Unfamiliar, Like Memory (Alexander Chee, Chloe Caldwell, and my #verygay Reading List)

Author Kate Tooley, on the train, where a good New Yorker does most of their reading.

Author Kate Tooley, on the train, where a good New Yorker does most of their reading.

I know this section of the website is called “Stuff I Write” but I didn’t write this. Kate Tooley did (bio below) and I thank her for sharing her queer reads reflections.


There are a lot of things I loved about Pride month this year: adult Drag Queen Story Hour at the NYPL, the flood of challenging articles about queer culture and history, all of lit twitter discussing their favorite queer reads. (Are you sensing a theme here? Because there’s definitely a theme here.) I am that weird book nerd your mother warned you about, and each June I belly flop into a pile of works by queer authors with little grace and total abandon.

This year I read a disorienting mix of Fantasy YA, essays, and experimental fiction. (Shout outs to Jeanette Winterson’s strange and wonderful Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, and the beautifully crafted and impossibly sad Martin and John, by Dale Peck.) Because of my current writing project, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-fiction and memoir and the difficulty of telling a true story about yourself. Two of the books on my list tackle that challenge head on with no protective equipment, and those are the ones I want to talk a little bit about: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and I’ll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell. The first came via Erika Franz who’s been poking me about it for a year, and the second through an online list of queer authors talking about their favorite books by other queer authors.

When I first started reading I’ll Tell You in Person it was like listening to Lana Del Rey: immersion in the utterly unfamiliar. Caldwell was fascinating: someone whose life wasn’t wildly different than my own, but who felt like another species. As a person who doesn’t engage well with their own anxiety, the first few stories caused me so much stress I almost couldn’t keep reading; Caldwell’s ability to lock into the horror of interpersonal interactions is both startling and impressive. I did keep reading though, and she hooked me. I think it was “The Music & the Boys” when I realized I had become “going to miss my subway stop” level engrossed.

She has the knack for detail that brings people to life; I loved her stories of being with “the boys”, of her female friends, of the little girl she babysits. For me, this is where her exquisite sense of the chaos of being human really shines. She lays out her personal failures and insecurities like elaborate grocery-store fruit displays, but it’s a parlor trick because she never lets you under the skin. She is chaotic because she’s chaotic; she wanders Berlin depressed because her relationship petered out; she does a rainbow of drugs because she’s stressed. She’s not looking for meaning; even when she suggests a reason for her choices, it’s with a shrug and a raised eyebrow; for the most part she just lays her life on the table and lets you do what you will with it. It’s strange and oddly refreshing.

The way she relates to her feelings about women seems similar, expressing frustration and anger that she should be asked to define herself as queer or that having a relationship with a woman should leave any outward mark on her as a person. Perhaps because being queer meant I finally made sense to myself and allowed me to walk away from the exhausting performance of straightness, I really struggled with this part of the book; it left me… annoyed(?) in an ill-defined way. Possibly it was because she seems to be able, by her own description, to do more or less anything to her life or body without lasting consequences, and I envy that. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve absorbed our culture of definition and dissection, even though it’s only now starting to find words for what I am. Whatever the reason, it made me think, and I am always grateful for that.

Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel couldn’t be more different, and it was a relief after the alienation of Caldwell’s essays. It felt like coming into a familiar room you’ve never seen before but where you automatically know how to find the bowl of peppermints and the broken-in spot on the couch. He had me at “Stars that I would learn were mangos.” and never lost me. Particularly in the first essay, Chee has a way of creating stories within stories, as if half a dozen flash pieces have come together in a beautiful, deeply committed poly relationship. It’s not one long build to a climax but a series of starbursts – essays like geodes where all the small stories reflect back at each other.

One sharp difference between Caldwell and Chee is their relationship to labels and definitions. While they seem to give Caldwell a rash, Chee talks about being called “mestizo” and the absolute relief of feeling ordinary, of feeling that there was a word for him. There’s probably something eloquent to write here about race in the U.S. but I know I’m not the one to do it. I’ll just say that I’m always grateful to authors like Chee who generously share their experience and educate about the varieties of harm and othering we regularly perform on each other. When he says later, "I was always having to be what I was looking for in the world," he is offering to let you feel the feel the weight of that, and it is not inconsiderable. 

In “The Curse”, Chee talks about his childhood belief that observation is a super power. This landed hard with me because as a kid I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown or Sherlock Holmes and the habit of practiced observation I emulated is probably why I write, or at least, how I write. He says, “I felt sometimes like a camera, shocked when people noticed me.” which got me wondering whether queer people watch more because the world feels so inherently alien. And I couldn’t help but grin when he talked about obsessively drawing eyes. Even now, when I rationally know that I’m not the freak and weirdo people told me I was, stumbling upon little commonalities with other humans is something that blooms inside me warm and comforting.

As I think back for the things from this book that have caught inside me, I realize that Chee’s stories have imprinted themselves like memory – I have to dig them out, not from the place where I remember something that I read, but from the place usually reserved for things I’ve seen or experienced. That happens sometimes with stories, though I’ve never quite parsed out why. There are small points of commonality: I also cater in New York, and I’ve grown roses, but for the most part we share very little in terms of life experience, and yet, in a way now, we do. And my adult self loves that just as much as the little person who found that strange magic in books ages ago. 

Chee on writing is just as vivid and insightful as Chee on life and you quickly realize that here in this autobiographical novel that is not a novel, writing and life are shape shifters moving far too fast for your eye to track. He takes you with him on a lucid, fantastical walk in the woods that is a story of creation and trauma and all the places where the two are stitched together. It is everything that a good fairy tale should be: In spite of its ominous warning: “The price is that you do not get it back after you write it, whatever you took from yourself for its heart.” you still know you will enter the darkness of the trees.




Kate Tooley is a writer and sometimes theater person originally from south of Atlanta. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her wife, a manic tuxi cat, and a struggling basil plant.  Hobbies include getting lost in major cities and sharing weird facts with new acquaintances. Did you know that Weddell seals have to make breathing holes in the ice with THEIR TEETH? Find her on Twitter at @kate_tooley