MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF CARSON MCCULLERS
by Jenn Shapland
Tin House Press, 266 pages
Reviewed by Claire Oleson
Jenn Shapland’s hybridized memoir and biography straddles what its seemingly-impossible title suggests: an ability to write about oneself by writing about someone else. Far from taking on a myopic or narcissistic project, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is eager to talk about the self for the sake of empathy, to revive written-off lives, to question presumed heterosexualities, and to make a bodily connection with now-irrecoverable marginalized bodies. Spurred by discovering letters written between the Southern playwright and novelist Carson McCullers and a woman named Annemarie, Shapland dives into the paper trail of a writer she wasn’t previously researching. On the hinge that the letters she discovered while interning at the Harry Ransom Center were highly unexpected love letters between two women, Shapland opens the door into the book that follows and into her own still-forming identity simultaneously.
So much of this biography lives in flux. It jumps anachronistically between times and places, between Carson’s young adulthood, her time at Yaddo (an artist’s retreat in Saratoga, New York) and at the February house (an artistic commune in Brooklyn), and even back and forth between Carson’s narrative and Shapland’s personal life. The empathetic bridge Shapland constructs between herself and Carson McCullers is, too, incredibly watery and mobile. It’s a bridge set up largely on the word “queer,” which here can mean gay, LGBTQ, bizarre, failing at normalcy, and or can denote relationship between a myriad of these possible definitions. This bridge is crossed through mutual identities, through a longing for a lesbian history, which, as Shapland writes, “there hardly is,” and through a desire to find the language to cross a long-held lexical gap and retrieve the queer narratives that a normative history would abandon.
Consciously situated in this lexical gap that queer women have historically occupied, (particularly closeted queer women from points in history where queerness was not eagerly recorded and was often intentionallly erased,) Shapland’s experimental work of nonfition digs through muddled archives searching less for Carson’s exact life and more for the possiblility of her love. Shapland has written a speculative investigation on purpose. As she remarks “In a world built by men for men and their pursuits, a woman who loves women does not register– and is not registered, i.e. written down” she shows a sort of thesis early on: an intention to write down, to name, and in doing so, to have something which she, too, might go by. Unequipped with the word “lesbian,” McCullers calls “the women she loved her ‘imaginary friends’” and permits, even insists, that they navigate a space between the real and the covert, the actualized and the forged. The reader watches McCullers, without a vernacular for her loving, married twice to the same man whom she narrowly escaped dying with, given something of an extension, a clear empathy in the writing and recording that Shapland offers here.
As it embarks on an entirely unestablished form of biography, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is not afraid to show itself in progress. Readers encounter Shapland contending with partial accounts, content at finding shards and glimpses rather than neat and finished stories. Carson McCullers is also shown struggling with partial stories, unsuccessful pursuits of women she adored, and an unclear conception of her own sexuality and identity amongst real “imaginary friends.” Shapland sees this struggle for identity, this existence outside of easy or clearly accessible language, as a familiar “protracted becoming.” Shapland shows that queer history is always in contention with loss, with a lack of resources, of material, of proof, and even of language with which to preserve and communicate itself. To see Carson’s queer life amidst biographers who would straight-wash it, Shapland suggests “you have to read like a queer person.” It is less an immediate sharing of language, and actually, as Shapland astutely writes, a shared “dearth of language” that most characterizes how a contemporary queer writer might connect to one locked in a time where she could not easily write herself down.
There will always be less queer history than history. It may always be called “queer history” in a need to specify itself whereas the defaulted histories, the overwhelmingly heterosexual, white, male, and colonialsit histories will be, Shapland demonstrates, “given the benefit of the doubt.” Perhaps because of its roots in this sense of incompletion, as the book unfolds, it is always showing its own process rather than presenting a finality. Shapland notes that memoir itself “is peeking into the windows of your own life. A voyeurism of the self. An interior looting” and that in her work, she is “perched outside [her] own house as [she tries] to see into Carson’s.” Structured in short vignettes, some no longer than a page, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers arguably navigates queerly as well– maybe because it wants to, but also, more likely, because it has no other way to be. It is a queer piece of writing that teaches queer readership simply in being read. To empathize with Shapland’s work sifting through transcripts of Carson’s therapy sessions, which Carson recorded with the intention of writing her own biography, is to empathize with the longing to find longing that might look like your own. Here lies what the book might be said to be “about.” Less than any one life story, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers d etails a search and a want, a need for connection, and an effort to acquire language for what so much of history has deemed unspeakable.
Shapland peeks in to Carson’s life at different windows, detailing flashes of her living, her marriages and divorces with Reeves McCullers, her relationships with women, and her life’s possible relationship to Shapland’s own. In its sentences, this book opens the cupboards of Carson McCullers’ life and exhibits little-known inventories of Carson’s personal and emotional materials, down to a lost ashtray. However, as a whole, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is much less about Carson McCullers and much more about a need for queer women and queer artists to know that their lives are not alone, are not only in silences between speech, and have existed long before they were able to be spoken of.
Yes, unfailingly, the narrative is peppered with knowledge of Maggie Nelson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, t he visual language of androgyny, Audre Lorde, and many other notes that may linger longer in a queer readers’ ears as a language that lingers behind individual words. It is fun and sad and as contemporary as it is historical, pulling from highly academic, nuanced, and difficult ways to relate to obscured literary pasts as well as punchier ways of relating. One of the latter is communicated early on in the text when Shapland writes “Like, same” in response to Carson’s title The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. F rom examining Carson’s wardrobe to eating pizza in Carson’s home in Georgia to unearthing the medical aftermath of her strokes to combing through her photographs, Jenn Shapland is, as she puts it “hunting lesbians” where other writers have only found Carson’s “traveling companions, good friends, roommates, close friends, dear friends, obsessions, crushes” and “special friends.” Shapland is renaming, is making real and whole the imagined and the partial.
Backed by extensive research, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers closes the lexical gaps that concern its opening with belief rather than a documented citation. Shapland decides that “When Carson says she was in love, I believe she meant she was in love.” With this act of believing comes an invitation to the reader, an ingenious and vital request to join Shapland in the same language, to allow a love to be sufficient to be known and named and sustained on its own mere utterance. Shapland’s writing transcends genre and bends established modes of language. She takes a grammatical descriptivist’s approach to liberating queerness form erasure, and, in insisting it be written, allows Carson’s history to become a bridge to readers and writers now, permission to have a history in the first place.
Cleaver Poetry Reviews Editor Claire Oleson is a writer hailing from Grand Rapids Michigan. She’s a 2019 grad of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, Siblíní Art and Literature journal, Newfound Journal, NEAT Magazine, Werkloos Magazine, and Bridge Eight Magazine, among others. She is also the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize. Her chapbook is forthcoming in May, 2020. Contact her by email.