appreciated a certain sense of cyclicality: while in the beginning of the book Chee occasionally recounts his experiences as an ingénue courting older men, by the end he details his romantic relationship with a former student. And of course, his lifelong investigation of power dynamics, whether it be between mentor and mentee, master and servant, editor and author, queer and straight, native and foreign, and more, prevails throughout.

A few favorites! I first became acquainted with Chee’s writing through his essay “Girl,” which I initially found in Guernica Mag during a writing workshop my freshman year of college– it was the first piece of literature I’ve ever read that mirrored my own experience navigating the public road as a mixed-race femme and inspired me to write my own memoir on the subject, to the delight of my instructor (who was, for better or worse, the first of many white women in my life to insist I write about my “cultural experiences” at any cost). It was moving to revisit this essay, six (!) years later.

“My Parade” accomplishes the acrobatic feat of following Chee’s relationship to creative writing MFAs as he flips between skepticism, to cynicism, to aspiration, to participation, to championship. This was intriguing and cathartic to read, as someone currently in the process of applying to graduate school (a.k.a. in the aspirational stage). (bonus note for fellow dramaturgs: the element of katharsis, as it features in Aristotle’s Poetics, comes up in the later essay “The Autobiography of My Novel”)

I used to have my own apartment, until COVID-19 convinced me to drive up the California coast to hunker down with my parents. Now I live vicariously through other people’s accounts of their independent-living 20s, one of my favorites being “The Rosary.” Reader, I have never wanted to tend a garden more than while reading how Chee fed a vile-smelling seaweed tea to own bed of roses in a Brooklyn backyard, or how he defended them against malicious pests via nail polish. In these “unprecedented times”, many have turned to the domestic arts– my activity of choice has been daydreaming about the day I have my own garden plot all to myself (yes, I know, daydreaming about a domestic art does not equal actually doing it… humor me) so that I can foster my own little biome. I’m forever thankful for Alexander Chee for documenting his experience creating his own instance of beauty, tucked away in his corner of Brooklyn.

Ocean Vuong said it best in his blurb: “This book makes me feel possible.” My background differs greatly from Chee’s, yet I feel a certain kinship in how we contend with our hyphenate Asian identities, insecurities, and traumas. In reading How to Write an Autobiographical Novel I experienced many flashes of recognition usually reserved for Sophocles, Shakespeare, or the Bible– except instead of identifying with the so-called universal experiences of the classics, I was sensing something specific and intimate. Sometimes I feel impossible, contradictory, my identities and aspirations chasing each other in circles while the future closes in on me. But indeed, through Alexander Chee’s writing, I see that I am, in fact, possible, and there is a way forward. Five stars for Alexander!
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