It was brutalized less by James Frey and J. T. LeRoy than by the smug peanut galleries at opposite ends of Freygate 2006: Oprahites, with their uncanny ability to make any book about themselves, and the literati for whom reading is the precious act of tying books to chairs to torture confessions out of them. Talking heads from each side condescended to readers by subjecting the memoir to tiresome, freshmen English class debates pitting total recall against the porousness of memory, nonfiction versus fiction, objectivity versus subjectivity. Soccer moms bayed for public stoning. Only after Frey and publisher Nan A. Talese were pornographically chastised on daytime’s hallowed white couch were they sated.
When the smoke cleared, the memoir looked like it had been ripped through by a dirty bomb, languished in Walter Reed, and dishonorably discharged. Nora Vincent, author of Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, archly dismissed it: “If we could apply the L word to it at all, we might call [the memoir] the literature of woefest. But on a woeful tale one cannot always hang talent or, indeed, much of more than passing prurient interest.”
My military comparison may ring incongruent with Mississippi Sissy, a memoir by journalist Kevin Sessums about growing up as a, well, Mississippi sissy, but indulge my pen-is-mightier shtick. Wars, literal and bookish, are at the mercy of ideas and the policies of a time and place, as we have seen far too well this century; the only constant is the warrior in the trenches and his humanity — the singular perspective, in conflict with larger forces, that turns visionary.
Sessums is no oracle but the originator of one hell of a tale about growing up gay and flamboyant amidst the racist politics, machismo, and eccentric grace of the rural south in the 1960s and '70s. Instead of offering a caveat, he has no scruples or apologies: “All the people and the names are real. All the events actually occurred.” In a few words, blood starts pumping again through this much ballyhooed medium, propelled by the shared intimacy, between writer and reader, in the experience of bearing witness: “When I recall my life in Mississippi, what I hear are the rich sounds of voices that surrounded me and from those sounds come the words, the movement of conversation. It’s the way perhaps a composer hears a symphony before transcribing its notes, making it attainable for others who want to listen just as intently to what he hears. Although there is an alchemy involved, there is an equal measure of faith in one’s own voice, the sound into which all others combine.” Turn the page, and we’re in the bed of a murdered local arts editor, Frank Hains, then on an interstate speeding back in time with no seat belt.
Sessums’ prose, like his memories of too much death and not enough love, are marked by “the eerie smoothness of the ride.” He lost both parents by the time he was ten, his alpha-male father in a car accident, his mother to cancer a year later (“‘Can heartbreak metastasize?’ she asked.”). Calamities come in pairs; he was also molested twice.
However, Mississippi Sissy is not a daisy chain of woes, but a comedy, which, like all comedies, has a tragic center. In his teens, Sessums was gathered into a demimonde of Jackson, overseen by Hains, that included Eudora Welty. People with memories of Welty are compelled to share them, even imitating the venerable southern writer to convey the force of her presence. Few recreations, though, are as multi-dimensional as Sessums’ stories, from driving her home after she “she reached over and tapped my steering wheel with her story-telling fingers” to the time Frank Dowsing, the first African-American football player at Mississippi State, whom Sessums briefly dated, gently took her to task on the subject of race relations.
Hains recites the story of Welty appearing on Firing Line, when William F. Buckley asked, “‘How can a person of sensitivity have lived in Mississippi during the time you’ve lived here? To which Eudora replied, in essence, ‘How could one not have?’ Everybody looked at Frank Dowsing for his reaction to Frank Hains’s story. Everybody but Miss Welty. She ate staring at her vanilla ice cream. “I think,” Frank Dowsing said, “you have to be a privileged white person to have the luxury of a reply such as that.”
The moment recalls an earlier event, when a young Sessums went to pick cotton in order to visit his mother’s cook and cleaner, Matty May, who had been let go. He asks her, mimicking her old salutation and dialect, “So, how y’dwine?” “‘How you think I’m a’dwine?’ she asked, her tone as pointed as the one she had summoned that morning when I had asked her in my bedroom if she’d seen Sidney Poitier win his Oscar and proceeded to use the N-word in her weary presence. ‘I’m a’pickin’ cotton, ain’t I?’ she said, wearier than ever. ‘When a soul’s a’pickin’ cotton, child, it ain’t got no time to think about how it’s a’dwine. It’s only got time to think about what it’s a’dwine. How’s a luxury out here in all this heat. A cotton field ain’t no place a’tall for no how.’” The veracity of these private events and dozens of others would not have the same impact in any other form, if they could even be transcribed.
Moroever, the art with which Sessums constantly braids seemingly disparate memories into others, within sentences that clobber you with the beauty of their construction, fusing humor and pathos and a southerner's worldview, is worth the price of admission alone. In a bullied genre, that's no small wonder for such a sissy of a book.
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.