Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: 'Mississippi Sissy' by Kevin Sessums

Review by Susan Gardner
Mississippi Sissy 
By Kevin Sessums 

St. Martin’s Press 
New York, 2007
"He has to learn to live in this world and this world don’t abide boys like that."
Kevin Sessums as a child overheard this piece of wisdom falling from the lips of a disapproving aunt, and has lived a life disproving the statement on his own terms, ultimately finding a path to becoming a New York journalist covering arts, entertainment and celebrity lives.
Not that it was easy. In fact, this memoir of growing up gay during the troubled civil rights era in the Deep South narrates a life more vividly tragic and damned by chance than even being a misfit—or a "freak," as the author terms it—would suggest. The oldest of three children, the son of a "manly" regionally lauded basketball coach (once drafted by the New York Knicks) and a dreamy Southern belle, Sessums was wrenched into an offbeat local fame of his own when his father died in a car accident when the author was 7 years old and his mother died of esophagal cancer the next year. The pitiful "orphans" were the subject of press tragedy stories and were shuffled through several family households—most religious, conservative and at least mildly racist—until they were settled with his maternal grandparents.
Before his death, Sessums’ father already had pegged his son as a sissy, a term meant to sting but one in which the author began to take private pride. Unlike many gay coming-of-age stories, the author tells of few internal struggles to be anything other than what he was, from early childhood on. He didn’t fit in, he knew he was a sissy, more comfortable hanging out inside the houses of his childhood with the women rather than running roughshod through the neighborhood with his younger siblings, and at times he chose to defiantly provoke controversy by violating rigid gender norms. Early on he was made viscerally aware of the racial divide in which he was steeped, of the damage of slinging around the term, "nigger," by a beloved black housekeeper, Matty May, who opened his eyes to the personal pain of segregation and labeling, even as the adults in his life railed and raged against the changes in the white-dominated shifting world around them.
At one point, listening to the menfolk of the family discuss politics in the front yard "back in that meanspirited Mississippi year of 1964," as he calls it, Sessums hears an uncle lament, "But it’s a sad state of affairs, ain’t it, when you can’t scare the coloreds no more and get away with it."
I listened to the low rumble of their voices discussing the realities of the day (Martin Luther King’s numbered hours, LBJ’s treachery), a lilt of hatred that, along with organ dirges and the dutiful mourning of the family’s tearful womenfolk, furnished the soundtrack of my childhood.
What ends up saving Sessums from the same fate of lockstep prejudicial stereotyping is art—specifically, the world of literature. Before her death, his mother as an avid reader shared passages from books, introducing him to Katherine Anne Porter and other writers, whose work he often committed to memory. He fell in love with language, the feel of it, the sound of it, the power of it. And this certainly shows throughout this vivid memoir. His memories are vivid and haunting, his sentences long and lush and rich with rhythm. Aside from the compelling personal story that unfolds, this is simply one of the most beautifully written memoirs published in years.
Sessums manages not simply to survive, but to thrive, often on meager scraps of affection and attention after his parents die. His grandparents are loving but exasperated with his inability to fit in, urging religion and conformity on him as he grows ever more rebellious. During his teen years, he plays sports and becomes involved in church, not from any sudden desire to prove himself to others, but to explore his own depths and capabilities. That his extended family takes comfort in these signs of convention seems to show how little understood he is even by those who should know him best. And when he’s seduced by a respected evangelical preacher, introduced to him by his grandparents when they seize upon his growing interest in faith, he finds he cannot bring himself to tell them of the betrayal.
Instead, he moves into the world that proves to be his ultimate salvation: the small, burgeoning artistic community in Mississippi, a circle of acceptance into which he is introduced by newspaper arts columnist Frank Hains, who would serve as a role model as an unashamed gay man embedded deep in the small bohemian circle that sprung up around Hains and literary giant Eudora Welty.
Frank befriended me and included me in his dandy little sphere of like-minded Mississippians, all scaldingly smart, irrefutably liberal, capable of the kind of laughter that still lingers inside me long after the sound of it has subsided.
Sessums’ loving memories of evenings spent at Hains’ home, surrounded by writers and actors drinking, playing with words, discussing civil rights and other issues of the day are among the most powerful in the book. Dialogue is reconstructed and whole scenes laid out in Hains’ living room and kitchen, putting the reader right there in the heart of the place where Sessums first finds acceptance and encouragement for his theatrical and literary gifts. The irony of the relationship between Hains and Sessums lies in the fact that Hains steadfastly stuck to the role of mentor; the sexual exploitation of the precocious Sessums comes at the hands not of the "libertine" homosexual, but of the married, repressed fundamentalist preacher.
The book opens with an explosive car ride in which the author is racing through the night, having just discovered a murdered body; by the end of the book, when this nightmare drive is revisited, the somewhat mysterious and dramatic opening sequence becomes even more devastating because of the intervening narrative.
There are many lessons to take from this extraordinary life story: the struggle for self-identity, the power of the human spirit to thrive in the thinnest of cultural soils, the importance of time and place as it intersects with personality development. But the most powerful message I took from this book is the redeeming power of the arts. All of us are locked into our own personal stories, and it is often only through reading and the ability to transport ourselves into the skin of another that we develop a character large enough to embrace other paths of human experience. I cannot ever know what it is like directly to be a gay man in Mississippi or an African-American growing up in the streets of New York, but through transporting myself in a skillfully narrated account, I can come as close as human empathizing is able. This unlocking of other-lived lives nurtures an understanding that outmaneuvers our isolated personal narratives and opens up worlds and views we otherwise would never be able to "get" on any gut level.
Sessums should take great satisfaction in creating just such a livable narrative for the rest of us. Rescued by literature and his own transport from a small-minded culture, made aware of a bigger world out there than the one in which he was growing up, he has returned the favor by adding a memoir of redemption as one more chapter in the mosaic of the diverse American experience. Readers are richer for this addition.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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