PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

Too good to be true: Literary excellence pushes memoir of growing up gay into fictional realms.

Mississippi Sissy

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 0312341016
Author: Kevin Sessums
Price: $24.95
Length: 320
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.