Living Writers Series Features Hilton Als’ White Girls

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Als addresses an audience in Love Auditorium.

Lauren Hutton, Maroon-News Staff

While White Girls may seem like a bizarre title for the work of a black, gay author, Hilton Als pulled it off with a critically-acclaimed compilation of essays that mixes fiction with nonfiction to critique art, literature, gender constructions and culture. Als, currently an Associate Professor of Writing at Columbia University, received the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in 2000 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism earlier this year. With both a self-aware sense of humor and endless insight into issues of race, gender and identity, Als spoke at Colgate as the fourth writer in the Living Writers series in Olin Hall on October 5.

Als currently works as a theater critic for The New Yorker. As an Art History graduate of Columbia University, art plays a large role in Als’ life and is incorporated into the essays that compose White Girls. His reflection and analysis of the people and events that make up his life draw from an assortment of art forms to better explain ideas and give a cultured insight into various phenomena. 

After a brief introduction from Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice, Als read an excerpt from a commencement essay he wrote for students at Columbia titled “Ghosts in Sunlight.” The title stems from a metaphor, which Als discussed.

“Memory and the real converg[e] to make the world something else, and the artist someone else, too,” Als said.

The essay tackled a relatable feeling for many students – that of using nostalgia to inspire art and relying on the past to inform the present. With a mix of hope and realism, the speech ultimately shed insight into the “humility of the creator.”

Before transitioning to reading an excerpt from White Girls in which Als talks about an old friend, the author gave students uplifting advice.

“Undoubtedly you will try to make art out of this beautiful ephemera, the merging of the past with the present, because you’re artists, chroniclers of who you are, and who you might be, and who we all are, together,” he said. 

The excerpt Als read from White Girls dealt with a young woman who played an incredibly formative role in Als’ life. His description seemed to perfectly capture her identity, a remarkably skinny woman who could eat more than anyone he had ever met as well as an individual whose essence “should be bottled up.” Als managed to analyze his interactions with an old friend with a combination of familiar warmth and removed insight that made for a captivating listening experience. 

After finishing his second reading, Als entertained a brief question and answer period, and even answered a question from someone watching the event’s livestream broadcast. He also signed copies of his book after the hour-long lecture for interested students and faculty members.

“I thought it was very personable and he kept it all light,” Sophomore Mary Hurtgen said. 

She appreciated hearing Als speak in a group setting, as opposed to just interacting with him one-on-one when he visited the Living Writers class earlier in the day.

“He was very willing to give everyone references and point them in the way of other articles and books that would answer their questions even more thoroughly than he can,” she said.

Als’ willingness to talk about his own experiences as well as the theater, art and literature that has shaped and continues to shape the way he views the world made his presentation both dynamic and intimate. 

Contact Lauren Hutton at [email protected]