Acclaimed writer discusses essay collection at Square Books

Posted on Apr 26 2018 - 6:27pm by Lexi Purvis

Decorated author, journalist and poet Alexander Chee showcased his new book of personal essays, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” Tuesday at Square Books.

Chee is the best-selling author of “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night,” and works both as a critic for The Los Angeles Times and as an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College. Chee’s work has been included in The New York Times Book Review, Slate and “The Best American Essays 2016.”

As his first nonfiction book, “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” focuses on Chee’s personal experiences growing up as a gay man of diverse heritage.

Both of Chee’s parents had adventurous careers which allowed him to travel to places such as South Korea, Mexico and Guam at a young age. Chee’s father was an oceanographer and scuba diver, and his mother was an activist, educator and traveler.

“My parents had matching curiosities about the world and about pushing the limits of what they could do in it. They also believed travel was important,” Chee said. “My travels shape me. I’ve been very fortunate in this life to get to travel the world and do the work I love. ‘Teach writing and see the world,’ I like to say.”

Chee’s book begins in 1980s Mexico and describes when Chee was a 15-year-old participating in a student exchange program and living with a wealthy host family that was prominent in Chiapas. The family was wealthy enough to have a houseboy, a cook and a barbed wire wall to keep signs of poverty out of their comfortable Mexican estate.

Chee was not fluent in Spanish when he arrived in Mexico, since he only studied the language for two years in school, but eventually became fluent because his host family would only communicate with him in Spanish. As Chee became fluent, he also began to pass as Latino and meet more boys throughout his foreign journey while struggling with his racial and sexual identity.

Chee’s essays progress from his 15-year-old self into his later years of life. Chee did not have specific plans to create an autobiography, but after writing over 70 essays in 20 years, he decided to compile them all together in his autobiography. Chee spent over a year collecting and editing all of the essays he’s previously written to compile them into one book.

I didn’t conceive of the collection first and set out to write it,” Chee said. “I just saw that, as I put together my tenure case, I had written 70 essays over 20 years. As the collection came together, I saw how there were themes that would allow me to create a book that described the early years of my reading and writing life.”

Chee’s coming-of-age essays have received substantial positive praise, with “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” being named the “Most Anticipated Book of 2018” by Esquire, Book Riot, Popsugar and Buzzfeed. The collection was also named a “Top 10 Essay Collection of Spring 2018” by Publishers Weekly.

The essays in the book range in topic from Tarot to waiting tables to gay identity to ACT UP to writing fiction, so it could go anywhere. A little like me,” Chee said.

This was Chee’s first time in Oxford and at Square Books to discuss his writing.

“Square Books is one of the most important independent bookstores in America, and I’ve long wanted to be invited here,” Chee said. “I’ve never been to Oxford. It’s exciting to me… I’ve traveled a lot, but not here yet. So I’m looking forward to learning more about it.”