It’s not often I sway from fiction but from time to time to take a break, extend my reading or to follow a particular author, it’s essay collections that I turn to. Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away and Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind are two examples that come to mind where I had followed authors that I love from fiction to non-fiction to see where it would take me. I had seen Als’ work previously in The New Yorker where he mans ‘The Culture Desk’ and the publisher of White Girls, McSweeney’s, were certainly amping up the publicity for this book just as I was doing my Christmas shopping and looking for nice distractions. This is also certainly a case of a book’s cover pushing you over the line – the cover image is extraordinary (Hilton Als explains his choice of title and cover in this interview for Buzz Feed).
White Girls is perhaps best summed up by the LA Times reviewer David Ulin:
"White Girls" is a collection of essays that blurs the line between criticism, memoir, even fiction and nonfiction — 13 takes on, among others, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Jackson, Louise Brooks and Truman Capote, all of whom represent the figure of the "white girl" in actual or invented ways.
This is a collection of cultural essays that cover identity and identity politics, in particular dealing with race, gender and sexuality. Als often uses celebrities as a way of explaining his ideas and proving his theories, but also as a way of creating a narrative through characters. This fiction technique certainly makes for more engaging reading than sitting down to read Foucault’s The History of Sexuality from cover to cover for example. As Als writes somewhat modestly in ‘You And Whose Army?’: “Biography explains nothing, but it’s fun to tell these stories”.
In ‘White Noise’ Als uses Eminem to talk about the politics of poverty and race in the city of Detroit, but also more widely in the USA. In ‘Michael’, Michael Jackson is the figurehead of a discussion about skin colour, sexuality and religion within black America. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but these were the two essays that struck me most. Though many of the other essays were engaging and made me think, some of the other references – particularly those of Richard Pryor who is featured heavily – were not as affective for me.
I often find essay collections struggle for consistency and unfortunately White Girls suffered in this regard. Some of Al's pieces are incredibly powerful, but some left me without impression. Amongst some intense pieces there are moments of fun and humour however, which were much appreciated. Again in ‘You And Whose Army?’:
“Then Fran did this: she pulled a leaf of collard greens out of Mrs McCullough’s big stew pot, ate it, and said, a star fully aware of her audience: “Needs more salt”.
That’s the worst thing one black bitch can do to another: say your shit needs any kind of seasoning”.
White Girls is an entertaining and thought provoking reading, exploring ideas in an interesting form. Though not all of the pieces hit me as hard as others, it was still a worthwhile read, particularly for anyone with any interest in identity and cultural theories.
Cultural theory was one of my favourite topics at university. I loved the practice of pulling apart popular culture and everyday life and looking for reasons behind the ideas. But for me university wasn’t all day dreaming and raiding Mum’s fridge: I went back to study in my mid-twenties, so for me it was a juggle between part-time work, assignments, readings, lectures and trying to live on an income that was like walking on a poverty line tightrope. Food was one major way that I saved money, so there was a lot of porridge. I mean a lot of porridge. Like quite often for breakfast and dinner up to half of the week. Part of this was the kind of student laziness that sees people eat bucket loads of ramen from a packet even when they live at home, when you’ve not yet realised that the easiest way to eat cheaply is simply to be organised.
Nowadays I still work and eat to a budget and find that one of the easiest ways to save money is to bring lunch to work everyday. This is not a difficult task, it just requires a little planning in order to stay organised and keep things interesting. Love and Lemons (where I also sourced the almond and cinnamon coffee cake recipe for The Embassy Of Cambodia) recently posted these fantastic suggestions for lunchtime pita bread fillers (you can also get further ideas from this list recently posted by The Age's Good Food). This carrot and quinoa salad with curry yoghurt, served in this case without the pita bread, was a refreshing weekend lunch during another Melbourne heatwave. I cooked twice as much quinoa as needed so that I could easily throw the same salad together for lunch during the week to take to work and used up herbs left in the fridge rather than salad leaves, to keep things thrifty as well as interesting.