It’s time to retire the memoir.
After Oprah Winfrey took James Frey to the woodshed two years ago—he admitted making up parts of his recovery memoir, A Million Little Pieces—opinion on this recently evolved literary form fell into two distinct camps.
One, which might be called “art for art’s sake,” argues all that matters is the final product. If a piece of “nonfiction” delivers the goods—if it’s well-shaped, well-written, fun to read and engages real human emotion—then who cares if it may have been fudged for dramatic purposes? Creative writers are most apt to hold this view.
The other position, primarily defended by journalists and critics, argues for the validity of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. A memoir, which, after all, is supposed to be an accurate account of real life, is by this definition nonfiction, and therefore should never contain false information, not even the kind that improves the story.
For what’s it worth, I am the strongest possible proponent of the second point of view, and after Frey’s public flogging, I expected a correction to ensue, with subsequent memoirs hewing closer to factuality.
A book like Kevin Sessums’ Mississippi Sissy challenges both sides of this debate, however, by the simple virtue of literary excellence.
A veteran celebrity journalist, a frequent contributor to Vanity Fair, Allure and other slick magazines, Sessums proves himself a craftsman with this brilliantly structured, beautifully written book.
The eldest of three siblings, Sessums grew up the son of a star athlete who gave up the chance to play with the New York Knicks to come home and marry a local beauty.
The title suggests a coming-out memoir, but while Sessums’ struggle to find a way to be his effeminate self in a hyper-masculine time and place is an important part of the story, it is not really the major source of conflict in the narrative.
That’s because as a child, Sessums had the love and support, if not the understanding, of his family. His mother positively encouraged him, sometimes sneaking him makeup or dressing him like a girl. Even his father, a tough high school basketball coach given to calling his son “sissy,” or “girl,” may have withheld approval, but he did show flashes of genuine paternal love.
Besides, Sessums, both as adult narrator and child subject, displays an appealing resilience of character, seldom if ever indulging in self-pity. Sure, small-town life can be cruel for any sensitive child, gay or not, but little Kevin comes across as strong enough not only to endure but also to thrive.
Actually, this is not so much a coming-out story as an orphan memoir. When Sessums was 7, his father died in a car crash; barely a year later, his mother succumbed to cancer. Kevin and his siblings, thereafter locally famous as “the Sessums orphans,” were raised by various relatives and black maids.
Sessums writes a prose that is crystalline yet supple, providing sharply focused images within a compelling narrative. He is willing to cast himself in a poor light in order to illustrate his own development, and show what life was like back then.
As a teen, Sessums met his mentor, Frank Hains, arts editor of the Jackson Daily News, who recognized the boy’s potential and welcomed him into the small circle of progressive Mississippi intelligentsia. This group included the great Southern writer Eudora Welty, whose miniature portrait is one of the many joys of this book.
Indeed, Mississippi Sissy, which ends with Sessums at age 19, clearly headed to the big world of New York, is such a strong piece of literary storytelling that I would like to recommend it without reservation.
Alas, the book is too crafty, too worked over, to qualify as nonfiction, however faithful it may be to the general outlines of Sessums’ life. For one thing, Sessums frames his story with an account of Hains’ shocking murder, which grabs the reader’s attention at the outset, only to be revisited near the end of the book in a strategy of satisfying narrative harmony.
Problem is that such novelistic artfulness runs counter to reality. Life is a shaggy, not a neat, experience, kind of like trying to regain your balance as you fall down a flight of stars. Likewise, Sessums gives us reams of dialogue—and excellent talk it is, too—somehow remembering conversations that occurred as early as when he was 3 years old.
I don’t think so. The stench of fiction is all over this book. No “memoir” with this much made up or reconstructed dialogue, with this much reliance on the tools of fiction, can be trusted to convey the facts of what happened.
And yet, the book remains a terrific read, one that, facts aside, gets at truth—the truth of childhood, small-town race relations, youthful alienation, grief, loss, recovery and self-discovery. Truth, as we all know, is not in any case the province of nonfiction, which can only deal in facts, but of the magic that solely occurs when a novelist engages his creative imagination.
Which brings us full circle. As a memoir, Mississippi Sissy is subject to the queasy kind of suspicion that tripped up Frey. Sessums is 10 times the writer, however, so let’s call Mississippi Sissy what it really is, an autobiographical novel, and very good one.
In my mind, that’s a promotion anyway.