I’ve only been to America once, on a cheap package holiday to Disney World that my dad booked for my younger brother and me the year after 9/11. We stayed about a half an hour drive away from the actual Disney parks in a giant pink hotel. The view from our window was the charred remains of its sister giant pink hotel that had caught fire the previous season. I was too afraid to go on most of the rides. Although my only real first-hand contact with America so far has been International Drive, Orlando, a handful of rollercoasters and a glazed turkey leg the size of my head, its rich counterculture, scorched and populous landscapes and multiple obscure realities have always fascinated me. Nearly all of my favourite writers, dead or alive, are American. So when I woke up after a fitful night’s sleep on November 9th of last year I had an urge to reassure myself of the tenacious and fierce America that I recognise from my favourite books. I don’t think that you can read yourself radical, and action is nothing if it’s not direct; but reading is important, so I’ve compiled a short reading list of what I think are some of the most important and inspiring American voices.
Close to the Knives (1992), David Wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz was an American artist, writer, photographer, filmmaker and prominent AIDS activist best known for his work within New York’s East Village art scene. Close to the Knives is a collection of clandestine, memoir-like essays that follow the author through gritty adolescent suburbs, sex soaked streets and vast euphoric American dreamscapes to the bloody realities of the violent politics of fear and neglect that surrounded the AIDS epidemic. Through the toppling bodies of those infected by the virus including his own, Wojnarowicz presses the importance of recognizing the right-wing capitalist dystopia of the ‘pre-invented’ world and how to turn the open wound of anger into a resistance so powerful that it pulses like a thick red vein through the streets. Close to the Knives is a timeless reminder of the extent of the inhumanity and neglect those who believe they are above death are willing to inflict on other human beings, and how vital it is to use your body as a weapon in the face of their rituals and ideologies.
The Argonauts (2015), Maggie Nelson
The Argonauts is a queer modern love story masterfully threaded with theory and cultural critique. Nelson’s romantic relationship with gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge is the beating heart around which her exploration of what it means to be queer and in love in 21st Century America flows. The Argonauts pulls structures and ideas from philosophy and gender theory out of the academic realm where they are so often left to echo or stagnate and into the genuine lived experience of a blossoming, structurally defiant queer family. Nelson is intimidatingly smart, sensitive and direct in the way she deals with the gurgling and churning guts of life. The hushed, brutal realities of birth and death, the complexities of everyday language, the mundane tendencies of love and the importance of tight human bonds are turned over, undermined and ultimately reinvented. The Argonauts is an exercise in everyday defiance, demonstrating how nothing—not sex, gender, love, romance, family or even genre—need be dictated or defined.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), Audre Lorde
Zami is essential reading from a black, lesbian, female and working class voice that is limitless in its power and perpetually relevant. Audre Lorde portrays a stark and intimate life narrative starting with her post-war near-sighted infancy, through the gay-girl bars of New York that she frequented during her formative years, and into full and rapturous womanhood. By interweaving the pain and celebration of her positively and beautifully woman-loving sexuality with important 20th Century socio-economic and cultural changes, Lorde highlights both the neglect and necessity of queer, black and working class identities. The uncannily familiar coming of age structure Lorde manipulates with memoir, myth and history (a process she later coined as Biomythography) casts a light over the powers that continuously rumble beneath prefabricated social structures. Zami brutally reinforces the reality of being born an American outsider, unintentionally rebellious in every possible way, and forces us to examine our complicity in the society that facilitates it.
Another Country (1962), James Baldwin
Another Country is nothing if not a perfect American novel. Set in late 1950s Greenwich Village, Another Country traces a liberal clique reeling after the sudden suicide of their friend Rufus, a young black jazz drummer, following his affair with a white woman from the South. Baldwin bares the ingrained racism that dirties the deepest corners of American society, especially among the educated white liberals who don’t think of themselves as racist. Through a series of tumultuous twists and countless sexual revelations and affairs in the lives of the friends left behind, Baldwin reveals the internalised racial oppression that led to Rufus’ self hatred and ultimately his death. Baldwin referred to Rufus as ‘the black corpse floating in the national psyche.’ The swelling waves of guilt and denial running through Another Country bear testament to this by calling out the scale of the damage denial can cause.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Joan Didion
Taking its title from W.B. Yeat’s poem ‘The Second Coming’, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays documenting her experience of California in the 1960s. No other writer captures America’s unique and endless capacity for apathy better than Didion. From ubiquitous air-conditioned malls and vast highways to the dregs of Haight Ashbury’s countercultural bubble, Slouching Towards Bethlehem strips the glossy sheen from America’s cool subcultures, exposing their soft bellies that inevitably paunch and slacken with the passing of time. In the preface to the book Didion writes, "I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder." Slouching Towards Bethlehem is an uncanny portrait of America as a machine that is constantly pushing forward, almost unfit for human life to blossom; as a place of both great history and great shame to be passed not with judgement but a profound sense of the mournful beauty and expectation of it all.
(Accompanying image of David Wojnarowicz by Robert Mapplethrorpe, 1981)