White Girls

in Ark Review/Essays by

White Girls I

Our first introduction to SL, the love of Hilton Als in White Girls, is at the movies:

The silvery movie light and dark made him look more colored. I loved his profile, his long strong neck and perfect posture. He looked as authoritative as someone you might call Sir, and as beautiful and poised as someone you might call Lady. Watching him watch a movie, I noticed how his eyes would open and close slowly, like folds in an accordion. The movies filled his eyes up.

In the book, there flickers an understanding of gender and class. There it is linked to location and literary reference. Hilton’s best friend and lover, SL, is described through books and the fine movie head-actresses that shaped his identity.

It lays out the demographics of sex and origins, the place you come from. Gay black men. White girls. The overlaps. Blue gangsters and everyone lonely. The categories America is so obsessed with are gently unfolded.

I don’t know why – I asked SL what his life among the lesbians had been like. He said: “You mean women?” SL has a way of removing one category – lesbians – by getting at its root.

How do I put this? When I stand in front of the mirror glancing slyly and mumble, be a man about it, I do not mean be a patriarch. I mean to be like the men you know with kindness and grace, dignity and care.

The work has not been written but lived in the time of AIDS. Being gay and inflicted not only by political sadness but by the disease; the silence at gay bars, the not-talking. He describes his best friend dying from AIDS. But the silence, the distance from those around him, is the negative image, the image of AIDS is described by Hilton Als when he writes:

In any case, moving on was a ridiculous phrase, given the enormous physical memory of your loved on being stuffed in a black garbage bag; that’s how the city’s health-care workers dealt with the first AIDS victims, stuck them in garbage bags like imperfect pieces of couture.

Notice how time figures in the text. As a measure for the loss of life for those who died of AIDS, by their age. Or as a measure of the years love grows cold or still unattained.

What seems to be the recurring theme in the first chapter is the examination of white girls – which is a broad category and not one of which, I would be sure, he wouldn’t see himself belonging. But in this examination, I thought for a moment he describes white girls with the same distaste as Nabokov watches Lolita, as artifacts, lonely in their “singularity” and ready to be fetishized.

There is a scenes in Lolita I have long desired to repeat to someone. Nabokov writes:

I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face… that look I cannot exactly describe… an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration – and every limit presupposes something beyond it – hence the neutral illumination.

It’s the first time she is unaware she is being watched, and she is being watched a lot. There is something important to the plainness of her pain he can not fathom. He goes on to talk about how he doesn’t know a thing about her mind, when she, at a concert, remarks something deep and profoundly dark, like all young girls do at some point or another. This is the image I got from Lolita, in the neutral light in front of the mirror, with a face that isn’t happy or sad but watching. Maybe cold bathroom tiles, maybe not. Sounds of a hotel. Watching like all young girls will at some point or another.

On white girls or watching them Hilton Als writes through the perspective of him and SL:

How can I get him to see me when, like the rest of us, he is a slave in relation to his overbearing past shackled to these memories that he has not shared with me but I know just the same because we’re twins: young white girls rolling their stockings down on a beach in Corsica, near the Bosphorus, and SL, shunned because of his color or being profoundly without family, sitting nearby, barely aware of his body, other than his eyes, which are filled with such longing.

There is a quote in the first chapter I can’t find, so I feel like I have imagined it on my own, going something like, it would be unbearable if any man touched me like they touched white girls. And I wished I would look at women talking with the same sincerity as I look at men.

Reading White Girls got me thinking of other books on young girls. Have you ever read Theory of the Young-girl? It’s a digestion of the young girl as a phenomenon with a mix of quotes from women’s magazines and economic analysis. At first, when I read it, I thought this book was confusing consumerism with seduction. The point of the book is in short: the value of girls as an economic interest. Later reading I thought it’s forgetting that (young) women aren’t the downfall of feminism, they haven’t failed it, but they are the bodies of it, and as I think of them now, beautiful and shaking. Why is this book so distrusting of femininity, and it’s misery?

I still believe a firm critique of a text is I don’t understand it.

In the whole book White Girls underlies the topic of political isolation, the loneliness spread by AIDS, by competitive behavior in the communities they take part of, by skin color and feeling disadvantaged.

Quoting Edna St. Vincent, Hilton Als writes on his love for SL:

Why do you follow me? – / Any moment I can be / Nothing but a laurel-tree.

In the heart of the story, a woman named Mrs. Vreeland is introduced, a white girl, the wife of SL, a friend of both. She is wavily described with love, ambiguous to Hilton, but with time and lacking to the end of the chapter, his feelings towards her becomes unraveled.

Hilton talks of introducing SL to other women, claiming who doesn’t love to be mundane? And who doesn’t.

On her deathbed, Hilton and SL watch over as her as she lies there dying of cancer. It’s one of the clearest times when a real connection or alliance between them is established.

I left, and SL tried to see her and then he disappeared himself because he felt he was a burden to me, our love, there was no way he wouldn’t identify with her leaving, what I remembered sitting on one side of her bed was sitting with her in the center of a cab, SL on one side of her, me on the other, and Mrs. Vreeland trembling for no reason we understood but feeling protected for every reason she couldn’t explain but wanted us to understand.

 

White Girls II

The American movie White Girl, written and directed by Elizabeth Wood, is about a girl, Leah partying hard, falling in love with a small-time dealer and trying to keep him out of jail. What got me interested in the movies was purely aesthetic, meaning it’s about the surface and skin. Everything is physical. The heart robbing pain, the ecstatic, the love, the friendship. My favorite scene is still when she sobs in the bathroom and her girl comforts her. It’s a long still with water running down their backs. It isn’t sexual, but about bodies, deeply rooted in the necessity of comfort. This is the closest it gets. Around seven minutes in, there is a blowjob and much of the movie seem to be driven by her desire and longing to get high. In a film with less sincerity, it would be depressing. It made me think of two things. One; all pain goes through the body. And I thought, what if this was special for the female body? What if it was more inflicted by pain going through the body? But then I thought, then what? A laurel tree? Probably not. The second thing is the stupidity of the movie, how you sit and try to hold tight onto yourself as she throws herself out there. It’s a headless feeling of having a body. It reminds me of staying in lukewarm apartments, trying to convince someone of my stupidity as unconventional cleverness.

One scene of the movie shows Leah on the train, she is waking up with a hangover and still wasted. Her face looks empty, but maybe it’s open. She looks very tired as the shadows of the train-windows flash over her.

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