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Hilton Als on 'White Girls', Eminem and André Leon Talley

Writer Hilton Als speaks with actor Ethan Hawke at
Writer Hilton Als speaks with actor Ethan Hawke at "In Conversation" during the New Yorker Festival 2013 at SVA Theatre 2 on October 5, 2013 in New York City.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Writer Hilton Als speaks with actor Ethan Hawke at
Cover of Hilton Als's book "White Girls."

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New Yorker writer Hilton Als' latest book, "White Girls," is a collection of essays that explores the intersections of race, gender and sexuality. 

Part memoir, part cultural critique, the book has been announced this month as a finalist for a National Book Critics Award. Als joins the show to talk about his new book, his thoughts on Eminem's appropriation of black culture and his relationship with fashion icon André Leon Talley.

Interview Highlights:

On the meaning behind the title, "White Girls":
"I really didn't mean it to be that provocative. In a way, I wanted it to be as generic as some other title that define blackness, for instance. I came up with the title as a way of doing something that was a little bit off the beaten path, vis-a-vis describing blackness in a title. We had Richard Wright, 'Black Boy,' we had Toni Morrison's 'Tar Baby,' we had James Weldon Johnson's, 'Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.'"

On the response to the book:
"I think that you don't really want to write a book that doesn't really move people and doesn't get them to think. I haven't been reading the reviews, but what people have told me is that there's been some sort of feeling of, not outrage, but annoyance. That the book has a lot of difficulties, textually. I think, what's the point of writing a book that you would get in one sitting? We want to be in a place where people asking us what the book is about and you being disrupted."

What do the title and the author have in common?:
"The title has something to do with the number of the people in the book who are identifying with a certain white woman in their lives. So, in the Richard Pryor section, there's Jennifer Lee's testimonial about her marriage to Richard Pryor. We also have this sort of anti-relationship so in the André Leon Talley piece, the white girl is a figure of disturbance. Flannery O'Connor talks about race and blackness so she's the white girl looking at blackness. The pivotal white girls are often center or marginalized people themselves who either identify with or condemn blackness."

On his relationship with André Leon Talley:
"Unfortunately, a lot of people are more excited when one black gay man goes after another. I didn't go after him. I was really sort of critiquing a world in which he was very much isolated. If you go back through that piece, I actually say that I love him, in the piece. The level of acceptance that André seeks in his heart is not equal to what fashion world can give him. I really do love him."

On Eminem navigating between black and white culture:
"I think he's a great artist in that he applied his story to black style instead of appropriating blackness for his own ends. He tells his story in a black syntax and the white girl in that piece, for instance, is his own mother, whose level of verbal and emotional hysteria I think really informed him as an artist. His making an art out of that kind of hysteria and then finding the rhythm of blackness to apply to it, I think was a genius stroke and not the same old kind of appropriation that you would get from anyone from Elvis Presley to any blue-eyed soul singer who makes claims to blackness. I don't think Eminem does that at all. I think he's telling his story in the rhythms that he grew up with which was black music, but I don't think he makes any claims to be black at all."

Read an excerpt from "White Girls":

(Marshall) Mathers's elders could not keep blackness away from their children, who had to attend the city's public schools, which were predominantly black. There, Marshall found his voice - in black music. He also ran up against race hatred.

When he was nine years old, a black classmate attacked Mathers a number of times - at recess, in the school bathroom. Once, the same bully knocked his skinny white victim down with a heavy snowball; Mathers sustained severe head injuries. Subsequently, Mathers's mother filed a claim against the school, saying the attacks had also caused her son to have debilitating headaches, intermittent loss of vision and hearing, nightmares, nausea, and a tendency toward antisocial behavior. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1983, when a Macon County judge in Michigan declared that public schools were immune when it came to such lawsuits.

Mrs. Mathers-Briggs's failed litigation must have felt like a failure of language. Unlike her son, she never learned to control it. How could she not bend the law to her will? Her hysteria, telling tales about her victimhood, had worked on Marshall, making other kinds of knots in his head. Why should the courts be any different? (Her tendency to treat the wrongs that had been inflicted on her son and thus herself as an occasion for a public airing was not restricted to Mathers's defense. Indeed, after her son's second album came out, his mother sued him for defamation of character.)

Mrs. Mathers-Briggs had a penchant for showing off the knocks and bruises incurred by living. Just like an American. Mathers's inheritance was the Mrs. Mathers-Briggs show. He brought it with him when he left her to marry his audience. But he refined her hysteria, controlled it, gave it a linguistic form. By becoming an artist, he served and separated from Mother. He served her divorce papers by making records where he talked about their marriage. And then he married her again by talking about her again. But a mom that is your Mrs. can never forgive you for believing you are someone different, and not herself. That separateness belies her existence.

That the slings and arrows of Mathers's outrageous misfortune in and out of school, in the outside of Detroit's black world, did not deter him from falling increasingly in love with black music is a testament to his interest in and commitment to exploring difference - his and theirs. Unlike many of the whites he grew up with, Mathers never claimed whiteness and its privileges as his birthright because he didn't feel white and privileged. 

Correction: An earlier version of this transcript had erroneously credited Richard Pryor as the author of "Black Boy." The author is actually Richard Wright. We apologize and regret this typo. 

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