Book Report: My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland

This book has convinced me I'm a lesbian, too.

From My Autobiography of Carson McCullers [Jenn Shapland (2020, Tin House Books)]:

One day in early February 2012, a scholar wrote asking for letters between Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, whose name was utterly unfamiliar, and Carson McCullers, whose book titles had always struck a chord with me. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Like, same.

I love Carson McCullers. I thought I wanted to name children after her. I’ve read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter repeatedly, and have had to replace a couple copies of her collected short stories which I keep misplacing from carrying them to read in various places, and honestly get something a little different from each short read. But how I got into that first master novel was really silly verging on sweet. I was a junior in high school and my English teacher gave us a list of books eligible to read for a personal book report. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. How do you walk past a title like that?

That happened again when I walked past the storefront of Philly AIDS Thrift/Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia and saw Shapland’s book in the window. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. I did a literal double-take. I ended up not buying it on that particular walk fearing the “My” in the title meant it would not be about her but I went back upon the recommendation of another bookseller, and I am so glad I did. This is a beautiful re-writing of the life of a novelist whose imperfect first telling during her life all but erased multiple truths, including her being a lesbian.

This book does something that I actually enjoy about academic titles, and about personal essays. Like a dissertation, it is careful to cite all sources of thinking as meaningful partners in the process of self-discovery; self-discovery being a hallmark of a good personal essay. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong was another book that does this in spades (and I want to talk about that here later, to give it the full weight of my attention). Whereas Minor Feelings made me feel more seen as a complete Asian, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers has me convinced I am a lesbian.

To be clear, I am not coming out, in the checkbox way, in the way McCullers struggled with such identification. And this didn’t trigger any realizations that I am meant to consummate my affections for gal pals (I have certainly never had problems telling people or acting upon my sexual feelings for them). I have been intimate with women and dated men who identify themselves as gay, am married to a man, so if compelled, I will say I’m bisexual but mostly prefer saying I’m queer or bendy. No, what I mean by being a lesbian is that I want to matriculate in the queer scholarship into a person who can have claimed to have shed her heteronormativity, and even heterosexuality. Entirely. Once and for all.